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 eldykm@comcast.net

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. :)