Sunday, February 23, 2014

Teaching Interrupted This Blog...

After six years of teaching, I needed a break.  So I applied to graduate school and am currently studying Human Development and Psychology and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Some of my peers work feverishly away and don't realize that this is a break -- after the past six years, I can tell you it is!

In my efforts to casually procrastinate working on a current paper I came across this blog that I'd abandoned for the past four and a half years... whoops!  I guess teaching got in the way.

I wish that I'd kept track of the stories of my students better, but I do have them stored in my memory.  I think of them often, because their experiences and hopes are also what led me to HGSE this year.  Though I do consider this a temporary break from teaching, I have also learned a great deal that I will bring back with me to the classroom.  I have also gathered research and momentum to share and advocate for practices, policies, and awareness that I believe need to be brought to light about the effects of poverty and maltreatment on children's development.

I hope I will begin to use this space again to share the stories of my students and the research that shows why it is so important that their stories not be ignored.

Monday, November 30, 2009


This year I am at a different school from the school where I taught for the past few years. Some of my students from my first school still enjoy keeping in touch with me, and I am often delighted to receive letters or emails from them. It is exciting to hear how they are doing and how they are growing as individuals.

Lately, though, I have received some troubling and concerning emails from one of my students from last year. He is currently in the 6th grade at my old school and was just moved into an Advanced Work class. When you read his writing, please know that he is an English Language Learner - both of his parents are only fluent in Vietnamese.

A few weeks ago I received this email:

Dear Ms. H,
Can I tell you a story? A mouse goes to school and he gets bullied. HE wants to tell the teacher but he was afraid that he is a snitch and get hurt more. What should he do?

I responded but didn't hear back for awhile, so I wrote to check in. Today I received two emails from him. This was the first:

As the mouse continue on his journey, he finally came up with a plan. What if he avoid the bullies. The next day, he come up with excuses to leave the classroom so he don't encounter any bully. When he did this his grades start to drop. His parents wonder why so they called the teacher. His mom and dad thinks that he is skipping classes and..........

That was where the email ended. Minutes later, he sent this to me:

Dear Ms. H,
I wrote a poem for homework in ELA. Do you think that this is good?

As you can see
I am cheerful and happy
No other feelings inside me
But the truth is
I am alone
Hiding my feelings as the day go by
Living it again and again
No one to share the truth with
I am alone
Even with people by my side
No one to speak to
Not even one that is trustworthy
I am alone
Alone in the dark
Waiting to go to the light
With people who understands
The feeling inside of me
I am alone

My first advice was for him to find a teacher in the school who he feels he trusts and can talk to about what's happening with the bullying interactions. Since I'm not there and don't know who is bothering him and when, I'm not sure how to help. As of now, I don't think that he's spoken to anyone about it.

A week ago I contacted a veteran teacher at the school who is not this child's teacher, but a person who I feel is experienced and sensitive to children's needs. I have just sent him these new emails that I received. However, I'm feeling worried and concerned about this child who was new to my school last year. He arrived bright-eyed and smiling. He was happy and engaged, and so very, very bright. He was thoughtful and aware, and invested in learning and being a positive member of our learning community. Though I saw him struggle at times socially last year, I did not see anything of this magnitude.

I am so worried about his heart and mind. I am worried about him feeling alone in the world. I am worried that there is nothing I can do that will truly help.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

the power of doing what you say you'll do

I have so many stories to write, but I don't always get them down. Then I put off writing because I think of all of the stories I have to catch up on.... today I'm going to forget about that and start where I am.

Matthew has been doing much better in school overall. We met with his grandmother who has since rescinded her custody of him and placed him in the care of an uncle (whom I'm supposed to meet with at their home next week). He's been through changes, but with medicine (yes, sometimes it really helps), and the school being really consistent, he's been doing great.

A few weeks ago, Matthew had a special Jordan magazine out at an inappropriate time. I warned him next time it was out, it would be mine. I reminded him that I love basketball (I play), so I wasn't kidding when I said I'd enjoy taking it home to read.

He took it out again. Then handed it over without any issues when I held out my hand.

Since then, he's been asking about when he could earn it back. Last week I decided that if he had a solid week all of this week and did well on our Friday field trip, he could have it back. It is a commemorative Jordan magazine, after all.

So Matthew had a great week. He kept checking with me - "Yes, Friday. Keep up the good work." So Friday came, and our field trip was canceled due to rain. On Thursday his bus driver had asked me to speak with him about behavior on the bus... so I told him, as soon as the bus driver confirms you did a good job yesterday, that's the official end of our week, and you will get the magazine back.

We walked out to the bus... the bus driver complimented Matthew on his behavior. I complimented Matthew on the entire week - and handed him the magazine. As I finished writing a "Matthew had a fantastic day" note on his daily home report, Matthew flipped through the magazine - filled with photos of Jordan in his prime.

"Here, Ms. H," he said, "you can have it." I looked at him, confused.

"I just wanted to know if you'd really give it back to me," he said. I wasn't sure what to do, but decided I had to accept his gesture. I thanked him.

Friday, September 11, 2009

baby steps...

Today went much better. Actually, to be more specific, it felt much better.

My student who posed the biggest challenge on day one proceeded to test, but I just kept using strategies that I've learned over the past two years to thwart his efforts. I'll call him Matthew from here forward.

For example, I gave the class an extra 15 minute break in the morning (we don't have lunch until 1pm), and Matthew was on a 6-person teeter totter when he decided to start cursing. As I was standing right there, I couldn't ignore it. I gave him an "excuse you..." type of check, but his response was simply to list off every curse he could think of. I asked him to get off of the teeter totter, knowing that this wouldn't work, but not able to just let him play without consequence.

Can't get the kid to do what you want? Call upon the other children to do what you want. I turned to the rest of the group that was either sitting or leaning on the teeter totter. I asked them to stop and go to a different part of the playground. Thankfully, they did. So, there was my buddy, still where he wanted to be - but all alone and without anyone to make his seat teeter. I calmly walked away and gave him time to process what happened.

Before recess was over, I approached Matthew and set a time for us to meet later in the day. I told him that I wanted to work with him to make a plan to help him have the best year possible. I was candid in saying that clearly sometimes he made great choices and other times it was difficult to do so -- but that together we could devise a plan to help us both have the most successful year we could.

That afternoon, I brought Matthew to the Principal's office to pick up his ipod (he'd been trying to listen to it in math class and I'd succeeded in obtaining it by promising it would be returned at the end of the day). Following the "Next time we see this, your Nana will have to pick this up," speech from the principal, I suggested we have our "plan for the year" talk.

We let Matthew know that we were going to meet with him and his Nana next week to make a full plan for this year. Before doing so, we wanted to talk a bit with him about some of his choices, what he likes, what's hard, etc., to help us out. Then, we talked about the importance of doing well in school. Matthew is a very bright child -- so bright, in fact, that he seamlessly tried to fake his birth year to convince us that he's a 12 year-old 5th grader. While Matthew is, in fact a year older than his peers because of repeating a grade, he is not two years older as he claims. I had to call Nana to make sure - that's how convincing he was.

To help Matthew see the importance of education in a way that might mean something to him, we showed him a chart of how education and salary are related. On the first day, in the midst of trash-talking just about everything having to do with school, Matthew had asserted that money was just about the only thing he liked. While this may or may not be true, he was very intrigued by the bar chart illustrating average salaries based on education.

He asked how much the "some high school" adult would make. When he heard, he thought this was a fantastic amount of money. My Principal asked, "What kind of car would you like to drive when you grow up?" When Matthew realized that it would take about 10 years to earn enough money to buy this car, let alone pay for housing and food, he started to look up the chart.

"So if I get a professional degree, do I need to give Ms. H half of it?" He asked. We agreed that no, that wouldn't be necessary. Invitations to his graduations would be plenty sufficient.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

first day at the new school

I've cried twice today.

Once, during school lunch, while one of my students was speaking with the principal. He had been testing me all morning with different behaviors that I'd managed to, for the most part, ignore or deal with quickly. As the class filed to class, I heard him call a younger class "a*****s." That earned a "step to the side, please," from me.

After speaking with him, and several of his old teachers stopping by to check in with him, he went to get his school lunch. At which point the negative language and attitude continued. I made sure he had everything he needed and told him we'd be going upstairs. Not liking this loss of lunch with the rest of the class, he proceeded to start cursing without pause.

I have encountered (and grown to love) many students with emotional and behavior challenges. Each of them, though, has shown me some sign of truly wanting to start off the school year well. They have also shown me that they want to be accepted, they want to do well, even if sometimes this is hard and scary and they act out because of it. Granted it was day 1, but this child showed me no signs of wanting anything positive from me. And therein lies the challenge.

This blog is filled with anecdotes and letters from my past students with whom I have developed great bonds. I have loved my students, and I have been fortunate enough to have my students love me back. I am having a moment where I am feeling afraid... what happens if one (or even more) really don't want to be in my class? Will I still be able to ensure that all students learn what they need to during the year?

Friday, July 3, 2009

call from a known "unkonwn" number

The school year ended in a slow, not-so-lesson-filled wind-down and pack-up. On the final day, one of my students - who had been a challenge for herself, her family, and me, all year - wasn't present. Later that evening, I got a voicemail from her:

Hi Ms. H,
I missed being in school. Call you later, bye.
And you are a special person to me.
You're the only friend I got.

And later she called back and left another message...

Hi Ms. H,
Um, sorry to call you, but please don't tell my mom.
I didn't have a chance to say goodbye Friday. Please send me your address so I can send you a postcard.

Then she started singing:

Trying to say goodbye
Ms. H I'm sorry I caused you all these problems
You feel like a mother to me
I feel like a daughter to you
It feels like I didn't when I was growing up
But Ms. H, I'm sor-rr-rry
I'm going to send you a letter
When you send me your address
Ms. H I love you with all my heart
But I'm gonna pray to God that God lets me stay at your school.
Bye Ms. H Sorry I didn't get to say goodbye.
Don't tell my mom, Ms. H.
That song's for you, just for you.
Love you, Ms. H. Bye.

Monday, June 8, 2009


These past few weeks have been crazy. I have amazing and frustrating stories to tell -- but have been so exhausted that typing them up has seemed like just a bit too much. Today, though, one of my students gave me a letter that I wanted to be sure to keep. Last night I also received a similar note from his step-mother.

Dear Ms. H,

When I saw you at my play it meant so much to me. I felt something really good in my heart. Thank you for always never letting me down when I do something wrong or when you get frustrated at me. You helped me stand straight and tall and never give up. You mean a lot to me Ms. H and that's the truth. And you are just such a fascinating teacher to me. I bet any kid will be so grateful to have a teacher like you.

I feel so blessed to have students and families who will communicate how they feel about the progress we've made over the year because at this time of year it's easy to slip into moments of "what have we accomplished?"

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A student's work

One of my students recently won a 3rd place prize in New Hampshire Public Television's Reading Rainbow story contest.

My student's mother told me that even though the website didn't post this, he dedicated his submission to me, citing that I'd had a difficult year health-wise and had endured some "bad luck." I am touched, and am so impressed by his artistic and story-telling talent, so I want to share his work. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What is a good education?

I've been thinking a lot about this lately -- and the problem is that the answers one generates can become very complex. I am affected by the deficits I see in my school system, and it is easy to get lost in the process of thinking about a wish list for the needs of the students in front of me.

As I discussed what a good education is with a friend last night, he summarized two broad ideas that I found myself ultimately comforted by.

My friend asserted that a good education would/should consist of: 1) the skills needed to function in our society with enough awareness of why/how things work; and, 2) the provision of experiences and ideas that are needed for an individual to get to know oneself and reach self-actualization.

My students will achieve neither of these completely by the end of 5th grade, at the age of 11... but at least I know that we are working on both "skills" and "self" at all times.

Just as my students need repetition and sometimes re-learn skills that they have addressed in previous grades, I, as a teacher, also need to remind myself of bigger picture ideas to help ground my work. Sometimes all it takes is a conversation with a friend who reminds you that pure academic skills are not the only essential piece to a good education. I just needed to be given words to something I've known in my heart all along.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Yesterday, before I found out that my school-issued computer had been stolen, and before one student pushed another by the neck at recess, and before I found out that Liana had asked Victor for money (which he'd given at lunch) to help her parents out... one of my students did just about the cutest thing.

In the library area, I have a large rug where we sit for mini-lessons and read-alouds. There are some benches where students can sit, and on this day, there were too many students trying to sit on the benches.

Nomar is a student I can count on to help me - always pleasant and helpful. At that moment, I needed to just get going with the reading, so I asked Nomar if he would mind not sitting on the bench today.

Nomar smiled, got up, and came over to my reading chair.

"Sure, I'll just sit here then. Is that ok?" He asked, completely genuine and smiling the biggest smile. Weighing a full 46lbs., Nomar sat on the arm of my chair, put his arm around my shoulder as best he could, and leaned his curly head of hair onto my shoulder.

"Can I really stay?" He asked. At that moment, he slipped into the chair a bit. We all laughed.

"Alright, Nomar. You can sit here if you want," I said. I scooted over as best I could, and surprisingly we both fit.

As I read the book to the class, Nomar sat next to me in the little green arm chair. I couldn't help smiling as he leaned against my shoulder -- his curly head of hair resting there until I finished reading.