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Embrace Your Inner “Teacher’s Pet”

I was invited to give the “keynote” address at last night’s National Honor Society Induction.  This is what I had to say!

October 16, 2013

When Amanda Greenberg asked if I would be the faculty speaker at the NHS Induction, I think I surprised her when I said yes so quickly.  This is a great opportunity to address so many excellent students, many of whom I taught last year or have in class this year.  I was inducted into NHS as a high school student.  So I say to all of you, congratulations on your induction into an organization that truly exemplifies the best characteristics we hope to see in all of our students.  And congratulations to your parents as well…they should be so proud.
My instructions were to speak on one of the four pillars of the NHS…character, leadership, service, or scholarship.  While service might seem like a natural fit for me, tonight I want to share a few words about scholarship.
I have been a student or a teacher longer than I’ve done almost anything else in my life.  From the moment I entered the local Montessori School at age 3, through my 8 years in a Catholic grade school, four years at a public High School, four years at Yale, two years at Chinese University of Hong Kong, eight years at George Washington University, and now 12 years at Bullis, I have spent 41 years in academic institutions.  That’s longer than my 19 year marriage, my 14 years as a mother, or the six years I have driven my Honda minivan.  Combined.
Fortunately, I love learning and I love school.  And, I have a sneaking suspicion that you do too.
So, how do we identify scholarship?  I think of it as learning that goes beyond basic book knowledge or memorization.  It is creative, fresh, and requires deep thinking.  At Bullis, it looks exactly like like our National History Day research projects.  Every year, I am blown away by the depth of scholarship that our students demonstrate.  This last year was no exception.  Brigid and Rachel dug through the records of the Salem Witch Trials and even travelled to Massachusetts to get a clear understanding of this turning point in Colonial History.  Oriana interviewed her grandfather about his experiences during the Berlin Airlift.  Brian tracked down several men who had integrated Baltimore Polytech back in the early 1950s.  I’m so incredibly proud of how our students have done at the local, state, and National level.  Since we began the program in 2009, we have had national finalists every single year…and in 2013 we had two.  What an amazing accomplishment…especially considering that 500,000 students participate across the nation, and more than 2,000 compete at the National level.  For our school to dominate four years running is truly a remarkable achievement, and a testament to the scholarship of our students, and not just those who garnered awards.  All 160 Bullis students who participated last year demonstrated scholarly thinking and command of a historical topic.
As for me, I live vicariously through your NHD research and I always learn something new. I am truly happy when I am digging deep into a historical topic.  In college, I was an American Studies major, which combined my love of history and literature.  My research projects included a paper on the Mormon Women’s Relief Society.  I grew up in near Palmyra NY, the birthplace of the Mormon church, so I had a fascination with this truly American religion.  I flew to Salt Lake City and interviewed the President of the organization, as I sought to understand the role of women in a church that has only male leadership.  For another class, I traveled to a tiny apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to search the archives of the Daughters of Bilitis, which was the first national organization for gay women.  Keep in mind, I did this research in 1990, long before Gay and Lesbian rights had entered mainstream debate or we had a show called “Glee.”   For a third class, I researched the process by which Yale College went coeducational.  I was able to interview the former provost of the school, and used many documents at Sterling Memorial Library to help me understand the tensions over coeducation.  This topic was near and dear to my heart, as I am fourth generation Yale graduate, but I was the first woman in my family to attend the college.    
In graduate school, I read countless books and wrote many papers, but I was always most fascinated by the intersection of race and gender.   I wrote my dissertation on the role of white women in the formation of 19th century Native American Policy.  Ultimately, however, I decided that my heart was not in research as much as it was in teaching.  My neighbor, Carol Conrad, who was at the time the Chair of the Social Studies Dept at Bullis, told me about an opening for a History teacher.  I visited the school, interviewed for the position, and have been here ever since.  While you all know me as a teacher, every summer I become a student once again as I participate in week-long institutes on topics as varied as Chicago Architecture, the history of the Colorado Gold Rush, and the development of the Adirondack State Park.  I come back renewed and excited to share this scholarship with my students.


In my high school yearbook, there are several pages devoted to “Senior Superlatives.”  I know this is a practice we follow at Bullis as well.  Students pick their classmates in many categories, including “best smile,” “best dressed,” “class clown” or “most athletic.”  My brother, who had three car wrecks before he graduated, was voted “demon driver.”  I was voted “Teacher’s Pet.”  I was not at all embarrassed by this selection.  I embraced it, as you can tell by my big smile in this picture.  I loved my school, I loved my classes, I loved my teachers, and I loved learning.  The classroom has always been my favorite place to be.

My classmate Howard and I pose with Mr. Stewart, our AP USH teacher.

My classmate Howard and I pose with Mr. Stewart, our AP USH teacher.

So, I say to you, embrace your inner “Teacher’s Pet.”  Find the joy in scholarship.  Connect with your teachers at Bullis.  Be that student who sits in the front row, contributes to class discussion, and lingers at the end of class to ask a question.  For the juniors in the house, get excited about National History Day. Start researching your topic…tonight!   As you go off to college, be passionate about your learning, and find ways to dig deep into archival documents or laboratory research.  Take the tough classes, and try a class in a field that is totally new to you.  And don’t let graduation mean the end of your learning…keep reading, visiting museums, and watching documentaries. And come back to see your teachers at Bullis and let us know what you know and how you’re going to use that  scholarship to change the world.


What’s In a Name?

Each and every year, I begin the school year in AP United States History with a study of “First Contact.”  We examine documents describing Columbus’ encounter with the Tianos Indians, we study the relationship between the Jamestown residents and the Powhatan tribe, and we consider the impact of King Philip’s War, a conflict between New England tribes.  As the weeks go by, we examine the tension between westward-moving colonists and Native Americans on the “frontier.”  We read the words of Chief Pontiac, who attempted to rally the Huron Indians to stop the encroachments of colonists.  And we look at the political structure of the Iroquois confederacy, a well-organized coalition of tribes in Upstate New York.  

At every turn, I attempt to provide a nuanced version of the story, one in which Native Americans have some agency, and are not simply primitive savages with no understanding of the value of their land and the threat that European colonization held.  I seek, as much as possible, to provide a way for my students to access the experiences of Native Americans, and I try to complicate the traditional view many students hold, one in which all Native Americans have the same economy, patterns of living, dress, and habits.  I would never, ever, refer to a Native American as a “Redskin” in my classroom.  This would be disrespectful, offensive, and just plain wrong, and I can’t imagine an other educator using such a term.  “Redskin” is not an honorific, or a term that represents a proud history.  Just as I would never teach about Reconstruction by calling African Americans by the “N” word, or teach about the Chinese Exclusion Act by calling Asians “yellowskins,” there is no place in my classroom for a term that shows such disregard for another human being.  

Despite my lessons, however, most weekends my students go home and have an opportunity to cheer for the Washington, DC football team.  I won’t dignify the name by using it here…but suffice it to say there is nothing honorable about the team’s name, uniform, mascot, or the fans wearing headdresses.  
President Obama knows it, NFL Commissioner Goodell knows it , and I believe that deep down, team owner Daniel Snyder knows it.  Snyder has really dug in his heels, making the story more about his stubbornness than about a real discussion about the impact of the name.

NFL leaders and the Oneida Nation plan to talk soon about the name, but I would argue that you don’t have to be a Native American to be offended by the term.  We all have a duty to make sure that all Americans are treated with respect and dignity.

A few weeks ago, I watched the film “42” with my two children. In one scene, when Jackie Robinson takes the field, the stadium erupts in chants using the “N word.”  My daughter watched this scene, dumbstruck, and then joined in and said the “N word.”  She had no clue what it meant, and we quickly explained why the word wasn’t acceptable and how it was being used to harass and hurt Robinson.  Julia has grown up in a society where, as a white child, she doesn’t even know the “N word,” yet she can chant the “R word” at the television screen during a football game.  It is time for a change.  Now.  


All My Children

At the Independent School where I teach, there are about 25 “faculty children,” and my son and daughter are among that group. There are many great benefits to teaching at the same school where my children are enrolled…we are all on the same schedule, we commute together, we enjoy a break on tuition, and we have easy conversations around the dinner table where we discuss school events or issues. I’ve attempted to be a respectful parent and give both my children and their teachers appropriate distance, as neither my teenage son nor his math teacher need me to micromanage their relationship and the class curriculum. That said, I do have a few wishes for the coming school year, and as I write them down I realize that they serve as a useful set of ground rules for how I should approach my own students in my classroom.

1. Be kind. Be polite. I wish for my children’s teachers to treat Will and Julia with respect and kindness. Sarcasm has no place in the classroom, and jokes told at the expense of a student can be hurtful. Will once had a teacher who would stop the class cold when he rustled in his bookbag for a pen…it just made him embarrassed and more clumsy. I have been known to roll my eyes at a completely off-track response to a question about the Federalist Papers or the New Deal. This year, I pledge to treat my students with kindness, working to create a “fail safe” environment, and to avoid singling out students in a negative way.

2. Have high standards. I wish for my children’s teachers to challenge Will and Julia, even beyond what they might seem initially able to achieve. This is not in the name of a relentless pursuit of a top grade, or to create a stressful environment, but rather in the belief that all students have room for growth and development. I don’t think we do children any favors by allowing them to complete “good enough” work. This year, I pledge to take the time to give more feedback on essays and meet with students who are struggling. I’ll remind my students that over the years, many students have found AP USH to be a huge challenge with a steep learning curve, but that with some grit and support, many have excelled. When I believe my students are bright and capable of more, they may believe it, too.

3. Communicate. Perhaps “no news is good news,” but I always appreciate getting information about how my children are doing in the classroom. A quick e-mail or conversation in passing goes a long way to reassuring me that all is well. Or, if there is an issue, let’s talk early and often. I pledge to be more communicative with the parents of my students, and to make a special effort to share good news as well as concerns.

4. Build a Better School. While much of our job as teachers centers around skill building and content mastery, there’s a huge opportunity to have an impact on the social climate of our classroom and school. I wish for my children’s teachers to intercept bullying, help dismantle cliques, and promote diversity and equity for all. We are fortunate to work in a school that is incredibly diverse, and where most kids get along well. But this year, I pledge to use any insensitive comments as teachable moments, and to build a classroom environment where all students are able to work together productively.

5. Encourage balance. My own children have rich and full lives outside of school. Between church activities, athletics, and the arts, Will and Julia have many interests and commitments. Family time is important, too, and we eat dinner together each night and my husband loves to read to each kid before bedtime. I wish for my children’s teachers to limit the busy work and lengthy homework assignments, and give plenty of lead-time on projects. This year, I pledge to be more respectful of the extracurricular lives of my students, and assign homework intentionally. “Homework free” nights, while unexpected, would no doubt be met with excitement!

My children are blessed to have caring and wonderful teachers. They can be credited with teaching Will and Julia to analyze literature, write, think like scientists, tackle word problems, read music, and collaborate with classmates. I have long thought of my students as distinct from my children, and I fully recognize that my students have parents of their own. However, I realize that when I think about how to approach my students, considering how I might like my children to be taught is a valuable place to begin.

First day of School, 2012

First day of School, 2012

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Like many teachers (and students) across the country, I am well aware that summer is winding down. The Target ads taunt me and the calendar confirms it: by August 26th I am back to school for a week of teacher meetings, and classes officially start the day after Labor Day.

The waning days of summer can be characterized by low-grade anxiety and wishful thinking. Am I ready for the new school year? Did I accomplish all I’d hoped to during the break?  I have a “Summer to do List” posted on the fridge, and I’ve managed to cross off many of the items, but others remain, nagging me as I retrieve the milk for my cereal.  The new carpet for the family room will be installed next week, but there’s a pile of outgrown clothes to sort.  I’ve managed to map out the first unit of my Thematic course, but my new classroom is far from ready and my books remain in boxes. I didn’t lose 15 pounds, and the garage is cluttered. I’d hoped to polish off letters of recommendation for my rising seniors. I wouldn’t say no to a few more weeks of free time, but looking back over the last few months, I can say that the summer of 2013 was filled with relaxation and personal growth, rest and fitness, time with family and professional development.

I attended a week-long workshop at the Stanley H. King Counseling Institute, where I learned and practiced valuable listening skills and thought about how to support students without trying to “fix” their problems.  Below, I’ve posted a picture of my “small group,” including our fearless leader, Paula Chu:


I also had an opportunity to spend a week in the Adirondacks, studying the history of this region during the Gilded Age and exploring the “Great Camps.” This program was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and included lectures, tours, a visit to the Adirondack Museum and an aerial tour of the wilderness.

40 History teachers gather at Sagamore, former camp of the Vanderbilt family

40 History teachers gather at Sagamore, former camp of the Vanderbilt family

Exciting and turbulent Seaplane ride over the Fulton Chain near Old Forge, NY

Exciting and turbulent Seaplane ride over the Fulton Chain near Old Forge, NY


This was a banner summer for family time, including not one but two major family reunions. The opportunity to gather three generations for fun and storytelling was priceless, and the young cousins were fast friends.

60 members of the Cressy family (mom's side) gather in Washington, DC

60 members of the Cressy family (mom’s side) gather in Washington, DC

Nearly 40 members of the extended Romeyn family gather at the Adirondack League Club

Nearly 40 members of the extended Romeyn family gather at the Adirondack League Club

Not all family time was on an epic scale. There were quiet days with my son and daughter, where we read, splashed at the neighborhood pool, and grilled on the back patio. We took family day trips to Hershey Park and Bethany Beach. I dusted off my golf clubs for an outing with my husband.

hammock time!

hammock time!

My husband gets buried at the beach

My husband gets buried at the beach

Good times at Hershey Park with our kids and two of their friends

Good times at Hershey Park with our kids and two of their friends

Needwood Gold Course, and a new short haircut

Needwood Gold Course, and a new short haircut

There was also some “me” time. I have always been a voracious reader, and once I start a book, I’ve been known to stay up half the night reading. I read widely this summer, from popular recent fiction by Lionel Shriver and Liane Moriarty, to weighty autobiographies such as TJ Parsall’s saga of life in prison and Kimberley Rae Miller’s tale of growing up with parents who were intense hoarders. You can check out the Googledoc that lists all of the books my 13 year old son, 9 year old daughter and I have read since the school year ended:
Summertime means more time to exercise, and I have toured the Maryland countryside on my bike and joined an early morning swim group. I am preparing for an early September triathlon (my 8th), and the race serves as a motivational carrot and stick. I’ve even managed to introduce some new vegetables into my diet, and “kale” is no longer a four-letter word.
Yummy summer dinner with grilled chicken, fruit, sweet potato (with greek yogurt) and KALE!

Yummy summer dinner with grilled chicken, fruit, sweet potato (with greek yogurt) and KALE!

So, perhaps the clothes sorting can wait for a Sunday afternoon in October, and it may be mid-September before I am fully settled in my new teaching space. The workmen promise it will be beautiful when it is completed!

My new classroom is a work in progress!

My new classroom is a work in progress!

The garage is organized enough that I can park my car and find my bike and helmet, and although the scale hasn’t budged I feel stronger and more fit. The lesson plans will come together, and hopefully memories of “fun summer Mom” will buy me some good will with my kids when “cranky school year Mom” is rushing everyone out the door. It has been a wonderful few months of renewal and while I will be sad for it to end, I am already dreaming up new adventures for summer 2014.

My Student, Trayvon Martin

About a week ago, a jury in Florida acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin.  I was upset but not entirely surprised.  I remember discussing his death with my students a year ago, and many students brought up the case of Emmett Till.  We compared and contrasted the two killings, and many of my students openly questioned how much had changed in the our world with regard to race and the ability of young black men to move freely throughout society.

Regardless of how you feel about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, we know that George Zimmerman followed Martin that night in Florida because he saw him as suspicious…a black teenager in a hoodie, walking down the street in a gated community.  Martin belonged there…he was visiting a family member…but for too many young black men, the assumption is that they are outsiders, up to no good, or unwelcome.

Trayvon Martin’s death hits close to home.  I teach at an Independent School in Maryland where fully 22% of the students are African American.  I teach high school juniors, so many of my students fit the “Martin demographic”–16 or 17 year old black teenagers.  I know they face daily injustices that my own blond-haired, blue-eyed son will never face.  My students tell stories of being followed in stores, having white women cross the street to avoid crossing their path, or being questioned by private security guards when they visit friends in wealthy neighborhoods.  They talk about dressing in a “preppy” fashion to avoid being profiled, or wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of our school so that people will know why they are in our majority-white suburb.  And they share stories of smaller “micro aggressions”–teachers or other adults who commend them for being polite or speaking well, as if black teenage boys aren’t supposed to be able to do either.

I know their struggles with racial profiling will continue at the college level.  I have taught young black men who were accepted to Duke, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Columbia, and Davidson, and they will go off to worlds where other students might suggest they are only there due to Affirmative Action, and campus police officers will follow them around.  Don’t take my word for it…read the experiences of Jordan Starck, one of my former students who attended Davidson College.  He couldn’t get anyone to open the door to take a survey.

As for my own family, I am so aware that my own teenage son will likely face few of the daily injustices and embarrassments endured by his black friends. And, as a mom, I will not share the same worries that my black friends will face as they send their children out into the world, a world where a vigilante neighborhood watch man with a gun can shoot and kill an unarmed teenager (after the police have told him to get back in his car) and go free.  Ours is a world where people celebrate Zimmerman’s acquittal and call our President racist for daring to identify with the pain and fears of young black men.

GSA Student Summit


The past six months have been an incredibly exciting time for LGBT Equality.  In November, several states, including my home state of Maryland, legalized same-sex marriage.  In January, President Obama gave a major shout out to the history of the Gay Rights Movement when he mentioned Stonewall in the same breath as Seneca Falls and Selma.  In March, the Supreme Court took on two cases related to equal protection for gay couples, and just yesterday, NBA player Jason Collins came out of the closet.  The pace of change has quickened, and with it American public opinion is rapidly shifting.  Closer to home, today we had a landmark event at our school.  For the first time, Bullis hosted a major event that brought together LGBT youth and allies from the DC area.

For the past three years, I have been helping to co-chair a newly formed Diversity and Equity Committee at our school.  We’ve found widespread support among teachers in all three divisions, and we are so excited that colleagues from the tech department, summer programs, admissions, and other Bullis offices have joined the effort.  While we spent much of our first two years focused on building an adult community focused on respect, this year we have shifted to supporting and encouraging our student community.

And this is what we have discovered:

1.  If you build it, they will come.  Back in the fall, a newly reinvigorated GSA hatched a plan to hold a Student GSA Summit.  It took five months of planning and logistical work, but today was the big day, and we were thrilled to have more than 110 students from 15 schools on campus for a keynote speaker, workshops, and networking.

2.  Given the opportunity, students welcome the chance to be leaders.  While adult support is needed, the students had true ownership of today.  Rayna and Brittany welcomed the crowd and introduced Dr. Tonia Poteat, our guest speaker.  Gabby S and Gabby M  worked the check-in desk.  14 Bullis students served as small group facilitators.  Sarah and Sean were the MCs for the large group sharing.  Simone wrapped up the day and we all heard how much the event was appreciated.

3.  All students deserve to feel valued, honored, and welcome.  We heard stories of a wide range of student experiences at area schools.  Some schools have active GSAs and a great faculty and administration.  Others have significant work to do.  But as we swapped tales and strategies, we could see hope and possibilities.  Our second workshop asked students to design a “dream school” where LGBTQ youth are truly welcome…the next step is to work to make that vision a reality.

As the Trevor Project says, “It gets better.”  Today, it really did.


The room was packed

The room was packed

rainbow cupcakes!

rainbow cupcakes!

Dr. Poteat shares her story and her current work

Dr. Poteat shares her story and her current work

All the World’s a Stage

We’ve just wrapped up another season of National History Day research at our school, and once again I was incredibly impressed with the quality of work.  This year, we had 120 Juniors and 51 Sophomores participating, and the final projects included research papers, exhibits, documentaries, websites, and performances.  You can read a short news article about the scope of the projects and discover who is moving on to counties here.

This year, we had a particularly strong crop of performances.  Eleven students chose to turn their research findings into a 10 minute monologue, an intense process which involves crafting a script, memorizing the monologue, and performing (complete with props and costumes) in front of an audience.  In my estimation, this format presents some unique challenges, and is also especially fun.  It is also near and dear to my heart…I performed in musicals and plays when I was in high school, and my 13 year old son just starred as “Ugly” in the Middle School musical, HONK!


Will Transformed into a swan


Will as “The Ugly Duckling”

So, clearly there’s the “risk” factor when you perform…there’s a vulnerability involved.  For my NHD kids, it is all about them, for 10 entire minutes.  In the other NHD formats, you work hard to craft a website, write a paper, or produce a documentary, but once you press “save” the product is rather static, and it can be viewed and judged without your presence in the room.  Exhibits have a more “public” element, but again, once you glue the documents and images on the board, there’s a sense of permanence.  You can stand to the side and watch as the audience enjoys and absorbs your work.

rachel and brigid

Rachel & Brigid with their exhibit on the Salem Witch Trials

Performances are organic…they change and develop over time.  Performers interact with the audience, looking for signs of attention and approval.  And heaven forbid you forget your lines or run over the time limit!  Beyond the specific challenges of this form, I appreciate the way my students truly dove into their characters.  We had a wide range of performers this year, from a young woman who “witnessed” the early years of the AIDS crisis (she interviewed health workers at local clinics), to a student who embodied the experiences of a nurse in the Vietnam war, to the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic to become an advocate for women’s rights.  We met a Polish immigrant who utilized the services of Hull House, a poet from the Beat Movement (we wanted to snap along), and a survivor of the Berlin Blockade and Airlift, speaking in a very authentic German accent.  In each case, I was transported to a new place and time, swept along by a strong narrative and character.  I know that the students were caught up in the experiences as well.  Not only did they have a strong command of their character’s biography and the larger historical context, but they had to embody the personality of their selected historical figures.  If all the world’s a stage, these students aren’t merely players…they are scholars of history, using performance to truly dig deep into a topic and “live” a historical moment.


Anya as a nurse who experienced the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and Oriana is a survivor of the Berlin Airlift


Lynee as Dorothea Dix, sporting a dress made by her grandmother.

On Educational Inequity

Today was a day off from school–we were closed for Hurricane Sandy.  Here’s what the day looked like at our house.  William practiced his trumpet, read for several hours, played a board game, and worked on a math project.  Julia played with a friend, practiced trombone, read a book, and helped me make banana bread.  I finished writing comments on each essay submitted by my AP students, and I was in touch with them via Facebook as I encouraged them to use the day to read ahead in their college-level textbook or take some practice tests.  In other words, the day was relatively productive for me, my children, and my students, and I didn’t worry that anyone would go hungry because they didn’t get a hot meal at school.

There is a persistent myth in our society.  Many Americans believe–or would like to believe–that with enough determination and elbow grease, and maybe a special teacher or mentor, any child can “make it” in our country and overcome poverty and dysfunctional neighborhood schools.  I want to believe this myself.  It feels so democratic and positive, and storytellers from Horatio Alger to the woman behind “The Freedom Writers” would have us buy in.  Further, I’d like to believe that my own academic success was largely of my own making, but I know that my path was made so much easier by being born to well-educated parents, growing up in a home full of books,  and attending a strong suburban public school with many advanced classes and no metal detectors.

This fall, I am teaching a seminar called “Poverty and Equity in Montgomery County.”  Each week, my students explore one factor that is deeply connected to poverty, be it hunger and nutrition, housing, health care, or family structure.  For our education unit, we compared and contrasted Montgomery County public schools, looking at graduation rates, test scores, and percent of students who receive free lunches.  We looked at the history of Head Start and took a field trip to a local Head Start school where we spoke to a teacher and observed her class.  At the beginning of the year, she meets her new group of four-year-olds, some of whom are barely potty trained.  She visits each one of her students’ homes, which can be a single room devoid of furniture and rented by the week.  She administers a pre-test and documents their limited ability to identify letters, numbers, and colors.  She discovers that many don’t even recognize their own written names.  In three hours a day, she teaches oral hygiene, table manners, the alphabet, and even basic English.  At the end of the school year, she re-tests, and discovers that many have made good progress.  She is a hardworking and dedicated teacher.  However, while she was introducing these children to the basics, other four-year-olds in the area had were developing vocabularies of thousands of English words, reading books, and learning simple math concepts.  Despite her heroic efforts, her students will enter kindergarten with considerable deficiencies.

Last weekend, I was in New Orleans for a conference and had an interesting conversation with a professor of Pediatrics at Morehouse Medical School.  We happened to share a table at Cafe du Monde, and over beignets we traded theories about the root of childhood challenges.  She explained that her current research focuses on the impact of maternal health and stress on the development of a fetus.  In other words, a baby can enter the world with cognitive delays that may never be overcome.  Similarly, a new book by Paul Tough speaks about the importance of nurture by parents.  He examines lives of children who grow up in such adverse conditions that their “fight or flight” instincts are constantly triggered.  He finds examples of young people who do manage to survive their communities, but it takes major intervention and support.

I know I should end this post with a solution or some upbeat words, but I am far from optimistic.  I can advocate, research, tutor, and mentor, but I am increasingly convinced that there are massive and systemic disparities that extend well beyond what any earnest teacher can overcome.   There is no such thing as a level playing field or an equal starting point, only kids who were blessed to be born into the “right” communities and families and children who face a significant uphill battle.

My students work in small groups on primary document analysis.

My classroom

My “Poverty and Equity” students interview a teacher at a Head Start School

You Only Live Once

In the last year or so, the acronym YOLO has gained currency and credence with my teenage students and other young people across the country.  “You Only Live Once” has become something of a battle cry–perhaps this generation’s version of “Carpe Diem” with some dubious grammar (should it be “You Live Only Once”?)  While the expression has been around for several years, it was recently popularized in a rap song by Drake that is a little too colorful to post here.  From what I can gather from seeing YOLO used in hashtags and on tee-shirts, #YOLO is a mandate to do something wild and crazy, or perhaps live in the moment and think little about the long term consequences of one’s behavior.  While I have all sorts of preachy thoughts about the poor decision-making that some young people demonstrate at parties or behind the wheel, I actually want to broaden the definition of the phrase and think about how YOLO might translate to the classroom and student choices.

What if “You Only Live Once” meant to take academic risks and was a mandate to stretch oneself in new and challenging ways?  Just imagine that for a moment.  What if instead of using YOLO as a mantra to justify the purchase of an overpriced purse or a decision to drive 20 miles an hour over the speed limit, young people were inspired to take an AP class or learn a new language?  And let’s say that the AP class was really a struggle.  Perhaps YOLO could inspire a student to stick with it and know that in the long run, the hours of studying were worth the reward.  If a student embraced YOLO, would he be moved to take a class in a subject area that hasn’t previously been a strength, or try her hand at painting when an “artistic ability” has never been manifest?  In the classroom, YOLO could mean that students participate more, pose edgy questions, and pick the obscure research topic.  YOLO could mean that when the going gets tough, you don’t quit…because if you only live once, it makes sense to make this life count.  For teachers, it would mean encouraging our students to try, make mistakes, and be non-judgmental of the kid who doesn’t get the “right” answer off the bat.  Teachers could also adopt the YOLO philosophy and integrate new technologies, teach a seminar on a topic that is fresh, or even form a teacher team for the annual dodgeball tournament (I just need three others to join me…).

Could it be possible that the power of “YOLO” could be harnessed to inspire an athletic guy to try out for the winter musical, or a young person of privilege to jump into community service?  Could “YOLO” mean that a student who has already received the coveted college acceptance letter works hard through graduation, even when others are suffering from raging cases of senioritis?  What if “YOLO,” instead of causing young people to see life as fleeting and inconsequential, caused us to all stop and think about the incredible impact we could have on those around us?  Confront a bully.  Speak out against hurtful language.  Befriend a new student.  Thank a teacher.  Chose to be kind.

What if, instead of believing that your actions have little long-term impact, an 18-year-old realized that being his “best self” might mean making the choice that will bring pride to his 88-year-old self…and I am venturing to guess that won’t mean binge drinking or senior skip day.

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but at 43 years old, I look back at my teenage and young adult self, and see my best YOLO moments in my decision to compete in a 50 K Nordic ski race, intern at NOW Legal Defense Fund in NYC and teach English in Hong Kong.  I embraced the spirit of YOLO when I wrote passionate columns for the Yale Daily News, started a Ph.D. program (and finished, even though I wanted to quit often), and gave birth to my son and daughter.  These YOLO moments pushed me and challenged me, and I struggled, grew, and matured as a result.  YOLO can be lighthearted, too–there was that “Search for Madonna” contest back in 1992 where I took 2nd place and narrowly beat a drag queen–but YOLO doesn’t mean idiotic.  If we truly only live once, why wouldn’t we make every moment count?

PHOTO BELOW:  me having a major YOLO moment at the Rocky Gap Iron Girl Triathlon last month.  Or, perhaps I was just looking for an excuse to post this photo.


When Teachers are Students

When I tell someone I am a high school teacher, I typically get one of two responses:  first, something akin to shock and awe that I voluntarily spend my days with teenagers, and second, a touch of envy as he or she imagines my carefree summers.  Many people envision a teacher’s summer as a string of alarm-clock-free mornings and endless days at the pool and beach.  While I have slept later than six am most days this summer, and I enjoy swimming laps at my pool, the highlight of every summer is the opportunity to attend workshops, seminars and classes.  Most teachers I know see summertime as the best time to embrace our inner student, seeking ways to hone content knowledge, explore new technologies, or read up on the latest in classroom instruction.

There’s a wide variety of summer workshops for history teachers, from day-long local seminars to week-long opportunites to travel and explore a new region of our nation (or even a foreign land) first hand.  In recent years, I have spent a week in Colorado learning about the history of the West, and a week in Chicago exploring architecture. I lived in the dorms at Columbia a few summers ago and studied the Harlem Renaissance through poetry, music, and walking tours.  Over the years, I have deliberately applied for programs that would stretch me intellectually and offer an opportunity to explore a field that I didn’t emphasize in my own graduate studies.  The chance to visit a new region of America has been an added bonus.

This summer, my professional development opportunity was closer to home, but on a subject I hadn’t explored in depth:  The War of 1812.  The National Park Service is gearing up for two years of events and ceremonies to mark the bicentennial of this “Second War for Independence.”  Truthfully, I am not a huge military historian–I can’t recount the specifics of troop movements at Gettysburg, and when I teach World War II we spend more time on Rosie the Riveter and Japanese Internment than D-Day.  That  said, in the interest of stepping out of my comfort zone and growing intellectually, I applied for this workshop back in the spring.

Our group of 16 Social Studies teachers from the DC metro area learned about the burning of DC, the role of Dolley Madison, and the bombardment of Ft. McHenry.  We toured the White House and visited the Octagon House, which served as the temporary home of the Madisons after the White House was destroyed.  We also learned how to use Photostory, and I worked with a partner to make a short video about The Battle of Bladensburg (yes, I actually picked a military topic!).  We had breakfast and lunch together each day and, as often happens, became fast friends as we shared stories from our classrooms and swapped resources.

At the end of the two day workshop, I had a deeper understanding of the War of 1812 and a bag full of books, posters, maps, and documents. I have a great multimedia tool to bring back to my classroom. I had the opportunity to be a student and ask lots of questions.  We met a professor from Ghent, Belgium (where the treaty ending the war was signed), and we hope to Skype with students in that city during the school year.  Similar to previous summers, I reveled in the opportunity to spend a few days as a student, and I hope this workshop will help make me a better teacher come September.

(Below:  Our group at the White House; “Dolley Madison” shares her stories)