Category Archives: teaching

Teaching Tuesday: Student death

Late last week one of our students passed away. I didn’t really know the young man, but like pretty much everyone else at the school, I knew of him. My school has about 1300 students (1650 when the 8th graders who are currently housed in our building are included) and since I only teach Advanced Placement juniors and seniors, it’s rare I know freshmen or sophomores. Generally the only reason I know the names or faces of underclassmen is if they are related to my AP kids or if they cause trouble.

He was the latter.

I’d heard several of my colleagues express frustration at his antics. Granted, what frustrated them wasn’t horrific behavior. He wasn’t really one to get into fights, although if there was one in a 10 mile radius, he’d be there, watching and maybe egging it on. He wasn’t usually in your face rude or disrespectful, but he pushed the envelope to the far edge of acceptability most days. He liked being the center of attention and if that meant he had to mouth off a bit to a teacher, that was fine by him. If he didn’t like a rule, he pretty much ignored it.

That’s how I got to know him. He was in third lunch and every other week, I had last lunch supervision, so every other week, I saw him multiple times each lunch period and usually I was telling him to put his cellphone away or take his earbuds out (both are against policy). He only got angry with me once about it, but it was easy to see how he might be a handful in a classroom.


Wednesday night, I got a text from one of my coworkers telling me he’d been killed in a freak accident. She forwarded me an email sent out by an administrator at the middle school since despite being a sophomore, he had relatives and friends in the 8th grade who the administration was worried about. About thirty minutes later, everyone on our staff got a similar email and a request to meet in the school library the next day.

Thursday was a strange day. The young man had been fairly popular and had friends in every grade in our building. The hallways were flooded with kids embracing and sobbing. Our library became a giant counseling center for kids to gather and talk. Every time I passed by it was full. A young lady whose name I don’t know, but who I see on lunch duty was red-faced and when I stopped to check on her, she started crying and reached out to hug me. I watched some of the toughest kids at the school break down in tears. One of my good friends who often decried his antics in her classroom was on the constant verge of tears, because although he’d often driven her crazy, she’d liked him and his loss was devastating to her. It was a heartbreaking day.

On Friday morning, students wore red and released balloons in honor of him. The hallways were a little quieter than usual. The lunchroom was a little louder. On the surface, things were back to normal, but they clearly weren’t.

This is not the first time we’ve had a student die. In fact, in the 13 years I’ve been at this particular school, we’ve had five students die while still in high school (far more have tragically passed away at some point after graduation). Two years ago, we had a senior who passed away the night before graduation. His twin brother was one of my AP kids and my newspaper editor, so I was quite close to him. Although I barely knew my editor’s twin, he was a sweet, quiet kid. He was a big part of many of my kid’s lives, so after graduation practice, I had about 20 kids in my room hugging and sobbing and talking until I had to teach class again. It was a very hard graduation to get through.

Even when you don’t really know the kids who pass away, it is so hard because you feel like something is missing. While I may not have really known the young man, I know so many people who are grieving his loss. In a way, the entire school is. It’s just another way that teaching is so much more than a job. For many of us on Thursday, school wasn’t about teaching math or science or history or English. It was about being a safe place for kids to begin to deal with overwhelming grief and loss. I had so many colleagues who said they had to completely scrap their lessons, just over a week before finals, because they knew their kids could not learn. They did the only thing they could for their kids, gave them a space to talk and just be.

Teaching is such a rewarding job, but it is also a heartbreaking one.




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Throwback Thursday: 9/11 Memorial

9-11 memorial at nightThe last time I was in NYC, nearly 20 years ago, I got to tool around with my best friends. It was one of the best trips of my life because I got to see an amazing city with four of the most important people in my life.

My most recent trip was for business, which is an odd thing for a teacher to say, but I was there to work for the College Board. I knew that I would be meeting with a group of 10 or so fellow AP Lang and Comp teachers to work as part of the design team, but upon my arrival in the Big Apple, I knew no one.

I touched down at LaGuardia and managed to find the taxi line. I also risked a ride share with a very nice couple from Australia. Unfortunately, despite very clearly telling our driver the address for their hotel three separate times, our driver managed to mishear them and took us to the wrong hotel. At that point we’d already been in the cab for about 75 minutes and the mistake ended up adding another 45 minutes onto our ride.

9-11 hotel view.jpgSo, nearly two hours after arriving in the city I finally found myself at the Millennium Hilton, exhausted, but also wired and ready not only to find some food, but to explore.

I have almost no memory of the hotel room my friends and I all piled into on my first stay in NYC, but I know it was nowhere near as nice as this place. The lobby was lovely. The room was glorious. And there was even a plate with three small macrons waiting for me, which helped to tide me over until I could find real food. It’d been about 8 hours since I’d eaten and I think the only reason I wasn’t hangry was because I was so excited about being in New York.

I knew from the map I’d checked before I left Indiana that my hotel was close to the 9/11 Memorial. However, since my first trip to the city was well before the horrific tragedy struck, if I saw the Twin Towers on that visit, I had no memory of them. And, although I’d seen pictures of the memorial, for some reason, I thought it was going to be monumentally big. However, when I looked out my hotel window, I immediately knew what I was looking at and it seemed so small. Granted, I was looking at it from 42 stories in the air, but from that glance it seemed impossible that such a major center for business for our entire country (and portions of the world) could take up so little actual space on the ground

I made a bee line for the monument. When I found myself actually facing the North Reflection Pond, it was much bigger. And yet, it still felt small in a strange way. It felt so unreal to me that I was standing where a titan had once been and where so many people who had just been going to work, as I would be the next day, lost their lives. It was beautiful and eerie.

It’s hard to describe the feelings that surged through me that evening, although I was immediately put in mind of my trip, 7 years ago to the 9/11 memorial my family had visited in Pennsylvania. The silence was almost tangible in both places. However, the silence in Manhattan was far more unsettling. It makes sense for the field in Pennsylvania where flight 93 went down to be devoid of noise. Had the flight not crashed, there’d be no real reason for anyone to be there. It would be quiet because it’s removed from everything.

But the memorial at the World Trade Center is different. It is surrounded on all sides by the most bustling city in the country. The quiet that sets in here is so unnatural. It’s so reverential. Reflecting on it now, the only other experience I’ve truly had that has come close was when I visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Although not the site of direct tragedy, it still offers that bizarre paradox of deafening silence amidst a bustling city.

I passed the memorial every day during my stay in NYC. It was directly on my route to the office I was working in. No matter when I visited, there was a quiet over it. Not a complete silence as there were tour guides and people in line to get into the museum, but a hush none the less. After four days it still amazed me. So did the dedication of those who work at the memorial. Every time I passed it, someone was cleaning off the the names that surround the reflection pools. Always silently and always with the utmost care.

9-11 memorial roseI was also touched by the flowers left and mementos left on the monument themselves. I’d seen them the night of my first visit, but it wasn’t until the next day that I could really stop and read the informational plaques surrounding the pools. Apparently every year on what would have been their birthdays, workers put white roses on the deceased’s names. The first night I’d only noticed a small smattering of roses, but by the third day there were quite a few. Additionally, some of the names had flags tucked in to them, no doubt left by friends or family members who’d stopped by to pay their respects. It was heartbreaking.


Although I would have liked to see more of the city on my visit, I am so glad I got a chance to visit this memorial.


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Teaching Tuesday: AP EXAMS!

Yes, that’s right, the AP exams are finally here. The moment I’ve been preparing my students for for the last 34 weeks is quickly approaching. In fact, my first group of students already took their AP Literature and Composition exams last Wednesday. My final group take their AP Language and Composition exams tomorrow.

AP testing time is equally hugely stressful and a great relief to me. As the days of the test near each year, I find myself trying to cram my students with last minute tips and practice activities. I spend their class periods reminding them of what they know and trying to fill in the gaps of what they don’t. I watch as my students stress levels go through the roof and my nervousness for them steadily increases.

However, the day of the test, so much of my stress evaporates. I have given them everything I could and now it really is sort of up to them. There’s nothing else I can do for them. They either got it or they don’t. And this year I feel most of them get it. Or at least I hope they do.

I did have on serious moment of frustration when I watched a kid who had been dropped from my class for failing two grading periods walk into the test. Since he’d been removed from the class well before the test, I didn’t understand why he still took the test. I was irked even more to find out he did not show up for the AP US History test. I’m still not quite sure what the rationale there was. It is a little disappointing to know that his score (which I am sure will be quite low), will drag down my overall success rate.

Tonight though, I get to breath a little easier. My last review is done. All I have to do is get to school a bit early (I always do) to make sure all of my students are at the test and that they all get the motivational packets of quotes and mints I put together for them and then go to my classroom and enjoy 85 minutes of solid grading time, which I really need at this point.

With the conclusion of this AP test, I only have one and a half weeks of school left and if I can just get through grading research papers, I might survive this year!

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Chocolate Monday: Eataly pastries

eataly pastriesOn my recent trip to NYC, I got to try several new desserty treats. In fact, on my very first night in the city, just hours after I touched down, finally made it to my hotel and decided to go out exploring, I found a cool candy store called Sugarfina. My first official purchase in the Big Apple was not a meal (even though I was seriously hungry), but a few tiny boxes of chocolate.

Since I was in town to do work for the College Board, they graciously provided breakfast and lunch for us each day. On our first full day of work, they also took us out for a very tasty dinner at El Vez. The meal was super tasty, especially the rey mysterio guacamole. If you ever get a chance to visit El Vez, I highly suggest trying it.

The second night, however, we were on our own to find a meal. A group of us decided to hang out together and go off in search of food. We settled on O’Hara’s Pub, which definitely would not have been my first choice for food, but since it’s clearly a firefighter/cop hangout, it reminded me of my dad and that was kind of cool. He would have loved the place. After we finished eating, half of our party wanted to go back to the hotel, but the other half had a raging sweet tooth and wanted something tasty for dessert.

I remembered my first night exploring when I’d discovered Eataly, a gigantic grocery/restaurant at the top of one of the World Trade Center buildings. In addition to the largest spread of cheese I think I’ve ever seen and a pizza place that made the slice I’d had at a corner store look woefully pathetic, I’d seen a gelato counter. Even though I hadn’t tried it that first night, it’s pretty hard to screw up gelato, so I suggested we check it out.

Although the gelato looked very tempting, there was no one working at that counter when we arrived and since it is right next to an amazing looking pastry counter, my eyes drifted over. La Pasticceria E had several dozen pastry offerings. More importantly, they had several tiny pastries, and for about $9 I was able to get 3 mini pastries to try. Which is exactly what I did.

eataly close up pastryI wasn’t smart enough to write down any of their names, but the first one I tried was a pistachio sponge cake that had a raspberry glazed top and a cut little pistachio nut. The layers of cake had raspberry filling in between. Oh my, this was LOVELY! The raspberry was achingly tart, just the way I like it. The pistachio cake was a little lost in the tart of the berry, but pistachio is a rather delicate taste to begin with, so it didn’t bother me. It made me wish that I’d chosen the bigger version of this one instead of three small treats.

That was until I tasted the second one. It was basically a cone shaped mound of whipped cream placed on a little cookie-like bottom and dipped in chocolate. It was heavenly! The cream was so light and airy. It was like eating a cloud. The chocolate, which I was worried would be dark and bitter was not at all. I’m not sure if the cream just balanced it out or if it was just a perfectly mellow bit of dark chocolate, but it was just that, balanced. I would have been happy eating a dozen of these babies.

Finally I tried the Chantilly cream puff. I’d had a large Chantilly cream puff last year on a visit to Charleston and it was one of the best desserts I’d ever tasted. I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, it did let me down just a tad. It was good, but I think I was so dazzled by the first two that this one just couldn’t live up. The cream was good. It was light and very fluffy. I couldn’t quite make out distinct flavors, but then again, it was such a small morsel that it was gone almost too quickly to. It was good, but not nearly as memorable as the first two.

My experience at Eataly was amazing and if I ever find myself back in NYC (or maybe the next time I’m in Chicago), I am heading there for sure.


Appearance: 10/10
Taste: 8.5/10
Value: 8.5/10


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Free Reading Friday: The Graveyard Book

Graveyard bookI really loved The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. The story was fantastic and I adored the fact the audiobook was read by Neil Gaiman himself. He has a soothing, yet slightly creepy voice, which is perfect for this book. I always love when authors read their own books because they obviously put so much of themselves into the writing of the book that they truly understand each character’s voice and motivation.

This story is a delightful, if sinister tale of intrigue. It starts with the murder of an entire family, which is very unsettling. Well, nearly the entire family is murdered. The baby, who is not yet two years old, manages to get out of the house and into the local graveyard. Although the killer attempts to follow him, the baby is found by the Owens’, a ghost couple who never had children of their own. Although it takes a bit of coaxing to get everyone in the graveyard to accept a live boy, as he doesn’t belong there, with the help of Silas, a vampire, the boy is allowed to stay.

Nobody Owens, as he is quickly named, gets the protection of the graveyard and his would be assailant is unable to find him, as long as he is safely tucked away in the graveyard.

Bod grows up in the graveyard and over the course of the 15 years the novel covers, he has many brushes with sinister characters, including the Sleer, ghouls, and of course, the man Jack, who is still hunting him.

A fantastic read for anyone in grade 5 and above. I couldn’t wait to share it with my son who is in 5th grade. It was so much fun to talk about the book together and share our favorite parts of the story. Thankfully he loved it as much as I did. Not that I’m surprised as Coraline is one of his favorite books.

I also suggested the book to several of my students. It got passed around quite a bit thanks in part to a glowing recommendation from the first student I convinced to read it. I think it speaks to the universality of a book when 11 year olds 18 year old and 40 somethings can all love the same book.

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Wildcard Wednesday: I’m the birthday girl

Yes, that’s right, it’s my birthday. Happy 43! Wait, am I 43…let me do the math again…yes, I am 43 today. I don’t know if it is a sign of my age or a sign that birthdays have become much less of a to do or a sign that I am still trying to hold on to being younger than I am, but I almost always have to stop and really think about how old I am.

I don’t generally consider myself someone who is embarrassed by my age. If someone really wants to know, I have no trouble giving it. In fact, I’ve used it quite often in debates on social media when someone gets condescending and tells me that when I get a little older I’ll understand. This happens to me quite a bit since a) I have always looked younger than my age and b) I have a lot of friends on social media who are former students who are quite a bit younger than I am. Many of the other “adults” in their lives like to blow off their opinions and insights because they don’t have enough “life experience.” I’ve had quite a few people who clearly just assume I am also college-aged based merely on my association with former students and try to belittle me in the same way. That’s when I’m thrilled to throw my age out there as a badge of honor.

I know some people still make much ado about their birthdays, but I am not one of those people. It’s not because I don’t like a good soiree. It’s because my birthday always comes during crunch time at school (my AP Lit test is once again on my birthday this year). Plus, I have two elementary aged kids and a lack of babysitters in the area, so I don’t get out nearly as much as I’d like. Generally my family goes out for dinner and sometime near my birthday I’ll get together with some of my good friends for a girls’ dinner or brunch. And that is fine by me.

I’ve even gotten bad about helping my husband figure out gifts for me. I think I’ve hit that age that if I really want something, I’ll just go buy it myself. Why wait to get it as a present? I’m not a jewelry person. I have a dozen or so necklaces, and maybe half as many bracelets, but I just forget to wear them. I always want books, but if I truly tried to feed my literary addiction, I’d be broke. Mostly I borrow from the library (thankfully I have the public and school varieties to pick from). I like music, but usually I listen to audio books in the car. I’m very picky about my clothing, so that’s usually not a good gift. Chocolate is always an option, but there is only so much chocolate one can get. That basically leaves small, knick knacky items and I have so many of those.

It’s not that I don’t want presents. I’m getting older, but I’m still human! I just can never think of any specific thing that I want. In reality, what I really want is to travel the world and see everything. But unfortunately, that’s not in the budget. I know it is frustrating for my husband as he wants to get me something I’ll really like. I just never know what that is.

So, it’ll be interesting to see what he gives me tonight at dinner.

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Teaching Tuesday: AP review sessions

The AP tests are almost upon us and it seems like every morning I walk into the building nearly an hour before school starts to see bleary-eyed students heading zombie-like toward classrooms where dedicated AP teachers are holding review sessions.  I’ve witnessed this spectacle just about every morning for the last two months. It seems that as soon as we returned from spring break, many an AP teacher started cramming their classrooms in order to help their students cram for the big tests.

When I first started teaching, I too held these sessions. Since nearly every other AP teacher was holding them, I thought I was bound to do it as well. I’d hurry in to my classroom minutes before students started coming in, pass out some practice materials (poetry, excerpts from short stories and novels, writing prompts, etc) and we’d spend about 30 minutes talking our way through those materials.

It was difficult to accomplish anything as an AP timed essay takes at least 40 minutes to deconstruct and write. This meant we never got through an essay in one sitting. Even the shorter multiple choice passages and questions were hard to get through in that time as I wanted kids to take those apart as well and really focus on deconstructing the passage, the questions and the answers. This meant that most of my review sessions were actually a series of 2 or 3 sessions. In theory this would not have been an issue, but since students are not required to come to review sessions, one session 15 kids would show up. The next, only 12 would be there. Of course, they wouldn’t necessarily be the same 12 who were at the last session, so I was having to either stop to let them catch up or move on, leaving them a bit behind. At the next session I might have 14 kids, but at least one of them was bound to be a kid who hadn’t been to the first two.

After three years, I stopped holding review sessions.

Unlike many other AP disciplines, it’s very hard to study for either the AP Lit or the AP Lang exam. Both of these courses are completely skills based. Memorizing literary terms or rhetorical devices won’t really help them on the test. There are no important dates/historical time periods to memorize and know the direct impact of. There aren’t equations to memorize and solve for. There aren’t irregular verbs to conjugate.

My test requires students to read critically, analyze what they’ve read and answer questions based on that analysis. It also requires them to read critically, analyze what they’ve read and then write articulate, well-organized essays based on that analysis. These are skills we practice every single day in class, and not ones that work well with the drill and cram method. No matter how many books or short stories or poems or essays they read, there is little chance that anything they’ve read in the course of the year will actually show up on the exam itself.

Still, for the first time in nearly 10 years, I gave in to nervous juniors and scheduled three review sessions, which I planned to devote to one poem and set of multiple choice questions over that poem.

Sure enough, I had the same problems this year that I’d had in the past. And I have little hope that these sessions will really improve their performance on the test or help them understand the questions on the test any better. They’ve already practiced and practiced and practiced these skills. I think my students would have been better served sleeping in those extra 30 minutes. I know they don’t get nearly enough sleep as it is.

I’m not saying that review sessions are not beneficial in other disciplines. I’m not even implying that other teachers of Lit and Lang can’t find success with them. I haven’t seen the benefit of them for my students, so next year I’m going to be firm and NOT give in to review sessions.

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