Breaking Bad and Making Good

Breaking Bad: Box Cutter (#4.1)” (2011)

Jesse Pinkman: At least we all understand each other now.
Walter White: What do you mean?
Jesse Pinkman: I mean, him and us, we get it.
[Makes cutting motion on his neck]
Jesse Pinkman: We’re all on the same page.
Walter White: And what page is that?
Jesse Pinkman: The one that says if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.

We all know about teacher burnout—all the ways in which this profession can slowly squeeze the life out of you. I never thought that’d be me, but I had gone from being someone filled with excitement, tenacity and purpose to wishing the teacher in me were dead.

From September to December, I found myself constantly coming up against the same problem I always faced, only much more intensely—to let go of my ESL training and principles, and teach in ways I believed to be unfair—but the familiar rush of indignation and resistance was not there this time. Those months found me just trying to keep up. I was exhausted and intellectually stagnant.

So, I started to feel like maybe, actually, the problem was me; I must be inadequate as a classroom teacher, unable to teach in this way, unable to get all of my students to pass the state tests. Like most teachers I know, I had been living a double life, doing what I thought was right “when the door is closed” and yet allowing the same frustrating expectations to stand for me, my students, and all other teachers (think: “I am not going to teach to the test,” but still worrying how your kids will do and eventually giving into the pressure. Or think: “my students moved 18 levels in reading” but still have to give a fail grade on report cards because the system only has one definition of success which locks out ELLs).

To live that double life, you often have to break some big “rules” you feel are damaging to your students.

My students were ELLs in a curriculum that wasn’t just designed for native speakers, it was designed in ways that undermined their needs and strengths. There was no way I would meet their cognitive and intellectual or academic needs by remaining within the confines of the Teachers College Readers and Writers curriculum. You might think that’d be obvious, but I had friends at other schools who were denied tenure because they were being held accountable for teaching in ways that could not benefit their students. So, it meant breaking rules. It meant doing my best to meet expectations and still meet my students’ needs. But that only took me so far until those outside pressures became just too great. I just couldn’t keep up with the dichotomy anymore.

Then, around December, I started to realize I was not alone in how I was feeling and, in fact, teachers I greatly admire in different schools around the city (and country) were feeling this exact same overwhelming self-doubt and undermining of their efforts and talents. Some call it lack of appreciation, or lack of experience from their administrators, while others call it systemic injustice.

So I started to refocus the question I saw in front of me: if it isn’t just me, is it the whole profession? If my dream of teaching differently was just a dream, then what?

I felt I had three choices: to leave the profession entirely; to accept it and continue wishing I was “dead”; or find a way to change the situation. I started with the latter—which I knew meant major upheavals and transformation of everything I was doing, but how? So, first, I contacted a friend who had inspired me to be a teacher to see if maybe, just maybe, public school education as a whole was not lost.

My friend told me about this and genre practice, and I devoured the book, Unison Reading by Cynthia McCallister. This book helped me to see the true source of my outrage; NOT me and NOT my administration, but the philosophies and approach embedded within curriculums like the Teachers College Readers and Writers Project itself. I could have continued running myself into the ground trying to adapt this to meet the needs of my students or find a curriculum that actually had a better chance of benefitting them.

Then I had the opportunity to meet and see other teachers and principals who were educating students in this new way, and I knew I had found a way to save the teacher in me. My outrage quickly returned (and clearly resonated with others).

Unfortunately, I had to change schools to be able to teach in this new way, but I’m excited. Now, the questions that guide my teaching have shifted from, “how am I going to adapt every part of this curriculum so I can support the needs and strengths of my students?” to, “how will my students’ interests, needs, strengths, and intentions shape the curriculum and build their independence?”. Now I’m thinking, “How can an ELL, beginner or advanced, develop intentions in grappling with big concepts without my constant scaffolding? What needs to be in place so my students can do academic work and learn to confront and identify their own confusions and needs without waiting for someone to tell them how, or always waiting for me to teach them? How will their purpose drive their writing, or their understandings drive their math work, rather than what genre or math concept I have pre-selected?”

The former is driven by a pre-fab curriculum designed by people who don’t know my students, the latter by my students and state standards.

This new approach may not have an answer for everything, but it isn’t a “don’t think, just do” approach, either. To teach this way, you really have to grapple with the underlying philosophies, reading and discussing what this could look like in the classroom, while emphasizing that mistakes will happen, it will be messy and that’s ok because we will learn as we do this. This means that while there may be teachers who don’t totally agree with the approach, or who are apprehensive, also aren’t just “on the same page”, out of fear.

It is overwhelming to plan like this and I am constantly confronting knotty problems that aren’t easy to solve. And, yet, I am happy to say I no longer feel like [makes cutting motion on my neck].

The Value YOU Add

I have been so moved by all of you who shared my post and even took the time to comment here. You showed me I’m not alone. That you stand with me and I with you. I feel it! So, let’s stand and say it together, to each other. In a way only teachers can! And I will tell you what you have told me — what you do is amazing!

It’s time. For teachers to make our voices heard.

It’s time. For us to tell our stories. Our students’ stories.

It’s time to show the world what we’re worth. Let’s face it, it’s overdue.

Blog it. Take videos. Pictures. Post on Facebook. Twitter. Tumbler. Your local paper. You are immensely creative and daring daily — you create lessons, design charts, decorate and redecorate whole classrooms overnight, take 5-year-olds and 14-year-olds on field trips, and SO much more. So, I don’t need to tell you what to do or how to do it. You already can dream up more than any reformer can pretend to. And now there is a rare chance to do it together. In a fun way to boot.

All it takes is one sentence. One video or photo of you, or your colleagues. One colorful chart with your painstakingly-constructed handwriting. One quickly-jotted comment on a napkin you photograph and share. One re-post or share of someone else’s statement on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. to get our voices echoing together to say: I will tell you the value I add. I will tell you why this Data-craze doesn’t even begin to touch on the worth of what I do. I will not let you use the complexities of my classroom against me, undermining and erasing the true value I add.

We are teachers because we are passionate about learning. About the future. About change. These tests aren’t “bad” simply because they are transforming our work day or work load. Pffft — we’re used to that. What we know that not enough others seem to know is that their overemphasis, high-stakes and decontextualized, ill-informed data are dangerous because they are reshaping the present quality of life for our students and the whole future of what education is going to look like. But you and I, our colleagues, both current and retired, concerned parents, and even our aware students don’t want to stand by and just let it happen. To our jobs. Our students. Our children. All of which we love.

So, show me. Show each other. Show “them” what we’re worth. You can start by sharing and reposting this.

You can link to what you do below in a comment. I can’t wait 🙂

(below are two from friends!)



A Shared Loss

Today I met with the parent of my troubled boy from China who has been giving the middle finger to students and in general not dealing well with some of his frustrations. The interpretation-over-the-phone that the DOE provides suffered from technical difficulties so I had to rely on two boys from a colleague’s class who speak English and Chinese. It was going ok and I could tell the boys were happy to help. Then, at one point, one of them whispered to the other, “I’m losing my language.”

First moment of heartbreak of the day. This is the difficulty of being an ESL teacher; you know your job is to give students the language tools they need to survive in their adopted city but it often means they lose their language.

Now for the second moment of heartbreak. As the rest of the class was working independently on ELA test prep materials (more on that later), I met with the troubled student. When students first come to me, their emotions are either quite powerful, overwhelming them in different ways throughout the day, or they are so numb they don’t know what they feel, even when prompted. This boy was once in the latter group and now his feet are passionately planted in the first. He is frustrated and angry and disappointed.

So, during what was supposed to be a running record, i decided to have a heart-to-heart, using the ever-mediocre Google Translate and the bits of English he has learned already.

I said, “So, you are angry?” He nodded his head.

“You miss China?”
Silent nod, again.

“Do you write letters to your friends?”
“No letters. Video talk. My friend and reading teacher. My brother.”

At this point we went in circles as I tried to find out why his brother was still in China while he and his sister are here, and he eventually explained, “He son of my aunt but we feeling of brother.”

These kids leave so much behind when they come here; family, friends, sometimes a school they loved. And eventually they also lose the one main tie they had to that whole sense of self they were just developing before they left: their language.

I dare you to measure the “value” I add

(When i wrote this, I had no idea just how deeply this would speak to people and how widely it would spread. It even ended up being republished by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet. So, I think a better title is I Dare You to Measure the Value WE Add.)

Tell me how you determine the value I add to my class.

Tell me about the algorithms you applied when you took data from 16 students over a course of nearly five years of teaching and somehow used it to judge me as “below average” and “average”.

Tell me how you can examine my skills and talents and attribute worth to them without knowing me, my class, or my curriculum requirements.

Tell me how and I will tell you:

How all of my students come from different countries, different levels of prior education and literacy, and how there is no “research-based” elementary curriculum created to support schools or teachers to specifically meet their needs.

How the year for which you have data was the year my fifth graders first learned about gangs, the internet, and their sexual identities.

How the year for which you have data was the year that two of my students were so wracked by fear of deportation, depression and sleep deprivation from nightmares, that they could barely sit still and often fought with other students. How they became best of friends by year end. How one of them still visits me every September.

How that year most of my students worked harder than ever, (despite often being referred to as “the low class” or “lower level” within earshot of them), inspiring me and the teachers around us, despite the fact that many of these same students believed they could never go to college because of their immigration status.

How that year many of my students vaulted from a first to third and fourth grade reading levels but still only received a meaningless “1” on their report cards because such growth is not valued by our current grading system.

How that was the year I quickly gained 6 new students from other countries and had my top 3 transferred out in January to general education classrooms because my school thankfully realized I shouldn’t have 32 students in a multilevel self-contained ESL class.

How the year for which you have data was the year that two of my students, twins who had come from China just the year before to live with parents they hadn’t seen since they were toddlers, finally started to speak in May. And smile. And make friends. How they kept in touch with me via edmodo for two years after leaving my school.

How that year I taught my class rudimentary American Sign Language for our research project; inspired and excited, they mostly taught themselves the Pledge of Allegiance, songs for our school play, John Lennon’s Imagine, and songs for graduation, all in ASL. Then we created an online video-translation dictionary using their first language, English, and ASL. They wrote scripts for skits we videotaped to teach many of these words in context.


This year, my class represents seven countries, two continents, and three languages in one room. Together, they create a tapestry you can neither see, nor feel, nor imagine. I have students who grew up practicing Kung Fu and Tai Chi before school and now always get in trouble in gym for running. I have students in my fifth grade who never went to school before they crossed the US border last year or the year before. I have students who, although in fifth and fourth grade, are capable of doing 7th grade math while others are still learning to add and subtract well. I have a student who just came this year and is already reading on grade level.

I choose to revel in the richness this kind of diversity can bring to my classroom. The challenges, obstacles and pitfalls that teaching a group like this to work together, to learn, to create and grow both tire and thrill me. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel both excited and exhausted at the idea of tomorrow because of all that teaching a class like this entails.

But never will you be able to judge me or my students by one day or one test. Never will I give one iota of care about your tests, no matter how hard I work to help my students to do their best on it, knowing they aren’t meant to pass it because it is written far above their reading levels, and were written with native English speakers in mind. You can’t measure me as a teacher, because you haven’t imagined teachers like me or classes like mine. Their experiences are outside yours.

Tell me how important your data and tests are, and I will tell you how I don’t value your data because it tells me so little about my students yet so much about your educational system.

Your data says one thing: your system is what fails my students.

Those days in September…

I was getting ready for work, listening to local news radio as I always did then. At the time, I was working at Court TV, so I was still at home in Brooklyn when the news first broke that a plane had hit one of the Towers. A caller from the Bronx said she had seen a low-flying plane and I imagined a small prop plane. So I walked into my living room to turn on the TV and my eyes focused on the smoking, gaping hole.

“How weird it will be going to work and seeing that hole,” I said to my then-boyfriend.

Not long after– we all know the minutes now — we heard a loud BOOM from outside. And then, on TV, we saw the second plane hit. We looked at each other, realizing then, just how close we were. How real it was. Newscasters were already talking about terrorists and I texted a Pakistani coworker and friend, telling him to stay home, worried how Americans might react toward him. What they might do.

My brother still worked just blocks from the towers, and I hoped he was still a late-riser and still at home.

My mother, on vacation in south Jersey, was calling me, and although I could hear her voice on the phone, she couldn’t hear me. Her worry, her yelling for my dad, scared I was at work, still in my ears.

“Wow. It’ll be weird seeing two holes…”

Then they started to fall.

Dust and papers covered my neighborhood. The names of companies and people who I’d later see on missing posters covered the ground all around me in pieces. Faxes, spreadsheets. Important work details now reduced to scraps.

I can’t remember much after that. I don’t know if it was then or the next day when we trekked over to Union Square, the furthest point south in Manhattan you could go at that point. We read each of the signs of the missing, and watched the melting candles that covered every inch of that park. Everyone’s eyes swollen and bloodshot. People talk about the silence that hovered over us those days, but there were also a lot of very passionate debates happening — about revenge, about blowback and Americans’ myopia, about what it meant now to be American, about seeing history happening and wanting to make good choices; all of us trying to make sense of what had happened and what was coming.

It was in that park that I met a man from Grenada who spoke to me about listening to a friend’s radio station go silent when the US invaded in 1983, and the sadness I felt suddenly compounded with those felt around the world. He said, “I will never forget that feeling, and I’m feeling it again today.” I now saw myself experiencing a pain that other people in so many other countries had felt, were feeling, and were feeling daily, even. My own sense of place and purpose in the world had now begun to unravel and the urgency I had long felt for change grew stronger. In that moment, the images from TV of people crying for us from around the world took on new meaning for me. America no longer lived in a bubble, free from the horrors seen elsewhere. Far, far away had now come home.

I’m not much into navel-gazing historical moments such as this but it struck me as strange to me to think my daughter will be as distanced from 9/11 as I am from the events of Pearl Harbor. I will tell her my story and her father will tell her how he tried to go donate blood but so many had already donated, they actually turned him away. And I will tell her the story of the man from Grenada, too. May we never forget the feeling so many of us had in those days of being one with the rest of the world.

Google Maps and a little understanding..

Just as i was picking up my kids for the first day of class, i was told that one of my new students, “Zhang”*, might need to be referred for special education testing because “he has been here since second grade but still doesn’t speak English”. I made a mental note to be aware of this teacher’s observation since it could mean so many different things.

When I was talking to the class later, they asked me what languages I speak. I told them English and Spanish, and I used to know Italian and Japanese. But I told them I love learning all languages and know a word or two in a few others, like Chinese.

I then noticed Zhang, turn to another Chinese student. I understood his tone of voice, body language which indicated derision, and I heard him say “ni hao”. So, I looked at him and, to his surprise, said, “Yes, Zhang, ‘ni hao’ is one of the phrases I know. As well as “xie xie”.

It was in that moment that I decided the issue of his not speaking English was likely not a reason for concern or testing. It appeared to be more about choice and perhaps anger and other emotions bound up in learning this new language when, it would seem, no one had bothered to learn his. I’m inferring a lot here, I know, but there were other indications. So I decided to get to know him better.

I asked another boy (who came to the US last year and told everyone his name was “Tom” but told me today he preferred his Chinese name, “Yao” when I asked), Wang, and Zhang to come to my desk. I pulled up Google maps and went to China. I asked where they were from. They seemed confused and since a lot of my students have come from Fuzhou, I asked if that’s where they were from. This got them talking and pointing and soon we were zooming into the map, looking at where they were each from. Yao was explaining to me how they were all from places near to each other, and by the water.

Not long after, Zhang started to talk to me, too. In English.

This is the kind of start to a school year I like.

(*no student names used on this blog are real)

Cue Light Bulb!

Today I had one of those conversations that leave you feeling overwhelmed yet so inspired because you have a sense of validation or a million new ideas in your head that you want to do RIGHT NOW. And, even better, I had the conversation with my new supervisor. I can tell she will be tough — in many ways it will feel like it is my first year in the classroom — but I’m excited about it because I can see she is driven, and a hard worker herself, and respectful of the creative independence teachers need.

There has been a rumor circulating that the administrators will be observing teachers more frequently — like 6 times instead of 2 — which she confirmed, adding that they will be informal observations for tenured teachers until a formal one appears warranted.

Given the current educational climate, a part of me did cringe. But I after looking into the Danielson Framework website (what inspires the new approach), I’m feeling encouraged. Although it’s as barren as It could be and still be called a website, it talks about. “collaborative reflective” approach to observations which is what I have often argued for in the past. If done correctly, more frequent observations could allow for more problem solving approaches to issues in the classroom and help tenured teachers improve with less fear of the formal observation. It runs the risk of putting teachers on edge, making them feel like someone is out to get them, but in the right environment, I could see it doing a lot of good and helping teachers perhaps see their work in a new light.

So, of course, knowing I prefer being “caught” doing something good, as I like to do with my students, I left her buzzing with all the million things I need to do and want to try for this new year.

And i was so into talking to her that I left about an hour later than I’d intended. So, I was sitting on the train when the alarm on my phone went off reminding me of my other new goal: an earlier bedtime routine for my daughter.

*sigh* and the light bulb grows a little dimmer as I now think about how I’m supposed to find time for all these things. My life happens always with everything occurring at the same moment. I think my watch is conspiring against my mental bursts of inspiration.