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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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?

25 Years, 10 Schools, 1 of the best PD experiences ever

I’ve written before about my fellowship at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I was exhausted at the end of the school day today but in keeping with the last three sessions, within minutes of beginning our work, I was completely revived and engaged. Now that it’s over, I find myself wanting to try to figure out what made it so great.

  1. It was sustained. I’ve been to many great days of PD or even great sessions, but to have the opportunity to meet for three days in the summer and then 4 afternoons over the course of the year created a great deal of depth in our work, in our understanding of the museum, and in our ability to work with each other.
  2. Strong facilitation. I never once thought to myself, “I can’t wait until this piece of the agenda is over.” The facilitator was awesome both during the sessions and doing what I’m sure were untold hours of logistics to make sure things ran smoothly. Though I did not respond well initially, I appreciated it when she challenged me on something. She was also consistently accessible for assistance with things outside the realm of the Fellowship.
  3. Time to explore. I already loved the museum. But the opportunity to spend time in galleries I had never explored before as well as parts of the museum I’d never seen – I could have spent days with the Conservator (that was so cool!) – just enlarged the museum for me. Now I love it even more. And I feel comfortable there.
  4. Clear sense of mission. This overlaps with #2. The facilitator always made it clear what she wanted us to gain from the Fellowship and what the museum wanted to gain from us. I understood from the beginning how our work was part of the museum’s work.
  5. I just learned so much. To have the time to hear teachers think through the projects they planned to do or had recently completed gave me so much respect for them and so many ideas of my own. And I learned not only about different kids of art and different teaching strategies, but new ways of thinking about how to use the museum.
  6. Fun. I had a good time. I did yoga today. In the lobby! I’d keep going if I could. I hope maybe they’ll let some of us work with the new cohort next year. I’d definitely meet someone at the museum and help them plan their project. I would have enjoyed doing some reading in between sessions, maybe accompanied by “Here are some suggested things to investigate at the museum if you want to and have the time between our meetings.”

A Whole Lot of Somethin’ Goin’ On

I must admit to being inspired by the teacher movements in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky. . .A Facebook friend is calling it #educationspring. Maybe that’s optimistic. But something’s happening.

After the sound and fury of all of the marches, I am wondering what will happen next with guns, particularly, but not only as things relate to school shootings. Are your students still active? Interested?

We had an anonymous Instagram account set up and its author slammed 2 dozen or so of our students. It’s being investigated. One colleague said, “It’s high school. It’s just Bullying 2.0.” That concerned me. Even if it is going to happen, that doesn’t mean we stop fighting against it. Between social media and the speed at which things move these days, the consequences can be quite severe.

I finally lost it in my efforts to renew my teaching license. I’m not great with paperwork and bureaucracy, but I have no idea why it needs to be this hard. Of course, I’ve still got to do a lot of scanning and pay some money before I can close the door for another 5 years, but that all seems manageable.

I took the students to see Macbeth. They liked it more than they expected I think. One young man who had announced his intention to sleep was pretty fascinated by the trap doors. Others were confused by the concept of intermission.

Testing approaches. Students asked whether we’re going to do some prep. I tried to explain, without being too biased about it. But I will probably find a way to do some, if only to give them another look at the kinds of questions they’ll face.

Here’s hoping our hiring efforts go well. Apparently, we have some good candidates, but the whole process seems so entangled by requirements, that I can only call myself cautiously optimistic.

There doesn’t seem to be any cure for the Wintertime Blues either

I’ve always found January – March to be the most difficult time of the school year. It could have something to do with the fact that I’ve generally lived and taught in cold weather places, and the darkness and the grey can get to me. And this year, there was the special euphoria of starting a new school, though that makes me wonder why starting January in a new building did not revive those good feelings.

The end of the year comes with the “What did I do this year?” kind of feeling when it seems like your students have learned nothing. And there’s also the frenzy to finish what you had planned for the year before the frenzy of standardized tests and band concerts.

I’m not sure why the Wintertime Blues feel especially intense this year. My morale is not great, and I have to push myself to keep my energy going. Maybe the honeymoon has worn off a bit, especially with the adults. Maybe we’re trying to do too much too soon. Maybe I’m just getting old. Who knows? It’s not a good feeling.

I think today was the day that my white savior complex finally died

I have greatly admired and respected two of the three principals I’ve worked for in the last four years. Both of them got me thinking about the stoplight metaphor, often because grades or test scores or something like that would be presented using those colors as codes. The symbolism is likely obvious. The green kids are going to be fine. The red kids are not. Our work, they both argue, is in the yellow. Though I’ve tried to follow their lead and adopt this philosophy, it has never sat quite right with me. I don’t know why, but for some reason today I had a kind of epiphany. I wanted to do my work in the red because the power of my skills, my character, my motivational talks, my whiteness would mean that I could lift them out of the red, have them leap over the yellow and land triumphantly in the green. I think what I realized today is that I can’t do it. I don’t think – though I worry about this too – that this means I’ve given up on them. It just means (I hope) that I’ve finally learned to recognize my limits, the limits of my training, the limits of myself, the limits of my whiteness.

There are those trained to work with students who read on the 1st and 2nd grade level and are in 9th grade. I am just not one of them. I will try what I know, and I am always willing to learn and try more, but given limited time and energy, I think I finally understood what these two principals have been trying to tell me. Our work is in the yellow. I can do that and challenge the green students at the same time. And I can work with a student in red who demonstrates any kind of spark of a work ethic or interest. I’m bringing in two books for red students tomorrow in the hopes that something, finally, might prompt them to read. And I will push them to write and think and create. And I will call it modifications or differentiation or whatever the word of the day is. Ultimately, though, my efforts are best spent on those on the border. I should have learned this a while ago. After the first year of teaching in the International Baccalaureate program, I received our scores. My Assistant Principal asked me what I thought of them. (For those who don’t know, the scores range from o-7; 4 is considered passing. That’s enough to know for this story to make sense.) I said, “I’m not surprised by the students who got a 6 or 7. It’s the students who got 4s that surprised me.” Her response? “That’s teaching.”

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