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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R.S.V.Puh-leaze (with no apologies for the profanity)

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
                                                 —Frederick Douglass
on being invited to the groundbreaking at my former school
So you want me to show up at 2:30
to watch you be photographed digging
up some dirt? I say you’re late and
you’re not gonna get a pass be-
cause we already dug up some dirt,
the kind you bury kids in, the kind
of kids who are the same color as
that dirt, dirt poor, who say things like,
“I didn’t come to school yesterday be-
cause my mother didn’t wash my clothes.”
Where were you then, you suit-wearin’,
smile-barin’, not caring photo op fucks?
What’s the matter? No votes in the dead?
Yeah, you heard what I said, Data Head.
All your comments are ripped from the script
“Mental health,” ‘Counselors,” “Tragedy” you say
But they’re happy like that hole used to be
You’re not there the next day
And I am.
And there’s lead in the water like
there was lead in that body and I’m
the one who bought all the books
on my shelf.
So you better shovel your shit somewhere else.
And, by the way, your test scores won’t bring
back their health.
You cheap whores who sit so proud and pronounce,
get ready to listen, it’s my turn to announce:
“Glasses for this kid and breakfast for that. Try
teaching Algebra to her, she doesn’t know where or
if she’s sleeping tonight.”
You know, I wanted to dig some dirt once,
grow that kind of food that is endangered here,
as endangered as, as our students, show them
a tomato doesn’t have to be white. You said,
“You must be some kind of joke. I’m here to
offer them ice cream, but diet Coke.”
So you, with your titles, keep building your
buildings, yeah, go on begin them
You’re all more concerned with what’s outside
than what’s really within them
Before you get into that BMW, though,
there’s just one thing I want to know,
“Is the school where your children will go?”
with the sleeping sub in math class:
the fights in the hall
the anger that’s rancid
the parents who won’t take my call
So, no, I won’t be there at 2:30,
no time, see I teach
you can call me to meetings
where you want to preach
you’ll find me with students
26 and 10 books
no one to take pictures
no one to look
that’s okay by me
my feelings ain’t hurt
I’m spending my time
my money
my health
my energy
my heart
my love
my self
keeping kids out of your dirt
Dig it?

Social Media (This is not what you think it is)

I am not here to moan about how social media is destroying our youth or our sense of facts or whatever. It’s out of the box, just like Smart phones. (Is ‘smart’ supposed to be capitalized?) I don’t even know. So the question should be, how do we make use of new technology and social media platforms? Here, Educator Innovator (one of my favorite sites? blogs? What is it?) presents some great examples. The International Baccalaureate Organization has also recognized the need for us to study this new kind of language and communication. I’ve experimented a bit with conversations about the #metoo movement, but I have no idea how to analyze or measure the impact of a social media movement, much less use social media as a teaching tool. I am trying to sketch out plans for investigating the impact of social media on the Arab Spring, but for now I am just, to borrow an image, unpacking as many groceries as I can. I have no idea what I’m going to make. I am on Facebook and am a vague presence on LinkedIn; otherwise, though, nothing. And I guess this counts too. I know I should just experiment with different platforms, but I find myself exhausted by my technology time already. I can’t think of any significant professional development opportunities in this area. A 90-minute session at a conference won’t do. I need an intensive. At least I think I do.

Damned if I. . . “I don’t like this book”

Choosing books is hard. There are so many factors to balance. Some part of me believes, with Neil Postman, that school should act as a thermostat to that which goes on outside. In short, in my case, that means I shouldn’t teach the Bluford Series. On the other hand, I have a lot of (very) reluctant readers, so I need to pick things that engage them. It is rare but wonderful to find things that do the good work of both being challenging and engaging. That’s why books such as The Hate U Give are so important.

And I know that “I don’t like the book” sometimes translates to “I don’t understand the book” or even, “I haven’t read the book.” I try to tell students that I don’t try to choose books that they won’t like. I try to choose individual books as well as a year’s worth that do something, both individually and together, that each book has its purpose and very rarely is that purpose to be popular. I do see what Atwell says about making all reading independent reading and though that won’t work right now for me since I’m in an IB school, I would love to do more with it.

Choosing books is hard. I relish the challenge. Maybe I just feel stuck in Haroun.

End of the year / Beginning of the year

There’s an axiom that says you shouldn’t receive any feedback at the end of the year that surprises you. In my experience, to butcher a line from Hamlet, that’s a custom more honored in the breach than in reality. Not for the first time this summer, I received some (A LOT OF) feedback that surprised me, and now, three weeks in, I can say with some confidence that I’ve done my best to honor it (though have received feedback on only one element of it so far – apparently, I’ve been successful at writing fewer and clearer emails – yeah, me!).

That feedback became goals, and then I started the year with goals of my own. Added together, I have a lot of goals. In general, I think it’s been good for me. It’s caused me to go slower and think more about differentiation in lesson planning, organization (my own and the students’) and, yes, the emails I choose to write. At times, though, I wonder what’s been lost as a consequence. I am certainly spending my energy in different ways. We’ve had fewer discussions. I think I’ve been able to do less to challenge the much sharper students. Overall, I am not having as much fun as I usually do. Has that changed what students are learning? It’s hard to say. Maybe I’ll get used to what’s been good about this, and find the fun again. Right now, it feels like every day, every period, every interaction (with adults and students) is tied to one of my goals. And that makes for long, tough days.

2 weeks. She was a high school graduate for 2 weeks.

Some students are harder to live; that means you must love harder. I cannot claim that I did a great job with this particular young woman. In class, she tended to have a few basic modes: incessant talking, obsessive phone use, volatility, or sleepiness. Sometimes, all 4 would happen in one class period. Once in a while, there would be a burst of writing that would allow me to glimpse possibilities, but I could never get her past that. As I suggested, I did not have a deep personal relationship with her, but I knew enough from others to know she’d lived more life by her teens years than I have in more than three times as many years.

I left the school after her 11th grade year. A few weeks ago, I went to her graduation and was pleasantly surprised to hear her name called. Her smile as she crossed that stage made a lot of the previous struggles melt away.

Then the text message. A few details. The school’s offer of support (impressive because it’s July).

A few more details. She was a high school graduate for about two weeks. And she was killed either on her 18th birthday or the day before it.

So often, we hear about the boys. I will think about her.

I’ll remember.


4 years ago, I was fortunate enough to be part of a team of teachers who began a school. We began with something in the neighborhood of 105 students. Some of the founding staff members made it two years. Some, including me, made it three. Others remain. Graduation was earlier this evening.

There were 44 names in the graduation program. That’s about 42%. And some of the names that were called, including the 45th who was apparently added after the program was printed, I’m not so sure how they got there. There is a fair amount of pressure on administration when it comes to graduation numbers, I was told.

Some of the 60 or so students graduated from other schools. I’m not sure how many because students just seem to get lost. They change schools, districts, even cities. They just fade away. As far as I know, there’s no effort to track them.

And then there are all of the students who passed through our doors once, maybe even twice before. . . what? Where are they? Is anyone trying to find out?

And those graduates. . . what happens now? Does anyone follow them? Does anyone pay attention?

I tried to stay positive throughout the ceremony; I really did. I tried not to think of the names that were not called. I tried not to think of the names that were not called because the students had been killed. I tried not to think about all of our mistakes. I tried not to think about some of the people we put, were forced to put, in front of our students.

There was a distraction. I’m not sure when this happened or when it became okay. Whether it was the people staking out spots in front of the audience in Baltimore or the fog horns in St. Paul or just the constant buzz of noise, of people moving in and out, or what of tonight, but there seems to be very little regard for the ceremony itself. Certainly, the cliches, often spoken by people the students do not know, don’t help. The balloons and flowers are there. The outfits are there. It seems to be an event more designed to be tolerated than anything else.


Theater of the Oppressed

I had an amazing opportunity to study Theatre of the Oppressed with the founder’s son, Julian Boal at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His 3-day session, considered the pre-conference, was as amazing as it was exhausting (physically and emotionally). I have always believed in the power of theatre, but this pre-conference broke down Boal’s method in ways that (I hope) will allow me to access it with students. His approach not only presents possibilities in terms of political issues, but also the kind of social / emotional issues we are all trying to figure out how to teach our students (and ourselves).

The conference itself was positive. I was probably tired from the pre-conference and sleeping in a college dorm. There were a few worthwhile sessions, both because I learned things well enough to decide they were not for me (psychodrama, for example) and because they were incredibly inspiring (newspaper theatre).

I loved the diversity of people at the conference. This helped keep the experience fresh for me. It was helpful to not always be surrounded by English teachers. Still, after repeating my preferred pronouns for the 10th time or so, I began to lose patience with the continual efforts participants made to out-nuance each other. As Boal suggested, sometimes it’s better to just get on your feet and try things.

Theater of the Oppressed

Dear Parent,

Earlier in the year, without ever having met or talked with me, without ever trying to email me, you wrote the Principal complaining, I was told, about something that had happened in class. I got an overview of the email from the Principal, but never saw it for myself. Based on what I learned, I followed up with the student who, shortly thereafter, was satisfied with how I’d addressed the matter.

This past weekend, your child was part of a special opportunity that I’d arranged for her and other students. Unlike the other students, she was recognized for her work and seemed very excited about the honor and opportunity. Yes, you said thank you to me at the event, but why didn’t you write to the Principal then?

See, it’s easy to complain. But why, when the initial issue was resolved, why didn’t the Principal hear from you? Why didn’t I? And why, after I’d gone above and beyond for your daughter, well, why didn’t you write to the Principal then?

Thanks for considering this.


Mr. Ellenbogen


(written, not sent)

Donors Choose

Donors Choose is starting to make me feel a little uneasy. I am not sure what really separates it from electronic begging? There’s also something distasteful about, well, pimping (I can’t think of another word – can you?) out poor kids (of color) in order to get the money for things that other schools and students take for granted, like books (my project), technology, toothbrushes, math manipulatives, etc.? Part of me wants to make this special distinction between essentials like art supplies and ‘extras,’ like the opportunity to go on a trip, but I’m not sure such a distinction is valid.

My mother is a fundraiser, so I can say with some confidence that the U.S. is an extremely philanthropic country. And education is an easy cause to support. Still, should we be normalizing the use of Donors Choose? Can we use the program and lobby for increased funding for our classrooms? Because if legislators see what we are finding our own resources through programs like Donors Choose, will they find the need to address school funding – in a more sustained and, in the case of Ohio, legal way – less urgent?

Teachers with some amount of initiative shouldn’t have to go begging anonymous people and publicity seeking corporations for money for musical instruments or Spanish language books? And maybe we should be better trained on how to seek grants for the likes of educational class trips. Or maybe, just maybe, individual teachers shouldn’t be in the fundraising business at all.

an interview with the founder of Donors Choose

Best and Henig miss the point here. I agree with Henig that we have democratic structures set up to address funding issues – which makes the existence of appointed school boards something of a mystery to me. But I have no (big) problem with teachers who show initiative to “go rogue” and seek funds for special projects. It’s when this becomes the expectation (on both sides) that I get quite concerned. If those responsible for addressing funding issues pass the proverbial buck and say to themselves that Donors Choose will help address inequities that I object. Maybe it comes down to this – teachers should not have to use Donors Choose to get the basics, like library books. School funding in Ohio has been declared unconstitutional 4 times. 4 times and nothing has been done about it. I am absolutely certain that if the funding issues were arranged to the favor of poor students of color (quite often the students who need the additional funding), the white and wealthy constituency would be in an uproar. I already see more than a few indications that the ethically dubious practice of fundraising goes on quite often among this constituency. For now, the response to Donors Choose has been astonishing. What if it doesn’t remain so supportive? What if there’s another crash, like in 2008? Will that mean some schools will go back to being without certain basic supplies?

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