Category Archives: I love my job

The Post I’ve Been Promising

So!  I promised you all a post that recounted my experiences at Classical Private School.  I’m sorry I’m only getting to it now; I’ve been preoccupied with the (soul-sucking) job hunt and have kind of been avoiding thinking about CPS a whole lot.

The last thing I wrote about, if memory serves, is that I’d agreed to teach a writing workshop as a volunteer for six weeks.  After a heart-to-heart with Dr. Wong, I discovered that CPS had no budget and couldn’t pay me (or, Dr. Wong assured me, she’d have hired me by that point).  She gave me the impression that she was fairly confident that their budget for the 13-14 school year would be sufficient to bring me on board, though, so that was encouraging.

In any event, I taught the writing workshop for the six weeks.  It was a little bumpy because the kids weren’t sure what the expectations were; some of them were under the impression that it was a required course while others were sure it was a volunteer deal, so I didn’t get consistent attendance.  Two of the kids were convinced that they didn’t NEED any writing instruction (though Dr. Wong made a point of assuring them that they did) and one boy spent most of the time goofing off (there’s always one!), but the rest of the group did really well.  Once they were reassured that I wasn’t teaching grammar, they kind of got into it (the adults in the school kept insisting on calling it a “grammar class” until I corrected them in front of the students – yes; I’d be teaching grammar, but it was a writing workshop.  The focus was on the writing process, not on grammar, per se).

I pulled out some of my more successful lesson plans for the course; we did a unit about the basics of the writing process (topic, purpose, audience!) and about the different rhetorical situations one encounters (you need to know topic, purpose, audience before you start writing so you can be sure you’re addressing yourself properly to the situation and the reader).  We reviewed some of my more stunningly awful emails (that’s ALWAYS a popular lesson).  We played the synonym game.

After I got them used to the idea that writing is a process and that it’s okay (good, even!) to start out really, really badly, we wrote.  I had them write personal narratives (tell me the story of your name) and, I think, it went very well.  The kids work-shopped their papers with each other (using some very clear and specific guidelines I supplied for them; workshops are only effective if you know how to do them, and they had never done them before meeting me) and ran through several drafts of their papers.  What was most fun was that a bunch of them didn’t really know their name story, so they had to go home and ask about it.  When I came back after we’d started these papers, a couple of kids were excited about the things they’d learned, and they reported that they really enjoyed the writing once they felt they had a good handle on what they wanted to say.

The one big hiccup was that, one afternoon, I was completely usurped in a really disrespectful and inconsiderate way.  I drove an hour each way to get to this place.  Keep in mind, as well, that I was doing this as a volunteer.  Well, one afternoon, I arrived and was asked if I would mind if Dr. Palmer interrupted my class for a few minutes to let the kids know about an elective he was going to be launching in the coming weeks.  Of course I don’t mind, so I say so.  Well, Dr. Palmer walks in five minutes into my class (we’d barely gotten started) and proceeds to take up more than my hour talking about the course he was designing around the acoustics of electric guitars.

Seriously.  I sat there waiting for him to finish, and I ended up having to leave well before he was done.  I was furious.

Beyond that, though, it went well.  The kids reported, in their evaluations, that they learned quite a lot about their own writing process in the short time we spent together.  They offered suggestions for what they’d like to know more about (were we able to spend more time) and expressed some satisfaction that they were noticing that writing felt a little less ominous to them for our having worked together.

I was sent off after my last class with a small offering to help offset my gas expenses, a coffee mug, and a CPS mouse pad.  Though Dr. Wong was not in the building that day, the Dean of Students offered me what I thought were heartfelt thanks and an eagerness that we maintain communications.  I left feeling pretty confident that someone would be in touch to offer me a position in the fall.

I haven’t heard a thing from any of them since.

Seriously.  Crickets.  No calls, no emails, nothing.

I’m not going to call them.  At this point, I’m reasonably sure that if they could have hired me, they would have, and I’m not in a position to accept a long-distance volunteer teaching gig.  I’m disappointed, though; CPS wouldn’t have been a perfect fit for me, but I think that I could have done some pretty significant good there.

I wish them all the best going forward.  Maybe our paths will cross again sometime.

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Filed under about writing, analysis, colleagues, composition, critical thinking, failure, I love my job, Learning, lesson planning, rhetoric, Teaching, Teaching Writing Seminar, The Job, writing, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

Second Interview

My second interview for the high school teaching job is tomorrow at 12:30.

And again, inexplicably, I’m stressing about what to wear.

I’ve gotten some positive feedback about the administrative team from my source in the school, and I’m giving myself permission to feel a little hopeful about my chances of coming off favorably tomorrow.  It’s not conceit for me to say that I’m very good at what I do, I love the students and have more to offer them than just the material, and I’m invested in being the very best teacher I can possibly be

This isn’t just a job for me; it’s a calling.  I’m pretty sure I can make that clear when I meet the administrators tomorrow (in my cute linen trousers and sleeveless knit top…).

All offers of luck, confidence, and good energy are gratefully and humbly accepted.

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Filed under doing my own homework, I love my job, job hunting, out in the real world

On the Eve

For the first time in more than a year, I have my first real interview for a job tomorrow at 11.

I’m finding I’m feeling the oddest combination of wicked excited and incredibly anxious.  I started having the weird anxiety dreams a couple of nights ago (had ‘em again this morning, too), and I’m actually stressing out about what to wear.

Me, stressing out about what to wear.  If you knew me in real life, you’d know that this was a sign that all is not entirely well.  Chili almost never stresses about what to wear; it’s just not what I do.  Here I am, though, worrying about finding the balance between professional and casual, classic and fun, pretty and comfortable.  Trousers or a skirt?  Capri pants or a dress?  Sleeveless and a jacket, or a button-down blouse?  Plain or patterned; colors or black and white?  And, oh, GOD, which shoes?!

It’s utterly ridiculous, and I need to stop.

For all that, though, I’m going in with no small amount of confidence.  The person who’s lead English teacher on the team has known me online for going on 7 years now, and in that time has had full access to all my blogs and my facebook page, so she knows exactly who I am and what’s important to me.  I also know – in a way that is not at all arrogant or conceited – that I am damned good at what I do.  I know it’s cliche to say that someone would be an asset to whichever outfit is smart enough to hire them, but I really feel like I have something valuable and important to offer.  Knowing these things is helping to buoy me.

So, should I wear the diamond earrings, or the pearls?

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Wordy Wednesday: A Shot of Hope

For a long time now, I’ve been worried that I was never going to be back in the classroom.  After all that happened to me at CHS, I was feeling pretty burned; for all that the place was pretty laid-back and permissive, I still managed to get into trouble, so it stands to reason that it’s highly unlikely I’m going to find someplace where my enthusiasm, passion, and ethics won’t be a liability.

I met Jay for coffee this afternoon.  He’s a teacher at a different charter school (and a hell of a photographer; hit that link and go on over and click around.  Leave some feedback; he’s looking for some interaction), and the parent of one of my former students.  We’d been tangentially in touch since before I was dismissed from CHS; he and I clicked when we first met, he was very supportive of my efforts to kick his recalcitrant daughter in the ass, and we share a very similar perspective on politics, spirituality, and the underlying purpose (and ethics) of education.  Anyway, I left a comment on his blog about a particularly stunning portrait he’d posted of Sweet Pea, and a few emails later, we’d set up a coffee date.

I left that hour feeling much better about where I am professionally.  He told me a lot of things I really needed to hear (though, let’s be clear, I don’t think for a second that he said them because they were what I needed to hear; he’s not like that at all).  He confirmed for me a couple of things that I deeply suspected but really didn’t want to admit (I’m over that now, by the way; I’m done telling myself stories to try to make it hurt less).  He told me that not only should I go back to teaching, but that I very likely had to; we share a proclivity of spirit that compels us to work with young people, and he recognizes in me the same drive that moves him to do the work that he does.  He essentially told me that I wasn’t going to be happy doing anything else – that I could do other work, certainly, but that I would never be as fulfilled as I will be teaching.  I don’t think he’s wrong.

Jay also offered me a glimmer of hope that there may well be a place for me in a classroom.  I’m going to chase down a couple of contacts tomorrow (and send out a couple of resumes, as well) and see what becomes of it.  While I’m not going to force myself into a situation where I have to change who I am to fit in with the culture so much that I don’t recognize myself anymore, neither am I going to give up entirely on the idea of being a teacher.  The truth is that I miss the kids too much to abandon the work, and I love who I am while I’m doing it.

Onward.

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Angry Love Letter

I subscribe to Letters of Note.  You should, too.

This was today’s offering.  It’s a letter from Pat Conroy, the author of, among other things, The Prince of Tides, in response to hearing that a school board in West Virginia had challenged the inclusion of that novel and another of his works, Beach Music.  The letter was published in the local newspaper, and the challenges later failed.

Letters like this make my proud to do what I do.
To the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book-banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against—you’ve riled a Hatfield.

Sincerely,

Pat Conroy

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Filed under about writing, admiration, book geek, Civics and Citizenship, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, ethics, great writing, I love my job, Literature, out in the real world, parental units, politics, really?!, Teaching, writing

How Far the Ripples Go

Very long story somewhat short: I’ve got this kid… or, rather, I should say I HAD this kid.  Let’s call him Mitchell.

Mitchell and I never really got along very well.  While I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this, the one I come to first is that he’s a pretty insecure young man, and I think that my forthrightness intimidated him.  Regardless, he ended up leaving my class on ideological grounds; his mother, it seems, is a fundamentalist Christian, and from what I understand, she didn’t appreciate my challenging her kid in the ways that I did.

The truth is that I have nothing personal against the boy, and never have, though I don’t go out of my way to chat with him as his behavior around me makes it pretty clear that I make him uncomfortable.  That’s why I was surprised, and pleasantly so, when Mitch asked me this afternoon if I had a few free minutes I could give him.  I invited him into my room and gave him my full attention.

He started out by asking me some vague questions about how I handle fear.  I spent a little while talking about how different fear – fear for physical safety, fear about personal conflict, fear of intimidation, fear from shock or surprise – have different effects.  I let him know that I, personally, have difficulty managing my physical response to fear; despite going into a conflict armed with confidence and knowledge that I have a strong foundation upon which to stand, I still shake and my palms still sweat and I often find myself in angry tears.  I told him these things as a way of humanizing myself to him because, as I say, I know that his impressions of me have not been entirely favorable.

It turns out that, despite what else he may think of me, Mitch understands that I’m someone safe to go to with difficult personal issues.  He confided that he is having some pretty serious problems with a family member (not his mother), and that the issues are sufficient that he felt it necessary to warn the school about what’s been going on.  He asked me for advice on how to comport himself through these experiences, and I told him that while I could not counsel him – that I’m neither a social worker nor an attorney – I did know that, as an adult (he’s 18) he has absolute freedom of association; he gets to choose whether or not to spend time with someone, and that his fears of being compelled by court order to associate with the person in question are unfounded.  I recommended that he seek the advice of law enforcement about the possibility of a restraining order and that, if he feels it would do him some good, he should talk to a counselor to sort out how he feels about the whole mess.  I offered that I grew up as an abused child, and I understand that there are a terrible lot of mixed emotions that come with that legacy.  I also offered up confidence to the boy that I had faith in his ability to find his way through it, and told him that I would always be a listening ear if he felt I could be useful to him.

It turned out that I had some things to take care of a the end of the day, so I was on my way out the door when Mitch emerged from his meeting with administration.  He was clearly upset, so I hung back to offer up one last shot of support.  I took him aside, so that we wouldn’t be in the middle of the hall, and asked him how he was doing (though it was patently obvious the boy was on the verge of tears).  As I was giving him my “you’re not alone; there are plenty of resources; you’re strong and smart and I believe in you” pep talk, his mother came around the corner and stopped dead in her tracks.  I know, though I’ve never been told outright, that she has very little use – and even less respect – for me, but at that moment, I didn’t care.  Her son recognized me as someone safe to confide in, and I was not about to disrespect that for fear of what his mother might think.  She stood there, a respectful distance away, listening to every encouraging thing I had to say to her son.

Though I’m truly sorry for what’s happening to Mitch, this could not have happened at a better time for me.  After everything that’s happened at school these last several weeks, having THIS kid come to ME to address something difficult and painful and personal is nothing short of divine confirmation that I am doing a good job.  He sees me being a support to other kids; he recognizes me as someone safe and caring and generous, and came to ME despite our previous rocky history.  That tells me that what I do – and the way that I do it – are working.  This boy’s choice to seek me out for this personal issue is a vindication of the very public, open, and honest way I love my students.  ALL of my students.

Thank you, Mitchell.

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Ten Things Tuesday

Ten things I say in class…

1.  I love you.  Now shut up and write.

2.  Really?  No; REALLY?!

3.  How’s that workin’ out for you?

4.  La-la-la-la-la!  Don’t TELL ME these things!!

5.  Read that out loud… do you talk the way you write?

6.  You?  YOU!  Are my favorite kid right now.

7.  Did you read the instructions?  No?  I didn’t think so; go back and read the instructions.  REALLY READ them…

8.  … and what would you like ME to do about that…?

9.  Close your computers.

10.  I love you, too.

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I NEVER Thought I’d Say This…

… but I’m kind of hating the weekends.

I’ve got a couple of (my favorite) kids whom I’m keeping a wary eye on lately.  Things aren’t good for either of them; Margot’s just been released from a hospitalization and is dealing with debilitating panic attacks, and Jeff is neck-deep in a really unpleasant home environment.  They’ve both come to me for support, and I’ve been more than happy to give it to them.

I’m finding, on this lovely Friday afternoon, that I’m worrying about them more than I did last night, or on Wednesday.  I’m sure this is because, on every other night, I know I’ll see them first thing in the morning (and, if I don’t, I know how to find out where they are and whether they’re safe and upright).  The idea of going two days without laying eyes on either one of them is proving to be disconcerting.

I’m less worried about Margot.  She’s got a strong family support system and is being well cared-for at home; I am confident that she’s safe and loved.

Jeff is another story altogether, though; he sent me a text message on Wednesday asking me to sign onto facebook so we could chat, and he told me that his home life is fast becoming untenable.  So much of his situation reminded me of MY life at that age – parents (or, in this case, a mother and a new boyfriend) who give every impression of loathing the mere presence of him and make no effort to disguise that fact but who, inexplicably, won’t let him leave the house.  Jeff is angry and frustrated and, I think, scared; he’s recognizing that all of this is wearing away at his already tenuous self-esteem.  I spent a good bit of our chat time explaining to him why *I* think he’s an amazing kid who’s growing into a good and decent man, and how I’m deeply proud of him.  I know, from my own experience, that while hearing these things from me is probably helpful, it’s not enough to salve the damage being done by the people who are supposed to love him, and that’s the part that’s killing me.

I had a conference with Mitch (the new guidance counselor, whom I really, really like) and our assistant dean (whom I’ve not yet given a pseudonym; let’s call him Brad, okay?) about exactly where my line has to be with Jeff.  They both agreed that everything that’s happened thus far has been not only okay, but good; they both recognize that Jeff needs someone he feels he can count on, and he clearly feels safe with me.  When I brought up the idea of having a sit-down with Jeff’s dad, my men searched all of Jeff’s files and discovered that we’ve got nothing in the way of custody orders or other official paperwork that would forbid such a meeting, so Dad and I are having coffee tomorrow afternoon.

In the meantime, I’m keeping my cell phone on – and on me – at all times.  I need to be available if either of these babies needs me.

Monday can’t come fast enough.

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Ten Things Tuesday

I love all of my students, but some of them are much closer to my heart than others.  Here are ten of my favorite kids (in no particular order), and just some of the reasons I love them.  I have changed the names, but the kids are all very real.

1.  Bart.  He’s my “school son;” I love him like my own.  He is kind and gentle, he is generous and thoughtful, and he is wicked smaht and funny as hell.  He and I have settled into a kind of familial intimacy that makes me grateful every day that I took this job.

2.  Margot.  She and I are just now starting to connect.  I had her in class last year.  Some days I thought we clicked, other days I was sure she hated me; I could never tell where we stood.  I found out the other day when she had a panic attack, left the school, and called me in near-hysterical tears asking me to come and get her.  I cannot tell you how important it is to me to be a safe person to my kids; knowing that she is comfortable enough to call me when she felt most vulnerable is huge.

3.  Kermit.  Kermit and I clashed HARD last year; to the point where he actually transferred out of my class.  I will admit to being nervous to have him this year, but something is profoundly different between us.  He’s energetic and engaged, and he’s dug into the work that I ask my kids to do – to the point that he’s kinda rocking my socks.  His parents told me that something clicked for him at home, too, and he’s totally making it all work.  He and I are laughing and really talking, and I am delighted to be sharing this year with him.

4.  Caroline.  She’s a new kid this year, but something in her resonated with me from the moment we met.  She is open and sweet, she has a sublime sense of humor, and she’s eager to learn and to find her place in our community.  She’s got some self-esteem problems that I’m working on (she was convinced at some point that she’s a bad writer), but every time we talk, I get the feeling that she’s going to be one of my kids.

5.  Jeff.  Jeff is one of my guitar boys and, like Kermit, we did not connect our first year together.  In fact, Jeff was one of the kids I was sure we were going to lose; he just wasn’t working.  I kept at him, though, even though I know he sometimes hated me for it.  Last year, something in him turned, and he started the year really rockin’… until he wasn’t.  At one point, he came to me and admitted that things were bad at home.   I looked him in the eye and told him that he could call on me for anything he needed.  Ever since then, he’s been my kid, and I love him like I love Bart.

6.  Trevor.  Trevor is a new kid, but he’s already grown on me.  He’s open and sweet, he’s sharp and funny, and he seems a genuinely happy to be with us.  I have no idea if he’s going to be one of mine (really, the kids choose me), but I wouldn’t object if he wanted to be.

7.  Nick.  Nick is also a new kid, and I am deeply impressed by him.  He is infectiously, deliriously friendly, he is wickedly smart and observant, and I’m pissed that he’s a senior because it means we’re only going to have him for the year.  He seems to me the kind of kid who will put himself out for other people, and I already feel like he’s going to be a huge part of my school life this year.

8.  Hannah!  There are a million things to love about Hannah!, not the least of which being that she signs her name with an exclamation point.  She’s in it; she wants to learn, she wants to read, she wants to suck everything out of this experience, and I adore her.  She isn’t really mine – while we get along fantastically, I think she’s bonded much more to another teacher at the school – she is one of the kids I look forward to every day.

9.  Arthur.  Arthur was another kid I thought we were going to lose last year, but who’s somehow managed to come back to us this year; he’s not quite wheels-up, but he’s definitely on the runway and picking up speed.  We’re really starting to connect; he’s looking me in the eye, he’s joking with me, he’s starting to trust me – and himself.  I have a good feeling about this kid.

10.  Betty.  I adore Betty.  She is a firecracker, but I think that a lot of that energy is her way of trying to cover up some pretty hefty insecurity.  She admitted to me, in a piece of writing, that she’s going through some things.  I wrote back to her and told her that she didn’t have to go through them alone; that I would be there for her if she needed me.  We haven’t spoken about it – that’s not the way Betty operates – but I know she knows I’m here.  That may be enough – just that knowing – but if she needs more, and I can give it to her, all she has to do is say the word.

I am so incredibly lucky to be able to do this work, and to work in a place that lets me love my kids the way I need to.

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Quick Hit: It Works!

Every morning, my English classes are expected to write for about 10 minutes on a bumper sticker quote I put up on the board.  The first class, they just get the quote; I want them to approach it fresh and as they would on their own.  They find critical thinking questions and prompts from me on the board when they arrive for subsequent classes.  My hope is that these will nudge them to think deeper or more carefully or from a different angle; my goal is for them to practice critical thinking skills, then to transfer that thinking into their writing.

For the most part, these exercises seem to go over okay.  The kids grumble about having to do them – especially the first-thing-in-the-morning kids – but with the exception of a couple of recalcitrant kids (who don’t write on principle, anyway), I get pretty decent engagement.

I had to kinda drag Hatcher through these last year; not exactly kicking and screaming, but for a while there, I was working harder than he was.  This kid is SO smart and SO insightful, but he would give me bullshit responses to the prompts, and it made me CRAZY.  I pushed him and cajoled him and harassed him all year, and he only once in a while let slip how brilliant he really is.

He ended up leaving the school this term (I’m not sure why, and it saddens my heart; I miss him every day).  This morning, I got this message on my facebook page:

Dear Mrs. Chili,

After the second day of [standardized testing], I can honestly say that I would have had an incredibly hard time on the writing sections without the daily quote writing from your class.

Thanks,

Hatcher

I live for these notes.

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