Precious Knowledge and Motivation

Leave it to the English teacher to have an entire blog post just to set-up the motivation of what my final make is…

Two weeks ago, Lizzy wrote a post that hit me at just the right time (check it out). I was searching for my final make and frustrated since it’s that time of year when school becomes centralized around the approaching Keystones (that trend seems to creep in more and more every year).

I connected when Lizzy vented that “today made me really question what I’m doing.  Not because I don’t see the value in learning Algebra I, but because I don’t see the value in making learning Algebra I into a race that ends at a disappointing standardized test finish line.”

The teaching world we have inherited seems to be stressful (and frustrating) for all for the wrong reasons… Unfortunately, Lizzy is simply echoing a frustration you can hear from teachers all over the country, in all grade levels, and all subjects (unless the subject has been reduced or eliminated to make way). Of course, we’re also examining inequity. It’s only certain schools that have to stress and pressure for performance on the tests. This creates the paradox that I’m attempting to chip away at in my writing today (though smarter people have already captured this idea far better than I will in my attempt).


At any rate, shortly after reading Lizzy’s blog post, I sat at my desk grading and planning on another Sunday after an especially stressful week of school (and professional developments centered around test prep). The weather was amazing and the windows were flung open to let Spring rush in.  My neighbors have had one of their sons practicing the tuba starting at around 11 a.m. every Sunday for the last year. They’re really great neighbors and the practice is always done at a respectable time; nonetheless, the wheels started turning in my head.

The professional developments were all about preparing students for the upcoming Keystones. The speaker was knowledgeable and there were some good tips offered but she was also insistent on some points that go against the very core of my teaching philosophy. The biggest thorn in my teaching soul was hearing that a student’s opinion doesn’t count and that we as teachers should not be asking these sorts of questions since they have no value for the test. I teach in a school where the biggest battle with some of my students is motivation. It’s creating buy-in. This is challenging day-to-day in my classroom but can feel almost impossible when it comes to motivating for a state test.  The speaker for our PD missed this point. The nature of high stakes testing not only misses this point but actively detracts from it. The tests are just supposed to be measuring progress, but instead they’re diminishing the very progress they are trying to measure. How many schools and teachers have yielded to the testing behemoth and surrendered their classes and how many kids have been lost as collateral damage? At a time when teaching should be striving to be innovative and encouraging creativity and critical thinking it’s becoming drill for the test, drill for the test, kids tuning out and kids who are stressed. Rote skills have their place but they should not be replacing. Teachers should be using data to inform decisions but there is also an art to the profession that is being sanctioned out of it.


And with thoughts like these churning in my subconscious while I planned lessons, there was that tuba squeak resonating in my ear. I understand how music training works. You must sit and practice and practice and that process is far less glamorous than it’s made out to be. Learning is like that at times too (and those Disney movies always skip that part). Perhaps my neighbor will stick with it and loves playing that tuba. But after a year of playing, I still don’t hear any joy. It sounded like it’s just being done to go through the motions, like it’s something that must be done and checked off a box.


I want my kids to be engaged and interested. That doesn’t happen when the end game is to pass a test. I want real learning, not something dressed up as learning masquerading around in the classroom. I want kids to have passion for what they’re doing. I want to foster their creativity. To encourage them to take risks. To help them find meaning and to care. In writing, there is a quality called duende that also fits here. It’s not easily defined or captured but it’s essentially authentic passion and inspiration. It’s like B.B. King closing his eyes and going to another place during a performance. (I like the Muddy Waters’ version of this song better though).

I know that school can’t be like this all of the time, but it needs to be a part of it. This idea is also what Shots of Awe is talking about here:

And another Shots of Awe actually cites Ken Robinson too and mentions the role of school:


 This all connects to my final make: that tuba, the professional development, the great quandary of our generation and teaching to a test.


             Motivation. Buy-in. Relevance. Connection.

This is essentially what Lizzy was writing about and this is also what Precious Knowledge excels in.


I think of what I read in college and what I read now. I would have had no interest as a high school student in them. We must scaffold, but a kid doesn’t want to build with you if they don’t connect, if they don’t care. That’s the challenge and that’s what’s going ignored. There’s no value in student opinion and what they think? That’s what helped me become engaged in literature in the first place. I connected. From there, great things are bound to happen. Yet that’s the quintessential piece that’s all too often severed.


Precious Knowledge focuses on the ethnic studies classes that were banned in Arizona. The classes boasted reducing the dropout rate (and did so much more). For Mexican-American students in Arizona there is a 50% dropout rate. For students who took the classes there was a 93% graduation rate. What’s more, the classes were about critical thinking and empowerment.

Check out the trailer for more.

My make is an inclusion of Precious Knowledge into my curriculum this year. 

It’s also designed in a way that it will continue to grow in the coming years. There is a handout that will help to provide context for the documentary and hopefully help to facilitate deep thinking on the topic. One of the strengths of the classes in the documentary is the college style discussion that takes place. This is something that I’ve always strived for in my classes too. There won’t be a way to measure this but this is the real purpose of the make: the discussion it will hopefully generate.

·       We’ll look at social justice issues.

·       We’ll talk about propaganda (the curriculum in the documentary is accused of being anti-American and one opponent even claims she feels it’s orchestrated by Mexico and meant to overthrew the U.S. government – no seriously).

·       We’ll debate issues classes in the documentary faced.

·       We’ll discuss how court cases work and look at the progress of the appeals process that’s still in the works ( ).

·       We’ll examine bias and censorship through book banning and modern examples ( &

Each quarter has a project that accompanies it at my school. I often offer options based off of what we’re studying. For this quarter, for the first time, the students will generate the choices. I will have guidelines for the goals of the project but each student will meet with me to plan their own (and groups are encouraged for this assignment but not required). I will also have suggestions to help brainstorming get started. One of those suggestions is for students to group together to make their own short documentary (next year I’ll need to start this earlier to help it function better).

One of my goals this year (going into next year) is to offer more choice in my classroom whenever possible (the thought/goal being that this encourages students to connect and engage in what they’re studying). One of those ideas is to find a way to set-up my classroom for this unit next year to have numerous documentary choices. In my head I’m thinking I can reserve a laptop cart and have different stations in the room for groups to view their selected documentary. Students would pick what they want to view and if it works, I can continue to add options every year. I still think it’s important to provide context for what students are watching beforehand and have it set-up in a way that the reflection afterwards is meaningful which is why it’s nice to have a stable of choices already at my disposal with content already planned.

I guess a lot of the components of my make can’t be reported yet but I’ll update once we start digging into the documentary in a few weeks. Lizzy was discussing field trips in her post, and while that’s important, her words also fit for what I have in mind: "It is so vital for kids to travel outside of their comfort zone and experience the world… One of the most academic advantages we can give students lies in exposing them to this world.“  

I’ll close with a favorite quote of mine on this topic:


Pop-up Teaching Hack

I’m going to experiment this week in the hopes of collaboration (I’m also trying to kill two birds with my make for the week). 

I’ve mentioned previously that the popularity of “life hacks” seems to be in keeping with our digital age. 

Every morning I write the date on the board (as I’m sure most teachers do). However, entering my 3rd year of teaching I had a brilliant idea in August. I Googled free calendars and printed one out for every month from September to June. I then took 40 minutes the day before school started to look through my online gradebook and write down the birthdays of all of my students on the calendars. These are hung up right next to where I write the date every morning and so I check every day and write “Happy birthday ____” for whoever has a birthday on that day. If someone has a birthday on a weekend, I will write “Happy early birthday ______” on Friday and “Happy belated birthday ______” on Monday to catch them. The last week of school I also take up an entire board to write all of the summer birthdays for recognition. 

The thing I’m getting at is that this is a ridiculously simple idea but it’s become very meaningful in the classroom. It doesn’t cost anything and the time invested isn’t much. More importantly, it helps to build community and it’s a small way to show that you care (and the little things add up). And this is where the idea for teaching hacks comes into play and where I would love some collaboration/help. 

What is one “teaching hack” that you would like to share with your colleagues? What’s one “trick” that makes your life as a teacher easier and/or more effective? 

Now obviously you can google “teaching hacks” and you’ll find some pretty cool ideas but a lot of these seem to focus on organizational aspects of the classroom. I’m really asking in a bigger sense, in small things that make big differences (which loops back around to equity and community in the classroom). 

Do you have a good one? 

Pop-up Teaching Hack

I’m going to experiment this week in the hopes of collaboration (I’m also trying to kill two birds with my make for the week). 

I’ve mentioned previously that the popularity of “life hacks” seems to be in keeping with our digital age. 

Every morning I write the date on the board (as I’m sure most teachers do). However, entering my 3rd year of teaching I had a brilliant idea in August. I Googled free calendars and printed one out for every month from September to June. I then took 40 minutes the day before school started to look through my online gradebook and write down the birthdays of all of my students on the calendars. These are hung up right next to where I write the date every morning and so I check every day and write “Happy birthday ____” for whoever has a birthday on that day. If someone has a birthday on a weekend, I will write “Happy early birthday ______” on Friday and “Happy belated birthday ______” on Monday to catch them. The last week of school I also take up an entire board to write all of the summer birthdays for recognition. 

The thing I’m getting at is that this is a ridiculously simple idea but it’s become very meaningful in the classroom. It doesn’t cost anything and the time invested isn’t much. More importantly, it helps to build community and it’s a small way to show that you care (and the little things add up). And this is where the idea for teaching hacks comes into play and where I would love some collaboration/help. 

What is one “teaching hack” that you would like to share with your colleagues? What’s one “trick” that makes your life as a teacher easier and/or more effective? 

Now obviously you can google “teaching hacks” and you’ll find some pretty cool ideas but a lot of these seem to focus on organizational aspects of the classroom. I’m really asking in a bigger sense, in small things that make big differences (which loops back around to equity and community in the classroom). 

Do you have a good one? 

That feeling when you have a new lesson idea…

   Last week I discussed the idea of badges as motivation and acknowledgment of achievement in the classroom. As a teacher I’m also always concerned with getting students invested in our learning. I want them to be motivated and to connect and care about what we’re studying. This isn’t something that’s discussed too often through the lens of our high stakes testing world but it’s the most important thing I strive to do in my class. I am constantly looking for things to connect to and make the material relevant so my kids can buy-in and then dive in deeply and critically.

   I think (and hope) that every teacher believes, as a core tenet of their teaching philosophy, that every kid loves to learn. The trick (for some of our kids) is finding their interest to get them to buy-in. For my other graduate class we just viewed Precious Knowledge and it’s the perfect example for what I’m grasping at articulating in this post.

   We’re getting to the stage of the year where I cover my non-fiction unit with my 10th graders. Every year we view a documentary as part of that non-fiction coverage. Documentaries are a very quick way to get controversial in the classroom. I always cover bias and we discuss how documentaries work with the author’s purpose. With that point made though I also remind my students that I want to teach them how to think, not what to think. We discuss. We examine. We question. We don’t all agree after analyzing.

I know Angelou had a poem in mind, but there’s also something about the medium of documentaries that’s fitting here. 

  This year I’m planning on switching up my documentary choice. Precious Knowledge has a lot of “baggage” that comes with it but I think with the right preparation beforehand and debriefing afterwards, my classes can handle it and would get a lot out of the documentary.

   The last day before Spring Break one of my classes had one of those days where we sidetrack but it’s worthwhile. We set the lesson aside for almost the entire class and followed the trail of our tangent. Every question and comment was insightful and we were diving in deeper as we went along. We were discussing big issues too, things concerning social justice and our society. One student asked about the Geno’s sign (pictured below). 

 We also happen to be examining the English-only movement in my other graduate class (picture below shows states with official English legislation)

The discussion with my English class only reinforced my belief that they can handle the content of Precious Knowledge.

     So the planning of the lesson has begun and I’m excited. Censorship and banned books will be tied-in. The recent possibility of banning U.S. History also connects. Ideas are floating through my head and flowing onto my paper to formulate something concrete. Abruptly, I’m dropping off here to get back to planning, though I would ask before I leave if you have any suggestions to add?

Idea of badges

For this week I’m not going to stray from the topic we’ve been discussing. Specifically I want to examine badges that demonstrate achievement.

Having worked at a Boy Scout camp, badges are obviously an easy connection there. My current school also has a strict uniform policy and one of the few areas to show individualism is tied to a system of participating in clubs, sports, and honors to earn pins that are allowed to be fixed to the blazer. Not every student buys in to this but it can be a great motivator for those who do (and that premise of “buying in” was also very important in our discussion on Wednesday).

This brings me to the natural connection when discussing badges 2015: video games. I’m sure most of you have heard the idea that 80% of the time someone is playing a video game, they are failing. I’m not sure if that’s factual but either way it can’t be disputed that failure is an important component (and motivator) in playing video games. Failure is also a part of growing up and of schooling. So why is the same student who is ready to quit at the first sign of distress in the classroom still coming back for more after the 20th time of not succeeding on a level?

A big thing about games is that there is instant feedback (some games even have meters that track progress and other stats). There is also a clear objective and a sense of achievement when you finally succeed (perhaps at times even approaching some measure of catharsis).

Feedback at school is not always so instant and there are plenty of students who question, “why are we reading this” and “when will I ever need this again?” There’s obviously a sense of achievement in the long run but kids don’t always want to see the big picture.

This is why the concept of badges in schools holds my interest. My juniors just completed “identity boxes”. Essentially I ask them to consider their “public” and “private” side. They decorate the outside and inside of their box and write a “public” and “private” poem and also explain why they chose those specific items. As I grade them every year it’s always interesting to see what students pick. Trophies and certificates are often featured. Kids want to be acknowledged. They want to have a sense of purpose and know that their work counts. If badges in the classroom can work towards this, then I’m intrigued. Obviously as mentioned buy in is important but if done properly this seems like a genuinely good way to make learning relevant. I think it would also encourage students to see a class for more than just the overall grade they are earning… but I suppose a posting about philosophy of grading can go untouched for another day.

My last thought is of a teacher at my school who just got married. He is an avid gamer and he has a picture from his wedding that uses this idea:

It’s interesting to consider how the digital and physical worlds are colliding and coalescing. Hopefully we can manage to keep up in the classroom!

“Brevity is the soul of wit”

As an English teacher I feel I value words (“words are things”), but there is also something to be said about the ability to get to the point. Shakespeare knew it. There is power in being direct and brief. There is a branch of short story called micro fiction/flash fiction that seems to be gaining popularity recently and I don’t think it’s an accident. 

A funny example below:

Our class is examining the connected world we create and inhabit and in some ways it seems to be increasingly condensed. Twitter has its character limits, life hack articles are giving out their secrets, and memes sweep over the corners of the internet because they are easily accessible.

With this in mind I present the 6 word memoir. When I student taught my cooperating teacher shared it with me and I’ve been using it ever since (I also know this idea has been out and about in the world already, I’m certainly not trying to claim I created it).

The first example I show my class is often attributed to Hemmingway (another product of the internet is falsely attributing a quote to make it seem more legitimate and intelligent)

But anyway, even if it’s not by him it’s a good example…

There are a number of ways to look at this but there’s some impressive depth considering it’s only 6 words. It’s a great way to make students engage critically with the unit I’m covering, review understanding of characters, and I’m also always harping on the validity of varied interpretations and this illustrates that. 

What’s tough (at least for me) is writing one for yourself. When I introduce this concept to my students, I ask them to write one first of their own, and then one for whatever unit we’re covering (and they get the chance to illustrate as they see fit).

These are examples taken just from the last batch that we did (some of these are greatly enhanced by the accompanying illustrations but I’m only posting the words). You can see, with some of these, teens sorting out who they are and who they want to be and at times there is some profound insight into identity:

“Can’t be defined in six words”

“Straight As, not even straight though”

“Mother to a beautiful daughter: Dahlila”

“One dream, two gloves, hardwork, dedication”

“Just a dream and a ball”

“A big boy, equals a big heart”

“Destiny watches as I walk blind”

“Everyone judges/ not knowing/ her story”

“A girl who can’t find herself”

“A vivacious and a lively bookworm”

“I am the wallpaper at the party”

“I am fierce but still undefined”

So my challenge to anyone reading, what would your six word memoir be? At first student have trouble with this too. How do you tell your “story” in only six words? What is important to you/about you? 

The only “rule” is that your “title” (which is just your name/the name of the character), does not count as part of your 6 words. Good luck! 

One more to end on and honor Monday:

A rose by any other name…

There is a bulletin board in one of the staff bathrooms at my school. The bulletin board has a bunch of pictures that are meant to be lighthearted and funny. There’s a specific picture that I’ve been considering using for a weekly blog post and last week when we talked about “makes” it made sense. Now that memes are being used this week it’s definitely time. 

A quick disclaimer: I understand the joke, and I get that it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but nevertheless, it’s our job as educators to worry about the little things (and often times the little things dictate what the larger ones will be). Students don’t have access to this bathroom but I’m thinking specifically of the symbolic curriculum we don’t always consider in what we do and don’t post in our classrooms. 

The picture:

Now I have certainly taught some students whose names I found to be strange and unique. However; I still see it as culturally insensitive to have that picture up.

Weeks ago Amy posted an article that adds depth to this discussion:

I also thought of the chapter from Freaknonimcs on the topic to add different viewpoints:

I read an awesome nonfiction book once that examined Indian Boarding Schools like Carlisle. Carlisle believed assimilation was the only way an Indian would survive in the modern world (i.e. “civilizing the native”). This was the belief so much that the quote cited in the book was:

'Kill the Indian, Save the Man”

When Native American children arrived (in some cases, parents had been coerced), the students were outfitted with traditional Euro-American clothing, they were expected to learn and speak English, short haircuts were given to the boys, and the children had to pick Christian names to replace the ones they had arrived with

The picture below shows a before and after for a Carlisle student:

I would also point out that it’s worth considering that all names are made up, as is any language we use to express ideas that ridicule some as inferior or less than. And this is where we start to loop back to an examination of Western society and what’s already established, and thus maintained, as dominant in our culture.

Last but certainly not least, I’d like to end with an awesome clip that might sway anyone who is still skeptical (and if you’re not skeptical you’ll still really enjoy the story from the video): 

If they can learn to say… 

Perception Connection

If you use the internet or teach older kids, by this morning you probably heard about “the dress”. Gold and white or blue and black? From the lens of this class it’s interesting to see how quickly social media ignited the debate. 

As someone who is colorblind, I like that it allowed for a little empathy for kids to understand what it’s like to see things differently. My kids are always fascinated by my colorblindness and want to know about it. Dating back to my student teaching, kids have wanted to know what it’s like to be colorblind. This curiosity coupled with the fact that students weren’t confident in differing interpretations inspired me to create a perception lesson. I would have students providing insightful answers of interpretation with no confidence and seeking out what I thought to define if they were “correct” or not. The beauty of English (and why math based folks don’t tend to like say a poetry unit) is that there is often more than one valid answer. And the perception unit was born with the overarching goal of looping back around to show students that since the world can be so varied in how we see it and understand it, they ought to embrace literature in the same way. 

One of the starting quotes to the lesson fits nicely to the dress debate: ”The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to 
comprehend” -Robertson Davies

Pictured above, a small taste of some of the material from my perception lesson: I’m told (not that I can tell) that the picture on the left is what “normal” vision folks see, to me both of these pictures look identical. 

The lesson was created at King but I’ve tinkered with it and added to it in all the years since. I can modify the lesson to span 1.5 days or up to 2 weeks. It looks at how we perceive the world, optical illusions, colorblindness, Descartes and metacognition, and on and on. 

So I had to walk into work with a smile today, knowing the barrage of questions from kids on what “side” of the dress “debate” I stood on would come flying all day. 

Another quote I use in the lesson (before citing examples like echolocation): “It is the commonest of mistakes to consider that the limit 
of our power of perception is also the limit of all there is to 
perceive” -C.W. Leadbeater

We Could Be King

If you’re reading this, thank you for taking the time.

If you want to get a little more “juice” out of reading, take a look at this trailer for We Could Be King first before reading on. 

Your zip code should not determine the quality of your education in America.  The documentary We Could Be King does a good job of juxtaposing the counterintuitive reality against this statement with the role of sports in high school. 

It’s not hard to find studies that examine the importance of extracurricular activities in high school. It’s also not hard to find examples of disparity where extracurricular activities are slashed yearly from the budget of some high schools (of course education spending overall in Pennsylvania is also distributed unevenly against schools that serve the most low-income students).

One example recently posted on “In 1991, there were 176 certified librarians in city schools. Now there are 11 – for 218 schools.”

One of the more visually heartbreaking examples has stuck with me since I read about it in 2013. Below is a screenshot of the story (when Philly music teachers put on a farewell concert in anticipation of budget cuts killing the entire program that was already decimated). 

 I also wouldn’t be surprised to read about the added importance of extracurriculars in preventing dropout rates in low-income areas (though I haven’t done that research). We Could Be King also mentions this. Art, music, sports, etc. create interest and give at-risk students an incentive to get to class. It allows some students to buy in, it makes learning relevant, and it helps to foster community within the school (and if done properly, within the greater community).

Two weeks ago I pushed off what I had planned to post after watching the Wednesday meet-up. Last week, the conclusion of the basketball season pushed them off again. Already this week my plans have been altered thanks to Netflix. I was aware of We Could Be King when it was originally released but didn’t get to catch it so I was really excited to find it had been made available on Netflix recently.

It was so surreal for me to watch the documentary. I student taught at Martin Luther King five years ago. I can still remember stepping off the bus to meet with my cooperating teacher before the school year started. It was summer and it was hot. I stepped off the bus into the bright August sun. Shards of broken glass crunched under my nervous step as I walked through the parking lot. I didn’t know what entrance to go into. I walked around the school searching. Summer school was finishing for the day and a fight had broken out in the parking lot with 20+ students. I kept my distance and kept searching for the entrance. I finally found it and stepped inside. Two tall metal detectors and security guards greeted me at the door. I gulped and asked myself if perhaps, this time, I had bitten off more than I could chew. I felt intimidated and out of my league. Requesting a placement in the city might have been a mistake.

And yet, the moment I found Fran’s room and she asked “Eric?”, something changed. She put me at ease instantly. I can’t quantify what it was, perhaps her warmth or unassuming nature, but my mini-freak out was over immediately. I was in good hands (not something all student-teachers can say, especially not when they teach in the city). I don’t know how I knew that to be true in just a few minutes of meeting her, but I knew that I truly was going to be in good hands, and it certainly turned out to be true.

And now, watching the opening minutes of this documentary… seeing those hallways again, the metal lockers, the murals, the metal detectors… surreal just isn’t the word.

There are many beautiful murals at King, this one using a Hughes poem is the first I saw and still my favorite. 

As the movie progressed more memories flooded back. I went to those football games. One of the teachers who helped me along was the cheerleading coach.

The documentary doesn’t mention how the Renaissance process works that got King to where it was when the movie started (though that’s not a knock on what I found to be an excellent documentary). One of my two cooperating teachers was one of the football coaches at King before the transformation. When a school becomes a Renaissance Charter in Philadelphia they have to fire all leadership and are not allowed to hire back any more than 49% of the teaching staff. My second cooperating teacher wanted to stay. They made him jump through hoops. It didn’t end up working out. He was committed, he was genuine, and he was never the problem.

When I student taught at King, we even played two games of touch football against the Germantown teachers. One of the driving issues of the narrative, that creates tension, is the closing of Germantown and the merging of both student bodies into King’s hallways. 

Seeing the newspaper clippings of the doomsday budget flashes all of that back into my mind. And with hindsight, witnessing it only makes the reality worse.

I feel on the outside in some ways, working at a charter; or at least insulated (I’m told that we feel the effects a year later).

I’ve always felt an attachment to King. I tried to stay there. I’ve kept tabs on it ever since. I live 2 miles away. I still remember reading about the neighborhood lined up on the first day of school to cheer on students and bring some positivity. It was great to actually see it from the documentary.

This is not a film review or recap but I loved a lot of how it was presented (of course that was also my expectation beforehand). The narrative choice worked to weave in football, the merger of Germantown students at King, and the budgeting crisis of the district.

I’ve recommended the movie to some friends who are also teachers at my school. I’m curious to see their reaction. I want an unbiased source to watch it. I want someone who isn’t predisposed to like it and think of their personal time at the school like me to be objective with it.

This week for ED667 a focus will be maps. It has me thinking of my own course to this point and how I’ve ended up here. For some reason a line from a Tennyson poem has been stuck in my head as I’ve thought on maps: “ I am a part of all that I have met.” King is a part of that, probably more than any other 4-month experience has been or will be.

There is a very potent and literal metaphor the coach of King’s football team uses with his players. There is a hill that the players run up quite often to “stay humble”. Later in the movie he actually has them taking snaps on the hill to scrimmage. There is a shot of them lining up on that hill, their coach and the horizon shining bright above them. The game is already hard. Being forced to play in this way does not help. In many ways that’s life but really in many ways it is urban education. It is indifferent or ignorant policymakers (and I can’t decide which is worse). It’s your motivation aching and telling you that it’s been enough. It’s gravity and everything else trying to convince you to let go and fall back down. But there’s a silver lining. Up above is light. There’s your coach and on each side of you there is support from your teammates but they’re also expecting support from you.

As I wrote about last week, I believe in the power of sports (and the value of other extracurricular activities). I think (and hope) that the world of teaching is cyclical. Fran mentioned once, that I came into teaching during the “dark ages”. I’ve always felt I’m a realistic optimist (though I like Jon Stewart and his “angry optimist” description even better). Getting my start in teaching at King the year before it was converted into a Renaissance school has probably exposed me to some of the despair and darkness in my profession right now. As I’ve continued to teach for the last five years I’ve watched as teaching has been attacked and disrespected. I can only keep working and hope that the cycle rotates and we get back to some enlightened thinking and positive support. I’m not sure of where or how to end this post (thus my rambling) but I think that might also be a point.

The movie ends on a good note but it also serves as a reminder that all is not won. There is more to do. There is always more to do. I think that’s a good thing. Yet as Hughes wrote “hold fast”…

Basketball: the good fused with an unexpected ugly

Sports have always been a pretty positive thing in my life. I can also see how easily they can help teenagers mature,grow, and learn valuable lessons. This has also stretched into the realm of coaching I have taken on in the last three years with coaching the boys basketball team at my school and taking on head coaching duties for the girls as well this year. Tonight was one of those nights that challenges and emboldens that point all at once.

The basketball team at my school consists entirely of African-American and Latino boys.  I commented before the game today to the head coach, that I think it’s great that our team plays schools that aren’t like ours. The schools can be different, the neighborhoods can be different, and of course the student body and basketball teams can also be different. This exposure also generates honest questions and discussion at times. When we play a school that serves deaf players, our guys have questions about sign language and how a classroom functions differently for deaf students. When we play Jewish schools they ask about the Jewish religion and how the players manage to keep yamakas on during the game.

Tonight was the last game of the season for the boys and it was against a Jewish school that always plays us tough. All three years have ended with us playing an away game against the same opponent. All three years we have played that same opponent at home earlier in the week. The first two years the results were the same for all four games: a loss. One year we had two players suspended for an argument in a previous game so we had no bench and were outrun to exhaustion in the game. Another year we fell short in the fourth quarter. The other team is well coached, they are fundamentally sound, and they know the scheme they run and their roles.

This year, basketball tryouts had the biggest turnout we have ever had. I think/hope that we’re growing something through school culture in some small ways with basketball. After we had our team set, I talked to the head coach about those two games that would come at the end of the year. We both agreed; this could be the year we finally had a run at them.  On Monday we had our test. It took overtime but we managed to finally get a win. We knew immediately that we had to prepare for their best again tonight and for adjustments they would make against us.

It’s easy once you’re engrossed in the game to forget how miniscule the outcomes can really be.  It’s about putting forth your best, at all times, and always getting better (and with that done properly the competition comes naturally). In the 3rd quarter tonight, one of our best players stopped playing and walked towards the bench asking for a timeout. What was wrong? He seemed upset. The ref blew the whistle and he came over to explain.

Now the player on our team is a junior. He made the starting five by the first game of his freshman year. Talent has never been the issue for this young man. His attitude has been. He can be his own worst enemy and he has allowed his emotions to dictate his play at times. As a freshman, there would be times he insisted he didn’t want to play anymore because his teammates “were scared”. He would struggle to try to help them get better and grow frustrated at their mistakes (while ignoring that he, like all of us, made them too at times). From freshman through sophomore year we worked with him, we tried to help him grow, and he did. This year his growth has been even better and he has continued to step into a leadership role for the team not only with his game play but also with his work ethic and most importantly his attitude and demeanor.

Seeing all of this made me proud to see his reaction when he explained why he wanted a timeout. Yet on the other hand, the fact that he had to deal with it at all was beyond frustrating. The player on the other team had thrown racial slurs in his ear to try to intimidate him. He had called him a monkey (among other things). Our player, as a freshman, might have lost it immediately and come to blows. The junior version had put his hands up. He had stepped away immediately and come to the bench to ask for a timeout. He had come to us and vented his frustration (and don’t mistake that when he came to the bench he talked of being angry and wanting to hit the other player). While our head coach tried to calm him down I went over to the refs and made them aware. They spoke with the player in question. He admitted it. He said he was wrong to do it and that he regretted it. I returned to hear our head coach tell our player, “I can’t imagine how that feels, and you shouldn’t have to deal with that, but you have to be able to rise above that.” He understood. He fought to regain his composure. He went back into the game and he continued to play (though obviously it was on his mind as we finished out the game).

We won the game, by a 17-point margin. Our season concludes with a 14-3 record (the best in our school history). Yet for me, all of that was overshadowed, by the ugliness of a few charged words

As a white male growing up in America I’ve been dealt one hell of a privileged hand. Our head coach is the same. I don’t think we can entirely imagine how our player felt in that moment tonight.

After the game I pulled him aside. I wanted him to know that when I talked to him after the incident I wasn’t trying to justify or excuse what the other player had done; I was simply trying to calm him down and let him focus on his game. I had mentioned that I talked to the refs and that the other player had acknowledged his wrongdoing and regretted it. I told him that he had to be better when he told us that he wanted to shout back “Jew” in the other players face and hit him.

After the game though, I wanted to reiterate that he had every right to be angry and hurt. I just didn’t want to see him let someone else and their ignorance get in his way. He told me he understood.

When I took on head coaching responsibilities for the girls’ teams because they couldn’t find a replacement coach for the season I told our A.D. that I still wanted to work as assistant for the boys. She told me that was fine but that I wouldn’t be compensated for being the assistant since I was the head coach for the girls. The extra income (while wedding saving) would have been nice but I didn’t hesitate to agree. It’s been great seeing my students in different ways beyond the classroom. I care about my kids and having worked with some of the boys on the team for three years now there is a special place for them. I want to see them succeed. It has been a long season mixed with teaching, grad school, wedding plan, and sleep (from time to time). Seeing the players work hard and have it pay off makes it worth it (though I know that might sound clichéd).

I’m so proud to see him continue to grow in ways beyond basketball. Sports can be a catalyst that facilitates and fosters that growth. I’m struggling and I know I can’t find the words to express what I’m trying to say. So I’ll end by simply saying that I really am so proud, mixed with happy, mixed with appreciative for the opportunity to coach these young men. Even without being paid, I’ve been earning just as much as I’ve been giving from the experience.