Team Patty Murray (also, Team Anyone-Else-Who-Is-Fighting-DeVos)

In an attempt to thoroughly depress myself, I’ve been watching the confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos. Her advocacy of charter schools and vouchers terrifies me because privatizing schools is pretty much the worst idea in the world. At one point I paused the hearing to call Patty Murray’s office to beg her to keep up the tough questions and do everything within her power to ensure that DeVos doesn’t get confirmed. However, my ability to make a coherent argument on Patty Murray’s voicemail was hindered when I started crying.

So I’m a little biased here, having been a public school teacher for eleven years in three different states. But is it really that radical to suggest students should all receive an equal education?

Because charter schools don’t provide equality. Anymore. Initially, they were supposed to. Charter schools were conceived to be hubs of innovation where students from any zip code could be educated by teachers who were committed to reforming and improving education.

However, the ability to private, monetize, and select students have corrupted this initial vision. Here’s how:

    • Charter schools can often pick and choose their students, while public schools must educate anyone in their service area.
    • Charter school students specifically apply for their desired school. This acts as an initial barrier. Those who are unwilling or unable to apply go to a public school. Families who seek out a specific school tend to have kids who are more likely to succeed in class. If all these kids (and their parents) are no longer invested in public education, the quality of public schools will diminish.
    • Charter schools often get huge contributions from individuals and edtech corporations. While this does often benefit students, it also can lead to a huge conflicts of interest, which in the long run do NOT benefit students.    
    • Despite the fact that charters can often select their own students and get millions of donations of private individuals and corporations, there is no evidence that charter schools categorically educate students better than public schools.
    • While charter schools often call themselves “public,” they have private boards. This had led to several cases of gross mismanagement, fraud, and abuse. (John Oliver highlights some of these instances) In her confirmation hearing Betsy DeVos emphasized that she does NOT believe that all schools should be held to the same accountability measures. In Washington State, this had led to the State Supreme Court deeming charter schools unconstitutional. On a national level, the NAACP has stated its opposition to charter schools.
    • Vouchers and charter schools take money from public schools. When my kick-ass senator Patty Murray asked Betsy DeVos: “Can you commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny to public education,” DeVos talked around the question and didn’t answer. “I take that as not being willing to commit to not cutting money from education,” Murray summarized.  




The privatization of charter schools became glaringly obvious to me last summer when I was working on a story about the role of data in education. I interviewed dozens of people for the story: public school teachers, OSPI officials, university profs, and both charter and private school teachers and administrators. I visited Summit Sierra, a charter school in Seattle for the story. While Summit Sierra seemed like a great school with great teachers (which I mentioned in the article), their message to me was very much controlled.

When I speak with people involved with public schools they give me their unfiltered take on educational subjects and allow me to write my story. This is not the case with charter and private schools. Conversations were carefully controlled by HR personnel and writing decisions were challenged. Charter school officials didn’t like that I mentioned that they got undisclosed sums of money and resources from Facebook, didn’t like that I mentioned that the application process could be a barrier to entry, and went to great pains to provide me with unsubstantiated evidence of scores that indicated student growth. Their attempts to control the story spoke volumes about the role that charter schools play in our society.

Public education is worth fighting for. Always. Let’s do it.

Congress:  1-202-224-3121

Books for Interfaith Day Campers

Things I dislike about Christianity:

  • Cheesy God-Loves-You Books. I’m looking at you, new Bernstein Bear books…especially that scene in “God Loves You” when Papa Bear tries to explain the science behind rainbows and Mama cuts him off to tell the cubs that rainbows are a gift from God. Ugh.


  • The politics of right-wing Christians
  • The continued insistence on evangelism, even though it’s had a hand in nearly all historical evils

Things I like about Christianity (in order of importance):

  • Familiarity with the New Testament makes Christopher Moore’s book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff even more hilarious.
  • The idea that everyone should be nice to one another

Therefore, when my Episcopal-Priest-in-Training Friend mentioned that she was partnering with a Refugee Resettlement Office and offering an Interfaith Day Camp (Theme: The Golden Rule) at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, I was anxious to get on board. The two of us sat down with a bottle of wine one night and planned our week. I put myself in charge of maps, books, and games. My friend did all the actual work (you know, the organizing, purchasing, feeding, creating of legal forms, and anything involving prayer or actual religion). Although my “games” all quickly deteriorated into chaotic sessions of Freeze Tag, map time and reading time was a huge success. Thank goodness there are some awesome authors out there who know how to write a story kids care about. The only time our group of 4-9 year olds all sat quietly was during story time. Here’s what we read:

Sitti’s Secret

Naomi Shihab Nye’s picture book is about an American girl who visits her grandmother in the Middle East. They don’t have a common language, but there methods of communication are filled with gestures, smiles and hugs. At the end of the book Sitti writes a letter to the US president, reminding him to remember her lovely grandmother when making decisions. The book was published in 1997 but has become more and more relevant over the past twenty years.

Good books

Before reading this book, I had kids talk about their “special places” in the world – maybe where they used to live or where their family was originally from. Having been a middle school geography teacher, I was expecting a total lack of map knowledge from these kiddos (you know that statistic about how most American high schoolers can’t find Canada on a map? TOTALLY TRUE), but these campers proved me wrong. The five and six year olds marched right up to the map, and colored in Libya, Somalia, Spokane, and Arizona. The priest at the church colored in South Africa and talked about a road trip he’d taken through the country. There was a small squabble over who got to color in Ethiopia, as several of our charges were from that particular corner of Africa. After coloring in their special places, the kids talked about how hot it was (“because it’s close to that line thing…what’s it called again?”) and all the uncles, aunties, and grandma’s that were still living there. This was a perfect segue to the book, although none of the kids could understand the language barriers, as they all still spoke the language of their grandmas.


Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story

Much like author Reem Faruqi, Lailah feels a bit lonely after immigrating to Georgia. The story is about how Lailah learns to share the joy of Ramadan with her new teacher and classmates. While Lailah in the story was the only Muslim at her school, feeling a bit lonely and out-of-place, the kids I read this book to are lucky to live in Seattle’s International District, where there teachers lead songs about saying hello in twenty different languages and nobody looks out of place in a headscarf. The kids all looked at me like I was crazy when I asked if they were the only ones in their classes who fasted.

I loved this book so much because it made me think about fasting in a joyful way. I’d always felt a bit sorry for Muslim’s during this holy month (especially these years, when Ramadan falls in the long hours of summer), but this book reminded me that Ramadan is a time for celebration.

Naturally, our campers didn’t need this message. They enthusiastically shared what they love most about fasting: extra recess time at school. If that’s not a cause for celebration, I don’t know what is.

Kenya’s Song

Kenyas Song

Although this book has nothing to do with religion, I loved Linda Trice’s book so much I read it to our campers anyways. Kenya’s homework assignment is to find and share her favorite song. After sampling music from all over the Caribbean, she made up her favorite song – the song of her community (“English, French and Spanish too! Music’s how I speak to you!”) Naturally, we all shared our favorite songs afterwards. I made our campers learn my favorite: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of Gambia

Before venturing out for a community clean-up, we read One Plastic Bag, Miranda Paul’s true story about a Gambian woman who forms a business salvaging plastic bags and weaving them into purses. While it wasn’t my favorite picture-book-of-a-true-story-from-Africa (that would be 14 Cows for America), it was a perfect one for talking about how we should not only be nice to each other, but we should also be nice to the environment.

So Interfaith Day Camp was fun. We talked about being nice to each other. The kids played together, ate together, hugged each other, and planned to see each other later at the playground. I learned a little bit more about Islam and Africa.


No cheesy God books were read. No Republican signs were waved. There were no converts to any religion. Success. Now I’m off to go re-read LAMB.

Technology in Education Conference in Copper Mountain, Colorado

I love conferences, workshops, and conventions. I love planning my conference days using the glossy color-coded schedules. I love all the free pens they give away at Expos. I love sitting in conference rooms listening to people who seem to have done way more with their lives than I have. I love how I can have my cell phone out because people just think you are tweeting about the panel discussion. Also, there is usually free food.

But my favorite part of conferences is always the drive home. You can’t help but to leave a conference feeling inspired about all the lesson plans you are going to create (after education conferences), chapters of that YA novel you are going to rewrite (after SCBWI writing conferences), and in my ex-husband’s case, all the Star Wars figures you are going display (after Comic-Con).

A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend TIE, the Technology in Education Conference up in Copper Mountain, Colorado. They must have a lot more money in Denver than in Las Vegas, because my school paid for my conference fee AND housing. In Las Vegas I had to beg my principal to send me to the National Social Studies Conference with the understanding that I would pay for my own hotel and airfare.

Anyways, I discovered a lot of great resources at TIE. Whether you are a teacher, writer, or someone that needs to make a spiffy presentation, check out these resources:

Prezi: PowerPoint is on the way out. It’s all about Prezi nowadays. Prezis are not part of an “office” package that you’d buy, but a free tool online. You can pay for advanced features, but so far I’m happy with the free version. With PowerPoint, you put all of your text/links/pictures/video clips on slides and then present your information by clicking through said slides. With Prezi, you put all of your information onto one big blank slate. You give each chunk of information a number and then trace the “path” you’d like your presentation to take. When it’s time to present, Prezi zooms in on the first section of information (like the first slide on a PowerPoint), and continues to zoom through the entire presentation. Zooming is oh-so-cooler than clicking through PowerPoint slides. As a teacher, I’m all about cheap, attention-getting gimmicks and this is a good one.

Making a Prezi is easy and fairly intuitive. There are a couple of cute tutorials on their website you can watch before creating your own. A couple of nice features include the ability to quickly import your PowerPoint right into your Prezi, so you don’t need to re-type any information if you are updating your presentation. It’s also really easy to find picture and videos to embed. You know how with PowerPoint you had to go online, find an image, save it, and then import it? With Prezi you can search online and import images without even leaving your Prezi. Same with videos. Just click on the YouTube icon, search for you topic, and embed. Easy, easy, easy. I also like that all your Prezis are stored online. No need to carry flash drives between home and work. And if (when) your computer crashes, know your Prezis are safe and sound online.

Check out this “Ted Talk.”  Ken Robinson’s Prezi (which is a high quality that I am nowhere near mastering) in an interesting and humorous look at changing education paradigms. (Really, I swear it’s interesting, despite the word “paradigms”). For a less high tech and entertaining Prezi, click here for my first one, on the oh-so-exciting topic of the rules and procedures in my classroom.

Edmodo: This is like Facebook for school. Many teachers have been itching to use Facebook as a way to communicate with students, (if all our students are engaged and in one place online, lets capitalize on that and remind them they have homework due!) but haven’t due to all the personal complications that this can cause. Even teachers with special “classroom only” Facebook pages do so cautiously, hoping that something will not go awry, landing them on the evening news about social media misuse in the classroom.

Edmodo is safe. There is no way for students to communicate directly with each other, because all Edmodo comments are out there for everyone to see. So if Jose and Demarius want to discuss how one of them should dump with Courtnee because she refuses to “give it up,” they will have to take that conversation to a non-school sanctioned forum. Which I’m sure they’ll do. But at least it won’t be linked back to your classroom.

Besides lack-of-student privacy, Edmodo has several other great classroom features. Because the site is set up similar to Facebook, it is familiar and easy for the students to use. The teacher can post polls, surveys, or questions (requiring a response for a grade, if desired) on the main news feed for students to answer. I already have my first few homework assignments for September loaded onto my classroom pages and students will have the option to turn those papers in online or in person. There are calendars and reminders to help keep you and your students organized, and special features for parents so they can stay in the loop.

But there is some fun stuff too. Like Facebook, Edmodo encourages people to communicate with each other. I see Edmodo as a good tool for me to make sure I give every student some personal attention. Between classroom management issues and giving personal attention to the kids that need it the most, some kids (especially quiet, “middle of the road” kids) can get lost in the classroom. Hopefully Edmodo will be a way for me to give some of those students more of my attention. One teachers at the TIE conference made up hundreds of “badges” that’d she would award to students on Edmodo, many of them funny (the Brittney Spears “oops, I did it again” badge for students who correct teacher mistakes) and indicative of inside jokes and classroom culture (the “you like chicken” badge for the kid who talks about KFC everyday). I also hope Edmodo will be a good way for me to stay connected with my high schoolers during my (way to short) maternity leave this winter.

Storybird: This is a great website for elementary and middle school language arts teachers. On Storybird, students choose a set of pictures and create a story based on them. This may seem pretty simple, and it is, but I’m mentioning it here because the pictures are GORGEOUS – real picture book quality (we are sooo not talking about clip art here!). Pictures are searchable based on theme. Each artist has several different pictures on a common theme, allowing students to select a “set” or pictures to use in their book. This website is ridiculously easy to use, so kids are focusing on choosing art and making stories instead of the technical aspects of writing online. Books can also be emailed to parents, which is very cool. If you are an artist, check out this site to build your brand and make some money.

A few more websites to check out:

The Ever Elusive YA Geography-Based Book

As a middle and now high school geography teacher who loves reading to her kids, I’m always on the lookout for really, really good YA (Young Adult) books that are hilarious, moving, interesting to teenagers, and somehow linked to geography so I can read them aloud in my classroom.

It’s been a tough search. There are tons of picture books relevant to my subject and curriculum, but YA book are harder to track down. It’s pretty much hit or miss, because I haven’t found a really database of YA books on travel and/or geography. Luckily I love reading books meant for audiences ten (okay…fifteen) years younger than me and eventually I know I’ll run in to something perfect.

I’ve recently hit jackpot. Not one, but TWO novels about travel. One has a main character obsessed with maps, one has a map on the cover, and they both feature road trips. Perfect.

Jennifer E Smith’s “You Are Here” is the one with Peter Finnegan, the main character obsessed with maps and travel plans:

Instead Peter planned to go to Australia and Africa and Alaska and Antarctica, and that was just the A’s. The list grew from there, ballooning to include Bali and Bangladesh, China and California and Chicago. He had marked carefully on the map the place where you might catch a ferry from Ireland to Scotland, had research mountain climbing in Switzerland and cage diving with sharks off the coast of South Africa.

When Peter’s next door neighbor steals her brother’s car to drive from New York to North Carolina in order to find herself, Peter steals another car and takes the trip with her when the initial stolen car breaks down on the New Jersey Turnpike. When his road trip with the increasingly frustrating and loveable Emma get tough and confusing, Peter realizes this:

Maybe the answer to all of his problems was nothing more than a darkened sky and a glittering city, a lofty perch above the world below. It seemed entirely possible that it was all just a matter of setting and location, and Peter wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before. After all, he understood better than anyone the importance of geography.

What a great paragraph to read when my students start whining about the uselessness of geography.

The next geographically inclined novel is John Green’s “Paper Towns.” Green is one of my favorite authors, but I have to admit this isn’t my favorite of his books. The book is great, his other’s are just that much better. Like Green’s Printz Award winning “Looking for Alaska,” “Paper Towns” features a hilarious and exceedingly messed up female character that the male protagonists spends most of the book reacting to. Near the beginnig of the tale, Margo Roth Spiegelman crawls through Quentin’s bedroom window one night and ropes him into a night of law-breaking, stating: “I need a car. Also, I need you to drive it, because I have to do eleven things tonight, and at least five of them involve a getaway man.”

When Margo runs-away (and not for the first time), her fed up parents change the locks of their house and admit defeat. Quentin and his friends at school aren’t so willing to give up on Margo though. They follow her clues to discover that she is staying in a ‘paper town’ in New York. The author describes paper towns as “copyright traps [that] have featured in mapmaking for centuries. Cartographers create fictional landmarks, streets, and municipalities and place them obscurely into their maps. If the fictional entry is found on another cartographer’s map, it becomes clear a map has been plagiarized.”

Anyways, for various reasons that you will read about in “Paper Towns,” Quentin and his crew need to get to from their high school graduation in Florida to Margo’s paper town in New York in twenty one hours and forty five minutes. A frantic road trip ensues.

Now that I’ve found two YA books that have something to do with geography, I’m hopeful that there is a whole treasure trove of them out there, I just have to keep reading. “Paper Towns” may be a little too risqué to read to my 9th graders (lots of swearing and sex references. Not that high schoolers are fragile beings that have never heard a swear word, but I don’t want to be standing in front of them swearing and reading about sex. However, I can edit if I have to) and You Are Here may be a tad on the touchy-feely side.

So the quest for a perfect book continues. Let me know if you have any recs.

Being in One Place

So I’ve been in Las Vegas for a whole two and a half weeks, aka the longest I’ve been in any city since May. (Well, I was technically in Hangzhou for a couple months but they kept moving me from school to school, so I was still moving around a lot).

 Plus I’ve been working. Like getting up and six in the morning and actually driving to a place of employment.

 I’d planned on writing a post about the injustice of such a situation, but actually…I kinda like it. I’ve missed teaching like crazy, to the point where I wanted to follow a school field trip around Liberty Square in Philadelphia. My friend wouldn’t let me. She oh-so-kindly pointed out that I could be mistaken for a stalker. I thought she would change her mind after catching a glimpse of their teacher (who wasn’t bad to look at, to say the least), but no.    

 So when I got the chance to take over my friend’s class in Las Vegas for a couple weeks I was thrilled. She gave me a run down on all the bad kids and the bad things that they have done (some so bad that they can’t even be mentioned on this blog!) but I was still excited. Who cares if I would just be a sub? I would get to TEACH.

And they are great! Well. Mostly. I’ve had to call a few parents and issue a few zeros and mean looks, but I’m pretty happy. I love putting on my work clothes and seeing my old teacher friends. My narcissistic self loves hearing the excited calls of “Ms. Moore! You’re back!” from my students last year.

 My anticipated downsides of not having a home or not having writing time turned out to be non-issues, as I’m gotten into a little routine: School, writing at Starbucks, going to the gym, writing at Starbucks and then falling into bed in the room I’m renting from my friend’s mom. Oh – and that friend’s mom’s grandma made fudge last night, so I’m extra happy. I feel more productive working and writing. Although I haven’t matched the mad querying spree I was on last month, I’m still getting in at least 1,000 words a day on weekdays. 

So although I don’t want to be in Las Vegas forever or even for another few months, it’s been a nice landing spot after a half of year of traveling. It makes me realize that although living in a different hotel room every night is fun and exciting, having a town to call my own (and more importantly STUDENTS to call my own) is just as important. 

That being said, it’s time to get out of here. I’m excited to be headed to Seattle tomorrow.

Teaching China’s Little Emperors

Obvious side-effects of China’s one-child policy are overbearing parents and spoiled children. These generations of only children are increasingly being referred to as “little emperors,” as parents will do anything to keep the small king or queen of the household happy.

And then those little emperors have to go to school.

You know that stereotype about Chinese kids silently sitting in rows of neat chairs, heads bent over workbooks, feverishly studying? Not true. These little attention-seekers are just as talkative, loud, and rambunctious as their western counterparts.

Thank God. I don’t even know how to teach quiet, well behaved children.

It’s funny how the smallest of classroom management techniques are cultural though. Most teachers, me included, will use “teacher proximity” for mild discipline issues. If a child is off task, I simply walk over to his or her desk and put my hand on it. Maybe touch the student’s arm and point to what they are supposed to be doing. Classroom management 101 stuff. Not in China though. Personal space means nothing here and proximity or a simple touch is completely irrelevant to a kid that’s living with over a billion countrymen. I’ve upgraded to giving harsh looks. That works.

The kids are pretty good for me actually. My Chinese counterparts complain that the students are better for me as I’m a foreign teacher with blond hair. They may have a point. As I was leaning over a computer my first day of class one little guy ran over and stuck his face under mine. “Blue eyes!” He squealed. I’m totally riding out the novelty effect.

“Maybe if I go teach in the USA all the students would be good for me,” one of my new teacher friends mentions to me.

“Definitely.” I lie. I don’t have the heart to tell her that there is no foreign-teacher novelty effect in melting pot America.

Especially since the Chinese teachers are going out of their increasingly exhausted minds dealing with behavior issues, students throwing rocks, kids getting fevers, overbearing parents calling at all hours of the night, and homesickness. I understand the homesickness. Fifteen days is a long time to be away from home when you’re eight. One girl spent the first five nights on her cell phone begging her parents to come pick her up. When mom and dad (mostly dad) finally acquiesced, the big wigs from the school showed up talked them out of it to fend off a negative PR storm.

There are also the parents who show up at school unannounced to drop off massive amounts of snack foods and wash their kids’ clothes. One mom took the opportunity to critique my hand washing abilities as well. Too much soap and not enough scrubbing, she’d pantomimed disapprovingly.  

I don’t know if this is the parent’s plan or not, but a lot of this snack food goes to me. Students are continually gifting me packages of wrapped seaweed, sweet beef lollipop things and random hard boiled eggs. Or they throw impromptu dorm room parties where they invite me to sit on the top bunk, eat duck tongues and listen to Chinese music via their cell phones. One such party included a talent show complete with a dressing room, and program. It was all very cute until I discovered that I was actually ON the program. I’m not known for my singing abilities, but the students applauded enthusiastically after I belted out “Party in the USA.” Again, thank you novelty effect. I will miss that once I’m back in Miley Cyrus’s favorite country.  

Xiwuqi to Hangzhou: A travel glitch and a new school

So if you decide to go to Inner Mongolia and run a marathon, my only piece of advice is to leave on Sunday morning with the rest of the crowd. I stayed a few extra days to explore the town, bond with noodle shop owners and take advantage of the hotel’s free Internet access.

The challenges arose when it was time to get back to the airport in Xilinhot. The day before I left I went to the non-English speaking front desk. They connected me to the Nordic way’s Chinese liaison (who was already back in Beijing). She assured me that a bus would pick me up the next at a five in the morning so I could catch my morning flight. Yeah right.

Bus-less at 5:30 the next morning I decided to take matters into my own hands. I knew there was a long-distance bus to the big city but odds were that it would not be leaving in the next twenty minutes. Not wanting to waste precious time on a bus that probably wasn’t going to work anyways; I threw some money at the problem and hailed a cab.

My conversation with the cabbie went like this:

Me: “Xilinhot”

Him: “Xilinhot?”

Me: “Xilinhot!”

Him: “Xilinhot?”  

After about five minutes of that we finally reached this:

Him: “Ahhh! Xilinhot!!! Okay.” He stretched his arms wide to indicate that it was far away. Yeah, thanks buddy. I know.

Then the negotiations started. We finally settled on 400 RMB ($60) for the three hour trip. It was a mild rip off as I’d been on a nine hour jaunt through the countryside the day before for the same price, but whatever. Desperation is a bad place to be bargaining from. And it was cheaper than missing both my flights. Luckily my cab driver was a good man and did not pull over in the middle of nowhere to demand more money.

Once in Xilinhot the cabbie had no idea where the airport was, a problem he solved by shouting direction requests at motorcycle riders while waiting at red lights. Good thing Mongolian men don’t have an aversion to asking for directions. We pulled up the airport thirty minutes before take-off, as the plane was boarding. Luckily this was more than enough time to navigate the airport which had all of three terminals.

My flights to Beijing and Hangzhou were blissfully uneventful. I was picked up by two Chinese student-teachers who would be working at the New Oriental School. They took me to the main offices where I was greeted by a frazzled man. I recognized the look in his eyes – it’s the same one my school office manager in Las Vegas got when six teachers called out sick and no subs were showing up. I brace myself.

“Hi. You are Jennifer? This will be your classroom. Just for tomorrow. You teach from 2:00 to 3:00, okay?” The guy says in lieu of an introduction.

“Okay,” I reply, trying not to roll my eyes as he explained that this was NOT summer camp I’d signed up to teach (“just a little extra”), he’d find a textbook for me, and I’d have to take a taxi from my residence. The next day I dutifully prepare my lesson (sans textbook), show up to my class, and teach for an hour. As I’m preparing to leave a Chinese teacher informs me that I actually have to teach these kids until 5:30. And I had to come back tomorrow at 1:30.  

Welcome to the New Oriental School.

Oh, and my residence? Here it is:

Why I will miss teaching

Most working professionals who are thinking about quitting their jobs and traveling for a year are not worried about what I’m worried about. Rational people worry about money, mortgages and health insurance. They don’t worry about actually missing their jobs. Forgoing the nine-to-five grind, unchaining themselves from the cubicle and giving the boss a certain finger on the way out the door is usually the best part of exiting corporate America to become a wandering nomad.

Due to an utter lack of common sense and an ‘I’m-not-thirty-yet’ naiveté, money is not my number one concern.

But I panic at the thought of not getting to go to work.

I’ve wanted to be a teacher my entire life and I love it. I dream about creating lesson plans. My co-workers are some of my closest friends. I get really excited whilst figuring out how to make population density fun. (If you want to know how, email me. It’s a great lesson.)

But I really love my students. This might sound crazy coming from a middle school teacher, but my kids are my sanity. For educators in urban schools, it’s often said that you – the teacher – can be the one constant in a child’s life.

But it’s the other way ‘round for me. My kids are my constant. They keep me happy, energized, and productive. My students (VERY unknowingly) got me through a divorce last year. When a doctor called my classroom earlier this year and told me “I’ll keep the office open for you, get here as soon as you can” (Health tip: If a doctor tells you this – you have cancer), I couldn’t dwell on it too much. I had to teach geography that day. I had to worry about why straight-A-Jose had failed his test, why “Nikki” had scratch marks up her arms, and why only three people were grasping the similarities between African and Australian colonization. Two days out of the hospital I was making up excuses so I could go to school and just see some of them for a minute.  

So as my fifth school year ends and I (willingly) don’t have a job next year, I can only hope that traveling around the world will be half as fulfilling and rewarding as teaching has been.

Travel Inspired Picture Books

A new middle school student enjoys his or her own locker, an in-depth exploration of subjects, and the freedom that comes with switching classes every hour. But one vestige of elementary school should never be abandoned – the picture book read aloud. The best children’s literature not only teaches, but captivates audiences of every age. When I read aloud, my 8th grade students edge close, even wanting to be on the floor. The guys rest their chins on their tattooed forearms and stare up at the pictures, not even bothering to feign disinterest.  

As a World Geography teacher, one of my obvious favorites is Uri Shulevitz’s “How I Learned Geography.” In this biographical tale, Uri recounts (in less then 20 words) how his family fled Poland during WWII. Then the story starts. Instead of buying the expected bread, Uri’s dad buys a map. Initial anger brought on by an empty stomach relaxes into wonder as the map floods the room with color and Uri’s mind with possibilities. The rest of the book is filled with Shulevitz’s illustrations of the snowy mountaintops and teeming cities he imagined as a child.

After I read this to my students, I reinforce the lesson by asking them to brainstorm examples of the deserts, beaches, mountains, jungles, and cities that Uri fantasized about in his book. Then each group designs a customized trip around the world that Uri might have enjoyed. A biographical map of Shulevitz’s own life also provides fodder for discussions, as he fled Poland in 1939 to live in modern day Kazakhstan, Paris, Israel and then the USA.

Another favorite is Carmen Agra Deedy’s “14 Cows for America,” gorgeously illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. It’s a story about the Maasai people of Kenya. My students, like most of us, are used to hearing negative stories about Africa. They see poverty stricken children on TV. They hear about wars and genocide and AIDS.  My African-American students want nothing to do with Africa, viewing it as a continent of mud huts and shame.      

Then we read “14 Cows for America.”

In this true story Kimeli returns to Kenya and tells his people about his time in America. He tells them about New York, he tells them about that one September day. The Maasai people are horrified into silence when they hear Kimeli’s tale. Then they spring into action, determined to help right the injustice, determined to ease the suffering of these poor people who live in America. The Maasai give up what is most precious to them – the cow. The Maasai donate fourteen cows to the USA, “because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.”

I love that Ms. Agra Deedy automatically knew that my kids were brilliant readers!

For further suggestions on great books and ways to use them in the classroom, check out “Every Book is a Social Studies Book,” by Andrea Libresco. This one is a true gem, complete with lesson plans and ready-to-use handouts for students.

Am I Turning into my Students?

I always tell my students to surround themselves with positive people. “Sit next to studious peers. Hang out with people who don’t do drugs on weekends,” I sagely advise. I encourage students to make friends with classmates that will help them memorize the elements on the periodic table, the causes of the French Revolution, and the fact that the correct answer is usually b. I fully believe that you pick up on the habits of those around you.

And then I realize that I’ve surrounded myself with middle-schoolers. Not good.

I’m turning into them! I’m suddenly listening to hip-hop stations, wherein the singers are half my age. (Do you know that Will Smith’s DAUGHTER has an album out?!? Isn’t she, like, three?) Why did I just write “like” into that sentence? Oh yeah, the 180 bad influences I interact with each day.

I am seriously appalled by my behavior at staff meetings. I whip out my phone to change my Facebook status when the principal isn’t watching. I roll my eyes and dramatically mime slitting my throat when a co-teacher glances my way. I stare at the clock longingly and wonder if a well-timed “bathroom” break will help me get through the next hour. I embody everything I despise in my student’s behavior.

It’s not my fault. I’m delimited by negative influences.

I repeat everything three times now, even when talking to my friends. It’s a vestige of saying “turn to page 421…yes, 421…that’s page 421…it’s on the board, page 421…go get a book and open to 421…” every hour on the hour. Non-phrases like omg, lol, and even lmao are appearing in my own spoken and texted vernacular.

But of course there are good things about being influenced by middle school children. I’ve rediscovered the seriously underrated world of young adult literature. I watch my students drop everything for a friend who’s in need. Say what you want about ‘mean girls,’ but bonds of middle-school friendship can cut pretty deep as well. I look at my students and see myself in them. I remember the insecurity. I remember being positive that I would never get a boyfriend, or travel, or see anything pretty in the mirror. And just as life opened up for me after fifteen, it will for them too.

Maybe being influenced by my middle schoolers isn’t so bad after all. Even so, I’d better take a year off and travel – just to make sure.