Long ago, I promised myself that if I completed 25 years of teaching, I would try to write a book about my experiences. Next year will be year 25. So I started this last year to begin to figure out what I wanted to write about. I welcome your comments, resources, links to your own teaching blog, book recommendations, etc.

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If you give a village a cow. . . (Part 2)

The tour continued. Houses were meant to represent a culture. Though there were careful disclaimers, they tended to be lost in the tidal wave of words, particularly words about how our guide had been to every place and worked with everyone. The houses, therefore, became a single story – of Peru, of Thailand, of the ‘urban slum,’ of Appalachia.

Pictures were distributed. One was of a mother with her child strapped to her back on their way to get water. The caption –

The woman not only is going to fetch water, but gets to carry her baby the entire way. I love the typical way they carry their children. It is so nice to have free hands.

I had to wash the condescension, the romanticism of poverty off of my hands.

Thailand – We were shown a picture of a woman in traditional Ahkah clothing. Apparently, when our host had shown up, the woman was only wearing the headdress with jeans and a Nike t-shirt. But our guide couldn’t have that, no. She sent the woman back into her home to change into her traditional regalia so she could take a more ‘authentic’ picture.

In the ‘slums,’ we learned from our guide that the happiest children are generally the poorest children. We learned that thanks to the mid-life crisis of a movie executive, there was now the Cambodia Children’s Fund, and that now everything little thing was gonna be alright. I know this because our guide showed us a video of well-dressed, smiling Cambodian children lip syncing to that Bob Marley song. I don’t know a lot about Marley, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t approve of his song being used in that way. But I shouldn’t worry, I was told, because at least in slums you have a community.

The cooking challenge, though smacking a bit too much of a reality show, was fun. The students learned to barter (and to steal) for what they needed and had to cook over an open fire. The scenarios each group received were too complex. (Note to guide: Creating ‘stuff’ is not the same as creating curriculum.) The night time was surprisingly fun. My group was assigned the ‘lower slums’ and eventually went to sleep. The morning after reflection was fine, if a bit superficial. The students were urged to do something, to spread the word. It was time to go.

If you give a village a cow. . . (Part I)

Open House starts in 15 minutes, so I probably won’t get through all of this in one go. Prior to going on this trip, I was impressed with Heifer International. Their work, I thought, was sustainable, and focused on long-term root causes, not just symptoms. Who could argue with it?

Don’t know the place? Check this out.

We had an overnight trip scheduled to their Global Village in Michigan this week. I really didn’t know what to expect. The initial presentation, in which Africa was referred to as a country, was not impressive. I started to take notes about Heifer International works “to lift them out of poverty” because “cows last forever.” We were shown a shiny propaganda video (during which time our hosts left the room), and I started to wonder about the cycle of poverty in Cleveland, the same cycle that some of our students are stuck in. Why, I wondered, should we ask them to focus on the cycle of poverty in, for example, Zambia rather than Cleveland?

Now I’ve had this debate before, and the answer I’ve gotten in the past was that we have systems set up to help those in need while Zambia, for example, does not. I know more now. The systems we have set up aren’t working. And the ones that are working are overtaxed. And no one is pushing at the question of why so many of the same kind of people need access to these systems.

With this host, though, it became a kind of Oppression Olympics. Yes, Flint and Cleveland are having trouble getting access to fresh water, but it is not as bad as what they have to deal with in Thailand. Yes, Haiti is poor (my comment), but they also have “the most corrupt government in the world” (hers). When I told one student about Haiti, he asked why students learned about the Incas and not the Haitians. A whole other conversation. But he’s on to something.

And then there was the comment at the beginning of the tour of their various symbolic shelters: “We are educated; we have soap.”

More in the next part. . .

Mastery Learning

I know it’s a buzz word or jargon or whatever, but I am finding that even after I have left a school dedicated to mastery learning for an IB school, the concept still resonates with me. I am much more deliberate about assignments I offer. This also means I give fewer assignments. I am much more thoughtful about what the assignment is for and how I can set the students up to succeed, and how the assignment can then lead to the next one. The concept has really made me reduce things to their essentials: What should students know, be able to do, and to think about?

It’s working for me. My assignments are clearer. I am giving much less busy work. The number of “Why are we doing this?” questions has gone way down.

“Why do we always talk about race in this class?”

Well, I’ve gotten this question before, though usually not so early in the year, and usually not from the same person who asked me, “Why do you all [read: white people] hate us [read: black people] so much that you keep killing us?”

I guess I have come to the belated and none-too-original conclusion that race is the center of the American story / experience, etc.. It intersects with many, many things – class, gender, sexuality, etc. – but it’s at our center. And, in order to do that thing that teachers are told to do, I often ‘read’ things with the lens of race.

I am not unconscious that the first two books I chose – Master Harold. .  and the boys and Of Mice and Men both feature race issues, including the n- word. But that’s not why I chose them. They are short, highly engaging books to read. I am trying to get the reading year off to a good start.

I used the photography of Hank Willis Thomas today to get things going. I always find his work provocative, and so do students. Engagement was pretty good today. If you don’t know his work, check it out here.

Related student comment of the day: “You know why the n- word doesn’t bother me, Mr. Ellenbogen? Because I know I am not one of them.” (Here, I am thinking Baldwin.) “That word describes ghetto people who don’t care about their education.” (Here, I am sighing. I made him promise we could talk some more.)

On the “N” word in the halls and in the classroom

Many years ago, I think it was an article in an NCTE publication that convinced me not to let the word ‘gay’ become acceptable as a slur in the hallways. I don’t remember it being an issue in classes, but I would definitely hear it in the halls and began to challenge students about it. But I have never encountered – in both the halls and the classrooms – with the intensity and frequency that I have in Cleveland.

A colleague and I were both kind of shocked by the use of the word ‘gay,’ and so we schemed and research, and with the help of the LGBT Community Center in Cleveland, we launched a ‘Choose Another Word’ campaign. At first, students would (somewhat jokingly) say, “Okay, fruity.” When we made it clear that that (and all other slang synonyms were not acceptable), they began to be more cautious, and to remind themselves and each other. But it was like holding back a flood. I understand bell hooks has a great essay on this topic, but I haven’t been able to find it.

Then there’s the ‘n’-word. I am not being coy. I just can’t type it. It will come up in at least two of the books I’ve selected this year – Fugard’s “Master Harold” and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I’ve had that discussion before. Is it appropriate? Should it be banned? When has it been banned? Should we read it out loud? Is it okay for some people to use it and not others (attention: Bill Maher)? Does it matter how it’s spelled? Should it be used in creative writing? And so on.

I am at a new school now, one that is much more diverse. One student spelled the word as (an appropriate) part of a point he was making about Charlottesville. A student across the room then said, “You mean n—-?” and said the whole word. Later, that same student used it as part of a greeting to a new student.

Not only am I at a new school, but the school is new. I wrote to the Principal for some guidance. The relevant part of his reply —

I believe strongly that our school’s values will be a reflection of our collective values in action, so if it bothers you, I would suggest you say something to students when they use it.
For me personally, I think it’s important to emphasize for students that certain language is not acceptable to use in the context of school. It’s useful for kids to be able learn how to switch up their register for different situations and contexts.
So it’s in my hands. Do I get ahead of it in English class? Wait until I get to those books I mentioned? Talk to that particular student – an African-American male? (I am a white male.)  He’s also my advisee. A private conversation? Talk with the whole advisory? Make it part of a discussion on code-switching? Am I paralyzed over nothing?


I understand the logistical necessity of having teachers share classrooms and that once in a while, teachers have to share classrooms and teach in two (or more) classrooms. I am well aware that teachers who speak of classrooms as “my classroom” are wrong since the classroom belongs to the school. And since most teachers are pack rats, the longer a teacher stays in one space, the harder it is to dislodge them if it’s their turn, for example. Often, schedulers will just work around them rather than dealing with their objections. I’ve even known a half-time teacher to throw a fit because someone was using ‘his’ classroom when he wasn’t even there. And, as with all other things, he made himself obnoxious enough to deal with that most people just conceded rather than deal with him. But I don’t want anyone to forget that this floating business is very, very hard.

I appreciate that this year, when everyone on our staff floats, that our Principal managed it so that no one has to switch classrooms in the 3-minute break between classes. I have my planning period and lunch to make the adjustment. Here’s the thing – since I buy most of my supplies, do I have to buy a set for each room or do I get a cart or something to move things between rooms? And if I forget something that means a sprint between rooms. And it also means never feeling comfortable. I remember reading once about the morale problem with 911 operators in Detroit. Everyone shared cubicles so no one was allowed to leave things or put up pictures or make the space their own in any way. Now I can put up posters or whatever, but I can’t be there to make sure stuff on my desk doesn’t get touched. (And no, I don’t have a desk in an office. We do have workrooms. I was chased out of one of them on Friday when a bird flew in.)

Another complication of sharing rooms is the arrangement of the rooms. I’ve had to float into science classrooms with their immovable tables. Right now, I am sharing one of my rooms with a new teacher. She’s great. And she wants the chairs and tables in islands or clusters angled around the room. I hate that. I don’t like people with their back to me (at least at the beginning), and it has made it harder for me to learn names. And I also don’t want to reset the classroom when I get in there and then reset it at the end of the day when I’m finished. I know I can train students to do it, but that would eat into my time. Simply put, I want the room my way. But I will only vent here for now. I am trying to make her comfortable.

I have great roommates and, with one exception that I can think of right now, have always had great roommates. And I’ve tried to be a good roommate. But people have different work styles, attitudes about playing music, making phone calls, casual conversation, etc.. I have long fantasized about going to the District Office and stepping into the office of some important person to say, “Sorry, I need to work here for an hour. You can work over there.” One day, maybe. . .

Too Darn Hot!

Today, we had time to set up our classrooms. I say classroombecause we are all floating which I don’t love though I don’t mind. There’s always a mischievous part of me that wants to go to the District Office and tell one of the administrators that s/he needs to work in a different office for the 2 hours in the middle of the day. At least, our Principal was kind enough to make it so that I have one morning room, a break, and then one afternoon room. I can’t stand rushing between classes, especially when it’s. . . too darn hot.

The air conditioning is not working. When we do turn it on, a puddle forms in the cafeteria. I’m told sea turtles have been spotted. This is not the first time I’ve had an opening of school like this, but it’s just so draining. It’s hard to do much when everyone is just so wiped out. There are two parts about this that get to me —

  1. If this were a white, suburban school, this would not be happening. My urban school in Baltimore would close mid-day when it became too hot, which is, at least, something.
  2. The start of the school year did not come out of the blue. There are enough surprises in life, in a school year. The start of the school year is not one of them. The a/c should have been ready.

We still have a week or so before 100+ teenagers join us. All of these fans are not going to do the trick. Our windows do not open. Here’s hoping.

Purpose and Audience

I appreciate those of you have taken the time to read and those who have taken the time to read and comment. You have helped me (re)think and sharpen ideas and given me much for further consideration. I was asked at one point what my goals were. For me, that goes to purpose.

First, I suppose, is a sense of entitlement. 25 years, well over 10,000, has, I think, given me the credibility to say some things about teaching and education. And I want to say them in a way that promotes conversation. I envision having sidebars from former students and colleagues, other professionals – especially those who disagree with me or remember things differently.

I want to tell my story. There are so many stories out there about what teachers are like, what teaching is like. I am not at all claiming that mine is representative in any way; it’s just mine. In fact, given my wide range of experience (never the plan), I think it’s pretty unique. I’ve also been asked how and why I’ve stayed in teaching for so long. So maybe that’s the story. I think maybe it’s the gaps I want to fill or at least address between what I see presented to the public and what happens down on the ground level.

I’ve also been asked how and why I’ve stayed in teaching for so long. So maybe that’s the story. I think maybe it’s the gaps I want to fill or at least address between what I see presented to the public and what happens down on the ground level.

I’d also like to think I could have an impact. I hope my readers are new teachers or teacher-leaders or people just starting schools and that my experience gives them some things to consider and maybe even inspires each reader a bit. I hope the book is one that is useful. I expect it to be annotated, passed around.

If you go to the Education section of a library or bookstore (often located near the Parenting section – an interesting choice), you will see, I imagine three kinds of education books. There are the practical, instructional ones – the mammoth study guides for various tests, for example. And vocabulary workbooks. And for teachers, there are books on how to teach writing. Or with poverty in mind. There are those who want to present their big ideas or comment on the big ideas of others. But how many do you find that are written by teachers who are still teaching (somewhere in the PK-12 range)? Of course, time is an issue. Some weeks it can be hard to write an email, let alone a chapter, for example. The only one I can think of right now is This Is Not a Test, which is, by the way, quite good. Feel free to mention more when you comment. I’m sure I am not thinking of some good ones. So I think that’s another gap I want to fill. Or at least try to fill.

Never the Plan – that could make for an interesting title. . .

Private Schools IV – Starting out

My first teaching experience was at a small private school on the South Side of Chicago. We’ll call it The Hitchcock School because of a historical connection it had (it is closed now, I’m almost certain) to an event that became an inspiration for a Hitchcock film. I heard of the opening because a former teacher there worked with my wife. I do not remember much about the interview, but I do remember signing the contract and the principal telling me that the salary was not enough for starting a family. I’ve never been shy about discussing salaries. I think the taboo against it is sometimes a tool used to intimidate people from discovering whether they’re being paid in an equitable manner. My salary for that first year was $15,500. This was 1992. In any event, all I remember about my first day is the last period. A student, a senior, had his hand up for much of the period, but I was having none of it. I kept talking and talking and talking. Finally, with maybe 5-10 minutes left, I called on him. His question: “Can you tell us your name?”

It was a good place for me to start, I think. My Principal, after I’d had a particularly rough day, told me that what he liked about teaching is that you got to come back the next day and that, more often than not, the students had forgotten about whatever had made the day before feel so lousy for you. It’s advice I’ve kept close at hand since then and have passed on to many others.

It’s a tough school to describe. We had a somewhat transient student population. We tended to get students who were getting lost in public schools and needed a kind of tune-up before they could return. But we had some permanent students, including the senior I mentioned above. Class sizes were small. In general, though, I really didn’t know what I was doing, especially with those students who had special needs.

I remember my bubble of naivete bursting when I learned that two of our female students had children by the same father, so they’d been placed in separate grades to try to prevent conflict. There was my first experience with a student who was being abused at home.

What I lacked in terms of training and strategies, I tried to make up for with energy. We read books. One student reported being assigned similar titles in college and being grateful to me for her preparation. Others struggled. I was at a loss when it came to managing a grade book and was grateful that our motorcycle riding math teacher was willing to guide me. I had almost no ideas about dealing with classroom behavior. Or working with colleagues (much less getting along with some of them). Some of our students were involved with gangs. Drugs. A student I had in 8th grade showed up driving a fancy car, maybe a Trans-Am or something, the next year. One senior plagiarized Camille Paglia for his final project. He’d also set another student’s hair on fire, though I think that was my second year. I volunteered to coach basketball. I think I got on decently with some of the parents.

After that first year, we got a new Principal. And we had budget problems, so the staffing situation changed quickly, and I ended up with a British Literature course I hadn’t anticipated. We had a science teacher no one could figure out, and he ended up being asked to leave after the first quarter, I think. Discipline issues persisted. Students came and went and sometimes came again.

I organized some field trips, mostly to see plays. One time we went to an art exhibit. Another time, a dance performance. I tried to help students get into college. I made a student turn his hat around when he was confronted by someone as we walked to see a play at a local theatre. I took some students to hear Malcolm X’s widow speak and mistakenly allowed some students to return in a private car. My exasperated Principal explained the risks involved. We went to see a morning matinee of Of Mice and Men and required the students to buy their lunch at a restaurant opened by the father of one of their classmates. I’d never had jerk chicken before. (It was good. I should check to see if his place is still open.)

I was on the Development Committee and helped organize our annual fundraiser. The only reason it was successful the first year is that someone I invited was, in fact, running a pyramid scheme so he had a lot of cash to spend. When I asked the Chairman of the Board what the money would be used for, he said, “You know those checks you all got today? They won’t bounce.”

Yeah, that was a problem. Luckily, I banked nearby so I was generally one of the first to get my check deposited. Others were not so fortunate.

It was a good place for me to start. I learned that I loved teaching. I also learned that I didn’t know enough to do it well. It was time, then, to go back to school.

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