Sunday, November 12, 2017

Life is brutiful: Vulnerability, Love, and Connection Part I

In her TED Talk, "Lessons I learned in the mental hospital", author Glennon Doyle says that "life is brutiful"--both brutal and beautiful on any given day.  This statement couldn't be more true when I reflect on my life as a teacher working with my students.  Here is one example with more to come in future blogs.

This weekend two of my former students celebrated their five year wedding anniversary and their 16 year anniversary since they met as high school students in our poetry club.  Actually they were the founders of the poetry club.  Both of them were budding poets and held a deep appreciation of the art.  They were looking for an opportunity to belong in our school community--a place where they could celebrate their passion for poetry and meet other students who shared their sentiment.

Emily and Jeremy are wonderful human beings who as teenagers had "old souls" that I respected.  I remember the first week of Emily's freshman year; she came after school to ask me about helping her to start a poetry club; she also shared some of her poetry. Emily was so insightful and mature that I thought she was one of my upperclassmen!  Her willingness to be vulnerable by sharing some of her personal art took such courage.

So we started WHS's chapter of the "Dead Poet's Society", often meeting weekly to write, discuss, and process what was going on in their student poet lives.  Jeremy was a year ahead of Emily and was an artist as well.  Our club soon grew with other students interested in a safe space to connect.  Over the months of meetings, I could see Emily and Jeremy had a mutual respect and admiration for one another.  It did not surprise me when later they started dating.

Flash forward a couple of years, and I shared a most vulnerable and emotional moment with Emily and her mother Priscilla. My mother suddenly passed away in September 2003.  I was also newly pregnant.  As one can imagine, I was heartbroken over the loss of my mother, nauseous from morning sickness, and overwhelmed that it was the start of the school year.  I was beyond touched at my mother's wake when I saw Emily and Priscilla (a now retired Westbrough teacher and a mentor of mine) walking through the line to offer their was a brutiful moment of vulnerability and connection...based on a loving trust, loyalty, and gratitude for one another as educators and students--and even more so, in this moment as fellow humans.

Like all of us, Emily and Jeremy are living their brutiful life journey; five years ago they asked me to participate in their wedding ceremony by reading a couple of poems. It was so fitting given the memory of how we all connected in our poetry club years before.  I was honored especially because as teachers we often do not see former students--let alone over a decade later.  So to bear witness to Emily and Jeremy's love over the years has been a gift for which I am beyond grateful.

Reflecting on the gracious teacher/student relationship I had with Emily and Jeremy and now mutual friendship reminds me that often in education we can get caught up in grades, state testing, and rigorous expectations.  However, if we look at the bigger picture, we will really see how important vulnerability, connection, love and belonging are--as it is in those moments that ultimately we learn.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The 1900's: Don't Stop Believin'

Recently my nine year old daughter said to me during a family conversation, “Well you did grow up in the 1900’s, Mom.”  Ha!  I almost fell over laughing because she is right! But when I think of the 1900's, I think of the early 1900's when my grandmother was born or when Laura Ingalls Wilder published Little House on the Prairie. (I wonder if one of Laura's students commented about her growing up in the 1800's!)  I think flappers, prairie skirts, bobs and buns. I think jazz and blues. I certainly don't think of myself growing up in the 1900's. Then last week during a class conversation with my students, I asked when Journey's song "Don't Stop Believin'" was released. A student answered in a serious tone, "The song was definitely released during the 1900s." There we go again! (The answer is 1981.) So I was born in the 70’s, experienced my childhood in the 80’s and graduated high school and college in the 1990's.  Oh damn, I guess I did grow up in the 1900’s!  

In 2017, I often reflect on my youthfulness as I began teaching in the mid-90s.  I was only three years older than my seniors and only seven years older than my freshmen.  I had students who had siblings who were older than I was.  Heck, I had one student whose boyfriend was older than I was. Today I have former students who now have their own families, and although I haven’t taught a former student’s child yet, I have taught their nieces and nephews.  

I share this information because I do believe in some ways a lot has changed in the past twenty years of teaching. For example, I no longer write on a chalkboard to articulate information.  I use the info projector, googleclassroom, an app called Remind 101, etc.  I no longer try to use the updated vernacular. "Dab" or "Lit" are currently popular words and they do not roll off my tongue like "wicked awesome" or "cool" used to. Recently a colleague jokingly called me out when I told my students to tape their broadcast interviews. She whispered, "I think you mean, record your interviews."  Oh yes, VCR tapes are long gone!  I have my middle school Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet album on my whiteboard tray in my classroom to remind me I was a teenager once too.  One of my students asked if that was the dad of the Bon Jovi who is still performing today.  "No!" I shouted, "He is the same Bon Jovi!"

As we know, generational studies show the current generation of teenagers are influenced heavily by technology, namely their cell phones and social media. We know that students can access information within seconds that sometimes took us (people of the 1900's) days and weeks to research. We know depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicide are on the rise. And yet, the stigma of mental illness is arguably decreasing. Those of us who lived during the 1900's may not fully be able to relate and connect to the seeming necessity of technology which can create a generation gap; however, I would contend that whether you are 20, 30, 40, 50, or 60 ,we can relate and connect to one another's feelings. We all know what it feels like to be lonely, happy, sad, frustrated, elated, etc. We remember what it was like to win a high school basketball game, what it was like to break up with a significant other. We know what it was like to earn an A on an English paper or fail a physics test. We know what it was like to rebel against our parents and share a connection with our best friends. And it is those feelings in which we can build empathy and support for one another bridging our generation gap. And of course, music, food, and dance span generations--all of my students could sing the lyrics to "Don't Stop Believin'" even though it was from the 1900's.

Last week I started my 22nd year of teaching, and I am excited. I may have spent the first part of my life in the 1900's, but I'm definitely grateful to be in 2017 teaching my millennials about how we are more alike than we are different.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Craig Janney, Bon Jovi, and Wonder Woman--Oh My!

What I always enjoyed about my favorite school teachers was when they shared a little bit about their lives beyond their classrooms.  For me it was important to connect with my teachers especially if I was going to take academic risks in their class.  Yes, I had intrinsic motivation AND I performed better if I had a working relationship with my teachers.  For example, I needed to trust my physics teacher in order to feel comfortable asking him for extra help (actually a lot of extra help--hence, why I'm an English teacher and not a physics teacher--haha).  Or if I wanted to share with my English teacher a piece of personal writing, it helped to know she used the writing process as well when she was writing.

So it helped me when my teachers shared their own stories as teachers or a little bit about themselves. For example, my junior English teacher shared stories about the trials and tribulations of her teenage sons. My freshman English teacher made up stories that she was really a witch who lived in a cemetery (yes, a bit creepy--but definitely humorous and creative).  My junior social studies teacher told us about his sports stories from his high school days.  And our Spanish teacher told us stories about the boy she fell in love with in her younger years when she was a high school exchange student in Peru.  Yes, decades later, I remember their stories and more importantly the relationships I forged with them, which allowed me to be a student who was willing to be vulnerable, courageous, fun, funny, and love learning.  One big factor for why I was successful was because my teachers modeled their humanness for me in my learning.  It wasn't just about an equation or a thesis statement.  It was about learning how to be curious and interested in learning through story telling, sharing, and connection.

So now years later as as a high school English teacher myself, I do choose to share certain stories about being a student years ago, or I share a little bit about my interests and hobbies and certainly a bit about my children.

Years ago I created a corner of my white board with artifacts that represent my past and present.  A lot of the artifacts represent my high school years:  1987-1991.  And you'll note there aren't any textbooks, tests, formulas, etc.  Although I was a "good" student in high school who did value my academics, my priorities were sports, music, and friends.

a. So my #23 Craig Janney Bruins shirt represents the following:  First, the crush I had on Craig Janney while I was in high school.  I loved and still love the Bruins, and in high school while so many of my friends had crushes on #8 Cam Neely, I adored Craig Janney.  Yes, he was cute AND he was an amazing center.  I loved watching him set up Neely for a goal.  I loved that he wasn't a fighter like the other players.  I loved that he was a smart player.  I observed how he played and tried to incorporate his work ethic and intelligence when I played field hockey, basketball, and softball.

My friends and I would take the train into the Boston Garden all the time to go to games (tickets were cheaper than today and we would buy the obstructed view seats.  We would then move to empty seats.) So one day we found out that Janney was going to be at the Bruins' Wives Benefit Carnival at the Garden.  I wanted to go in the worst way, but I had to work at Star Market grocery store that afternoon.  I asked my manager if I could come in late or switch my shift.  She said no and if I came in late to not come in at all.  I said, okay and I quit on the spot.  My parents were not initially pleased by my decision (although I argued with my mother that she used to skip college classes to watch the Celtics and Bruins play).  I did not regret my decision as I got to meet Craig Janney in person.  And yet, I know quitting a job on the spot in high school is definitely an example of the impulsivity that teenagers exhibit at this time in their lives.  I hang the jersey in my classroom as a reminder that my students will make impulsive decisions and they will be okay.  We sometimes make questionable decisions, but that does not mean we are mistakes.  And the jersey reminds my students that yes, their teacher was in high school once.

b.  My Slippery When Wet Bon Jovi album represents some of my musical taste in high school and a reminder that I had a collection of  records and cassette tapes before itunes and Spotify.  What makes me laugh is that I have had more than one student ask me if "that" Bon Jovi was the father or grandfather of the Bon Jovi he/she listens to.  I say, No, that Bon Jovi is the same Bon Jovi! And music is so integral to students' identities at this age as it serves as tools for communication, therapy, and connection.

c.  The Wonder Woman magnet I actually added this year.  At the end of the school year, I saw Wonder Woman--TWICE!  I loved the movie.  Gal Gadot was fantastic as Wonder Woman.  Growing up, I watched the Wonder Woman series with Linda Carter.  I played Wonder Woman when my brother and I played with the neighborhood kids. And then to see this movie in which we get her origin story and her displaying her powers of compassion, strength, and intelligence was incredible.

So my personal corner is a constant reminder of my experiences, thoughts, and feelings when I was a teenager as well as a source for my students to remember their teacher was in high school.  And although we are decades apart in age, they are reminded that our generation gap isn't so big.

P.S.  Yes, that is a New Kids on the Block program that I bought when I went to their concert in 1991.  AND yes, I'm going to their concert tomorrow night at Fenway Park. ;)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Coach Ellis: Family

This blog is in honor of my dear friend and colleague Mark Ellis.  Often unsung heroes go unrecognized in public education and I want to recognize Mark for the inspirational educator he is.  He is a peer mentor to so many of us as he exudes what it is to be a quality high school teacher.  The beloved poet Maya Angelou once said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Mark makes fellow teachers and students feel like they can accomplish anything that they set out to do.   

Coach Ellis:  FAMILY

Two weeks ago marked the sixth annual Mr. WHS fundraiser at Westborough High School.  And as usual it was a wonderful community event that was extremely successful.

I remember six years ago when Mark approached me about working with him on a school fundraiser idea he had.  He wanted to raise money for the HUDDLE athletic software program for WHS football; he also wanted to offer some financial support to the Westborough Food Pantry.

I thought to myself, Sure, what are we talking ? A car wash?  A bake sale?  And then Mark said, What about bringing our own Mr. WHS fundraiser to WHS?  This event would be similar to the ones that surrounding towns were holding.  I thought, producing a Mr. WHS fundraiser is not a one hour or one day commitment.  This is a multiple months  commitment.  But then again, Mark doesn't do anything on a small scale.  When he commits, he goes all in.  And for those of you who have worked with Mark, you know that he is a teacher with whom you want to collaborate.  When working with Mark, you know you will work hard, do your best, and have a good time in the process.

As one former Mr. WHS contestant recently shared with me:  "Coach Ellis not only helped start an amazing event for the Westborough community, but also gave the Mr. WHS participants a unique experience.  Rehearsal was something our group looked forward to because of the atmosphere Coach Ellis provided."


Mark and I have worked together for over 17 years at WHS; he is a Physical Education/Wellness teacher and I am an English/Journalism teacher.  We connected years ago when I wrote a poem for the WHS varsity football team Mark coached for years.  I had a bunch of his football players in my classes and he and I would communicate frequently to ensure his players/my students were accessing the curriculum. Not only did Mark want his players to do well academically, he wanted them to succeed on and off the field.

"As a teacher he made it very clear that he cared deeply about his students, which made him a very approachable faculty member.  His classes were always upbeat and catered to all levels of competitiveness, which is my reason for enjoying them so much," remarked one of his students.


And so began an awesome four year run of directing and producing Mr. WHS with Mark, his wife Karrah, and several other WHS teachers (shout out to Celluch, Reed, and Cullen).  Mark has an amazing way of bringing people together from all walks of life and creating a healthy, functional family of choice.  He demands your full effort and skills in working with him, because he knows the awesome responsibility it is to mentor teenagers.  He knows how critical it is to balance expectations and boundaries with a sense of humor, compassion, and empathy.  He knows because he has been teaching and coaching teenagers for two decades.

Another former Mr. WHS student commented:  "Mr. Ellis became much more than a coach or a professor.  He helped bring together high school students from all different backgrounds and organizations, into an incredible and universally loved program. He was a mentor and someone who would support anyone should they need it, and ultimately created an incredible experience for WHS."

A few weeks before the show, we would hold evening rehearsals after sports practices.  Mark and Karrah would bring their children Jarrett (age 5 at the time) and Emma (three at the time).  I would bring my son Seamus (who was 7 at the time) and my daughter Molly (who was three at the time).  All four children would play together and learn the dance moves that the teenagers were learning for Mr. WHS.  Our students loved getting to know our children; and they were role models for our kids.  And the idea of family was emphasized as there was a mutual exchange and understanding of respect, trust, integrity, humility, and sportsmanship.

At the end of each Mr. WHS practice, Mark would bring closure through a group cheer.  I knew he would do it at the end of his sports practices.  So it was pretty cool to witness and to experience Mark yell in the WHS auditorium, "Bring it in. On three:  FAMILY." And then the group of teenagers in unison would yell FAMILY!  The school spirit Mark would generate was contagious.

Mark believes in all kids...on any given day you can see students from all walks of life giving him a high five in the hallway saying, "Hey, Coach!"  He dedicates time during his P.E. classes to creating solid relationships with his students--and as you know--P.E. teachers have a lot of students in their classes--way more than the average classroom teacher.  He teaches the Advanced Placement students and he teaches the Adaptive P.E. students; Mark believe in equity for all students.

Mark also believes that students have the capabilities to be leaders.  Years ago he created a student athlete leadership two-day workshop that has serviced hundreds of students from surrounding towns. The leadership workshop wasn't about how to become a captain of your sports team--it was about becoming a leader even if you weren't captain of your sports team.

Working with Mark has been an honor and a privilege.  I am a better teacher because of Mark.  He also has become what I call my work brother.  Our families respect and adore one another.  And here I go back to the importance of human connection--that is why we are here--to be better and to do better for ourselves, our families, and for our students.  The service we provide our students is invaluable in supporting their success--Mark is one of the teachers who provides this invaluable service to our teenagers.

Unfortunately, next school year Mark won't be teaching at WHS.  For those of you who have developed wonderful relationships with colleagues, you know how hard it is to say good-bye.  For me writing is one way I express myself. So, Coach--one last time at WHS--"Bring it in.  FAMILY on three. One...two...three..FAMILY!"

Monday, June 5, 2017

Food Stories and Teaching

The following vignettes have a theme of food--you'll find some to be of a serious nature and others to be lighter in content.


In my earlier years, I would bake my students cookies and brownies.  Yes, bringing in food can be construed as a form of bribery, but if you know me--it truly was out of kindness.  I have learned kindness can be a wonderful motivator for my students.  And now that I am a mother of two and don't have time to bake, I occasionally bring in munchkins.

Anyway I digress, so one day years ago, I passed out some homemade brownies at the beginning of class in attempt to keep my students engaged in a grammar lesson.  A bunch of girls were giggling in the back as they ate their brownies and some other students were glancing around nervously.  I was oblivious to any behind the scenes nonsense and began teaching.  A few moments later, the assistant principal was knocking at my classroom door.  He called out the three giggling girls to take their backpacks and leave the room with him.

Come to find out they had been identified the class period beforehand as getting high in the girls' bathroom.  And then of course they came to my class with the munchies.  And here I was passing out brownies!  Sigh, I didn't know!


When I was in high school, I remember learning about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, but it was until I started teaching that I understood the application of the Hierarchy of Needs.  If you need a refresher, please click on the link below.

The reason why I share about the Hierarchy is because if I have students sitting in front of me who haven't eaten--and I don't mean skipped breakfast because they woke up late--I mean haven't had a warm, nutritious meal in days, how can I expect them to activate their brains to learn whatever is the lesson of the day?  Yes, some students may muddle through while hungry, but they are not accessing their true potential.  Thankfully years ago, I worked with some fabulous guidance counselors (thanks Kim, Gina, Barry, and Bill!) early in my career who were able to provide me with information about certain students' life situations.  This collaboration enabled me to figure out that if I wanted the best from my students, I needed to create opportunities for my students to access food.

Yes, some of our students qualified for free or reduced breakfast and lunch, but have you ever seen how much a teenager can eat and drink throughout the day?  I shared a classroom with my colleague Sarah; we would keep a drawer full of granola bars and other snacks and discreetly let our students who were in need that they had free access to the drawer.  The difference we saw in our students' physical and psychological demeanor was transformational.  They knew they would have some of their nutritional needs met as well as the emotional safety of knowing they would always have access to some food.  And cognitively, they could now access their learning.

I know a lot of teachers who provide their students with food and other necessary resources for learning.  Yes, we do it because we know students learn more when their brains are fed, and we do it because it is the humane, loving thing to do.


And for those of you who didn't read an earlier blog of mine, there's the jelly doughnut story:

I have grown as a teacher because I have learned:

To duck quickly when a student throws a jelly doughnut at you. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. You may be thinking at least it wasn't a chair or another form of a weapon (don't worry, those things were thrown at me later in my teaching career.) Anyway, a freshman girl who had some anger management issues threw the doughnut at me when I told her she couldn't eat it in the classroom. Now mind you, it wasn't my classroom. As a rookie teacher, I had to travel around the school to five different classrooms. The classroom I was in where I dodged the doughnut was the classroom of a very bitter and cynical teacher. I personally didn't mind if students had a snack or a drink in class; however, this teacher did and made it very clear to me that she would have me reprimanded if she found food in her classroom. So when I pleaded with my student that it wasn't my policy, but we had to respect the classroom teacher's policy, the student scowled and threw the doughnut at me. As I ducked, it hit the blackboard and as if in slow motion, splattered and dripped down the blackboard. For a split second, I admired my quick reflexes to duck, but then I was horrified at the thought of the bitter teacher seeing the remnants of the doughnut on her blackboard. Oh and yes, I was also upset that my student made a bad choice and therefore, I directed her to the principal's office.


Lastly, I want to talk about tea. If I was your teacher, you know my drink of choice is tea--hot tea, iced tea, green tea, black tea, flavored tea...nothing added to it--just water and a tea bag.  I grew up loving tea because my mother and her best friend would always meet up for tea; and as a child I would observe their loving friendship as they drank their hot tea.  As a teacher, tea serves as a comfort, an inspiration, and a conversational starter and a connector.  Often students will see me with my Honey Dew, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, or travel mug filled with tea in the morning.   I have had many a student start a conversation with me about how they drink tea when they aren't feeling well or how refreshing an iced tea is on a hot day.  Or a student will mention that his grandmother, favorite aunt, or dad drinks tea.  Some of my greatest teacher gifts I have received is a gift card to Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks, so I can buy a hot tea!  What I love is receiving a text from a former student who says he/she was drinking a cup of tea and thought of our class and/or something he/she has learned in our class.  


I once read the three things people from different culture can connect over are:  food, music and dance. I have found this idea to be so true with the culture of teenagers.  I shared about food today--I'll save my music and dance stories for another blog. :)

Monday, May 1, 2017

"My Heritage Holds Me Hostage": The Puppet Show

Before reading my commentary, please watch this two minute group spoken word poem.  The poets are on the slam team that I co-coach with Anita Cellucci (@anitacellucci, @LibraryWHS).  The students are (from left to right):  Kofi, Nakia, Nikki, and Nadine.  You may need to watch it more than once because the poets speak fast.

Pretty incredible, aren't they?  Yes, they co-wrote that poem.  Yes, they blocked and choreographed the poem.  And yes, they are so proud of their performance. As Anita and I are!

The students put their voices, hearts, and souls on the line.  They commit the ultimate human act:  to share their vulnerabilities in order to connect with fellow peers, family members, and community members.  Often the hope is to be validated, to be heard.

And yes, what they slammed is indeed from personal experience; I validate that important point, because today in 2017 we know people still will call with malicious intent someone a "cross breed" or will follow someone because they are "suspicious" based on the color of his/her skin.  Unfortunately, these are our students' lived experiences.

Our students speak the words My heritage holds me hostage, not intentionally,  but because of this skin.  The statement is a powerful, haunting, and chilling line because it is packed with the complexities of race, racism, identity, and other social constructs that our students are facing on a daily basis.  Our students chose the metaphor of puppetry because they often feel like they are puppets being controlled by society's stereotypes, misperceptions, and falsehoods.  However, by sharing their experiences in this poem, they are educating the viewers, empowering themselves, and dispelling the stereotypes that they have been labeled.

Co-coaching the team has been a transformational experience for me as I have learned way more from my students than I believe I have been able to offer them.  And yet, humbly, I know Anita and I have offered them a safe space in which to feel, think and act freely.  We have guided them to process life experiences, encouraged them to celebrate their creativity, and laughed and cried with them about the silly moments and harsh struggles of day to day life.  I have such a deep respect for these young people who are willing to perform in front of peers and adults.

Our students also perform individually in slam competitions.  They write and perform poems on a whole range of topics:  race, racism, sexuality, friendships, love, social justice, body image, etc.  We are grateful to MassLEAP (Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance Collective  ( who provides a multiple opportunities and venues for our students to slam.

Below are some resources to check out if you are interested in looking at more spoken word poems.  I also use a lot of slam poetry in my classes as a way to complement the literature I am teaching.  Students are so moved by the performance poems and often make strong personal connections.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Assignment: Media Fast

I did not blog last week because I was engaging in a week long media fast with my Broadcast Journalism students.  I created this assignment approximately five years ago after I read the book Fast Media Media Fast by Dr. Thomas W. Cooper (Emerson College).

Dr. Cooper poses questions in his book such as:

*Are your thoughts truly your own, or just recycled sound bites from the news?
*Do you experience the fullness of life firsthand, or are you separated from life by the endless barrage of media and marketing messages which tell you to speed up and catch up?
*Are you losing nourishing connections to other people by looking at a screen all day?
*Have you become a consumer instead of a creator?

Dr. Cooper cites many benefits of the Media Fast; here are a few listed here.

*Saving time as in regaining several hours in your day for play, work, sleep, catch-up, family, hobbies, etc.

*Thinking for yourself, rather than recycling slogans, jingles, and cliches.

*Creating music, poetry, art, fiction, crafts, rather than over-consuming media

*Freeing yourself from enslaving habits, schedules, mindsets, etc.

*Turning off the "speed-up" world long enough to slow down and take personal inventory.

*Bringing the family or group back together around common activities or discussion
(pages 5-6)

He also shares his personal experiences of engaging in a media fast/diet and then describes his research regarding his own college students' media fast/diet.  Dr. Cooper notes that he has seen the negative health effects of media overstimulation, including anxiety, insomnia, depression, mental exhaustion, and attention deficit/hyperactivity syndromes.  I, too, could relate in observing my own students' symptoms and comments.  Heck, I could relate personally.

Like any new idea, invention, and/or discovery--there are pros and cons.  I believe a lot of us could easily cite a handful of pros and concerns re: social media.  For example, I am grateful for an app called Whats App as I can text with one of my dear friends who lives in Hong Kong.  On Facebook, I can see pictures of other friends from high school and college.  I now Facebook message with my cousin Patrick who lives in West Virginia.  I stay informed about education, politics, and entertainment on Twitter.

I grew up in a time when the biggest technological worry was:  am I watching too many hours of The Brady Bunch (which we could argue that point in another blog)?  And for context:  I didn't have internet access until I was in my senior year of college and I could only email people on my college campus.  When I first began teaching, our school had some computers in one computer lab.  I didn't buy my first flip cellphone until the early 2000's.  Flashforward to 2017, my students have never known life without the internet.  Most of my students were given their first cellphone for their 10th birthday.  My school is now a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) school.  Things have changed--fast.

So just like my dad used to talk about what life was like pre-television, I talk to my students about times pre-internet and pre-cellphone.  A common question is:  how did I know where my friends were going to be at any given time on a Friday night?  Well we planned ahead of time in school.  Or we used our landlines (a.k.a. house phones) to make plans.  Or if we were out, we used a dime to call on a payphone.  And get this idea:  sometimes we didn't always know where our other friends were--and we were okay.

The Media Fast Assignment

For this assignment, I narrow media to social media with the following definition:   forms of electronic communication (as websites for social networking) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (as videos and games) (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). 

My students read multiple chapters from Dr. Cooper's book and then they individualize their fasts.  I ask students to choose something to minimize and something to eliminate for seven days.  We discuss as a class what students choose because if you aren't a sports fan and you tell me you are eliminating the ESPN app on your phone--the class and I will call you on it.

It is amusing to hear how the students define and individualize their fasts.  One student said, "So I will watch two Netflix shows on the weekends and one during the week."  I repeated what I heard and another student said, "Wait.  Do you mean watch two shows on Saturday and two on Sunday or two total for the weekend?"  The original student replied, "Yes, two on each weekend day." She said it with a tone as if the other option didn't exist.  Then another student said, "Well then you mean during the week, you'll watch one episode per night versus one show for the whole week."  Again, the original student said, "Well yes!"  To be honest, sometimes I can't keep a straight face listening to the students hold one another accountable.

The majority of my students either gave up or minimized their use of:  netflix, instagram, snapchat, youtube, facetime, ESPN app, online games, and vsco.  I choose to eliminate Twitter and minimize Facebook.

Each day students record in their journals their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors surrounding the fast. Each day we discuss how students are managing.

And as one might imagine, students go through withdrawal (note:  Digital Addiction is real.).  About two days into the assignment when we are discussing how we are doing, students are often irritable and agitated with one another and me. (I no longer take it personally.) During last week's class discussion one student snapped, "Yeah this isn't working for me.  I am using vsco again, so I will focus on minimizing instagram."  I said, "So you broke your fast and aren't planning on trying to start over again today?  The student said "No." I read in her journal in more than one entry about breaking her fast: "I felt like I was missing out."

Below are some more student comments from their journals.

"I don't want to miss anything that people are doing!"

"I did find myself to be irritable and critical because I couldn't do what I wanted."

"I am nervous."

"It makes me feel uncomfortable."

"I am realizing how hard it is to follow through with my media fast.  It is such a routine, a part of my life.  I wish I had more will power but will continue to try."

"It is also funny because last night my mom took my phone so I would study for my micro test and I almost felt relieved.  But the truth is that I would never have self turned off/taken away my phone on my own."

"I have actually found that 30 minutes is more than enough time for me to scroll through vsco.  Last night I spent almost an hour and a half just sitting with my family and talking about our lives."

"I don't know what I'm going to do this weekend."

"I thank the human to human interaction was good for me. It kind of makes me realize the importance of talking to people in person, rather than over the phone."

"Got to be honest--I broke my media fast...I wasn't going to get through the weekend so I just quit.  Sorry, Mrs. Stoker. :( "

"I learned that you don't need social media and netflix in your life.  I also learned that the less you're on social media, the more you have time for schoolwork and not rushing it just to watch netflix afterwards."

"I did around 4 hours of homework that I'd do on facetime, in almost two hours not on facetime. I WAS SO PRODUCTIVE!"

"My mom wasn't home to tell me I can't continue watching shows.  Not that she should have to tell me."

"I also saw how much my family used electronics."

"I am fortunate that I went through this media fast as it made me realize my real addiction to my phone and social media."

For me, I was fine eliminating twitter as I know I can get my news in other places.  Facebook was a bit more difficult as I quickly realized how often I mindlessly scroll through Facebook. I found myself having at least ten more minutes in the morning to myself and in the evening I was more mindful of spending time with my family.  I also chose to text with friends versus staying on Facebook.

Each year I assign the media fast, I am seeing more and more how dependent students (and adults) are on the social media apps on their phones.  Henry David Thoreau said, "Men become tools of their tools."  Scary how true this quote seems to be in the beginning of the 21st Century.  I have learned by personally participating in the media fast that it is essential we continue to create breaks and balance with media. Thoreau also said, "We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep."  And so perhaps that is the true lesson here:   to stay awake--to trust ourselves without feeling like we have to depend on the phone in our hand to make our decisions for us.  To know that by thinking we are missing out on someone else's experience we are actually missing out on our own in-the-moment lived experience.  To understand it's okay to feel discomfort and fear.  To recognize our time is precious because we have a finite amount.  And to love real human connection is why we exist.

Cooper, Ph.D., Thomas W.  Fast Media Media Fast:  How to Clear Your Mind and Invigorate Your Life in an Age of Media Overload.  Gaeta Press, Colorado, 2011.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A white carnation, drugs, and Chris Herren (Part 1)

For every year of my twenty+ years of teaching, I have worked with students who were either struggling with drug abuse or addicted to drugs*.  I also have supported many students who have shared about a family member(s) who was addicted to drugs.   I have visited students in rehabs, hospitals, jails, and funeral homes. And I know I'm not alone in this epidemic--as many of my colleagues have cried too many times over the physical and/or emotional loss of a student to drugs.

Teaching a student who is involved with drugs is extremely heartbreaking and challenging to say the least. However, as a colleague many years ago reminded me:  Teachers teach everyone:  future presidents, CEOs, lawyers, doctors, plumbers, nurses, gas station attendants as well as future thieves, murderers and sociopaths.  We teach students who are in "good" health and we teach students who have cancer, diabetes, and addiction.  Yes, addiction is a disease just like cancer and diabetes are.  And just as I am loving, compassionate, and empathetic to my students with cancer and diabetes, so am I with my students who have an addiction.  I emphasize this point because still in 2017 the stigma around addiction and mental health is prevalent.  Addiction is not a moral choice; it is a disease.  As Chris Herren, co-author of his memoir Basketball Junkie says, "It's the only illness that I know of that you wait for people to get as sick as possible before you pick them up to help them."

Here are a few abridged stories I want to share:

Early on in my career, on Valentine's Day the student council was selling carnations as a fundraiser.  I remember receiving a beautiful white carnation with the card signed by Mike.  Receiving a carnation from a student was like hitting the jackpot, especially as a rookie teacher.  It was a sign that I had "made it"--had been accepted and approved of by a student.  Because let's face it:  the teenage population can either approve or reject you in a matter of seconds.  I asked a couple of students whose name was Mike if they had sent me the carnation.  They said they had not.  It was then that I asked a student named Mikie who was a student in an adjacent classroom if he had sent me the flower.  Bingo! He smiled and his eyes lit up as I said thank you and it meant so much to me.  He said I was such a nice person because I said hi to everyone and he wanted to thank me.  (Yes, I did say hi to everyone because when you are a rookie teacher you often feel invisible, taken advantage of, and often inept.  So you say hi to anyone with the hope of being noticed.  And of course, I say hi because I want other students and teachers to know that I see them as well.) And this was the kind of young person Mike was:  sensitive, caring, fun, funny, and smart.  Mike was an adorable teenager with eyes that truly were windows to his soul.  His grin was contagious as I would watch others instantly smile when they were around him.  He was goofy and immature like most adolescents.  He didn't always apply himself in classes, although he was very intelligent.  He was athletic and interested in sports. And Mikie was addicted to drugs.

And to echo what Chris Herren said earlier...a lot of times we as educators see early signs of potential addiction, but don't always respond.  And I know the same goes for families and society.  Drugs are so ingrained and normalized in our society--almost every day I hear a comment from colleagues, "I need a drink." Or "Can't wait til Friday to start drinking." I hear many adults and students argue that it's fine to smoke pot recreationally.  I hear people say, "Teenagers will experiment with harder drugs, but they'll be fine."  Well you know what?  In my experience, a lot of students haven't been fine.  I do acknowledge that there are people who can "socially" engage in drinking and smoking to an extent.  But I've never heard a student-let along an adult-after a weekend of partying say, "Wow, I developed so many wonderful intimate friendships while drinking/smoking." Instead I get a lot of tears from break-ups, random hook-ups, arrests, and hangovers.  Of course there are the few students who say what an awesome time they had a party, even though they can't remember what they did.  And to that I say, how sad.   And yes, as educators we are mandated reporters when we know a student is hurting himself/herself.  And often we do report, but again, with addiction, it becomes a slippery slope of:  well "how bad" is the student's drug abuse?  Does the family know?  Do they need to be hospitalized or are there are options?  It isn't as black or white as one thinks. Yet when cancer is detected in stage 1, no one says let's wait til stage 4 to help the person.   We do constantly refer students for therapy, but unfortunately there still exists a stigma around mental health.

And so Mikie became one of those students for a while--over time he developed what my colleague Judy calls "sad eyes." And I felt like I could see his brain cells dying from drug use. He would tell me he was fine when I questioned him about my concerns for his health, but I knew he was lying.  As the author Glennon Doyle Melton of the memoir Love Warrior says in her TED Talk "Lessons from the Mental Hospital", "We don't start out as insensitive liars, we are born sensitive truth-tellers." And Mikie had started out as a sensitive truth-teller and slowly was becoming a liar to himself and his loved ones about his addiction.  I was in constant contact with his mother who was beside herself worried about him.  I remember getting the dreaded call from his mom one morning that Mike had overdosed, but was alive.  I remember breathing a sigh of relief that he had survived.  I remember crying because I was petrified he was going to die.  I felt out of control and wished I could say the right thing to make him stop, but as we know when someone has a disease, no matter how much you love them, they still have the disease.

Fortunately, while in high school, Mikie did get clean, but it was hell for him to say the least.  Because imagine how difficult is it to stay sober and clean, when your friends are still using?  During my prep. periods, Mikie and I would go outside and play catch.  It was a way to give Mike a breather from the pressures of inside the school and we could talk and laugh--and I could see Mike's eyes return to lighting up.  Thankfully, Mikie graduated from high school.  And although he has continued to battle on and off his disease, he is in a much better place today.  I am grateful that I was able to reach out to him and his mom and ask if I could use his first name for this blog.  He wholeheartedly agreed.  For if one person who reads this blog realizes that addiction is a disease and that there is more we can do as a society to proactively educate all of us on:   the genetics of addiction, the messages we send in our every day speech about drugs, and the importance of embracing sensitive truth-tellers--then Mikie's battle is not in vain.


Recently a former student came back from college and said he needed to apologize to me.  I asked, Why?  I didn't remember us getting into any altercations.  He said he distinctively remembered having a debate with me during his senior year in our Psychology in Literature course.  I had contended that medicine appropriately prescribed by a doctor was one way to treat mental illness.  This student said a person needed to fix his mental illness on his own.  Yet, ironically he didn't see getting high off marijuana regularly as a form of self-medicating.  Apparently at the time, I suggested we agree to disagree even though sound research sided with me.  Well this particular student decided to self-medicate with pot in college to the point that he craved it as a coping mechanism to deal with an underlying and undiagnosed mental illness.  Through a series of unfortunate events, he was eventually hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  The good news is that he is now on medication and in therapy.  His message was that for some people, pot is a deadly drug.  I appreciated him visiting me and sharing such personal insights.  I also know as an educator, I can present the research, but it is through lived experience that we often really learn.


Lastly, I have had students share about parents and siblings who were active in the disease of addiction and how having a family member with the disease of addiction impacts the whole family system.  I have seen families have their electricity shut off because a parent is using her paycheck for drugs versus her family's bills.  I have seen family members go to jail for multiple drunk driving offenses.  I have been to funerals of family members who overdosed or died of a heart attack due to drug abuse.  And I see what it does to a student's life--often the student becomes a manchild or a womanchild--take on  way more responsibilities than a young person should.  They do a good job of covering up for their family member by wearing a fake smile on their face and saying they are fine.  As the caregivers, our students often then neglect their own self-care.  They misplace blame, guilt, anger, and sadness on themselves for what they are really feeling towards their loved one with the addiction.  We try to encourage our students to seek out Alateen (, other support groups, and therapy.


I would posit that we have all been affected by the disease of addiction.  We need to continue to openly and honestly have the hard conversations about addiction in order to further destigmatize the disease.  There is no cure for addiction; however, there are treatments.  And education is the key to researching those treatments.

I also want to encourage one another to connect instead of isolate when we are in mental pain.  I want us to realize we are good enough the way we are.  I want us to teach each other that all of life is meant to be felt: the pain and the joy.  I want us to acknowledge that our goal isn't to be happy all the time because that isn't what life is about, so we don't need to constantly look for a high.  Glennon Doyle Melton says wouldn't it be better if we were sensitive truth-tellers togther "in the bright, big, messy world"--and I wholeheartedly agree.

*I am including alcohol as a drug. As we know it is a drug; however, I still here people discern alcohol from drugs.

Some resources to check out:

TED Talk "Lessons from the Mental Hospital" by Glennon Doyle Melton

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cerne and the Corsica

When I first started teaching in NH back in the mid-1990s, I barely made enough money to rent an apartment with a roommate.  I was also in over my head with college loans.  In addition to having a full-time teaching career, I had a part-time job at TJ Maxx,  a summer job as a camp counselor, and an adjunct faculty position at a nearby college.  I worked all of these jobs just to break even with my basic bills.  So is the financial life of a teacher.  I know, I know: I chose my profession based on my passion, not for a financial windfall.  And I do not regret that decision.  But to continue to give you an idea of where I was financially...

It was my third year teaching, and on one particular day I was fulfilling my teacher duty in the cafeteria when a bunch of my junior boys approached me with big grins on their faces.  They had noticed that I owned the same car--including make, model, year, and color--as one of their friends who had just bought his first car.

His name was Matt Cerne. I didn't have him in class, but I had all of his friends as my students.  His friends called him by his last name--Cerne.  He was a good kid:  smart, respectful, and fun.  He was one of the stars of the football team.  He was considered "gorgeous" by the freshmen and sophomore girls, and the boys thought he was "cool."  And he and I owned the same type of car.

So Cerne and his friends were beyond excited--how awesome was it that we had the same car--a 1986 light blue Chevy Corsica. I remember thinking, this is soooo not cool!  Not wanting to burst their bubble, but at the same time needing to give them a reality check, I calmly remarked, "Whoa, whoa, whoa.  This may be awesome for you, but let's think about this.  What does this say about the income of a teacher?  You haven't even earned a high school diploma, Cerne.  I have already earned my high school diploma, associate's degree, bachelor's degree, and master's degree...AND WE ARE DRIVING THE SAME CAR that is over ten years old!"  And just hearing my own voice share the craziness of that statement made me burst out laughing with all of them.

For the next year I had to make sure I was going to the right car--my car--when we were leaving school events.  Underclassmen would come up to me and say, "Don't you think it's so great that you own the same type of car as Matt Cerne?" And I would smile and say, oh yes, when I really was thinking, This is pathetic! 

And let's face it, owning a car when we are in high school is an amazing coming of age experience.  My first car was a 1978 maroon Ford Fairmont.  It had been my grandmother's and when she passed away during my junior year of high school in 1990, I inherited the Fairmont.  Although it was 12 years old, it only had 12,000 miles on it because my grandmother would only drive it to bingo games. Because it hadn't been used much, it wasn't in great shape.  I remember my friends and I wouldn't use my car at night for when I turned on the headlights, the radio shut off.  And who wants to cruise around town with no radio?

So I understood why the students thought the fact that Cerne and I had matching Corsicas was cool.  And Cerne's friends had cars that they loved.  Cerne's friend Shane had a mustang that they even named.  Cars are a rite of passage, but what happens when you've traveled through the passage of high school, college, graduate school and still own a high school rite of passage car?  I'm laughing thinking about it.

As I've mentioned in previous blogs, the Corsica became another way to connect with my students.  And I somehow acquired "cool teacher" points from my underclassmen because I owned the same type of car as the popular Matt Cerne. Go figure.  As a rookie teacher trying to prove myself as a credible, competent, compassionate educator, I took what I could get in motivating my students to learn.

Here is an image that I found on the internet of what the car looked like.

Please feel free to share your high school car stories!  And Shane and friends, what was the name of your car?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Wrestling with Connection

When I began teaching at Timberlane Regional High School (Plaistow, NH) in 1996, I had no idea that Timberlane had a good--no, great--wrestling team.  However the thought of going to watch a meet during my first year of teaching was out of the question.  As described in a previous blog post, I was barely keeping my head above water as a new teacher--let alone even thinking about attending a wrestling match.

Yet, when my "sophomore" year of teaching rolled around and a few colleagues (Kim Varney, Sarah Schuster, and Patrick Scott) said they were going to one of the TRHS wrestling matches, I said I would tag along.  Well if you've never been to a high school wrestling match, let me attempt to describe one.  At first, one might say it's like a swim meet or track and field meet as athletes compete individually to score points for their team.  However, in wrestling, you take on your opponent on a mat in the center of the gym--as if you are gladiators in the coliseum--fighting for your reputation, school pride, and wrestling family.  And then consider TRHS wrestling is like the Friday Night Lights of any Texas high school football team.  You have generations of families who have participated throughout the years.  You hear the name Chooljian, Holder or Smith and you nod your head because you know they are wrestling legends. You have lots of students, teachers, families and community members crowding into the gym to cheer on the Timberlane Owls.

Going to the meet, I realized I had a bunch of students who were on the team.  And when I saw one of my student wrestlers--one who had struggled academically just that day in the classroom-on the wrestling mat in front of a large crowd (again, think Friday Night Lights)--out there in the arena by himself taking on his opponent and putting his heart and soul on the mat--I developed a respect for that student that gave me the understanding that this sport is his lifeline in a lot of ways to his self-confidence, family, and school.

And what I appreciated as I got to know the TRHS wrestling team was their sense of family.  Yes, there were indeed some actual brothers on the team, but the wrestlers were really a family of choice.  They looked out for one another even though they were in a highly competitive sport.

I soon found myself tutoring some of the wrestlers after school--really trying to build some of their confidence in the classroom.  At this time, I also discovered my interest in sports psychology; I realized there were so many ways I could motivate my student athletes through discussing sports and making some connections to the classroom. Simply by pointing out their achievements and skills they had developed on the wrestling mat, I could then show them how those same skills could be applied in the classroom.  On the mat, wrestlers learned about individual accomplishments and failure, team support, courage, adaptability, self-awareness--life skills that they could take with them into the next stages of their lives. I noted that the vulnerability they may feel in the classroom is the same vulnerability they feel on the mat--they just choose to connect over that vulnerability on the mat with their fellow wrestlers.  The same can be applied in the classroom.  And fortunately, their head coaches Coach Choo and Coach Woody were and still are proponents of their wrestlers graduating high school and pursuing higher education.

Furthermore, when we talk about connection, there were a bunch of us teachers who would travel around with the student fans to cheer on the team--and when you are a young teacher starting out--to become a part of school culture really is important in creating a sense of belonging and identity for the teacher.  The school spirit that was generated was contagious as it was fun to go to the meets and cheer on the team.  The student section took on a life of its own as if the students were another member of the team.

I look back fondly on my memories of the few years I spent cheering on the TRHS wrestling team.  Working with the wrestlers I learned a lot of my own life lessons that have helped me in both working with my students throughout my career and now as a parent of two children.  One of the greatest lessons I have learned is that at different times in our lives we literally and figuratively "wrestle" with connections whether it is with ourselves or others...and the best way to achieve connection is to risk being vulnerable with our loved ones for they really are our life teammates.

Listed below are some individual remembrances I have of TRHS wrestlers:

*I remember my colleague and friend Sarah Schuster had student wrestler Eric Doucette in class.  Sarah started a sock board--every time Eric pinned his opponent he would pin up his black socks onto the bulletin board.  You would think all of those socks would stink, but Eric pinned his opponents so fast that his socks didn't smell!

*I remember a couple of students commenting about a couple of the wrestlers and how disciplined they were with their nutrition, workouts, and choice not to drink/drug--the students said what losers the wrestlers were.  When I overheard that conversation, I wanted to jump in--but instead another student did and said, "So these wrestlers that you are talking about--you're making fun of them for being healthy and belonging to a championship team?  Why don't you ask yourselves who the real losers are."

*I remember heart to heart talks with student wrestler Anthony about life's up and downs and the courage it takes to believe in oneself.

*I vividly remember Jay Holder sitting in the cafeteria working diligently on his college essay for Boston University.  Jay was a natural on the wrestling mat with an outstanding athletic career; however, he had to work long hours when it came to reading and writing.  His determination, perseverance, and self-awareness were strengths of Jay's that helped him succeed in college and now in his career.  Jay is now an assistant professor and the head wrestling coach of Springfield College.

*I remember striking the balance of praising and encouraging humility to Matt Smith in his freshmen year.

*I remember the get psyched music Eric Bradley listened to before he wrestled:  "The Warrior" by Patty Smyth!

*I remember Ryan Holder winning his match and then telling me afterwards he lost his folder for our American Studies class.  I can remember saying to Ryan, enjoy your win--we'll worry about your folder later!

*I remember how excited some of us teachers were when Coach Choo gave us gray fleece TRHS wrestling vests for supporting the team!

Please feel free to post your  TRHS wrestling and any other related memories you wish to!

Disclaimer:  In this post, I focused on TRHS wrestling, but I do plan on reflecting on other TRHS sports teams in future blogs!

 I've learned a lot about vulnerability from the work of social worker Brene Brown. Here is the link to her widely watched TED talk:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Werewolves of London"

I first knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was in elementary school.  My mother was a college professor at Dean College; and she would occasionally bring my brother and me to her office and classroom while she finished up her planning and grading.  I remember thinking it was so cool how neatly she wrote on the chalkboard, and so I would practice and practice writing on her chalkboard pretending to be a teacher.  Don't worry, this was not the sole reason why I wanted to become a teacher; it does go much deeper than that. 

I also would see students stop by to visit my mom and even in my young age, I observed how the students respected, trusted, and enjoyed my mom.  And she respected, trusted, and enjoyed them through their laughter and exchanges of empathy.  That is why I wanted to become a teacher--to teach, to support, to awaken, and to validate my students.

So when I started teaching in 1996 while in my early 20s, I believe I truly had the gift of starting my teaching career with a wonderful group of students.  I taught several freshmen classes (Class of 2000) and the way in which my teaching schedule fell each year, I ended up teaching some of the same students I taught that freshmen year a couple of times throughout their high school career.

Some of these students I taught and their friends were:  Shano, Tony, Cerne, Woody, Kristin K., Pedro, Sags, Mark, Lister, Mikey, Bradley, Sticks, Skippy, Mike P. to name a few...

Often as a teacher you look for "the thing" to connect with your students--for even a small connection can go a long way in developing your relationship with your students.  Sports, music, movies, and tv are always great topics to connect over--and since at the time I was only eight years older than most of my freshmen, I liked a lot of the same things they did. 

So I connected with Mike P. over the movie "Top Gun,"
I cheered on Tony at his wrestling matches,
I coached Kristin K. in soccer and Lister in soccer and softball,
Cerne and I owned the same make and model car (more about this in a future blog),
And for Shano, one thing we connected to was Warren Zevon's 1978 song "Werewolves of London."
Go figure, right? 

And when you connect with your students, often you will see an improvement in their motivation in academics, kindness towards others, and self-confidence.  I will contend that this group of students had those skills to begin with, but perhaps I was able to enhance some of those skills over the years.

We shared a lot of laughs over their four years of high school because humor is so important to have at this critical stage of adolescent growth.  We laughed over silly things like whenever Shane ate anything it would end up on his shirt, how gullible Kristin K. was, or how red Mark got when he was embarrassed. We laughed at the crazy stories from my first and second years of teaching.

And then there were hard times when we talked about some of their parents getting divorced, family illness, and even death.  I remember specifically when Woody's father passed away--his soccer team and many of his friends were so supportive.  I watched as these young people navigated one of the hardest life events--death of a loved one--and yet, they were so compassionate, caring, and loving with Woody. 

And so as the students came of age, I came into my own as a teacher.

One may notice that in this particular post that I'm not citing specific academic lessons from traditional classroom learning.  Of course, that did happen...however, quality student/teacher relationships aren't formed based on a vocabulary quiz or thesis paper.  A quote that I'm reminded of by the late poet Maya Angelou really sums up the importance of how we teach teenagers:  "People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did.  But people will never forget how you made them feel." My students most likely won't remember the specific assignments I gave them, but hopefully they will remember that I cared about them, wanted the best for them, and was willing to laugh and cry with them.

The truly amazing thing about teacher/student relationships like the ones I'm grateful to have forged is that they withstand the test of time.  A positive of social media like facebook is hearing from my former students about how they are doing today.   For some of my former students,  I have been able to serve as a job reference, attend their weddings, participate in their weddings, meet their children, and exchange day to day life stories.

Last spring Shane asked me to meet his girlfriend because he was going to propose to her in the near future.  He wanted me to meet her and give him my approval so to speak.  I couldn't have been more honored.  I first met Shane as a 14 year old freshman and to see him over twenty years later to meet his soon-to-be fiancĂ©e and him for dinner was such a gift.

Below is a pic from 2000 of Cerne, Patrick Scott (a fellow teacher), Shane, and me.

Then in 2016, reuniting with Shane to meet his now fiancé Giana.

Disclaimer:  To my former students and colleagues:  if I didn't mention you in this particular post, please note that I'm sure you will appear in a future one.  I have a lot of stories to share.  Also, please feel free to reply, message me or email me with any stories you remember that you would like me to share at

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My passage has been paid...

Would you be willing to separate from your children for days, weeks, months, even years, and maybe a lifetime, if it meant saving their lives?
I know, a haunting question to say the least...

"I miss my mom's hugs, Mrs. Stoker."
"There is no doubt you do, Miguel.  How many years has it been since you've seen your mom?"
"Three years."
"Remind me, how did you travel from Guatemala to the U.S.?"
"I walked with my cousin.  I had $200 in my pocket--my family's life savings.  I had to go.  I had been mugged too many times.  The next time I was afraid I would die. I either had to join a gang or be killed. My mom said I had to leave. She didn't want me to die."
"I can't even begin to think how hard that was for you."
"I don't want to tell you what happened to me on my way here."
"You don't have to."

I know well over 100 years ago, my family traveled by boat from Ireland, Germany, and some other European countries to the U.S. in search of a safer, better life.  Did all my relatives enter the U.S. legally?  I don't know if they did; I suppose it depended on the years they entered the U.S. whether the  immigration laws were permitting or restricting. 

I also know some family members faced discrimination in Boston because of "Irish need not apply" stereotypes.

Heck in the early 1990's when I was in high school I was questioned by a townie, "How did you survive playing sports in Franklin, MA with a last name like Eldredge? We're all Italian here."  I said my mother's maiden name was Carty and my grandmother had been a Tracy and she dated a man from Franklin who was a Vendetti. The townie replied, "Oh, that's how you survived--your grandmother dated the Italians." 


"Each of you, descendent of some passed
On traveler, has been paid for...
Your passages have been paid..."--lines from poet Maya Angelou's "On Pulse of Morning"

So my ancestors "paid my passage" to be a U.S. citizen.  I did nothing except have the fortune to be born here.


"All children in the United States are entitled to equal access to a basic public elementary and secondary education regardless of their actual or perceived race, color, national origin, citizenship, immigration status, or the status of their parents/guardians.  School districts that either prohibit or discourage, or maintain policies that have the effect of prohibiting or discouraging, children from enrolling in schools because they or their parents/guardians are not U.S. citizens or are undocumented may be in violation of Federal law." US Department of Justice, US Department of Education

It is the law that I educate all of my students whether they are a legal immigrant, an illegal immigrant, a refugee, a U.S. resident, or a U.S. citizen.  I take my job seriously and I take this law seriously.  Public education is the great equalizer in our country because any one living in the U.S. has the right to a free, public education.  This right is what differentiates us from many countries.  Some countries only educate their children who can afford to pay for their education, who can pass a test, who are boys, who are of a certain religion, etc.  A misrepresented statement, I often hear is how the U.S. is "falling behind other countries" in test scores.  I ask that we look to what countries we are being compared, because often we are comparing all of our students to the Advanced Placement students of another country--so of course then the statistics are going to vary greatly.

Recently, a university researcher from Finland was visiting the high school in which I teach.  She and her colleagues are studying a research methodology called Guided Inquiry Design that a lot of us are incorporating into our curriculum.  The researchers actually want to consider adopting this methodology in their Finland schools--Finland that is rated as a top country in education in the world. At one point I commented to the researcher, it must be so fantastic to work in a country that is rated so high in education.  She said to an extent it was but to remember how small Finland is compared to a country like the U.S.; she said it's difficult to make a comparison.

So over my 20 years of teaching, I have educated a lot of students who I know were illegal immigrants.  And I feel compelled to share some of their stories as my students have taught me so much about courage, perseverance, gratitude, and patriotism. 

As I mentioned before, Miguel travelled to the U.S. by walking for days.  He left because he had been mugged and beaten to near death by the local gang in the village in which he lived.  His choice:  either join the gang or be killed.  His mother gave him her family's lifesavings in the hope that her son would reach the U.S. to make a better life for himself--a safer life.

I once taught twins whose family had been here in the U.S. illegally for years.  The twins' parents paid taxes and had made a life for their sons with the hope that their sons would earn their high school diplomas.  Well when the twins were juniors, their parents were deported back to Columbia.  Instead of subjecting their sons to the police corruption, gang violence, and no opportunity for education, the parents gave up their parental rights and "abandoned" their sons to the U.S. foster system.  At first I was horrified at the thought of giving up one's parental rights, but as one seasoned colleague said to me, "Think about how bad it must be in Columbia that you would sacrifice ever seeing your boys again."

A family adopted one of the sons and the other son went into the foster care system.  I stayed in touch with one of the sons who said that although he missed his parents beyond comprehension, he was going to make them proud by earning his diploma and going into the U.S. armed forces--which he did.  Coincidentally, the government issued him citizenship status for joining the military a lot faster than his twin who went on to college.

Another former student of mine when she was only 12 years old traveled from Latin America with a family friend--again walking.  She, too, won't share the trauma she endured on her journey.  I think about my son who is 12.  This year he went away with his class of seventh graders to an outdoor education camp for four nights and five days.  Admittedly, it was the longest five days for me as my son had never been away from us for that long.  I cannot imagine what it must be like as a 12 year old to travel through countries on foot enduring the abuse, the hunger, and the danger to come to the U.S. in search of a safer and better life.  I cannot imagine what it must be like as a parent to send your child on that journey knowing the horrors, but knowing it is better than the life they are living in their home country. 

I have heard all the anti-illegal immigrant slurs, stereotypes, and hate speech.  And I will argue that my students who have travelled here illegally are some of the smartest, most diligent students I have taught.  My students often speak at least two languages--something that my American born students (me included) cannot do.  They positively contribute to society through working jobs in which they are paying taxes, but not benefitting from the returns.  Are their illegal immigrants who commit crimes and make poor choices?  Sure.  And are there U.S. citizens who commit crimes and make poor choices? Absolutely.

I also have taught many students who have acquired their citizenship legally--and it is a challenging and expensive process.  They, too, work exceptionally hard.  Sometimes the path to citizenship is "easier" (and I say that with relativity) for some immigrants because of the country from which they are immigrating, the money their family has to afford U.S. universities, and/or the type of job their parents are working.    I share this information to look at how our country discriminates in who is allowed to work hard for their citizenship and how some immigrants no matter how hard they work will not receive their citizenship.

Yes, the U.S. is in need of Immigration Reform; and in the meantime, I believe it is not my place to criticize parents who are trying to save their children's lives by sending them to the U.S.  My colleagues and  I will continue to teach all students because we know we want educated, informed, and productive people living in the U.S.  And for those of us living in the U.S. legally--because our ancestors already paid for our passage to becoming U.S. citizens, I encourage us to consider:

--being persistent in demanding fair immigration reform,
--feeling empathy for those of us who are treated unfairly,
--and really pondering to what length we would we go to save our children's lives.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How to dodge a jelly doughnut

I have wanted to write about my teaching experiences since I started teaching way way back in 1995.  I have a lot of journals filled with my experiences, thoughts, and feelings about public education, individual student stories, and my growth as a teacher.  Writing was and has been an incredibly helpful tool for me to process my daily teaching experiences.  For a long time, I have been uncertain how I would compose these reflections: what shape would they take? Would my writing be good enough--especially where I want to honor my students?

So, I recently was reading author, poet, and essayist Mary Oliver’s collection of essays called Upstream. Well a dear friend and colleague of mine, Maryellen, mentioned a line that was haunting her. “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it to neither power nor time” (30).  When Maryellen shared that line with me, I knew I needed to start writing.  

In my first blog, I shared the conversation between my student and me because it is those conversations that must be shared beyond my classroom walls.  As a teacher, I have the willingness, motivation, and time to affect positive change with my students.  And one of my goals is to empower my students to use their voices in a variety of ways to affect their own change in their lives and communities.  

Recently a student asked me, How have you grown as a teacher over the years? After a bit of reflection the following teacher growth lessons are what came to mind. Yes, feel free to laugh at the absurdity and cry at that fact that these examples are real. These stories are from my first year as a teacher; I was in my early 20s teaching in a regional high school in southern New Hampshire.

I have grown as a teacher because I have learned:

1. To duck quickly when a student throws a jelly doughnut at you. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. You may be thinking at least it wasn't a chair or another form of a weapon (don't worry, those things were thrown at me later in my teaching career.) Anyway, a freshman girl who had some anger management issues threw the doughnut at me when I told her she couldn't eat it in the classroom. Now mind you, it wasn't my classroom. As a rookie teacher, I had to travel around the school to five different classrooms. The classroom I was in where I dodged the doughnut was the classroom of a very bitter and cynical teacher. I personally didn't mind if students had a snack or a drink in class; however, this teacher did and made it very clear to me that she would have me reprimanded if she found food in her classroom. So when I pleaded with my student that it wasn't my policy, but we had to respect the classroom teacher's policy, the student scowled and threw the doughnut at me. As I ducked, it hit the blackboard and as if in slow motion, splattered and dripped down the blackboard. For a split second, I admired my quick reflexes to duck, but then I was horrified at the thought of the bitter teacher seeing the remnants of the doughnut on her blackboard. Oh and yes, I was also upset that my student made a bad choice and therefore, I directed her to the principal's office.

I have grown as a teacher because I have learned:

2. To not get in the middle of a fist fight between two boys who were bigger than I was. I know, duh! Well as much as I will praise my college education, no professor ever told me not to break up a fight. It was still my first year teaching, I was in a different classroom than the jelly doughnut incident. The class of freshmen had just come back from lunch. There were two boys who were supposed to be sophomores, but had flunked freshmen English so they were repeating. It was evident that they were embarrassed. It was evident that they, too, had anger management issues. For whatever reason that day they got mad at each other and within a split second desks and chairs were pushed out of the way and they were punching one another. I raced over to the side of the room where they were fighting and pushed my way into the middle. Within a second I felt the side of my head ache like never before as I was punched by one of the boys who didn't see me entering their DIY boxing ring. I yelled to the other students to go get help. And I vividly, remember one girl yelling, No! (She had wanted to see the fight continue; her behavior to me was just as bad at the boys fighting.) Thankfully, a few students ran and got the teacher next door. The boys were brought down to the office and I was expected to resume class. I don't know if the students could see me shaking or the bruise that was on the side of my face, but I quickly faked my composure and told the students to take out their notebooks. I remember the look of one student's face--he looked at me with kindness and reassurance. And it was that student's face who I took a mental snapshot because I was so grateful that he offered an empathetic (or maybe it was pitiful) look.

I have grown as a teacher because I have learned:

3. To read fast. I was teaching an honors freshman class my first year and A LOT of the required books I had never read before or read once when I was in high school. And I certainly had never taught these classics to a bunch of students only six years younger than I was. I can remember reading The Great Gatsby with the class. A few of my students read ahead of the assigned chapters and had some questions for me. Mind you, I hadn't read ahead! I was barely staying afloat as I was teaching over 100 students a day, doing bathroom duty for one class period, commuting to and from school for 50 minutes each way, planning and grading in the evening, working a part time job, and attempting to have a social life (that was non-existent because I didn't have time). So I used to tell my students what great questions they had and to save them until all the students were caught up-- when it was really because I didn't know the answers until I caught up!

So I would say I have grown a lot from my first year of teaching--I have many more vignettes I will share in future blogs. Reflecting I'm laughing at the insanity of the aforementioned examples of what a typical teaching day could look like. And even though at the time I often cried on my drive home from school due to the exhaustion, the bruise on my face, and the many frustrations--there wasn't any place I'd rather be--honestly. Because although I know my angry students' behavior was inexcusable, there were reasons for their anger. I quickly learned that I couldn't take their behavior personally. Jelly doughnut girl was forced to apologize to me, but the fight club boys apologized on their own. The girl who yelled "No!" to getting help for me apologized as well. And I still have that snapshot of the student who believed in me enough to offer a look of kindness.

Fellow teachers, please feel free to share your own lessons of teacher growth in the comment section or email me. :)