Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Secret Stories

Today I told my class we'd be writing
about our secrets.

I don't have anything to write about!
they whined in chorus.

That's okay, you don't need to write anything.
I'm going to tell you my secrets.

So I told them about my dentist
who would give me these squishy
cartoon-shaped erasers
(which didn't erase)
but I loved the way the rubber
felt against my teeth.

Only, when you put them in your mouth
you got these little bite marks all over
Fred Flintstone and Scooby Doo--
which was less than desirable.

So I bit on my sister's erasers instead
I guess telling myself she wanted
headless cartoon erasers.

My secret unveiled,
the stories started--

kicking a vase over
rubbing black shoe polish on beige boots
smearing lotion across a mirror
peeing on purpose
stealing mascara from the drug store
sneaking out of the house

we talked
and laughed
and shared

pulling our secrets
from beneath our ribs,
holding them up
to examine

Tomorrow we write.

(This great teaching idea)

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Being the Dinosaur

On Saturday I drove to Philadelphia
to give a workshop for a
Teach for America mini-conference.
A woman came by at the end who had
missed my presentation to ask for my hand-outs.

"You were in the '97 corps?" she exclaimed incredulously.
"Ohmigosh! How old are you?"

I'm 30.

"You've been teaching that whole time?"

Yep. The whole time. Nine years.

I noticed she was a 2005 corps member
which could easily have put her in eighth grade
my first year teaching.

What I should have said to her is that nine years is nothing.
You still feel like you aren't meeting every child's needs.
You still have more questions that you do answers.
The questions are just harder to answer.

Back in '97 I asked:
How can I prevent my students from bringing potatos from home
to throw during my lesson? (yes, that really happened)
How do I make sure they'll stay in the room if I hold
them for detention?

While today, I wonder:
What can I do to help Nisha read better, she seems to be in the same place?
How can I help Lawanna write more critically of her reading?
What are the best strategies to help Yasmin learn despite her dyslexia?

Am I doing enough? Am I doing enough?
Can I do it better? Can I do it better?

In two years teaching, you may think you have it,
in nine, you know you've barely started.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


You might buy a house with walls
that look pretty good
You may not want to move the couch in yet
but you think about how
to paint.

So it is difficult to see the same room
after days of work
take two steps backward

Stripping it down to the skeleton
you expose every weak joist.

And when you find a KFC cup from the mid-80's
along with snack-size chip bags, a red sock, assorted rubble
and an old box of raisins
you may wonder
what's inside any wall?

Dry wall may cover decades of secrets
but today we usher them
into the light.

My wall uncovered...

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Yesterday a dumpster came to sit
outside our new house.

Todd and I threw away old boards
with rusty nails and
garbage bags full of dry wall.

We hauled as much as we could
into the dim light because
finding a half-empty dumpster
is your lucky day
here in the city.

As we locked up, a man from down the street
was already throwing in an old box spring.
We could picture the thing filled up by morning
with three old sofas and a couple of bookshelves.

But minus another mattress and a coffee table and
a few bags of trash, maybe a door
the dumpster was mostly ready on our return.

By mid-morning while I was dragging
another load of demolished wall onto the street
three guys came by with a trash bag and a baby stroller.

"Miss...you got any metal we can have?"
Sure. Help yourself, I said pointing to the dumpster.

Two of them scrambled in
throwing out anything resembling metal
on to the street so guy #3
could organize it into the baby stroller.

Eventually they were on their way
metal poking out all sides of the carriage
as they rolled up the block.

This neighborhood--
it gives and it takes away.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Lifetime for Sixth Graders

Shadaya shared her story today.
The one she's been writing for days,
scribbling under her desk
as pages and chapters pile up.
She read from the writer's stool today.

The main character was a stripper.

Her audience was captive.
"That's right!" they all agreed.
"No he didn't!" they chorused.
By the end of chapter four
they were demanding a sequel.

In my class
the most passionately written stories seem to involve
rape, murder, domestic abuse...

Last year, after reading about a rape
which seemed to contain far too details
I pulled Cheyanne aside.
It's so realistic. I'm worried about you. How do you know how to write about this?
"Ms. Emily," she exclaimed wide-eyed
"I just watch a lot of Lifetime."

Shadaya has pages of a story she has been inspired to write.
She has an audience who loves her work.

Do I let my class write about whatever they want?
Or are there some stories
eleven year olds are too young to tell?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

One More Chapter

The best time of the day
with my ten and eleven year old girls
is after gym

the lights are turned off
we lay on the carpet
and I read aloud

I pick a book with chapters that make you hang
from your fingertips--
you always want more

Usually the first few days they complain.
They don't like this new book, they liked the other one.

But I know they'll be hooked

Read one more chapter!
We promise we'll be good the rest of the day!
Just one more!!!!

I sigh.
Page ahead a bit.
Okay. One more. As if
I'm granting the biggest favor in the world

I don't tell them it makes my day
to see them falling in love
with a story.

What we're reading...

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

we LOVE our school

We spent our Valentine's Day evening with the school board

The plan: one person speak
say who we are in the allotted three minutes
then silently hand our carefully crafted letters
to each person
and leave

So, along with my co-workers,
we gave up our plans
crammed letters in envelopes
and ran out the door at the end
of a sugar filled day

We listened to stories...
disgruntled employees
classrooms without teachers
a curriculum in disarray
the chairman claimed,
"there is no strong research in middle-grade literacy" as defense
(he's wrong)

For our turn, we stood together
letters resting gently in our palms.
We laid them on the table.

May they speak truth to those who read them.
May they cause hearts to break for the children of this city.
May they right the wrongs.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Between the Lines

On Friday, I answered questions during morning circle.

A parent meeting had occurred the night before so
rumors were flying around
about the potential closing of our school

Since it was the end of a long week, I was anticipating
comments like, I hope it does close.
I don't care about this stinky school anyway.

That's what my kids say when they're angry and frustrated

I've learned to read between the lines
realize protection comes
in tough talk

sometimes we all say things we really don't mean

So I was surprised when instead they said...
This is my school. They can't close it.
Can we have a fundraiser?
How can we stop this?

And when some kids chose to write letters later in the day
they didn't mention the fantastic gifts donated at Christmas
or our beautiful building or gym every day

They said...
We have smaller classes so our teachers can give us more attention
Our teachers help us to learn things
Teachers want your mind to know things so they don't just pass you on to the next grade
Come visit our 5 star school so you can see how great it is

They get it.
They notice the important stuff and
understand that it matters.
Some days, it's nice to remember.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Long Arc of Justice

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Martin Luther King Jr.

I teach at an extraordinary school.

I have supplies, access to a copy machine, small classes, dedicated co-workers and supportive administrators who make decisions in the best interest of children.

My first year teaching in this city I had 135 kids, one ream of paper per week, no text books, administrators who made me cry and a torn poster in the faculty room that said, "Kids are first." No one believed it.

So at a staff meeting today, our principal shared that the school system has not honored her request for adequate staffing in the upcoming school year and her only alternative is to close the school.

But I teach at a school where people don't hang their heads.
My principal does not wait for the scraps bureaucracy may throw her way.
So we will fight. Write letters. Talk to the press. Share why this school is important.

Part of me says, but we are so lucky. I'm responsible for 15 kids. I work in a beautiful building. We have so much more than the other schools.

My principal's response, The question is not why we have more, the question is why don't all kids have this? This is a justice issue.

The bar has been set so low of what our kids deserve.
You are not thankful for a copy machine. You expect it.
You are not grateful for supplies. You have them.
Shouldn't all kids be able to go to school in a clean building?

This is a segregated school system where teachers are not given what they need to teach and despite the logos, kids come after politics and bottom lines. While all schools are measured on the same academic standards, we're not all given the same economic advantages.

I am glad for this fight
it is good to remember that the world is bigger than my classroom
it is good to rethink my own expectations
it is good to stand up for something that is right

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Lawanda's mom called at the end of the day asking
why she was off the basketball team.

Because she's missing homework and classwork
and her attitude is keeping her from learning, even
when she is in class, I try to say gently.

I hear her kids coming home
Lawanda's crying, her little sister whining,

"This is what I deal with.
I work the night shift
I haven't been able to sleep yet
and I work again at eleven."

Lawanda, I knew, was crying
because she hit a classmate.
She'd been crying five minutes
earlier while collecting her stuff
from my room.

I love you, I said
but I don't know what to do for you.

I love you too, she snuffled
walking out the door.

"Why is it always my kids?" her mother continues
"Why is it always their fault? If this escalates
you all gonna see my backside at that school."

It's like a deep chasm and
we're standing on opposite sides
wanting the best for this child.

We don't have the answers.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Finding Magic

Cierra wouldn't stop reading all day.
(this is not a bad problem to have)

I love finding a book that you can't put down
where all you want to do is read,
you're sad when it's over
and you know you can never read it the first time
ever again

Cierra was having that kind of day

She wouldn't pay attention to any of my "teaching"
my carefully crafted mini-lesson on questioning the text
my strategies for revision

Twice I saw her reading out in the open
while I was reading aloud and giving directions
(not even hiding it under her desk!)
I pretended not to see.

Cierra, I give you 45 minutes to read during the day and 15 at the end...
can't you pay attention?

But I LOVE this book. I can't stop! she'd yelp.

When tutors came from the fancy private school
with work finished early, I suggested Boggle or Scrabble
to bridge worlds

Can we read instead? she and Latora protested

I shake my head

This is the legacy
I want to leave my students...

that they find this moment
when reality and fiction mesh
laying on the carpet
book in hand
you can't put it down.

Finding magic.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Monday morning

before we even get to the classroom
when I've only said good morning, kindly
Jawanda stomps her foot and rolls her eyes
Jawanna yells at boys across the hall
I feel worn down by months
of the same simple battles

In the moment
I want them to listen
want them to care
want them to learn

but you can see from the slits of their eyes
to the shift of their little girl hips--
they are going to do
what they wish.

So I lose my cool

Count down from 5
give warnings
write names on the board
and know that this,
my first pawn move,
begins a long, long day.

in the moment
I forget

11-year olds
hold up their sturdy shoulders
like armor
to hide a deep, deep heart

the little girl

Sunday, February 05, 2006

First Story

After months of searching...
walking through vacant houses
across slanted floors
through sad histories of other people's
abandoned lives

After watching real estate soar
in a struggling neighborhood,
meeting tenants without heat
and wondering why
it's so difficult
to buy a broken house?

After days of waiting...
signing papers
we are finally holding the key

Rain is coming in the back roof
there's no electricity or heat
but it's red
and the walls gleam

with potential