Friday, November 30, 2012

The Ties that Bind

I adore my job, but despite my best intentions, transcendent moments do not happen every day. Mostly, my job is grading, chasing students for their late assignments, teaching students how to stand on their own two feet so I don't have to chase them for late assignments, and untangling the sticky web of social drama that my middle school students weave between classes. I teach stuff, and sometimes it's heard, sometimes it's not.

But was special. Today I bore witness to a moment of high drama, fireworks, celebration, and yes, transcendence. I don't know that anyone else noticed, but for one seventh grader and this teacher, today was the stuff of miracles.

In order to understand what happened, I have to go into a bit of developmental neurology, psychology, and educational mumbo-jumbo.

Middle school students are in the middle. Literally, they are between elementary school and high school, but figuratively, they are no longer children, not yet adults. Middle school students occupy that place of limbo between innocence and experience, and that's a difficult place to live.

Wait, let me back up.

Children are literal beings. They think in black and white, and when I explain to them that literature can have meaning underneath the surface of the words, some of them look at me as if I've said their books come to life at night and hold square dances. Allusion, metaphor, symbolism - some make this leap from literal to figurative thought at 11, some at 12, others don't hit that transition until high school. And that's okay. This leap is not about smarts, it's about neurological connections that take place in the brain. I can't make them see allusion or metaphor or symbolism, I can only present it to them time and time again, and hope that there will be one day, one moment, when my discussion of the extended metaphor Dickens creates between Wemmick and his wards in the jail (Wemmick is the gardener, they are his lovingly tended plants in the greenhouse of the prison) coincides with the precise moment two neurons intersect in a given student's brain, and those neurons create the pathway that will allow that student to know.

In other words, my students are pupa-people, ready to burst forth from their weird little pimply and gangly chrysalis (from Latin, chrysallis, "golden colored pupa of the butterfly" from the Greek khrysos, "gold"), and this bursting forth can happen at anytime.

And that bursting happened today, right there in my wee little classroom.

The seventh grader in question used to explain literature much as she'd explain the guts of a Kenmore washing machine. She would describe the parts, maybe make a connection to the whole, but her reasoning was all technical specs and maintenance schedules.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, she saw. She understood that Estella is a candle that attracts moths and Drummle is a spider who scurries and burrows. She will be one of the first to see the link to Frankenstein that I have already set up in their minds.

Today, I wrote a quiz that asked more of them than mere regurgitation of facts, but expected interpretation in its place. I had warned them that this quiz was coming, and most of them rose to the challenge. This student, though, she knocked the quiz out of the ballpark.

She understood the subtext, the meaning in between the black ink and white page. Like Dorothy, she saw technicolor where black and white dominated her field of vision.

And I'm in trouble, because after today, she will be able to read this post and find the overabundance of forced and mixed metaphors. The washing machines, the Wizard of Oz, webs, the gardeners and candles; they are hers to find.

Year after year, I find myself in this place of privilege. I could not be more grateful, and yet I don't think she will remember what took place today. There will be no birthdays, no anniversaries, of the day she made her leap into the figurative world, but I will know, and mark it. November 30, 2012, Room A, right there, in chapter 38 of Great Expectations.

NB: I wrote about a similar moment over at the Core Knowledge blog, so if this piqued your interest, you can head over there for more.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Beauty of the Youngest

I am reposting this piece in order to honor and mark Kira DelMar's first week teaching a class of her very own. Congratulations, Kira!

What could warm the cockles of a teacher's heart more than the news that a former student has become a teacher herself? I can't think of anything more wonderful, and I am about to bust a gut with pride. Three of my former students have become teachers. One in Japan, one in Switzerland, and one - the subject of this post - in California. 

To celebrate, today's missive comes to you from Kira DelMar, teacher (!), artist, and all-around talented young woman. I hope she does not mind that I lifted my favorite of her paintings (above, "Psyche") from her beautiful website

Some thoughts:

I think the thing that I valued most about you as a teacher was exactly what you said in your response to the 'blah blah blah lifelong learners' article; the moments when you would reveal that you weren't in fact omnipotent, and that you, too, were still learning. It blew my mind the first time you answered a question with 'I don't know' - I'm not sure I'd ever heard those words from a teacher before. And then when you came back the next day and told us the answer, and beyond that, told us how you had found out the answer, I think that might have been the moment when I figured out I wanted to be a teacher. (That might also just be a narrative that I'm imposing on my memories in retrospect, but I know that it was a moment that stuck with me, at the least.) 

Being a teacher had always seemed boring before - what's the point of already knowing everything? But if you could be a teacher and still get to learn new things, and figure stuff out, and respond to questions with more questions instead of just pulling the answers right out of your filled-to-the-top brain, well...that job might not be so bad after all.

I do agree with the author of the original article that the main thing getting in the way of all teachers being this way is ego; the need to appear to have mastery of a subject before teaching it. I recently had a great discussion with our science specialist, Cris, about how she teaches computer programming to her middle school tech students. She basically assigns them each to a computer, provides them with an option of a basic curriculum, as well as websites with tutorials about programming in different language. The kids have time to explore and build whatever kind of project they are interested in, and when they say, "I don't know how to..." she replies, "I don't know either, but let's find out." She had never done computer programming herself before teaching the class, and every semester the kids discover new languages that she's not yet imagined. Cris told one of our lead teachers this, and the teacher asked "Aren't you scared that the kids will figure out you don't know what you're doing?" to which Cris responded, "No, because I tell them right up front that I don't know what I'm doing." And every semester, her kids create amazing projects that show their own interests and strengths and mastery of a subject that both surpasses and extends their teacher's knowledge. 

I'm not sure whether I'm effectively modeling this in my own teaching yet, but again, I'm still learning, and luckily, I had excellent examples to learn from. 


I don't know about you, but I'd let Kira teach my children, any day of the week. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

All In

A lot has been made this year of the value of marshmallow tests, grit, and character in building a quality education. Every time I open my laptop, someone has forwarded an article or tagged me in a post about about the value of character in schools. When I closed the lid on my laptop this weekend, and finally got around to catching up on my NPR podcast listening, there it was again. Paul Tough, talking about his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character with Ira Glass on This American Life." Tom Ashbrook, talking about the fact that schools are adding workouts, not for fitness, but for "Attention, Grit, and Emotional Control." I had to retreat to a Freakonomics podcast about how to maximize my kids' (read: my) Halloween candy haul (research for next year). 

Don't misunderstand - I'm not tired of the discussion; I think this focus on character in education is a fantastic turn of events. I'm thrilled. As more and more people come around to the value of character education, I sound less and less like the preachy schoolmarm on a weekend pass from the Big Woods. 

For the past five years, I have been teaching at Crossroads Academy, a school that combines the Core Knowledge curriculum with a core virtues curriculum. I have to admit, I was not totally sure what I'd gotten myself into when I signed the contract for my first year. I figured I'd smile and nod, support the character education teachers in their efforts, and reap the benefits of teaching kids who attend a weekly character education class. It's not as if this is my first brush with Aristotle's Golden Mean, on the contrary - I'm one of the A-man's biggest fans - and I can hold my own in a conversation about prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. 

But about six months into that first year, I noticed all that "character stuff" was leaking out of character education class and saturating every other subject. It was my students' fault; they opened the floodgates. They talked about Atticus' sense of justice in English class, Achilles' lack of temperance in Latin class, Ghandi's incredible fortitude in history class. This weekend, I was helping my third grade son study for his history test, and he told me that "the conspirators killed Caesar because he was not a good steward of Rome." 

Today, Core Knowledge drives my content, but character education and the core virtues drive my teaching, and my relationships with my students.

Well, most of the time. Like anyone who has been teaching the same classes for a while, I am apt to get lulled into a routine, particularly in November. The clocks have just changed, that certain slant of light has descended on New Hampshire, and it's tempting to coast while I put my energy into writing report cards and recovering from the middle-school super-virus my students gave me last week. After all, it would be easy; my class materials have all those helpful notes and Post-Its in the margins, accumulated over years of discussion, the teacher's manual of my Latin textbook sings its siren call...but drat. Just when I have checked out until after the holidays, my students foil my plans. 

This week, I was hacking away at the huge pile of grading I have to get through before I can actually begin to write grade reports, and I was getting sleepy. In my defense, Latin translations are a huge time suck because my students like to take full and creative advantage of Latin's  relatively flexible word order. Nouns and verbs are never where I expect them to be, and the grading is slow going. Halfway through what felt like the bajillionth Latin test, I came across an incorrect answer, with an arrow pointing to a note in the margin:

"Dear Mrs. Lahey. I know the answer to #4 is incorrect, but I accidentally saw the answer on your answer key, and I did not want to cheat. But I know the answer is "vobis" because "you" is plural, not singular."

Needless to say, I gave her the two points, and promptly checked back in.

I am not naive enough to believe that character education alone can save America's educational crisis, but I do know that this week's headlines are full of bright, well-educated people who have sold virtue to purchase wealth. If character education manages to score some column inches on the front page between Jill Kelley and Lance Armstrong, and authors such as PaulTough and Diane Ravitch are brave enough to champion the cause of character in education, I'm all in. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Enthusiasm Begets Enthusiasm

I taught King Lear for the first time a looooong time ago, at Rowland-Hall/St. Mark's School, and then I had to abandon my favorite play for twelve years. I moved from high school to middle school, and friends told me I could not teach King Lear in middle school, that they would not understand it, that it's a play for adults, not children.

Fine. I'm open to compromise and the input of my peers, so I taught the proper middle school plays. I taught The Tempest and Twelfth Night and I Henry IV, and Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet. I played by the rules. I believed the hype. I did my best to love those plays as I love Lear.

But my love was misplaced, and then...last year. Last year, I was in the middle of a short story unit with my 8th grade, and they were bored. I was bored. We were all bored, and I got desperate. I needed a secret weapon, a work of literature that I loved with all of my heart, something I could get excited about.

And there it was, on King Lear, Oxford Series, for $9.95 a copy with free shipping. And oh, have I mentioned how I love King Lear? So I asked them, "Would you rather continue with this short story unit or spend the rest of the academic year reading King Lear?" It was Lear by a landslide.

Teachers can present works they are dispassionate about all they want - I have had to do it - but my students can tell, and they end up caring less. If there's something a teacher loves, and is enthusiastic to share with her students? Fuggedaboutit. Teach that. Teach that every time.

Teacher enthusiasm begets student enthusiasm. Today, I collected King Lear reading journals and the students presented their creative projects. I first assigned this creative projects in 1999, and I have loved every presentation since then. Last year's decision to teach King Lear is described here, but this year's assignment is below, for your viewing pleasure. The assignment is to represent the storm on the heath - both the external and interior - in some sort of visual presentation to the class. Last year's offerings are here, and here are a few of this year's offerings:


Sunday, November 11, 2012


Okay. Someone mocked my legal education on my Facebook page. Gauntlet acknowledged, and I throw down my own in return.

I see your mocking, Matthew, and raise you this, my one publication at UNC Law. No, I did not make law review, but my one article in our school newspaper raised far more eyebrows than my classmates' analysis of choice of law in the North Carolina Law Review (just kidding, fellow Tarheels, don't sue me, I failed the choice of law question on my Civ Pro exam and clearly have no idea what I am talking about). Plus, I seriously pissed some of my classmates off.

Naive and idealistic? Sure. I was in my 20's. Immature and rough around the edges? Certainly. Do I adore my alma mater? Absolutely, and with all my non-native Tarheel-lovin' heart. However, this piece, hauled into the sunlight out of the dark vault of the past explains why I was not cut out for the practice of law and much better suited for teaching. I knew what I was getting into; I married into a family of lawyers - lovely and honorable people, all of them - and they warned me. But again, I was in my 20's.

Do I stay or do I go, I ask in my essay. Well, as it turns out, I went. A long time ago, in fact. But the owner of the licence plate in question below? She stayed, and I wish her all the best. However, it is worth noting that after her summer internship with a law firm, she has a new license plate. Concidence?

Naive Legal Idealism, Exhibit A: 

From Mere Dictum, 1997
Newspaper of the University of North Carolina School of Law


Before entering law school, I assumed the answer to the following question would be an easy one: Facing an ethical dilemma that involves both legal and human obligations, which code of conduct do you look to first? Do you look to your own source of human ethics or do you pick up a copy of the Rules of Professional Conduct? My assumption has always been that as humans, people must rely first their human code of conduct in order to frame all other considerations. Now, halfway through law school, I am dismayed to find that among my classmates and future colleagues, the answer to this question is not so predictable.

I had heard from attorneys I know that every law student or lawyer will reach a point in their education where they find themselves in what I have come to call a defining Moment. A real capital-M Moment in which you are faced with doubts and questions about your place in a profession that will challenge your sense of self, values and balance. I assumed I had been through my defining Moment in the panicked days after finding the first of my grades on the wailing wall, but no, that was a tiptoe through the tulips of doubt. My Moment came in Professional Responsibility class, in the wake of our very first class discussion.

The ethical dilemma we were faced with in class was interesting and raised some complex issues regarding the duty of an attorney to protect client confidentiality versus the duty of that attorney as a human being to ameliorate significant suffering of others. However, the dilemma itself was not what prompted my Moment, it was the discussion that followed regarding conflicting duties that threw me for a loop. I walked into class ready for the discussion, having mulled over the whole conundrum between class meetings. My view was that a person is a human being first and an attorney somewhere else down the list. Personally, I am a human being first, wife and soon to be mother, and once I become an attorney, it will rank somewhere below these other identities.
Agreement on this point, however, was far from unanimous. One person in class responded to my statement by claiming that once she is an attorney, she will be an attorney first, foremost and above all else. One by one, hands were raised, and every time I thought someone would speak to the importance of something other than the Rules of Professional Conduct, I was disappointed. Suddenly, I was faced with a decision I suppose I would have to face sooner or later: Do I stay or do I go?

That same morning, I had been forced to park next to a car I usually go out of my way to avoid. A student here at UNC Law has a license plate that reads ME+LAW=$. I tend to avoid this car in order to stave off the nausea I see when I realize that out of all the statements this person desires to express to the world, this is his or hers. This statement also serves to broadcast to the public that lawyers out of the pages of John Grisham books and New Yorker comics do really exist - and come from UNC Law.

A pair of maintenance workers was fixing a light in the parking lot near this car. While climbing out of my car and organizing myself for the hike to the law school, I overheard their conversation. They were joking about the sort of lawyer - the sort of person - who would own that car. The passed suggestions back and forth, none of them flattering, a lot of them unsuitable for print. These two men were disgusted by the possibilities this license plate suggested, and when they noticed me getting out of a car with a UNC Law sticker on the rear window, the glare that passed from them to me was palpable. I was humiliated. I wanted to tell them about all the good people at UNC Law, all the moral and ethical people I admire and strive to emulate. I prepared countless replies as I approached the maintenance truck. I smiled as I passed by, and in reply, they repeated their glare.

In the wake of these two experiences, I went home rather deflated and truly uncertain as to whether or not I would return the next week. For the first time, I questioned what I know is my calling simply because I know I do not want to spend the majority of my life in a profession made up of people who care more about the Rules of Professional Conduct than their fellow human beings. I do not want to be around a person whose main statement to the world is that he or she picked the law as a path to financial gain. I certainly do not want to live or work in the same community with lawyers who feel that as one's responsibilities and obligations as a lawyer rise in importance, one's responsibilities and obligations as a human being diminish in inverse proportion. Hence my aforementioned Moment. Do I stay and try to improve what I see to be a deficit in the profession, or do I run screaming in the opposite direction and hope I never have to retain a lawyer such as this? After much thought, I have chosen the former, but I remain wary.

Obviously, there will be times when a decision one may make as a human being may not be the same decision one may make as an attorney in the light of attorney-client relationship. However, the ethical obligations of an attorney must be considered in the context of all these other identities - human, man, woman, mother, father, and so on - because if you do not have your humanity as a touchstone to guide the part of you that is a lawyer, you are destined to become just the sort of attorney the world has come to despise. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Yesterday was a great day. Besides the obvious electoral happiness, I had the opportunity to quote Henry VI on Facebook before I went to bed, and that does not happen very often. I mean, I'm a dork, but I restrain myself for the appearance of normality. 

"Why ring not out the bells aloud throughout the town? Dauphin, command the citizens make bonfires And feast and banquet in the open streets To celebrate the joy that God hath given us."

I'm not a church-going sort of gal, but the sentiment felt right.

This morning, I woke up in a particularly exuberant mood and quoted John Adams on Facebook (shut up, that's what exuberant dorky people do on the morning after a great event), hoping someone would understand my happiness and relief.

"Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people, arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion."

This quote is from Adams' essays protesting the Stamp Act, and, yes, I am happy to report that two people recognized it.

Let me back up. While the general election was going on, a bunch of civic-minded 8th grade students took ownership of the electoral process, and spent hours to build a very elaborate polling booth with curtain, lockbox, and Latin phrases (e pluribus unum) painted on the outside. They convinced the every student of average courage to vote. They even dragged the lower school in when they had the opportunity, and I heard from my son Finnegan (9) that (and I quote), I GOT TO VOTE!!! He was rather twitterpated about the gravity of the event and delighted that he'd been asked for his opinion on electoral matters. See above picture for an approximation of his happiness. That's how I felt when I rushed out between classes yesterday to vote at Lyme Elementary School. Twitterpated and delighted to have been asked. 

On top of all that good stuff, I got to spent last evening tweeting the election for Edutopia and the New YorkTimes' Learning Network at #EduElection. I am fortunate enough to write for The New York Times' Learning Network so I had an entree into the occasion, but I greatly admire the two writers from Edutopia who had the wherewithall to organize the Twitter hashtag for students on election night. Sarah Mulhern Gross and JonathanOlsen deserve some serious kudos. 

I was all about #EduElection last night for almost five hours...except the moments when I got confused and tweeted to the nonexistent hashtag #EduEducation. I actually got to tweet some [insanely ineloquent and inane] answers to wonderful student questions like this:

(brace yourself, I warned you, I use the word poll three times in 140 characters)

And, I'm not proud to say, this:

But finally, when the news came in that the election was being called for Obama, I called it a night on Twitter, peeled my flattened and sore butt off of our kitchen couch, and went to check on my boys. 

No, I did not resist the urge to wake and inform them of the election results despite the [very] late hour. Benjamin (14) remembers my intrusion around 11:30. He says, "I remember because I was upset that you woke me up" but Finnegan does not. He was snuggling with Rotta the Huttlet (Jabba's son; long story, he looks a like a booger in the guise of a plush toy) and rolled over when I whispered the election results in his ear. 

I don't care so much if he remembers the precise moment of Obama's victory; just that he understands the historial significance of my nocturnal annoyance. I gently whispered in his ear that Obama had won a second term, and, of equal importance, in his home state of New Hampshire, women won all. He rolled over and went back to sleep, but I know he understood. His waking hours are full of strong women who will never forget to remind him to celebrate the joy that God hath given us. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day!

Tonight, my time will be dedicated to the Twitter hashtag #EduElection, a joint New York Times Learning Network and Edutopia education-o-rama. Teachers tweeting about the election. How fun is that??

Join us!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

It's Show Time

It’s show time, and there’s something for everyone – laughter, tears, and moments of quiet revelation. Prime seating goes fast, so book your seats now for Parent-Teacher Conferences, Fall 2012.

I don’t know about other teachers, but I begin to shake with anxiety somewhere around midterms in anticipation of opening night. Don’t misunderstand; most of the time, I adore parent-teacher conferences. They can be a wonderful opportunity to check in with my students’ parents, fill them in on what’s been going on in school, build alliances, and connect over their children’s successes. Those conferences are a blast. The catch is that every once in a while, the audience can turn hostile, and even the most experienced teachers can lose control of the room. 

But this season, I’m ready, prepared with a new set of rules. I’m heading into this spring’s conferences armed with Tina Fey’s autobiography, Bossypants. In it, she describes improv as a discipline, an art form that requires participants roll with the punches and keep the dialogue going no matter what. This year, Tina Fey’s rules of improvisational theater will serve as my practical and useful guide to to successful parent-teacher conferences.

1. Start with “yes.” When you say “no,” the interaction comes to a screeching halt. Start with “yes,” and see where it takes you.

Parents want to feel heard. In the end, that’s what conferences are for. If Mom is upset with Jane’s low grade in English, and truly believes that her daughter is simply incapable of learning the  nitpicky rules of comma usage, (adding “…who really studies grammar anymore?”) it is vital that I reply, “Yes, I have noticed Jane has difficulty with certain aspects of grammar.” “Yes” means Mom has been heard. “Yes” allows Mom to feel supported. The word “yes” soothes, promotes further conversation, and validates parental concerns. Conversely, “no” shuts down the action in a hurry. “No” implies that I don’t care, I don’t intend to hear Jane’s mother’s concerns. “No” will end the scene, and I will have lost my audience before the show has a chance to get started.

2. Say yes, and…

I must say “yes,” and then add something to the conversation. “Yes” is the opener, and once the dialogue has started, I can take advantage of the good feelings it engenders and move towards some mutually beneficial solution. “Yes, I see why you would be angry with Dick’s failing grade on this exam. Let me explain what I believe went wrong.”  Or “yes, it must be upsetting for Tom that I require him to participate in class discussion. Let me explain why I believe class participation is important.” If I hear parents, they might – just might – hear me in return.

3. Make statements, don’t respond with questions.

Parents want to feel as if teachers can offer solutions to the problems their children encounter at school, and if all we have to offer is more questions, they may assume no one has any answers. Conferences can go down the creek without a paddle very quickly when faced with too much uncertainty. While it is absolutely appropriate to ask parents for helpful suggestions and guidance regarding their children, statements of fact soothe the savage parent.

4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities.

Students may stumble, fail to live up to expectations, undermine even their own best efforts, but the wonderful part about the end of one semester is that it is always the beginning of another. Parents don’t always believe me, but even the most catastrophic disasters can lead to epiphany. A bad grade or disciplinary action is sometimes the impetus for change, and teachers can help everyone see the opportunities that lie just beyond the shadow cast by that big, fat, F. Some of my most well-worn success stories involve students who fell down and learned how to pick themselves back up as a result. Mistakes are great. Mistakes are gifts. Mistakes are where learning happens.

Almost anything can happen before the curtain closes on parent-teacher conference week. No matter how successful the show’s run, no matter how great the reviews, conferences are exhausting for everyone involved. This season, however, I am ready. I will remember to say yes. I will offer parents my most supportive statements and solutions. And, in the end, I will find a way to ensure my students don’t miss any opportunities.