Dear S, (Student Letter #8)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging in and out of the classroom, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the eighth post in the series.

Dear S,

It’s been a while. Hope you’re doing well. We haven’t spoken in over five years and I’m not sure you even remember me. Maybe you do. We interacted a lot. You were in my Algebra 2 class. I think you were in both of my robotics electives, too. In fact, for two years, you were one of the leaders of the robotics club. The truth is, you knew more about robotics than me. And you were definitely more passionate about it.

While you may not remember me, I remember you. What I remember most about you is that you were one of the first students in my career who challenged me. Not in a bad or rude way, but in a way that made me question myself and my motives. It’s not like pointed any of your words or actions directly at me. No, you were merely insanely curious about the world and what you could do to better it. If anything, you were looking past me. Way, way past me. I saw the classroom, grades, lesson plans. You saw the world.

You were someone whose love of reading and books. (Looking back, I’m smile when I think how horrible you were about renewing your library books.) You read things that I would have never thought of picking up. Your interests were vast and varied. Somehow you were able to see the interconnectedness of it all.

What I really appreciated about you, S, was how your reading compelled you to seek out knowledge from those around you, like me. Now I never had any answers to your insistent questions, but you still sought them from me. I realized this back then and I realize it again right now: your questions uplifted me. They nagged at me that I should be doing more. Like I said before, you challenged me. You were assertive, creative, and chased down ideas with passion. You set your sails and harnessed the wind. I floated through my days and prayed I would reach the shore.

Though I was much taller than you, I often felt small whenever we spoke. Not all the time, just sometimes, like whenever your environmental and moral consciousness revealed itself to me. You had grand ideas. Most teenagers do (albeit about things not much bigger than themselves), and this was not shocking to me, but yours were far more grounded and tamed. For instance, while we were learning right triangle trig, your mind was focused on developing an app to help the homeless folks you walk past each morning on your way to school. While I was teaching the class about function transformations, you were rethinking our school’s recycling program. And while all the other students were worried about passing exams, you organized a hackathon at our school.

Sharing these moments with you helped me see that students are much bigger than the chairs and desks they inhabit. Their hearts and minds have ambitions that go far beyond my curriculum. Thank you for pursuing answers to your questions with me, although I probably did more to distract you from finding them than I did in helping you. Thank you for the inspiration.

For what it’s worth, I wonder how you’re faring these days. In the middle of dual pandemics, what are you thinking about? What are your passions? Where are you?

I wonder.

Mr. P

P.S. Thanks for all of your creative closings to your emails and Friday Letters. All these years later, I’m just now learning to appreciate these valedictions as a means of creative expression in ending a written correspondence. As the writer, they seem to leave a good taste in my mouth after I hit send…and I can only hope they do the same for the reader. All yours about cat advocacy still make me smile.

My two cents (Week of Jan 18, 2021)

For each school day of the 2020-21 school year, I will be writing two sentences to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had that day. This is the 16th post in the series.

Monday (Jan 11)
No classes — MLK Day

Tuesday (Jan 12)
A rough day; students weren’t learning, I struggled to teach, nothing worked. By the end of it, I found myself questioning so much of what means to be a teacher.

Wednesday (Jan 13)
A better day. A new handshake: And One.

Thursday (Jan 14)
Did my second group quiz, which was paced much better. Because of the natural collaboration they trigger for students, I think these quizzes will be become a routine.

Friday (Jan 15)
For the second week in a row, I had a colleague observe my c0-generative dialogue. The feedback from the both of them was priceless.


My two cents (Week of Jan 4, 2021)

For each school day of the 2020-21 school year, I will be writing two sentences to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had that day. This is the 15th post in the series.

Monday (Jan 4)
Used Desmos to do my How are you doing? graphing activity to open class. Spent a lot of time catching up with kids and asking them about their New Year’s resolutions.

Tuesday (Jan 5)
In a random act of engagement, I had first period vote for the shirt that I was going to wear for the entire day; they chose a denim button up. Met with two colleagues after school to plan an initiative around teacher compassion based on a recent episode of Freakonomics.

Wednesday (Jan 6)
Feeling the start of a new tradition, I had first period vote again for my shirt and they chose a Boogie Down Books hoodie. Feeling defeated and isolated, I still find myself leaving my camera off during certain staff meetings. Played an uplifting game of Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe with two students during office hours. (OK, that’s three sentences…but it’s my blog, I can break the rules all I want.)

Thursday (Jan 7)
I was shook by the domestic terrorist attack on the capital and frailly attempted to address it with students. First period voted for a cozy sweater that I haven’t worn in over a year.

Friday (Jan 8)
I sat around and pounded the keyboard all day. It was a quiet day, lots of grading.


My 2020 in books

Ah, 2020. What a year. It was filled with a lot. Frankly, probably too much. One thing that helped get me through this year was reading. Through all the bumps, bruises, and realizations, the books I read this year helped provide me some solace.

As I look back on my year through books, audiobooks played a bigger role than they ever have. (I read 35 books in 2020; three were audiobooks. I’m breaking records!) Last year I commented on how proud I was to have reread a book and how I hoped that it would become a tread for me. Well, I wouldn’t call it a trend yet, but I did manage to read four books this year for the second time, one of which I read twice this year.

As in years past, a good chunk of my reading this year was centered around race and racism. Given the racial and social uprising that occurred this year, there were many, many social justice-themed booklists popping up all over the internet. I peeked at them, but quickly got overwhelmed. In the end, my guiding principles were to dive deep into history and to ensure, no matter what books I found myself reading, that the authors were mostly folks of color. Added fuel for this came from an antiracist summer book club I helped organize with my school.

In no particular order, here are some of the standouts from all the books I read this year.

  • Late in the year, Eddie S. Glaude’s Begin Again formally introduced me to the heart and mind of James Baldwin, which I am thankful for. I was pulled to read it after listening to Glaude on an episode of NPR’s Throughline podcast. Although I read Fire Next Time last year, I approached it blindly. Begin Again gave me needed context and positioned me to better interpret Baldwin’s work. Almost immediately after finishing Begin Again, I read No Name in the Street, which was passionate and pointed.
  • I enjoyed the symmetry between Katherine D. Kinzler’s How You Say It and Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening. One focused on language and speaking and the other on how we listen to each other, but both reminded me of the importance of communication. How You Say It also opened my eyes (and ears) to language bias and discrimination…and how widely accepted they are in society.
  • Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport was great. It reminded me a lot of Essentialism from Greg McKeown, which I read a couple of years ago. I couldn’t help get a sense of elitism from Newport (and McKeown), but I appreciated his message nonetheless. Given that practically everything has moved to a screen now, his book was a refreshing pushback to make sure that I use technology to serve my personal and professional needs. At least partially because of his book, interestingly, I no longer have a SmartPhone.
  • Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, which was published 1971, proved to be one of the more stimulating, momentum-building books of the year. A colleague gifted it to me before the school year began and it lit my fire for the year ahead. It motivated a blog post that helped me realize that, despite my struggles with infusing social justice into my curriculum, the medium is the message.
  • Rereading For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin was inspirational. When I first read it in 2016, it felt lofty. A lot has happened within me since then and, in reading it again this year, Emdin’s message was clearer and more in-sync with my goals. It moved me to organize scheduled cogenerative dialogues with my students this year. (It also paired well with Teaching as a Subversive Activity.) I can’t wait to read Ratchetdemic next year.
  • Like a lot of the reading I did this year, Locking Up Our Own by James Foreman provided me a history lesson. Saturated with data, it gives an honest and forthright perspective on policing, the criminal justice system, and their impacts on Black Americans — and our country as a whole. Clearly written, Foreman tendered an incredibly complex narrative in a straightforward and concise manner. Hats off.
  • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari was long, but worth the time investment. He did a masterful job of making me feel like a speck on the timeline of history, but also helped me understand a great deal about how we sapiens arrived here in this moment.
  • Ben Orlin’s Math with Bad Drawings was hilarious, insightful, and warm-hearted all at the same time. Easily five stars. My only disappointment is that it took me so long to get around to it. Since reading Math with Bad Drawings, I’ve been doing my best to emulate Orlin’s stick figures with my kids. They’re so fun and lively. Needless to say, I’ve been failing miserably.
  • Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su and Christopher Jackson was special. Su and Jackson found a way to capture the intersection of mathematics and humanity in an engaging, heartfelt, and beautiful way. Their open letters throughout the book epitomized the overarching message of the book and left me feeling uplifted and ready.
  • We Want to Do More Than Survive by Bettina Love was probably my Book of the Year. It was outstanding and exposed much of what I’ve been searching for these last few years. Love’s poignant comparison of teachers today with 19th century abolitionists revealed as much as it motivated. Hell, the book was so good that, back in June, it got its own blog post.
  • I didn’t get into much fiction in 2020. That said, I closed the year with the novel The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which, although I’m not actually finished with it yet, is outstanding and easily one of my best books of 2020. I doubled-down on Coates by rereading Between the World and Me in late summer, which is easily in my personal top ten books of all time. Coates has a unique ability of leveraging words to capture the absoluteness and idea, experience, or scene — especially when it comes to matters of race, racism, and the human condition — in ways that few writers can.