My 2019 in books

My 2019 was filled with lots of great reading. Managing to squeeze out 33 books, I purposely allowed my reading habits to wander, to let them freely take me wherever. There was a little of this, a little of that, a solid, if not random, blend of genres and subjects. If I walked into Barnes & Noble, as I often did to find a book, and something struck me, I whipped out my phone and placed an immediate hold at the library. After it arrived, I would do my best to dig in, but most of the time something else had already stolen my attention. I got around to most of them eventually, with a few collecting dust for months and eventually being returned unread.

No matter what I read, as the months passed I tried to remain cognizant of the racial makeup of the authors. I was always glad when I felt the stern peck of my social conscience whenever I mindlessly read multiple white authors in a row.

Earlier this month, I aptly gifted books that I read this year to a handful of colleagues. I matched each recipient to a book based on who they are and the unique connection that we share in and out of the classroom. In my own cheezy way, I found it comforting to pass on some of what I read and learned from the past 12 months to folks that deeply respect. It was like giving part of me and my growth. For personal reasons, I denoted these books (the ones that made the lists below, anyway) with an asterisk (*).

Nonfiction |  A steady stream of hearty nonfiction titles kept finding their way into my hands this year. Thankfully, there were only one or two disappointments. For the first time, I even reread a book this year. Yay, me! Hopefully this becomes a trend. OK, here are the standouts:

  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer. With a goal of writing more this year, I found myself drifting towards books geared towards writers. These two surely evoked my inner wordsmith, offering new ideas and tips to strengthen who I am behind the keyboard. Dangling participles beware, I’m coming for you.
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction* by Alan Jacobs. To couple my surging sense of authorship, I got all meta and spent some time reading about reading. Orlean’s exceptional account of the tragic 1986 Los Angeles library fire help to satisfy my growing fascination with public libraries. Jacobs’s book was a well-written page-turner, plain and simple.
  • Teaching Community* by bell hooks. Full of love and stuffed with all the emotion that is inexplicably absent from today’s classrooms, this modestly adorned book was so darn good that I turned it into a blog post.
  • Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions* by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. A lovely crossover, fuzing two ostensibly different worlds. As someone vaguely familiar with the principles of computer science, a lover of math, and an undisclosed technophobe, I ate it up and went for seconds.
  • White Rage by Carol Anderson was great. As a white person, this gem provided me a much-needed history lesson. It peeled back the many layers of white privilege that shapes the history of our country. It was a bit stilted and heavy on academic jargon, but still fairly digestible.
  • Why We Sleep* by Matthew Walker. This wins the Most Impactful Book of the Year Award. The importance of sleep is well known, and every study ever decrees its supremacy when it comes to healthy living, yet, after reading this, somehow I still think we underestimate it. Walker does an impeccable job at making accessible the complex world that we find ourselves in after our eyes close.
  • Becoming* by Michelle Obama. Easily the best book of the year. After I turned the last page and closed the back cover, I felt compelled, right then and there, to turn the book over and reread it. While I didn’t do it, I would have given anything for this beauty to go on for another 400 pages. Finishing it was a huge disappointment. Thanks, Michelle.

Fiction | As in 2018, I eked out five books of fiction this year. They were peppered in throughout the year and, desiring to create a shared reading experience with my students, I read one with a mentee over the summer. That was enjoyable. Of the lot, here are my two favorites:

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Loath as I am to admit that I’ve never read this before this year, I must admit that it moved me. This is a special book with a special message. Both the writing and imagery were stellar. By the end, I was left hurt and confused because of how much our society mirrors Bradbury’s dystopia. Questions abound.
  • Dark Matter* by Blake Crouch. Reading this book was like eating a slice of pie after at the close of Thanksgiving dinner: I scarfed it down and felt completely satisfied. (Unrelated: Why all the food references, am I hungry?) I can’t remember now why I even started reading it because it doesn’t at all pique my interest, but, interestingly, its plunge into quantum physics jibed well with a fun and informative children’s book that the fam checked out from the library at around the same time.

 

bp

I collapsed in my classroom

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

That modest question was posed to me by a student in my 7th period class a little over a month ago. Only it wasn’t a game or a joke, nor was it some clever part of my lesson that day. I hadn’t planned to hear it, just as the student hadn’t planned to ask it, but it was a serious question.

He asked because I had collapsed. I was on my back in the middle of my classroom and he needed to know if I could see straight. Thankfully, though we would playfully disagree later, I answered correctly. It was three.

A few minutes before I successfully counted his sharp-cornered fingers, everything was normal. All 30 of my students were turned towards the twelve giant whiteboards that cover the walls of our room. They were factoring. Doing a damn good job at it too. Near the end, as I nonchalantly tilted my head to survey a piece of work on a nearby board, the walls instantly rushed to life and the room whirled uncontrollably. It was like an unfriendly 60-mph merry-go-ground, except without the horses, lights, and music. The abrupt velocity of the spinning rocked me. I had no time to grab a nearby desk and barely uttered a word before the side of my head smacked against the floor. 

An intense case of vertigo had mercilessly shoved me to the ground.

I stayed down for a few minutes. I had to. The walls, and now ceiling, continued to sway. I closed my eyes for comfort.

Slowly, after about a minute, the room started to stand still again. I overheard a kid say that I was playing a joke. After all, I did unexpectedly contract a severe throat virus just a few weeks prior. Someone soon realized that I wasn’t joking and that’s when I was forced to count fingers. My concerned student held them up four feet from my no-doubt expressionless face. I never imagined that counting three fingers from the hand of a teenager would be so satisfying, but it was. Almost cheerfully, I managed to sit up.

He cautiously helped me to a neighboring seat. As I gathered myself, I looked around and noticed that the majority of the class was still glued to their boards. They were so immersed in the work that they hadn’t even noticed my collapse. I was still dazed, but deep inside, pride welled up. I was slumped in a chair, confused, with a golf-ball sized lump forming on my head, yet my students were assiduously lost in their work. Though brief and distressing, looking out at them at that moment was special. It was fulfilling and sustaining. I will always remember it.

As a student sprinted out of the room to grab my assistant principal, I tentatively reached around to turn off the background music that I had playing through the SmartBoard. Other than the handful of students who were aiding me, it was then that the majority of the class peeked over their shoulders and noticed that something was wrong. I was the center of an anxious huddle. As the kids unhitched themselves from the boards and grabbed their seats, it was evident that this was unfamiliar to us all. The buzz that filled the room just a few minutes earlier was now replaced with uncertain silence. With raised brows and gaping mouths, worry was painted all over their faces as I tried to explain what happened. Although clear and coherent, my words zigzagged and missed every ear in the room. I was at a loss. Thankfully, after about my third muddled sentence, my AP arrived and the kids were ushered out just before the bell.

Other than the lump on the left side of my head, I actually felt fine about 10 minutes after the fall. Nevertheless, I left school early, paid a visit to the hospital, and, per doctor’s orders, stayed home the next day. I emailed my students, even those not in that particular class, to let them know what happened. I needed them to know that I was OK and that I missed them.

Upon returning to school, I was humbled by the torrent of concern and support from my students and school community. It seemed that everyone in the building knew about my fall, even those who I don’t teach or know, and they were all coming up to ask me how I was doing. I received many warmhearted emails and notes. We share the building with a different school and one of their teachers even checked in on me. I felt overwhelmingly and undeservingly cared for. These uplifting interactions will stay with me for a long time.

It’s been weeks since I fell, and I’ve had no dizziness since then, but I’ve often thought about that day. I’ve thought about how none my students, in all of their years of school, have ever seen their teacher lying flat on their back during class. I’ve thought about how teachers are the implicit leaders in a classroom, and how problematic it could be for a student to witness their leader, their mentor, their guide, lose his ability to stand upright. I’ve thought about, having now unwillingly brought his experience to my students, how unsettled it makes me feel.

Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how fitting it all is. Given the business-like nature of school and the supremacy of results, vulnerability is not a welcome part of what we do. My stolid, paperwork-driven school system, which includes an impersonal curriculum and a lifeless 27-pages booklet, among other things, works against the humanism that is at the center of all teaching and learning. We’re there physically, but this machinery chases who we are out of the room and down the hall. I’m told that my whiteness, my maleness, my passions, my flaws, can’t influence what happens in room 227. We talk a good game about growth mindset, are quick to cite research and put up posters, but in the end, with so much on the line, being imperfect is a weakness. It’s hard to be human and function like one in the classroom. In my search for meaning in such a stale, emotionless system, in my belief that teaching is my calling, these thoughts weigh heavily on me. I interrogate them, pick at them, hoping I can discover and deliver my authentic, human self to my students each day.

Well, it’s safe to say I was human that day in 7th period. My vulnerability was so appropriately displayed. There was no multiple choice question to hide it, no “Do Now” to take the attention off of it. I was there, on the floor. All of me. And my students bear witness to it.

Two days after I fell, when I returned to my students, I couldn’t hold any of this back. A health scare forcibly ripped me from them and where I belonged. I was emotional. I stood erect and apologized to any of them who may have been affected by what happened, but mostly I expressed my deep gratitude for their kindness, compassion, and readiness during one of the neediest moments of my life. I told them that this shared experience has bonded us for life, which it will. Having been through this together, there’s a unique closeness that pervades our room now. I relish it.

Looking back, I could have never predicted where something so scary would happen to me. But if I could have, and being around family was not an option, I would have chosen my classroom, right where it happened. For it is there, of all places in the universe, surrounded my students, and continually swept away by learning and personal growth, where I feel most alive. 

 

bp

Letters of recommendation: the aftermath + excerpts

Two months ago, I wrote about letters of recommendation. The post meandered, but it was fun to think through. The seriousness with which I’ve begun thinking about my writing was at its core.

Since that post back in October, I’ve written 16 letters of recommendation. This is the first time in any year that I’ve counted, but that has to be a record for me. I had a goal to change how I think about writing these letters. Instead of producing them casually, I wanted them to be more personal and directed. I wanted to throw myself into them and elevate their status above all the other rudimentary writing I do for school purposes. I spent a few hours on each, some more. I stayed up late and woke early. I grew more patient with what and how I wrote. I steered myself away from the immediacy of copy and pasting — which can be tempting with this type of writing. I strived to really find each student and give voice to their journey. I also jostled with opening paragraphs a lot, trusting delayed ledes more and more as the weeks passed. I tinkered with analogies, searching for the perfect match. I followed up with students on the details that I knew would pack a punch.

While demanding, my change in mindset never felt burdensome. Mainly because the letters went from being a task on my To-Do List to being a unique writing opportunity and means of expression for me. I used the letters to offer my thoughtful perspective on students for the faceless admissions officers who might spend 90 seconds reviewing it, but I also wanted to be critical of my own writing. With each letter, I stretched who I was as a writer. I’m proud of that. Interestingly, in the midst of grinding out my little cornucopia of letters, I began reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. Because of its eloquence, I found myself flipping through its pages often, stealing words, adjectives, and phrases to use in the letters. To pick up such a well-written book, while at the same time thinking deeply about my own writing, was an unexpected blessing.

Despite my newfound allegiance to them, the letters still weren’t as sharp as I would’ve liked. I would have liked to nibble on many of them more, help make them better. Oh, well. These things called due dates run the show. Nonetheless, because writing them swallowed so much of my time over the last eight weeks of my life, I wanted to capture bits and pieces that stood out. I combed through the 16 that I’ve written so far and found an excerpt that I liked or found meaningful. I’ve included some of them here.

  • It is uncommon to find to young person so concerned with bettering the world through community service. ____ is academically driven and ready to dedicate her life to serving others, but she needs exposure to and experience in the workforce in order to fully blossom into the giving adult she wants to become. This is where the ____ comes in.
  • Yet as valuable as words are, few humans, let alone high school students, understand their worth. Most use words boastfully or neglectfully, never thinking twice before allowing whatever it is that is on their mind to spill out of their mouth. I say all this because I want to tell you about a student who challenges this norm.

  • Usually, it is the teacher’s job to inspire his students. But with ____, I think it is the other way around because she has motivated me in profound ways. Her grit, tenacity, and strong-willed nature has taught me a great deal about what it means to be a young person today, to search for oneself, and to do things that you never thought you could.

  • Doing good and helping others with intention, not for attention. That is what ____ is about.

  • The fact that she asked me — her math teacher — to write this recommendation letter is further evidence of her willing embrace of her troubled mathematical past. She is using her struggle as a slingshot to launch her into the next stage of her life.

  • You should ask him about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. We bonded over the importance of that book after I loaned him a copy late in the year.
  • Sport plays a pivotal role in _____’s life. This is why she has worked tirelessly to become both the captain of her basketball and softball teams. She not only gets leadership, but views athletics as a great unifier of people.

  • If there were a such thing as a professional learner, she was in my class last year. Her name is _____.

  • Brazen in her ability to see things not the way they are, but how they should be, _____ continually embraced the discomfort that math caused since elementary school. Truth is, she holds nothing back when it comes to this, her greatest academic challenge ever. I wish more students had _____’s resolve.

  • She reconciled with vulnerability and failure, two parts of her life that, despite her beaming positivity, she largely ignored.

  • Sadly, there is no way that this abbreviated letter could ever come close to capturing ____’s qualifications and profound growth through the years. It fails miserably. But as she prepares for college and a career in photojournalism, I am left thinking about her transformation since walking into ninth period algebra. So much has happened. Her nervousness has evolved into readiness, her uncertain world now filled with direction.

  • This is supposed to be a recommendation letter, but instead, I want to tell you a story of courage.

  • Who am I? What do I stand for? Why am I here? Whether consciously or not, it is these questions that fill the minds of young people. While a lot of my students — mostly out of fear or neglect — ignore these questions, there are strikingly few who work relentlessly to answer them. These are students who are exceptionally self- aware and always seeking to reinvent who they are. One such student is ____.

 

bp

Writing Better with Alex Martin and The Academy for Teachers

Screen Shot 2019-11-19 at 12.04.01 PM

Last week, I had the privilege of attending Write Better: Tools for Building Stronger Stories, a “Master Class” organized by The Academy for Teachers. The Academy of Teachers is a not-for-profit organization that partners with experts from around NYC to bring unique learning experiences to teachers. My class was taught by the chief writing editor of the Wall Street Journal, Alex Martin.

Several weeks back, John McCrann put me on to the class. He and I are co-facilitating some writing workshops at Math for America this semester and he thought I should apply. I never heard of The Academy before John, so I spent a Saturday evening poking around their website. On a limb, I applied.

The application took me a few hours. It was reflective. No lie, I was dismayed that it required a recommendation from a colleague. I get it, but I have been bothering my AP for these a lot lately. I felt bad asking her, especially since it was a last-minute request, but I did. Of course, she didn’t think twice and eagerly came through, as she always does. One day I’ll find a way to thank her. Words aren’t enough anymore. These last 4 years, her infallible support has helped elevate my thinking and advance my career more than I could have ever done on my own.

I heard that acceptance rates for Master Classes were low. (For mine, I later learned that one-third of those who applied were accepted.) I hoped that teaching math and being an active writer might stand out. I wanted to help be the voice of math in a room that was sure to be stuffed with humanities teachers. I’m not sure if any of that came through in my application, but they did invite me to attend. John got in, too. Of the 18 attendees, we were the only math teachers.

The venue for the class was the News Corp Building in midtown. The Wall Street Journal hosted us. It was swanky. Great good. But thanks to the 6 train, I was late. Running 7 blocks from Grand Central just to arrive ten minutes late, my sweaty behind sat down as breakfast wrapped up. I grabbed a coffee and some leftover fruit.

The morning consisted of a lecture from Alex followed by a discussion about some reading that we were asked to do in the weeks leading up to the class. As we all waited for him to begin, something unexpected happened. Instead of introducing Alex by listing out his achievements and awards, as is customary when you have such an accomplished guest, Sam Swope, the head of The Academy, introduced us to him. It was flipped. For a few minutes, Sam went on and on about who we were, our experience, accomplishments, and the adjectives that our recommenders used to describe us. He spoke in a way that put us in context for Alex, instead of the other way around. He gave us status. It was an uncommon start to a workshop and a really nice touch. I felt special.

Alex’s lecture was one that he gives to the writers and editors at The Journal. It was full of specifics on writing like being FACL (Fair, Accurate, Clear, Lively), maintaining a tight focus, reporting, structures for writing, and minutia involved with composing good sentences. For example, he told us to kill our adverbs. Choose muscular verbs. Instead of saying ran quickly, say dashed. That advice seems obvious after he said it, but I never thought about it before. Also, he talked about keeping subjects near verbs and using right-branching sentences. Ironically, he urged us to focus less on writing, and more on thinking. Good writing stems from good thinking. He gave us tips on what to do when we hit a writer’s block (lower our standards, skip the lede, write fast without your notes) and how to achieve brevity (an idea may be good in isolation, but it must do work in the story). Given his role at the WSJ, all of what he mentioned had a journalistic undertone, but his principles were universal. My notes sprawled. I gobbled up everything.

We then discussed the readings. It was a healthy list of 13 newspaper and magazine articles that Alex handpicked to highlight elements of his lecture. They dated as far back as 1966 and varied greatly in their subject matter. One was on Frank Sintra, another on the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and yet another was a feature on a small Long Island town during post 9/11. A more recent WSJ piece centered on the recent collapse of GE. They were full of emotion, detail, and craftsmanship and I gladly digested them all. Not stuff that I would read naturally, but I’m glad I did. They were great stories.

In the afternoon, we wrote. First, freewriting. We referenced freewriting in the morning as a means of hurdling writer’s block and, considering we all just inhaled a gourmet lunch, it made sense to start with it. As Chip Scanlan said, we tried to “sneak past that watcher of the gates before the watcher can say, Hey wait a minute. You suck. You can’t write.” Fittingly, we wrote about our favorite dessert. Next, we closed the day by rewriting some real-life ledes that were used in real-life articles. This was fun, but challenging. I think I set myself up for failure because, as I was trying my hand at the ledes, I couldn’t help but try to imitate Edna Buchanan. A Herald reporter who we read about before class, Edna is renown in journalism circles for her ledes. It’s needless to say, but I failed to live up her standard. I enjoyed it nonetheless.

As the class ended, I couldn’t help but be grateful for Alex. Throughout the day, I found him to be sincere, thoughtful, and amiable. His brilliance was matched only by his eagerness to improve our writing. He had a business-like aura about him, but he remained open to our questions and answered each of them in detail. We were sitting in a “U” for most of the time and, after someone asked their question, I noticed that he would always lock eyes and move slightly towards them as he answered. No matter the question (I asked a few dumb ones), he valued each one and took great care in responding. I appreciate the inherent respect that he showed us. When one of us shared our writing with the group, he had a keen way of analyzing it immediately after the last word slipped out of our mouth. His command of language was special — I found myself quoting him several times.

Aside from Alex’s expertise and willingness to help us grow as writers, the size of the group (18) really made it special. It was intimate. It felt private. It allowed for a real back-and-forth between us and him. There was space and time to go talk about details and share side stories — which Alex gladly did. This did a lot to make the class meaningful. It was also really cool to be in a room full of teachers from both private and public schools. We don’t rub shoulders enough.

I’m so looking forward to another one of these classes.

 

bp