Tag Archives: students

When a trashed turntable transforms (…or seeing a former student on Jimmy Fallon)


The background: It was 1989. I had been teaching three years. Three years in early childhood special education where I thought I’d be content for the rest of my life. Nevertheless, after adopting a child with special needs, I felt compelled to explore the teaching life in a regular classroom. Special needs at home and at school were a bit over-whelming.

Hired at an elementary in the same district, I met my coordinating teacher, Elaine Howard, that summer before school started. To say we “hit it off” would be an understatement. In no time we were completing each others’ sentences, making plans for the upcoming year, and marveling at finding our “educational soul mate.”

School started soon enough. Teaching one of the two 5th grade classes (Elaine taught the other,) my year got off to a great start…until the principal came to my door. Her expression did not encourage me. Sure enough, the news was grim: I was to move to another campus within the week unless our numbers came up. I believe I had 12 students and Elaine had 13. The numbers remained the same, and I prepared for the move. Amidst my tears and the students’ tears, I went to the school that needed a teacher leaving a classroom of 5th graders I’d already grown to love and a teaching partner that I couldn’t believe I was having to leave.

The principal at the new school met me in the office. To add insult to injury, I discovered that these students (also 5th graders,) had been abandoned by their assigned teacher (she never showed up to school due to a salary conflict!) Three substitute teachers had come and gone; one stayed 1/2 a day and swore she’d never come back. I was being shuffled to this. I gritted my teeth and walked the long hallway with the principal to view my new classroom and new students.

I heard them before I could see them. Another substitute opened the door, and I peered past her. A room filled with 25 students yelling, laughing, and straining their necks to see who was at the door. I wanted to close the door and run away. I wanted to go back to teaching Early Childhood Special Education. I wanted to do anything but say “yes” to this classroom of unrestrained pre-teen individuals. But, I was young, and I was idealistic, and I needed a paycheck.

“Yes,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’ll do it.”

The principal sighed, running his hand through his combover. “Whew! I sure do appreciate you doing this. Luckily, you’ll have three days to get yourself ready during the Labor Day Weekend.”

And that’s what I did. With the help of my then mother-in-law, my ex-husband, and probably a few others I can’t recall, we recreated that room and made it ready for the students when they entered the door on Tuesday after Labor Day. It wasn’t easy as this room was an “overflow” room, situated in the 1st and 2nd grade hallway. The other three 5th grade classrooms were housed in a new building in another area of the campus. Not only that, this room was devoid of any teaching materials. And, if that weren’t enough, the students in the classroom were students whose parents had not gone to the office to request their children be placed in a particular classroom. The odds were stacked, and they weren’t in my favor.

Tuesday arrived along with a motley bunch of fifth graders. Many of them had more street cred than my current sophomores in the rural school in which I teach now. They had swagger, mouthiness, and a penchant for pushing a teacher’s buttons. But, yet, I grew to love them quickly. We became a family thrown together in an unlikely setting. They needed me and I needed them.

Carlos was one of the mouthiest. An intelligent kid with a lightning bolt shaved into his head, he lead the pack much of the time. I worked hard to stay one step ahead of him. Boredom created havoc when it landed on Carlos. From cleaning our hermit crab tank to staging a Thanksgiving production, Carlos needed an outlet, or two or three.

One day I decided that the students would create a product from trash. It was a self-contained classroom, and ecology was a theme we explored. I assigned the project, gave the kids some parameters, and set a due date.

About a week later, students traipsed down the hallway carting their treasures from trash. I could see Carlos down the way with a contraption that he could barely carry. Former teachers stopped to gawk. 1st and 2nd graders clamored around him as he made his way down the hall toward me.

As he got closer, I still had no clue what his creation was. He trudged into the room and set it heavily on the ledge by the window.

“Turn off the lights!” Carlos commanded. Someone did. He flipped a switch, and the large plastic cube-shaped container began turning. Eyes on the contraption flashed on and off. A song began to play. It was a musical robot that Carlos and his dad had rigged up in their garage, cobbled together from an old turntable and other items. Obviously, it was a hit. I wish I could recall at least one other project the students brought that day, but, for the life of me, all I can see in my memory is that crazy robot turning, flashing, and singing.

Eventually, Carlos went on to middle school and I ended up back at the school I started teaching in the first place with my “soul mate in education,” Elaine.

That wasn’t the last I would hear of Carlos, though. Every year, from middle school to high school, I would receive a letter from the Alternative Education school. Sometimes, I’d receive several letters a year, depending on what kind of school year Carlos was having. One of the standard assignments, I suppose, when students got into trouble and were placed for a time period at that setting, was to write a letter to a favorite teacher. Yes, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of those letters. It was a double-edged sword, though. Happy to hear from Carlos, I worried about the trouble he was in, the choices he was making, and what would happen to him. Would he graduate? Would he end up in prison? Were there no teachers that could channel his gifts and help him to succeed?

I shouldn’t have worried. Fast forward from 1989 to 2015. This past Friday night, Carlos made his debut on The Tonite Show with Jimmy Fallon, dj-ing for Lacrae, a Christian rapper. Carlos’s path from a cocky, mouthy, creative 5th grader had led him into trouble, but he had not remained there. He figured out ways to pull himself out of the choices he had made and worked hard to recreate himself.

In retrospect I realize the impact Carlos made on me and my life as a teacher. I’ve learned to never give up on a child. You never know what he or she will become.


It’s hard, but it’s beautiful…


The mention of poetry elicits strong reactions from students. Past experiences in well-meaning classrooms often taint their “poetry palate”. Just like remembering a batch of cookies in which the cook forgot the sugar, I get that “look” from too many students every single year.

I can remember when teaching poetry scared me more than “doing the highs” at the ROPES course. The fear was three-fold:

1. Would I screw them up even more than they already were regarding their “taste” for poetry?

2. Would they say things that would hurt my poetry feelings? I love poetry, and it often feels like a personal affront when students hate it.

3. How could I, mere mortal that I am, possibly teach this beautiful form of literature?

The rest of this post will go through the beginning processes I’ve honed throughout the years to teach poetry in a practically pain-free way.

First, I like getting a baseline of sorts from my students. It’s simple, but it’s tried and true: ask each student to reflect on what they know, believe, and feel about poetry. Because so many students have such disdain for poetry, I simply ask the students to write 1/2 to 3/4 page. Of course, I explain to them that there’s no right and no wrong about this. I just want to know where their heads and hearts are regarding poetry.

Then, on the following day, you can bet about 90% of the students have forgotten their reflection, so poetry isn’t on their radar anymore. I can pull a “fast one,” thanks to the internet, Slam! Poetry, and Daniel Beaty.  If you’ve never seen this poem performed, click here:

“Knock, Knock” by Daniel Beaty

The students react accordingly:

  1. Transfixed throughout the performance;
  2. Pulled into silence immediately afterwards; and, then,
  3. Compelled to question Daniel’s technique, his life, the words, the story, the poetic elements, and on and on.

At this point it’s difficult to contain even the most resistant student. The questions come at me like rapid-fire. They argue with each other about what Beaty is saying. And, finally, someone says, “Can we watch it again?”

“You bet!” I enthuse. Inside, I’m doing my best super-villian Bwhahahaha! laugh, because, you see, now each and every student from the resistant to the poetry fanatic is ensnared in the magic.

“But,” I continue, “This time I have the printed words from Beaty’s poem. As you listen the second time, mark up those lines you love, put a question mark next to words or phrases that baffle you, star the brilliance when you find it, write your thoughts to the side. Do what you need to do to make this poem yours.”

We listen and watch again. I give them four or five minutes to mark up their copies. Next, we talk.

What do we talk about? We clarify what Beaty’s words could mean. We look at how he cleverly switches up words in a line, “Dribble the page with the brilliance of your ballpoint pen” from “How to dribble a ball” in a previous line.

“But wait!” a student in the back blurts out. “That’s alliteration, isn’t it?”

“Oooooo….cool!” several students intone.

The conversation goes on in much the same manner, with students pulling bits and pieces from the poem, tasting it, rolling it around in their mouths, and resetting their poetry palates for the new discoveries to come.

Oh, and before I close, I must explain the title. On Wednesday, I read through the students’ reflections about poetry. Here are just a few tidbits I gleaned from their writings:

  • a way to get the girls
  • hard to get at first
  • re-read it like 500 times, you’ll get it
  • I think they should stop writing poetry
  • it is pointless
  • I still don’t get how the guy with the guitar can steal my girlfriend just ‘cuz he writes poetry.
  • your life settled on a page

Then, I came across a student’s reflection. This is a student with dyslexia. Reading is difficult for him. Writing is painful for him. I’m certain that poetry hasn’t been his best friend in the past, but he wrote:

It’s hard, but it’s beautiful.

Yes, I thought. That’s it. Poetry IS hard, but poetry IS beautiful. As a teacher, I feel the same. TEACHING poetry is hard, but TEACHING poetry is so beautiful.

Next week, I’ll share some other strategies for teaching poetry.