"Education is not a product: mark, diploma, job, money; It is a process, a never-ending one." -bel kaufman

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


!teaching again!

i found my way back into teaching again. this summer i was offered a position as an instructor for a web design apprenticeship program. i had my choice of five high school locations, but at the last minute one more opened up: Dr. Pedro Albizu-Campos Puerto Rican Alternative High School (quite a name)(aka PACHS). i've been aware of this school for a while, first through Jose Lopez, director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and my professor at Columbia College, and second through Praxis, an alternative school improvement workshop program where PACHS teachers attended along with teachers from Antonia Pantoja HS. so PACHS is a place i have always wanted to somehow become more involved in, and when the opportunity came to instruct this web design class, i took it immediately.

seven weeks later, seven out of twelve students surviving, the apprentices create this fine piece of web design: http://www.albizucamposhs.org

they deserve all the credit, and their day-by-day stories can be found here, on livejournals we kept every day: http://www.livejournal.com/community/p_albizu_campos

thanks for checking out their work. you may just see me working in this school in the future...

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


one year.

i left school for the last time today. i'm done... for now. it feels nice to do nothing for a change. i'm glad to take this rest and start something new. we'll see what happens. i'll be back in chicago again. i know i will be missing the classroom and the students and the friends i have made. i will see you soon.

Thursday, November 18, 2004


this one goes out to my man mike genovese

i stood by the door, anxious and nervous for michael's arrival. i spent seventh period setting up the digital projector and trying to spread the word. "you staying after school, right?" i'd ask an unsuspecting student. "michael genovese is gonna be here. he's a chicago artist." "oh really?" they'd reply, either somewhat interested or just totally not paying attention to what i had said.

mike finally showed up just before the bell rang. school was out and most people left, some forgetting about the event, some going out to chill in front of the school till everyone was gone, then sneaking back into school to check out this chicago artist. we had coke and cookies and a nice tablecloth on the tables in the back of the room. someone set down a bag of ice in the corner and forgot about it. a student found it over an hour later with a river of melted ice flowing across the floor.

michael tore it up on stage, so to speak. he really worked to make a connection with the kids, speaking from the heart and giving some history of his life in chicago and elsewhere. it wasn't until he let some of his artwork do the talking, especially when he passed around some of his actual work, did most of the students open up. the questions took some time to begin flowing, but once the artists in the room (and everyone there is an artist in some way) made a connection--that aha! moment, that moment when they start to nod their heads in understanding--did the room become fully energized. i saw that michael himself had made a connection with the kids--he was receiving much of that energy. he had just the right stories, or just the right advice to inspire and interest the students.

i wish i could tell more here, but i also know that this is just a beginning. a beginning for the students and their creativity, a beginning with mike and me, and hopefully the sprout of something great between all of us to collaborate and make something great happen. it's there. for sure, it's there.

Monday, November 15, 2004



with all this free time, i should be writing more, yes? well, not exactly. i usually neglect my creative impluses when i gain more leasure time. i usually go off living and wandering. but i should record some moments here, especially since there is some unexpected news...

on wednesday, i attended my final day of classes. i was not so much the teacher to my students on this day, but more of a friend enjoying the moment. grades didn't matter to them or to me. when i talked to students, i felt a sense of compassion between us. they expressed how they would miss me and how i shouldn't leave just yet. i kept reminding them that my departure can only be something good because when i return, i will have more stories and experiences to share. some of the students got excited at the thought of traveling. i hope they travel soon, as well.

on thursday, i submitted the final grades. on friday, one last seminar with the faculty & ASN. the teachers finally had a chance to act like our students... a little too well, i might add. i wanted to take a photograph of all of us together, but the moment passed and before i knew it everyone was gone, off to their cars to drive away. no worries, i will be returning next week to substitute.

to substitute? yes. to substitute. for myself. the school has found a qualified replacement for my position (journalism & photography teacher), but she can not start for another two weeks until she clears her calendar--she has been doing freelance photography work according to my principal. so i am now planning two weeks of projects for my students and i, something to complete our year and finish off those final ideas... my journalism classes still have two issues of our magazine to publish: an election issue & a thanksgiving issue, some articles already complete. my hope is to eventually get their magazine online, at least for historical purposes. so much amazing work has been produced.

i also hope to publish a tangible copy of this journal, plus more stories and rambling on teaching, sometime in the next few months. i have read many worthwhile books on teaching from publishers like Rethinking Schools, the New Press, Teachers College Press, etc. i feel i can contribute something at the underground level. look for "Teacher" in your favorite zine shop around the country in 2005.

more to come...

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


a memory

after hearing the news of my hiatus from teaching, my friend and mentor, mark, told me tonight:

"my favorite memory of our trip to mexico was you and i sitting by ourselves one night at the table in jose's aunt and uncle's house -- and you said (something like), 'you know, mark, i think i'll stay here and not return to chicago.' you said it with such calm and serenity that i believed you and i had no intention of dissuading you."

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Letter to the faculty and staff of Aspira

This letter serves a few purposes, all related to my experience and perspective on teaching.

Let me get the biggest news out of the way: i am leaving Antonia Pantoja High School at the end of the quarter. This was one of the most difficult decisions i have had to make, one that i have been struggling with for many months. I will take with me not only the best experience working and learning, but the memories of a school working tirelessly towards changing things for the better. I hope that i have helped leave a mark in this school. I hope my efforts have made a difference in our students.

I have known some of you for almost one year, some of you for just over one month. My relationships to the faculty and staff members of Aspira vary from close friends to minor acquaintances. Each and every person has helped me at one time or another, and for this i can only hope that i have also helped to make some small difference in your experience working at Antonia Pantoja. (If i haven't, give me a call—i'm available for odd jobs, grading papers, raking leaves, vacuuming your car, etc.)

Irregardless of how small or large of an impact i have made on this school, i hope to continue to make a difference by encouraging you to work towards doing the best you can teaching, inspiring, and struggling with each one of our students no matter how hard they prove to be to teach. We work under some of the most difficult conditions; however, do not forget that we work with some of the most creative yet misunderstood students out there. I urge you—do not overlook the possibilities and potential in our kids. They have exceeded some of my most challenging expectations.

I wish to provide you with a glimpse of my personal perspective on teaching and living while working at Antonia Pantoja. I kept a journal during the length of my stay here, all of which can be read online at www.okcancel.org/teacher. Below is one of my journal entries from April 11th of this year:

don't get me wrong. every person on this earth has the capability to be a teacher. it takes no training, no formal education, no certificate, and no prior experience in teaching. it only takes a heart and a mind. (to all reading: remember this when you question whether or not you can be a teacher.)

from april 3rd to 11th, i spent eight days away from school and traveled Mexico. i paused once or twice questioning the job i would be returning to on monday, april 12th. it's true, the responsibility scares me. today i finally put pen to paper:

i am coming to the realization that i cannot yet act the role of a professional school teacher. and i am very close to forfeiting my position as English teacher at Antonia Pantoja High School. i have been a teacher here for just over three months -- a professional teacher with no prior experience. how did i get the job? i was recommended to substitute teach, then recommended to teach full-time based on my dedication and my immediate connection with the students. but i have made many mistakes and i have doubted myself countless times. how have i made it this far? i have had tremendous support from my fellow teachers at APHS and inspiration from our current principal, Daisy Lopez. in addition to support and inspiration, i have had the most amazing experiences with my students. they are the reason i rise each morning at 5:30, and they are the fuel for my body and spirit throughout the day. i recognize that i am the type of person who needs motivation and a push every day in order to press on in difficult situations. the faces and voices and laughter of my students are my motivation.

i will continue on in my position as professional teacher for now, believing in those who have told me that i am a great teacher no matter what. i give myself many reasons (excuses) to quit. i have so many other dreams to fulfill. but i will teach for my students and for everyone who told me not to give up.

And so i continued on teaching after April 11th. I took some time off over the summer to travel. I returned with new ideas and ready to teach again.

The difficulties of being an untrained, unqualified teacher have not left me, though. I struggle with these feelings everyday. I encounter countless situations with students and with lessons where i do not have the experience or the training in order to resolve a problem. Teaching has given me great experience in using my intuition and improving my skills, but it is no excuse for those times i wish i could have provided more for the students.

Everywhere in public and alternative schools, we can find a crisis of qualification. Unfortunately, i am another example of this. Of course we would all love to find Antonia Pantoja well stocked with highly qualified teachers. But only until recently has the school had more than one or two certified teachers. Still, there exists a deficit of teachers with lengthy teaching experience and a shortage of teachers of color. Our school suffers, but worst of all, our students suffer. This much is obvious. Some statistics: during the 1999-2000 school year, roughly 50 percent of the nation's middle and high school teachers would not have been considered "highly qualified" by the Department of Education's standards. It cannot be argued that the students who need the most resources and the best teaching possible to be successful are often being taught by teachers with little or no experience. More stats: the New York Times found that 50 percent of the teachers in urban schools leave teaching within their first five years. Lastly, students in schools that have a population of 90 percent or more African-American and Latino students are twice as likely to have teachers without certification at all.

I find myself in these statistics.

I am not discouraged. I am, however, greatly disappointed, even enraged at the state of our educational system today. So why am i leaving? Am i running away? No. I am leaving for a variety of reasons, primarily to reset myself and spend some time with my family. I will return to school to get a masters degree in education. I will become certified. And most importantly, i hope to live a life where i follow my many various dreams. I hope to experience many things and return to teaching with valuable stories and lessons with which to teach.

For those of you teaching and counseling now: you are the hope and the strength for our students. Please do not give up. You have been my inspiration and my support.
Someday we will meet again and we will have some amazing stories to share.

thank you for everything,
nicholas krebill.

P.S. by the way, the statistics above are from the magazine Rethinking Schools, Vol.19, Issue 1.

Monday, October 25, 2004


sixteen images of school

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


tomorrow in journalism class...

"Students and Faculty of Senn HS, along with community members, shut down the propaganda 'information session' and drive the spokespersons of the proposed naval academy out of the building."


Monday, October 04, 2004


the challenges of being a new teacher

it is really easy to be a excited teacher with a lot of great ideas, but the challenge lies in actually bringing those ideas into fruition. i could fill a book with my ideas, but to actually accomplish them is another thing...

i imagine building a fair and just classroom, one with a foundation of unity. i think of some of my college professors who did this successfully. i wonder if i can impliment those same practices in my classroom. i imagine myself using these practices, but then i usually get distracted by the commotion of teenagers or the burden of creating curriculum. in thinking about my college professors, i belive much of their influence comes out in me--in the way i handle unexpected situations; in how i stress importance on discussion and analyzation instead of book work and memorization. i suppose i am doing a good job, i just question myself all the time. ah, but... isn't that what i'm supposed to do? question myself? i need the challenge. i need that in life.

Sunday, September 26, 2004


what a difference a day can hold (dedicated to michael genovese)

i began this afternoon in a spiraling depression, my head on my desk and my motivation plummeting as i thought about the many, many things i have to do for school just to catch up. i decided to call emily, my best friend who was traveling to minneapolis to find a new place to live. her cell phone was dead (not surprising) and i began an email message to her immediately:
sunday 4:13pm
i tried calling your phone. it is out of service. i wanted to leave you a message, let you hear my voice and how it shakes. maybe you could hear my heart beating.

i am scared of teaching. it is growing to be very difficult and i am scared that i am failing. i know that if i concentrate and focus and put more time into it, i can do it, but i can't concentrate. i can't focus. i can't seem to get myself to put in any time because i dread the work it takes to prepare, thinking that the lesson won't do any good. the students won't want to listen. they won't want to work.

these past two weeks have been hard. the school isn't getting much better because it's overcrowded and the teachers are overworked. i get home and i sleep and now i am behind in my work. on the weekends, i avoid catching up because i don't like to think about it.

the students are becoming bored and they see that i am not prepared for class. my lessons have been short and aren't strong enough to really help them digest the information. they have a hard time paying attention, too, so i often have to fight for their attention. this is tiring.

i am not going to give up, i'm just worried that i am dragging along and becoming a poor teacher like what most of these kids have always known: the teacher who hasn't planned enough. the teacher who is uninspired because of so much paperwork. etc, etc.

this is my message to you. i hope you can take some time to think about everything and maybe we will get together this week and talk. i miss you. see you soon,

at six o'clock, i biked to earwax cafe and ordered a mug of coffee. i pretended to read a magazine. i was anxious to meet the person i had come here to see. michael genovese is a chicago artist who i had stumbled across in a local newspaper not long ago. among many things, he does public art work and was/is a graffiti artist, something easily seen in his painting style. i wrote him a couple weeks ago to see if he was interested in working with my visual art class in school. once i saw some of his work on his web site, i knew that my students would appreciate his talent. i could see him bringing some of his paintings to class and talking about his process, influences, inspirations, life... everything. i didn't know if he would dig this idea, but he wrote back in a day and responded with enthusiasm. we decided to meet.

over a week later, we finally coordinated our busy lives to find each other in wicker park on a sunday evening. he was more down to earth than i could have imagined. he had lived the life some of my students live today. michael grew up in chicago sketching graffiti in his art book as a teenager and later let his talent take him across the nation as a sign painter in a carnival. a few years pass and life takes him to Ecuador where he worked as an educator in ESL (english as a second language). the experiences opened up doors for michael as an instructor, and without any formal degrees, he worked on teaching and curriculum in South America. he eventually came back to chicago and has been working as an artist here, slowly establishing himself and working towards fulfilling his passions in art, both indoor and outdoor. after so many years doing graffiti, public art is still in his blood. michael works with the chicago public art group and other individuals to create public art pieces around chicago, as well as doing studio painting. we talked and talked over coffee in that cafe, and my spirits rose. i told him i was stuck in my art class, running short on ideas, and he threw some thoughts my way. the students can create found-object sculptures, develop sketches, create structures to eventually be displayed in a gallery and... hey, who knows... maybe even be sold and have the money go straight back into the hands of the students. public art work would be something within reach, perhaps nearby on abandoned buildings with boarded-up windows. paintings, murals, mixed-media. i can see it now: right on pulaski avenue where students and passersby-ers would see everyday. as a class, i can assign roles to the students--planning teams, painters, photographers. teacher about composition, line, unity, balance. teach the importance of documenting each step and use our two cameras strategically. thank you, michael, for your quick ideas, putting together my disarray and providing some inspiration and experience. you don't know how much this means.

Thursday, September 23, 2004


teach how you would want to be taught

my 7th period class (photography & visual art) and i had a great big heart-to-heart session today. i spoke on the topic of unity and how this class needs to work together. most of the kids are loud and rambunctious, while some are quiet and seem to lack focus because of the rowdy ones. also, they seem overly bored. so, after a few minutes of trying to get them to be quiet and listen, we went around the room and i had each person state why they signed up for the class and what they think of it so far. i was strict on the rule of only one person speaking at a time, and i didn't criticize any of the student's comments. most said our recent class work has been boring and they don't understand how looking at art connects to photography. the comments were honest and i really felt good when the class remained quiet throughout the go-around, letting each students speak her/his mind. unfortunately, we don't have cameras that the students can use yet, so i have been trying to teach them the basics elements and principals of art using research on the internet. bad idea. they just get bored looking at photos and when i lecture to them about composition and style, they stare back blankly. today they communicated to me that they do not want to study art, they want to do art.

sometimes i need to step back and analyze myself, and remind myself not to become the teacher who loses touch with the student's perspective. teach how i would want to be taught.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


i am grading math homework

who would have guessed? but anyone who knows my 8 month history at APHS won't find this as a shock. since beginning here, i have taught english, environmental science, journalism, photography, and art. i even substituted in Spanish class once. last friday, when the principal told me that she needed to open up a new section of math and that she wanted me to teach the class, i told her i would look forward to the challenge. and truthfully, i do. of course, i became nervous at the thought of solving mathematics equations on the board, and immediatly thoughts of sixth grade math class began to fill my mind. my sixth grade math teacher was old and strict, and to make it worse, she had braces and was despised by every student. my memories of elementary school are sparse on details, but i remember this math teacher forced me to stand at the board and solve a problem. she knew i didn't know the answer or how to solve it. i'm sure she was trying to use me as an example for the other students: pay attention and work obediently and you won't have to embarrass yourself in front of the class. and yes, i felt embarrassed, like an idiot who lacked the intelligence to be any good at math. this math problem seemed impossible to me. so i stood at the chalk board, frozen with my back to the class so no one would notice the tears rolling down my face.

the truth, now that i look back on this experience, is that she emarrassed me because she failed to find a way to teach me how to solve this problem, failed to engage me, and then used me to make herself feel guiltless and powerful. fortunatly, the only thing proven, even to the eleven year-olds in the room, was that she was wicked and spiteful. completing her assignments felt pointless because success would only feel empty with her. what was our inspiration? our reason to succeed? i had a hard time enjoying mathematics after that experience. math remained cryptic until one summer when i was stuck in summer school before my tenth-grade year. the class was composed of two students and one teacher. i was enrolled in private school, but this teacher was regularly a public school teacher during the acidemic year, crossing over during the summer to our school perhaps to make some extra money. somehow, and i wish i remembered his technique, he broke down algebra into something decipherable and, eventually, something i became fluent in. i entered tenth-grade mathematics class that september with confidence, sitting in the front row and answering questions with confidence. i earned an A and truely felt good about myself.

i wish i could remember that teacher's name. i wish i felt like i could track him down.

Thursday, September 16, 2004


i tell my students and i tell my friends:

every one of you has the ability, the CAPACITY to accomplish whatever you dream to do. only the lazy ones with excuses will convince themselves that something is impossible.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


the argument

i am tired. i am back to my routine of taking long naps after school, not to mention sleeping seven hours a night.

today i broke up a fight in third period. well, an argument. pre-fight. almost there. two females who each had to have the last word. it ended with me standing between them, not even trying to raise my voice. i didn't want to add to the commotion. so i stood calmly hoping one might look to me for a way out, but they had long lost the ability to hear anything but themselves. i motioned for one of the other students to get the principal whose office was only a few doors down.

the rest of the day went well. the period after lunch tends to be a siesta for the students--blank stares, little motivation. i can sympathize. my head usually hurts after fourth period. i had a bicycle accident yesterday and landed on my back. the pain is constant.

i am also still substituting the morning english classes, a fact which the students love, but i am beginning to tire of. the administration tells me they'll have someone permenent any day now, but so far there is no teacher and i wish i could plan a project--something to get the students more involved. we're reading Animal Farm by George Orwell. luckily, i have been able to keep the students interested. today, i told them the book is based on a true story. "What? You bogus!" and then i explain a bit about the 1917 russian revolution. we have fun.

journalism classes are still working on basic interviewing skills and feature articles. we all can't wait to get started on the magazine, myself included, but teaching them the technique now will save time later. "you've got to learn to walk before you can learn to run," i told a student today.

photography has no photography yet. the students are anxious, but we are working on art history and understanding technique and compostion. 7th period, 15 students, some of the most rowdy kids with full blown ADHD, but we still keep it together some how. i think it's mostly based on the fact that i've known most of theses students for as long as they've been enrolled in our school and a mutual respect has grown between us. they still get rowdy, but they actually listen when i talk to them. when i began teaching, i could only wish for such things.

tomorrow is another day. 8 months teaching and many years till i perfect this job. but someday...

Thursday, September 09, 2004


a look back into three days of teaching heaven

the first day: tuesday.
i am not required to be at school until 11:30am. this school year, i have moved into part-time status at my own request in order to have more time for college and other community projects. tuesday i decide to show up early and help out the staff with the first day of school. it is 7:25am, i am buttoning my shirt in my bedroom and the phone rings. it is Jose, a colleague at school.
"Hey, Nic. Can you come into school? Ms. Lopez needs you."
"Sure, i was planning on coming in anyway. Why?"
"Mr. Godfrey, Bob, he had a heart attack. They need you to substitute his class."

shock. i arrive at school and the kids are everywhere. they make fun of my bike, as usual, and i try to park it in the kitchen/teacher's lounge. the lunch ladies bite my head off when i get halfway through the door. i store the bicycle in the storage closet. what will i teach today? i was planning on using this morning time to prepare for my afternoon classes. substituting, or should i say filling in without any preparation, has become almost second nature to me. i've been doing it ever since i started. for my first week of official teaching, they threw me into an Environmental Studies class and gave me a a milk crate full of national geographic magazines for textbooks. "Here. You've got five weeks till the end of the semester. Good luck." today, they hand me the syllabus that Mr. Godfrey had prepared. i take attendance and we read the syllabus together. most of the students are kids i've known from quarters past. we take it easy and do an activity to get acquainted. we talk about our summertimes. when forty minutes pass and the class enters full "chill" mode, i begin to mentally prepare a lesson in my head for the upcoming days. i have no idea how long i will be substituting this class. i tell the kids Mr. Godfrey will be back eventually, we just don't know when. the truth is, and i found this out later, his doctor told him he is not to work for a year. i'm sure coming to teach at our school is a health risk in itself, especially for a newcomer.

when fourth period finally arrives i stride out of the classroom, ready for lunch, and the principal calls me into her office. "Nic. We have a problem. Sixth period--we booked one room with three classes. Your class and English 3 are going to have to meet in the lunchroom." i cannot complain because, really, i don't see any reason to. STUDENTS + TEACHER = CLASS. a classroom is convenient, but not necessary. "Fine," i say. sixth period arrives. the class is a mixture of old and new students. i am at full joy when we read through our syllabus, a simple-looking piece of paper that i put so much energy into preparing. after discussing the ideas behind the course, we enter into the icebreaker, or "boundary breaker" as it was titled by it's originators. it is a activity where we sit in a circle and i read a question out loud to one student at time. they are required to answer; they can pass, but i must come back to them later with the same question. the main requirement is for all participants to listen. i also point out that watching facial expressions and body language is important, too. the activity is so successful, so engaging, that the students in the English 3 class on the other side of the lunchroom are all watching and listening to our activity. even the teacher has been fully distracted. i holler to them and motion to join us and they do. it becomes a large circle of at least twenty people, all eager to hear the next question and watch for the response. the questions range from "What is the last great movie you've seen?" to "If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?", or even as abstract yet personal as "What is the color of love?" the bell rings and everyone leaves smiling, joking about the answer given by this person or that. seventh period has arrived and the bell rings. photography class. we are in the computer classroom. there are two students here who were also in my sixth period, and they push me to play the game again, so we form a circle. not one person asks to check their email, usually a common problem. the computers' existence fades as we are engulfed in learning more about each other through simple yet revealing questions.

the second day: wednesday.
so my teaching schedule is as such:: Periods 1-3: English. Period 4: homeroom/lunch. Period 5: Journalism 2. Period 6: Journalism 1. Period 7: Photography & Visual Arts.
wednesday morning before class, i open up my drawer in the teachers' file cabinet and find a set of photocopies from last year. "Nancy" is a true story written by Greg Mitchie in his book, Holler if You Hear Me. He tells the story of meeting a former student of his who is now enrolled in DuPaul University to become a teacher. She is Mexican and speaks on many of the struggles of Mexican women growing up and leaving high school. before i pass out the story in my first period class, i provide instructions on the board: "Describe yourself in three words. Then write a paragraph predicting where you will be in five years." i wasn't really thinking of connecting the two activities, the written work and the reading of "Nancy." it happened by accident, but it worked perfectly. so much of the story is about the future, about realizing one's hopes and dreams, not to mention those things that stand in the way of a person's dreams. after reading the story, we talked and talked until the bell rang and i didn't want them to leave. everything worked so well. every student participated. every student was engaged. second and third period went just as well. the classes were larger, and there were some rambunctious students, but nothing out of hand. i began to miss teaching english. i began to question working part-time.

fifth period english is a small group. Journalism 2. the students write their names on pieces of paper and we put them in a small plastic bag. one student pulls a single piece out. "Andres" it reads. i tell Andres to sit at the front of the class. we are going to interview him, which works out perfectly because Andres is one of those students who is comfortable enough to tell jokes at intervals of about every thirty seconds. he never jokes inappropriately, so he is actually a pleasure to have in class. ready for his interview, he takes his seat in front of the other students. we pretend he is a famous rock star currently on a world-wide tour. this works out even better now because Andres really does play in a band and really does play shows. so he simply tells the truth, except for playing in Europe and earning millions of dollars. the students are surprised at his responses as they fire off the questions. they keep asking him if he is for real. after a fifteen minutes of this, i finally end the interview, but Andres doesn't want to step down. he is enjoying the attention too much.

sixth period, we gather in the lunchroom, our indefinite classroom. the students keep asking me if this is where we will be meeting for the rest of the year. i hesitate to give them an answer. also in this lunchroom, besides English 3, is a group of unfamiliar faces and a few advisors. they tell me that there is a presentation for some new students in the lunch room and that we can sit in the far corner. instead, English 3 and our Journalism class decide to move to the CCP computer lab. three classes in one room... we attempt to get something done. i am at an advantage because the students are expecting something fun after the first day and are giving me their attention. unfortunately, i can't do the student interview like we did in the period before. there are two other classes working in this room and the noise would be too much. i skip that exercise and i have them raffle off each other's names so as to to pair them up. their assignment is to interview each other and record the answers on paper. their ultimate objective is to write an article on the person they have been paired with. this activity proceeds smoothly and i am surprised to see every student working, even interested in their interviewee. the bell rings before we know it.

seventh period, finally a stable classroom, but not the most stable student group. some of the more outspoken and hyperactive students are in this class, but this may prove to be an advantage as this is an art course and hyperactivity can perhaps be translated into creativity. i hope. today, we research art movements on a single web site. their assignment is to find one artist and one piece of art by that artist that they like. i was initially worried about students straying off onto email web sites or chat rooms, a common problem that the computer teacher has, but every student seems interested enough to avoid distraction. a surprise, indeed. i discuss materials with some students--oil & canvas, tempura paint, ceramics. Rodney, a young man that i admire for his creativity and originality, finds a painting entitled, View of Cotopaxi. minutes pass and he just gazes into the monitor, absorbing the details of this landscape. he tells me this painting amazes him and i wonder why he appreciates this painting so much. most students choose art works with bold colors or images of Christianity. he notices something different. i find out later that he works with oil paints himself, skilled enough to recognize the complexity and intricacy in View of Cotopaxi.

the third day: thursday.
today was my test. and last night i prepared well enough to succeed and even surpassed my expectations. the morning can be summed up with one story: one of my students, a student i have taught before and even fought (verbally) with before because he didn't want to deal with school work, told me something in a context i will never forget. second period, the bell rings at the end of class. he hands me the story we had just read and tells me, "This is straight, Nic. Hey... you should be our teacher." i simply nod. i had told the students earlier that i am leaving the class after friday. alas, i am only a substitute, but i have earned their approval as a teacher. many don't want me to leave. i question again working only part-time.

Journalism 1 was great as another student i admire is randomly chosen to be the subject of a full-class interview. Noel is a graffiti artist and slacker extraordinaire, always happy to do anything but typical class work. he gets excited when he doesn't have to pull out a paper and a pencil. "We are going to interview Noel, a world-famous artist currently touring the world with his artwork." We burn him with questions, but he keeps up with the pace and fires back answers faster than we can think up questions. We are back in the lunchroom now, and i feel bad for English 3 as they sit in silence on the other side of the room. their teacher (a substitute) is having them copy the rules of English grammar from a dry-erase board. they look over often towards us with faces full of dread and boredom. i wish i could call them over. maybe i should have.

Monday, September 06, 2004


the eve

anxiety. tonight i am uncomfortable with the unknown. i am out of my routine--i have been since july--and now i sit here with an unsettling feeling the night before my first day of teaching since summer began two months ago.

i revisited my journal from january of this year, my first month of official teaching at APHS. i wanted to taste what i was experiencing back then, partly to reminisce and partly to see if i could figure out a way to calm this feeling i have inside of me right now. i am not nervous, just anxious. and without a clue as to what will happen tomorrow. and the next day. and the day after that. i have my lessons and my planners, but no amount of paper work and preparation will get me ready for this new year. i just have to jump in and see what happens. ...after writing that, i seem to recall something that i had forgotten: the students are my source of energy, they are my inspiration. without them i am lost, without them i am anxious and wandering.

tomorrow, we are back.

Friday, September 03, 2004


three weeks of preparation...

i have been sitting in front of this computer and in front of administrators for the past three weeks. we, the teachers of Antonia Pantoja high school, are preparing our lessons and ourselves for the school year. this is an arduous task, a long and grueling process of filling in the blanks of quarterly planners, unit maps, syllabi, and lesson plans.

and the school is changing, too. the general climate here is much more orderly and formal. paper work, student processing, tightening up dress code for teachers. it is now required that the students refer to teachers as "mister" and "miss." our image seems to be of great importance lately, and i can understand why. this school has been under probation for years and our reputation was less than admirable. i love this school, but i recognized that to the outsider, we looked disorganized and without foundation. At present, however, we are becoming something of pride for our parent organization, Aspira. our principal is stressing a clean, disciplined, and highly organized appearance. more than that, i feel these new intensive processes go deeper than our image--we are all freshman teachers with less than five years experience, most with under one year. furthermore, the faculty in alternative schools has historically had a discreditable reputation and is known for being unenthusiastic and inexperienced. this is our challenge, as i see it, and these new processes and preparations are difficult, but for the best. i will be more prepared for teaching and the school will have the documentation to prove, at least on paper, that i am working responsibly.

there are so many ways to teach, and i can understand my fellow teachers who complain that this paperwork is bogus and wasteful when we could be preparing more intensely on our lesson planning. if i had my way, i would be teaching without walls and without a syllabus. our lessons would be direct experiences and our curriculum would be conversations and interactions with people and world around us. but we work within the system we have, we do what we can to do what we love. and after all is said and done from these three weeks, the teachers of Antonia Pantoja will each, one by one, shut their classroom doors on the morning of september seventh and bring forth something invaluable to a body of students eager to learn.

!internet exclusive! some of my course preperation can be viewed here:
      * journalism 1
      * journalism 2
      * photography & visual arts

Saturday, July 17, 2004


on vacation...

i've left chicago for a little while. i'll be back soon.

Monday, June 28, 2004


the personal essay

exam day.
i'm procrastinating on getting my grading done. keep getting distracted. one of my students' essay is about the day he started bombing (doing graffiti) in chicago. and i think about when i first began teaching here, he never used to write. since then, i let him graf on my board with my multi-colored dry erase markers, and he's head of the graffiti section for the school magazine. i think he's slowly finding his voice, discovering that he can write about what interests him and that he's good at it.

i'm proud of my first period. the remedial class shows up all other classes! tight business.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004


Letter of Intent

To Whom It May Concern:

I intend to continue as an English instructor at Antonia Pantoja High School for the following reasons:

I hope to create a comfortable educational environment for the students, in addition to offering the knowledge and skills needed to enter into higher education, the workforce, and adult life our society. Alternative education by nature is not standard schooling, so I do not intend to "school" our students. My primary goal is to achieve a comfortable classroom environment, one where students can be free from the pressures, distractions, and intimidation of the world they face on the streets.

I hope to improve my skills as a teacher. This is my second goal as a member of this school. There is not a single school day that passes when I do not learn something from our students. The best way to learn how to teach is to teach. After teaching at Antonia Pantoja High School for six months, I know my weaknesses and I know how I need to improve.

I have built and fostered a strong relationship with my students. I see them as pupils and I see them as individual characters. At this time, I cannot envision myself teaching at any other school with any other students. I am proud of my students’ accomplishments and I have aspirations for each of them to succeed in their personal and professional lives. My third goal is to help my students gain confidence in themselves.

Finally, I hope to see Anotnia Pantoja High School become one of the best schools in Chicago. This was not one of my intentions when I began as a teacher. I had never heard of the school and part of me did not know what challenges I would be facing; however, because I have found myself in the middle of a huge school transformation, I will do my part to improve the structure and quality of Antonia Pantoja. I hold no regrets and I wake every weekday morning for my newfound love of teaching.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004



so to start of on a good note, here's some history on chicago's logan square artists back in the day:

a few of my classes are doing oral history projects on chicago during the 50's, 60's, and 70's. to give them an example, i'm showing them the book Yes Yes Y'all: an Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade.

unfortunately, most of my seventh period class hasn't taken the project seriously so i am dropping the assignment and we're going to do simpler book work, worksheets, and essay practice. i don't mean to be doing it as punishment. they don't seem to understand how the freedom to work on a long-term project doesn't mean fool around during class and avoid doing the homework. more than 50% of the class has yet to choose a topic and has shown some sort of animosity towards doing an independent project. futhermore, i feel my patience thinning. i think i need to approach this class with a new perspective.

something i wrote immediately after seventh period:
so today was difficult and writing helps me calm myself. i wish i could be more inspirational, but i know that i cannot please everyone. and i know that i will learn from the difficult ones, the students that fight off work and resist the challenge of school. i have to step back and examine my approach, re-think the way they learn.

i do have much to be happy about, to rejoice in my successes and continue pushing the students who i have engaged.

i met a student's mother on thursday--Jasmine's mom. after talking with her for a minute, i told her that despite the D that Jasmine has in my class (mostly because of absences), she is one of the students of whom i am most proud. Jasmine is creative, sharp, and fun to have in class. her mother responded by informing me her daughter said i was one of her favorite teachers and that Jasmine has had very few teachers that she has liked in school.

so while i am frustrated and exhausted today, i cannot forget that i am making a difference in some of these student's lives.

Monday, May 17, 2004



my bicycle ride home from school no longer requires four layers and a hat. you have to admit: riding in a t-shirt is heavenly.

my moments in the classroom are still both uplifting and devastating. it just depends on the day. the difficult days, however, are becoming fewer and fewer. perhaps it has to do with my relaxed attitude (am i letting them get away with too much?), or maybe it could be contributed to my sharper planning skills and improved abilities to teach "off the cuff." the only scary part is the warm weather. is it impossible to resist the lax nature of summer time? everything moves slower. i hope i can keep on task...

Monday, May 10, 2004


sixth period interuption

our attendence was so low today (perhaps having something to do with the weather--79 degrees outside) that the principal burst into each classroom to tranfer all students into the lunchroom for a STD & abstinence presentation (originally it was only to be 7th period for juniors and seniors). "always engage each one of your students," she reminds us during faculty meetings. when the attendence is low, it's so much easier to actually engage them--fewer distractions, more one-on-one attention. today in sixth period, we postponed the vocabulary quiz till tomorrow and i handed out photocopies of an article from today's New York Times: "U.S. to Reopen Investigation of Emmett Till's Murder in 1955." i even had Salvidor reading out loud. i was excited to discuss this article because it is a perfect primer to the two books we'll be reading from this quarter, Division Street: America by Studs Terkel, and Native Son by Richard Wright. I am currently doing preparation work for teaching with the book Native Son, but i decided (just this morning) to dive right into Studs Terkel's oral history of chicago. the book was published in 1967 and will be an interesting look into the past of the urban jungle that my students have known for only a short 10 to 15 years. i hope it will provide new perspectives, entertaining stories, and, maybe if i'm lucky, the inspiration for a few oral histories from the students themselves.

i did head into the lunchroom later... and the presentation was good, definitely worth interupting my class. we always have tomorrow.

in other news:
classes now begin at 8:30am, and teachers have an hour of prep time to work before school. i usually arrive sometime between 7 and 7:30, and since i still wake up at 5:30, i have plenty of time to wander sleepily around the house in the morning. granola, almond milk, and toast fill my stomach and a shower wakes me up. i also have a smooth new laptop to use for my lessons and school work. it doubles nicely as a boombox to play streaming hiphop radio off of the internet in my first and second periods (beatbasement.com).

some of you may have already heard my wavering back and forth between remaining a teacher at Antonia Pantoja or taking a break for other projects. and it's still a battle trying to figure out this quandry. on the weekends, i am positive i will take off this summer and travel, then return to start up a non-profit community organization and work on my artistic endevors. but then i return to school on monday and see one hundred faces laughing and joking, pulling me back into teaching. this job is difficult, no doubt, but it's not impossible. and everyday i get better at it.

the compromise might be this: take the summer off (a leave of absence) and return in the fall as a part-time teacher, enabling me to return to college and work on my credits towards a teaching certificate while still getting classroom time with the students. further on down the line is a master's degree. in my spare time i will travel, work with the community, and create art. i can do it all, but i just can't do it all at once. my life is a expanse of decades and decades, almost infinite and certainly out of sight.

things to focus on now: teaching to empower my students with knowledge; reading, reading, reading; and falling for that girl with the curly brown hair.

Saturday, April 24, 2004


rising up...

i don't like how this online journal has primarily turned into a space for me to vent about my frustrations and doubts as a teacher. i wish this journal had more stories and less introspective thoughts. not that the thoughts aren't important, i just worry that i'm complaining too much.

tonight, i was just about to quit trying to plan for next week, frustrated at my low attention span and lack of focus on my lessons for next week. i was empty handed. ready for bed and it was only eight thirty. then i read an article on No Child Left Behind in Hasta Quando and found a link to Chicago's Teachers for Social Justice. this lead me through a variety of links to other teaching articles and resources, and i eventually found an influence for my assignment this Monday. what i found was a book called Reading, Writing, and Rising Up by Linda Christensen. i find that my primary focus in teaching my students is to use the written word. one thing that every one of my students has is creativity. and their stories are amazing. if there is something i can always do with my students, it is writing. i don't think i'm great at teaching, and so i look to teachers like Linda Christensen to pave the way. thank you.

Monday's assignment: Where you're from.
begin your story, "I am from..."

Thursday, April 15, 2004


so i said, "teach me something."

mid-terms week has been the usual rollercoaster ride. two of my classes share the same curriculum, mostly a writing course, and so i had two independent groups on which to experiment an exam assignment. the essay topic was a result of one of the reflections in this journal: teach me something. i explained to my class that everyday they come to school with the idea that they are the student and i am the teacher. i am supposed to teach them "English" and, at the end of the year, they are supposed to move on with better language skills. i told them i wanted to formally flip the roles for once. "you are the teacher and i am the student." using the skills we have learned in essay writing, they were to write me an essay on something from their own experience, something they knew i would know nothing about. seemed like the best deal for them: write on what you know.

but i received expressions of shock and confusion. some just plain didn't understand. some thought i was crazy. mostly, i think my students didn't feel like they had enough knowledge to teach others. but i was here to convince them that they are full of experience, culture, and history to fill books. all i was asking for was two pages, front & back, double spaced.

i discussed my expectations and them words of encouragement. slowly, a few kids shouted out their ideas: how to cook a Puerto Rican dish, my job at navy peir, how to play basketball, how to do spots (graffiti). i had to guide a few along, for instance one girl who couldn't come up with any ideas. i glanced at her clean white sneakers and the coordinated reds and whites of her outfit. i told her, "what's the difference between you and me?" pause. then i looked down at my clothes, "do you think i have style?" she smiled, definitely on the verge of laughing at her unspoken answer. she began writing.

since then, i've read a few and discovered the most moving lessons, like how to be a supportive boyfriend to your pregnant girlfriend. one of my students, who has resisted class work almost everyday, wrote how he really feels deep down about school and how he truly has respect for his teachers despite how he acts. i couldn’t believe it.

once each one of my students had found their topic, they began writing and the room was silent, most writing right up to the end of the period. they worked hard and were completely engaged. i still smile when i think back...

Wednesday, April 14, 2004



my bedroom is in a state of disorder and i'm missing one cat. the black one is sleeping at the vet tonight, his second night away from home and two more to go. once his bloodstream is clean and he's urinating normally again, he'll come back home. this is his second urinary tract infection and he's only one year old.

but despite the problems at home, i'm back on top of things at school. i've been convinced that i shouldn't even consider part-time. with the help of a few close colleagues, i will make it through this semester and become better organized. i'm convinced that my self-doubts are stemming from the fact that i am disorganized and naïve. poor lesson planning at it's best. it will be a difficult road, but i am headed up.

oh, and pray for adventure kitty. and my bank account.

Sunday, April 11, 2004


teach me something.

don't get me wrong. every person on this earth has the capability to be a teacher. it takes no training, no formal education, no certificate, and no prior experience in teaching. it only takes a heart and a mind. (to all reading: remember this when you question whether or not you can be a teacher.)

april 3-11, 2004: i spent eight days away from school and traveled Mexico. i paused once or twice questioning the job i would be returning to on monday, april 12th. it's true, the responsibility scares me. today i finally put pen to paper:

i am coming to the realization that i cannot yet act the role of a professional school teacher. and i am very close to forfeiting my position as English teacher at Antonia Pantoja High School. i have been a teacher for just over three months -- a professional teacher with no prior experience. how did i get the job? i was recommended to substitute teach, then recommended to teach full-time based on my dedication and my immediate connection with the students. but i have made many mistakes and i have doubted myself countless times. how have i made it this far? i have had tremendous support from my fellow teachers at APHS and inspiration from our current principal, Daisy Lopez. in addition to support and inspiration, i have had the most amazing experiences with my students. they are the reason i rise each morning at 5:30, and they are the fuel for my body and spirit throughout the day. i recognize that i am the type of person who needs motivation and a push every day in order to press on in difficult situations. the faces and voices and laughter of my students are my motivation.

i will continue on in my position as professional teacher for now, believing in those who have told me that i am a great teacher no matter what. i give myself many reasons (excuses) to quit. i have so many other dreams to fulfill. but i will teach for my students and for everyone who told me not to give up.

postscript: i want to mention that the idea of forfeiting this job only comes with the idea that i would move into a more suitable role: i would work either part-time as a teacher or as a tutor and mentor until i return to college in order to aquire more skills for professional teaching. running away has never been an option. i only want what is best for my students and what is best for my happiness. we are all teachers and we can never quit.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004


creating change, envoking thought

it feels pretty good to have successfully accomplished a goal while failing to even notice the accomplishment until later.

i spend many afternoons sitting and talking with a student of mine after school. she usually asks for help on her homework, but the conversation so often drifts to this and that, leading us on great adventures talking about human issues and not limiting ourselves to the typical teacher-student roles. last week i expressed to her my frustrations with the students’ immaturity regarding sexism: most students have deeply seated beliefs in specific gender roles and have no inhibitions discussing sex in a derogatory way. they don’t really care about my opinion, either, so it always feels like i have no influence in steering them towards more respectful attitudes. now this student that i converse with after school--i can tell that in class she is also bothered by the immaturity, and so i told her last week that this issue frustrates me. i said that i don’t know how to approach the issue other than to speak up and point out that sexist comments are disrespectful to me and to other students.

i also talk to her quite a bit about the concepts i am trying to teach in my classes, and i feel like she helps me understand whether or not i am truly accomplishing my goals at all. she is honest and constructive. and she is also unintentionally subjective (of course we all are subjective) and through her i can tell when i am being one-sided during a classroom discussion and not including other members of the class. for instance, during the past two weeks we spent a good deal of time listening to rap music, categorizing its many styles, and analyzing the lyrics for meaning regarding culture and society. i can’t express how happy i was to see the uninterested students, the ones who hate school with a passion, finally become animated and jump up out of their seats to explain how Jay-Z cracked the code on how to make the perfect rap album, going platinum every time. this classroom energy was great, of course, but one-sided. while stimulating one-half of the class, i had lost the other half because the gansta rap industry was not quite their cup of tea. with this in mind, i admitted to my after-school conversation partner that i could tell she was bored with the rap thing. and i admitted that i did want to include everyone, but i just didn’t know how. i needed to find common ground among all issues covered in the books the students have been reading.

and i unintentionally found it.

last thursday, i photocopied an article i found on Znet entitled, “Health and Poverty in the US.” I was nervous about the length (13 pages) and the density of the article itself, but the lesson succeeded and a beautiful discussion was born. that was a stressful day, too, and i had begun the period with a headache, but ended with a smile and the confidence that i had engaged nearly the entire class -- together.

this week we have watched most of the movie, “Angela’s Ashes,” and the class appears to be enjoying the film. thursday i will discover how beneficial the film will be towards our discussion on poverty and class distinction, but i am still confident that the class will remain together and inspired to discuss.

Monday, March 29, 2004


on the dusk of another difficult day

on so many fronts, i am going through a period of identity crisis, although i feel the word crisis is a bit strong. identity query, perhaps.

with school, my situation lies in the fact that i am becoming more strict in my classroom. i used to be relaxed in policy because i felt it was what these students deserved — if i trust them to do the right thing, they will return my trust with the willingness to follow the rules and, most importantly, to simply listen to me. i see most students as zombies in the classes they dread, because they don’t have any respect for a teacher who yells and enforces superficial rules like no hoodies, no hats, no cd players. and i honestly belive that i succeded, because many students that the school considers "problems" are open with me and will listen when i ask for their attention. but lately i’ve been changing my policies and reprimanding students for having cell phones, eating food, and talking about anything other then the class lesson. i have my reasons, of course, but i wonder if i am slightly changing into the teachers that i despised before.

am i beginning to understand why classroom discipline is so important? why anarchy among teenagers is a dangerous thing?

or am i losing the youthful energy i had when i began teaching just a few months ago? i was bursting with ideas and theories on how to make the classroom a open and productive place without a power struggle; now i see myself frustrated and struggling with power because i am unable to effect and stimulate uninterested students. am i incapable in reaching them? i do understand that am missing vital skills and resources as an untrained teacher. but i am also going through an “identity query” where i am questioning my role as a teacher. i want that feeling back: the one where i was indestructible... where i was going to be the best teacher these students had ever met.

i also need to keep in perspective that i am working in a school that is on probation and has lacked a committed principal for two years. even i, the 23 year-old, naïve, wannabe teacher, can create a page long letter on how to create a better learning atmosphere for this school. yes, i know i am doing the near-impossible here. i have to keep that in perspective. but i also want to keep pushing myself to be the best teacher my students have ever met.

Thursday, March 25, 2004


i found something i had lost...

i aplogize. i think i have been ignoring all of my support, the words of encouragement being offered to me from all of my friends and relatives. these past couple of weeks have been overbearing, and falling behind has only made me doubt my abilities as a teacher. in reality though, i have only lost sight of my potential. i forgot some of the reasons why i am doing this...i lost sight of what i have to offer.

+ i will give my students the perspectives and stories they may have never seen and heard before.
+ i will tell them about my life and i will not alter who i am just to make them think i am more like them. we will compare our lives and open our minds. we will find our commonalties.
+ i will read to them and find what captures their attention, then use their interests to teach them what they need to know in order to survive in this world.
+ i will listen to them and let them teach me what i need to know to survive in this world.
+ i will be honest.
+ i will give them the truth, as best as i can explain it.
+ i will get frustrated.
+ my worst days will push me up into my best days.
+ i will still smile at them after giving them detention.
+ i will reveal myself when i don't know something (which happens often).
+ i will help them find the answers.
+ i will offer them only compassion in all that i do and nothing else.

Sunday, March 21, 2004


day dreaming

one of the most common thoughts i return to each week is how i am still so young, and i feel like i am losing something, losing possible moments in time. while sitting on the marble floor of federal plaza yesterday, leaning up against a post office window and chatting with a new acquaintance, i was reminded of my loss of free time. i listened to her and imagined her working her simple job and coming home with time to spare, not having to worry about falling behind in responsibilities. to be a free and unrestrained youth. this teaching gig is my life with no room for anything else really, nothing significant and time consuming, that is. i wish i had time to stay up late with friends and time to change my plans sporadically and time to sit on couches for days at a time. i miss a lack of routine.

but i think about the possibilities, how if i were presented with the opportunity to run away and return to the wandering, rebellious life i would refuse the offer. i would refuse only because i made the choice to teach high school. no one pushed me into this. and i am still doing it, almost 100 days strong now. i've questioned quitting. running away to adventures unplanned and spontaneous. i question leaving my job all the time, but i know that if i put in a few years to teach and earn a masters degree, i will come out of this with experience and with purpose. and most of all, i know that in the end i will be the same person, no matter what. i will most definitely still have my desire to wander and be rebellious. and i will still desire a lack of routine. i will still up and run off on a whim to follow my day dreams. but in a few years, after sticking with this routine, i will have done something i had always thought nearly impossible for me. in the end, i will have the experiences and the memories. that's what i want out of this life.

Friday, March 12, 2004


milemarker: falling behind

distractions have proven themselves to be poisonous to my progress as a teacher. i struggle, even more so now, in keeping up with the basic responsibilities of a professional educator. lesson plans, record keeping, and class preparation. i have told myself before that if i can prepare a week's worth of class work ahead of time, i will have much more time for resting each night after work--instead of working till midnight (or longer) on the next days lessons and paperwork. but i still procrastinate each weekend and put my school tasks on hold. i take my naps and spend my time on mindless relaxation. i have to. some days, i put in up to 10 hours of work at school, then come home with more to do. this week i have been putting my homework off to the side to relax, sleep, and forget about responsibilities.

unfortunately, my procrastination has only resulted in frustration, a build up of serious tension which results in disappointment in myself. today was by far the worst day. this evening, i hid under my covers after spending too much time in bed during the afternoon. i was angry at how i have not been practicing basic self-discipline. angry at my failings. and worried that i am getting too close to giving up. tonight, i would not come out from under the covers. i was warm and comfortable there. everything outside the bed was daunting. i had lost my momentum and felt so close to stopping completely.

i am up again, though. i climbed out of bed, put some clothes on, ate some food, and am now back on the path again. i'm about a week behind schedule and it will take some time to catch up, but i feel like i can do it. i have to. i want to. i am not giving up.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004



i'm fighting back tears at this moment, it's getting harder to hold them in. no, it's not fear. i personally do not feel threatened. i feel scared for my students and the bullets threatening each one of them, threatening the darkness of their skin and the colors of the clothes they wear.

one of my students was shot today in his right calf just below the knee.
11:50am. i heard yelling and looked out the window. nothing unusual, i said to myself. i saw a few students run past the window. when i saw this student of mine raise his arms up and bang on the van next to him, i saw anger and not humor. then i saw him limping and i was running out the door. i couldn't think straight and he couldn't hear me telling him to come my way. i tried to get him to sit down, only listening to my outdated first aid training telling me to take the weight off his leg and administer pressure on the wound to clot the blood. i wasn't thinking about gangs and weapons and territory. all i could see or hear was this student of mine, and another boy on a cell phone yelling to the police operator on the other end. and the boy with the bullet in his leg, he could only hear himself and the pain in his leg telling him he has enemies... how he now has more buisness to take care of. his jeans had spots of blood soaked through the fabric. i couldn't tell where the bullet had entered. it still didn't seem real to me. maybe there was no bullet. i didn't hear the gunshot. i looked up towards the school and saw the principal, frantically mouthing words in the distance (everything had gone silent) and motioning for us to come back to the building, to get inside. danger? oh god, this is no place for him to be, limping on the curb, still out on the street. we are in danger--everyone on this scene is in danger.

nothing more, just cops and questions, and me standing the the background fighting off tears that i feel are coming from my student, not me. cause i can't identify what this pain is. it is the danger that i don't face. it is the fear my students hide behind their egos. this pain is knowing they can't run away from the only life they know.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004


passing moments in time and space

it could be said that teaching is like balancing yourself on a tight rope while simultaneously holding a plate of marbles in each hand. and, just for kicks, every now and then someone comes by and shakes the rope to see what you can handle. or puts even more marbles on your plate.

i have many stories to write, hopeful stories and difficult stories. stories that shake me up every time i think about them. but i have to move on and sometimes i don't have the time to write. i miss that free time.

things are changing, oh how things are changing. i see so many changes in myself: i feel like a more skillful teacher, but sometimes i don't feel as connected with the students because i'm pushing them to do assignments instead of chatting with them about something off topic. i also worry that i am getting comfortable and not pushing myself like i used to. i don't want to stick with textbook work, but i also have to make sure i put in all the preperation time needed when giving project-based assigments. and sometimes i worry when i don't connect with an entire class and we accomplish very little; i wonder why it is i cannot engage some students, no matter how hard i try.

i see changes in the school, great changes, profound changes! i am working on a letter to our new principal, fresh from a middle-school teaching position, but with over a decade experience working in chicago public schools. she knows how to get things done, but most importantly, she knows how to fight fair and how to treat our students with respect. i look up to her. in my letter, i plan to thank her for all she has brought to this school and to tell her more about myself, my strengths and weaknesses, my hopes and fears.

i see changes in the students. they are more focused on themselves and not so much on the failings of this school because, i think, the school is showing signs of improvement. we take things one step at a time. even though each day is a struggle and some days drag on with painful progression, we still are taking those steps forward. when a week passes, we feel changed somehow, like we're moving with a purpose and not running aimlessly in circles.

thank you to everyone, for your continuous support and encouragement. you know who you are. on the love. keep in touch.

Friday, February 20, 2004


directions for the first week of classes:

start every class with anything fun. encourage their creativity. focus students energy on their current abilities and strengths. let them show you what they can do. classes must be well structured, but flexible and completely enjoyable. absolutely no boring work! this week must draw them into the course, make them feel glad to be part of the class, and optimistic about what possibilities may lie ahead.

Thursday, February 19, 2004


6th period

the silence is fragile in this classroom. every student is reading intently. i feel like one distuption could shatter this beautiful moment. i feel a calm in this room that i have never felt in this school before. i hope this peace is healing for the students.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004


"...to provide a safe and positive learning environment."

i haven't been here long, but i've been here long enough to see an immense positive change in this school. i have been teaching for thirty-nine days. one teacher quit. four teachers hired. one new principal. things are moving slowly towards structure, and structure is exactly what is needed.

and i think about my classroom...
create stucture, i tell myself. everything else follows.

Friday, February 13, 2004


"Is it possible... to organize, to stuggle for something better, and to prevail?"

"Education is, of course, an arena of struggle as well as hope--stuggle because it stirs in us the need to reconsider eveything we have wrought, to look at the world anew, to question what we have created, to wonder what is worthwhile for human beings to know and experience, to justify or criticize or bombard or maintain or build up or overthrow everything before us--and hope because we gesture toward the future, toward the impending, toward the coming of the new. Education is where we father to question whether and how we might engage and enlarge and change our lives, and it is, then, where we confront out dreams and fight out notions of the good life, where we try to comprehend, apprehend, or possibly even change the world. Education is contested space, a natural site of conflict--sometimes restrained, other times in full eruption--over questions of justice."

--quote by william ayers and therese quinn,
from holler if you hear me: the education of a teacher and his students by greg michie

Tuesday, February 10, 2004


finals week

the nice thing about finals week is the nervous excitement from the students who have finally realized they need to complete their assignments in order to pass the quarter. today, i sat down with one of my most difficult students and she gave me the space to tell her what she can do to pass the class. our history has been rather rocky--she constantly resists doing class work and often gives me attitude before i have even finished taking attendance.
"Just mark them absent!" she yelled one day when i proceeded to ask students with past absences if they had a note from home to excuse their absence. (all to often, students miss class because of doctor's appointments or court appearances, but then forget to bring me the note excusing their absence. this is important because each unexcused absence in the attendance book lowers the school funding we receive from the state. so everyday, i ask for a note to excuse a prior absence.)

but today, she was relaxed. she actually smiled after she began to resist and i responded, "gimme a second... i haven't even said anything yet!" she was eager to complete her missed assignments, including a research paper revision.
the students who have fallen behind know they are short on time and this is their last chance...

procrastination produces eager students in then end.

Thursday, February 05, 2004


the satisfaction of looking back on two great days

yes, today was an even better day.

third period:
i needed to help two students catch up on their english 1 work and we worked together to complete a poetry lesson. the significance of this moment is that one of these students has never done any of my work before. he is a comedian and loves the attention from joking around in class, but he usually uses this distracting technique to his advantage so as to draw attention away from doing work. but today, he read Meeting At Night by Robert Browning out loud to me. and i slowly went through this poem, line by line, giving these two students hints to reveal the story Browning has created--much like as Dr. Hannum had for me in eleventh grade. i saw their faces change from blank stares to smiling excitement. "They're sneaking around to get it on, Nic!" and he raised his hand up to give me a high-five. i smiled and laughed. "Look, Nic--your getting all red in the face again!"

later in third period, i pulled out a polaroid picture of my girlfriend to show one of my students. he had asked me to bring it and said he would bring a photo of his girl, too, but alas he forgot. i think he just wanted me to prove i actually had a girl. the polaroid was soon being passed around to every student, each getting boisterous and hollering out about the teacher's cute date. the class comedian--the one i had helped earlier with the Browning poem--he immediately took his chance to point out my red face. "Dang Nic, stop getting so red!"

sixth period:
my pen was stolen. the nice silver metal Cross pen i was given as a gift by Aspira, the non-profit organization that oversees our high school. but it didn't really matter for this day was unfolding so nicely. sixth period was a success. i handed out a reading worksheet on Fair Trade. there are three questions they must answer by the end of class. i tried discussing the topic out loud with the class, but, like most days, they wanted more to interrupt the teacher and try to steer me off course, so i moved on to encouraging students to read and working with them one-on-one. by the end of the class, i had the majority of the students involved in discussing global market issues (fair pay to farmers, advantages of organic crops, and the concept of a "living wage"). i received a lot of "but people don't care" and "who has time for that?", but then in a sudden flow i was able to successfully communicate my thoughts and purpose in giving this lesson to them (i am often unsuccessful in communicating my purpose clearly and effectively, which is frustrating. working with high school students is often like speaking to a wall.) i summarized my goal in giving them this worksheet today. holding up the piece of paper, i say "I provide you with a concept [for social change], for instance Fair Trade Coffee, and then i give you an example of a local project that is making the concept work [the Coalition Cafe]."
"But people really don't care about this stuff."
"No, people don't know about this. Did you know about Fair Trade before this class?"
i receive a few who shake their heads. one student blurts out a resounding, "Nope."
"That's why i'm teaching you this. Because no one else is."
then that one student student stands up, walks towards me, and hands me his completed worksheet. he is filled with some kind of energy i have not seen before. he puts out his hand to give me five, but then pulls me close with one arm to give me one of those shoulder hugs i see close friends do in this school. a few students shout out, "Look at him, he's gettin all buddy with the teacher!"
with confidence and strength, he says to me and to the class, "That's my boy, right here. That's my boy."

Wednesday, February 04, 2004


the satisfaction of looking back on a good day

the best part about teaching is making that unique connection with a student: he loans me an Indian film ("Dil Se") to watch at home; we talk before classes about Palestinian graphic novels; he brings in an amazing Puerto Rican poem for his homework assignment.

the worst part about teaching is realizing that for every one solid connection, i have at least fifteen other students each with whom i struggle to make any kind of connection. i should be grateful for that one solid connection, i know, but i still strive for a unique bond with each of my students, especially in my first period english class--they have come a long way. they actually smile at me now!

so today was a good day. and i know why.
(i won't bore you with details, though.)

i figured out that this is all in my hands.

Monday, February 02, 2004


a closed plane curve every point of which is equidistant from a fixed point within the curve

This is it. This is where i meet that notorious point on my path: push on and keep moving despite any setbacks and disabilities? or fall out and either quit or take the slow path towards teaching?

This is it. but i have been here before. this path is cyclical and i will return to this point over and over again. fortunately, i know that i will only gather more knowledge as time passes. whether or not this experience becomes more difficult, i will always have that knowledge to keep me going. the pursuit is what really matters most to me, not any end goal. really, is there any "end goal" to teaching? no teacher i have ever known is the type to be settled down and routine. the position is constantly changing. adaptation is constant (and vital). i have discovered that i can not focus on one area of teaching--early, secondary, community education, etc.--because i have no one satisfaction. a teacher is a teacher. a teacher fits no mold. and so i must continue on relentlessly with this experience no matter where it takes me. don't look back. and let the heart choose your path.

(for sleeper.)

Saturday, January 31, 2004


one o'clock, riis park.

i was asked to play football by a few students in my 3rd period class. i accepted. i think they were excited at the chance to tackle the teacher. we were to meet saturday at 1pm at Riis Park (6100 w. fullerton). but at one fifteen, when i arrived, i could not find any of the students. so i walked around for half an hour. at one point, in a quiet section of the park (it's a big park), i became engrossed in the sound of the crunch-crunch and squeak of my sneakers against the sidewalk snow. looking down, i noticed a pigeon walking beside me. he was walking with me, not scared and about to fly away, but there as if he was a little shorty following me through the park. still walking, i turned my head and noticed a few more birds. then maybe ten more flew in and landed behind them. i started walking slower to see if they would become frightened and fly away.
they were following me.
i stopped. they slowed and sort of gathered in a bunch behind me, milling about and waiting for me to continue forward. so i walked. and they walked, too. every now and then i would slow down and watch them gather. sometimes a few would lag, pecking at some tiny piece of something resembling food, and then look up, flap their wings and catch up to the group. we walked slowly for maybe 50 yards. then, for no apparent reason to me, they flew away. up and away. each one of them back towards where they came from and over a small hill. gone. i stood for a minute looking back and then continued on.

Thursday, January 29, 2004



today was the day i was not waiting for.
and it started well, too. poetry in english class. tonight's homework is to bring in a cd tomorrow so we can analyze the lyrics. in environmental science (6th & 7th periods), i was prepared to give the pros and cons of genetic engineering--we've been learning about international food industries, organic foods, and GMO crops. but come sixth period, i was not given the chance to teach.

i have always disliked the phrase, "the students will test you" in reference to classroom management. like when a teacher or administrator tells a story of a bad experience and says something like, "he/she was really testing my patience" or "testing my authority." i feel it puts the teacher and the student on two separate planes, divided in a way that the student sees the teacher as an authoritarian figure that can be brought down through misbehavior and disrespect. such a structure seems doomed for failure. this structure is perhaps the reason why there are feelings or anti-authority in youth. when i entered into teaching, i tried to approach the student/educator relationship with democracy and openness. i felt if the students saw me as an equal, there would be no room to "test" me because i would not be exhibiting the characteristics of someone who had power or authority over them, but rather someone with resources to share and teach them what they need and want to know. but maybe i am not doing the greatest job. and maybe they have problems of their own that bleed over into school life. because today i was knocked down.

much of it had to do with my inexperienced classroom management skills. and much had to do with two students who have little motivation to accomplish any school work. they have proven themselves apathetic towards school to every teacher i have talked to. and today, maybe they were just having a bad day. i don't know exactly. but once they decided to fully resist my requests for some kind of order in the class, the rest of the students lost any interest in the lesson and chaos reigned.

my classes have never been orderly. i attempt to let hyperactive energy fuel the class and i try, often successfully, to steer this energy in a productive direction. most administrators would probably see this as naive, but it has helped me gain the respect of most students--they feel less stifled--and i eventually have an easier time coercing distracted and disorderly students into working on the lesson. for me, it's about figuring out an alternative to the strict, authoritative stereotype of an inner-city high school teacher. today, however, was something from the classroom management textbooks, a classic example of disruptive students and a teacher with no solution and no other direction in which turn. so i let them rule for the moment. and then the rest of the class was surprisingly quiet, maybe disappointed in losing sixth period to the insults and jokes of a few individuals. when i attempted talking to one of the disruptive students (talk eventually turned into arguement), i surprisingly received backup from another student who attempted to point out the ridiculousness of trying to bring down the teacher: what's the point of deconstructing order and respect in a classroom, especially with a teacher who has, from the start, given you respect and second-chances?

postscript: i should also add that there has been a severe drop in student morale in the past week. individual students have been accused of disrespecting school property and breaking rules, often blindly and without sufficient evidence, and often times the whole school receives punishment for a single student's immature actions. i would like to also make this clear: i do not wish condemn any student in my sixth period class today for acting out due to frustrations stemming from school or personal issues. of course i wish they would not take their emotions out on me, but i try to remain understanding when situations like this occur. i know for sure that this is only the beginning. there will be much, much more difficult moments in the future. as long as i am prepared for these moments and able to recognize the challenges, i will be able to overcome them and continue on.

Monday, January 26, 2004



i went to the harold washington library downtown today after school. i am searching for quality, up-to-date books on education, inner-city teaching, and high school english curriculum. i found the following books. if you have any recommendations, PLEASE send them my way. thanks.
+ Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students. by Gregory Michie. 1999. (actually, all five copies of this book were checked out, which i suppose is a good thing. i have heard great things.)

+ Lives in the Balance: Youth, Poverty, and Education in Watts. by Ann C. Diver-Stamnes. 1995.

+ Why Pick On Me: School Exclusions and Black Youth. by Maud Blair. 2001.

+ Truancy and Schools. by Ken Reid. 1999.

+ Under Running Laughter: Notes from a Renegade Classroom. by Quincy Howe, Jr. 1991.

+ Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. edited by Stephen Tchudi. 1997.

+ Classroom Testing Construction. by C. D. Hopkins & R. L. Antes. 1989.

Friday, January 23, 2004


dear third period,

(a letter delivered to my english/journalism students)

to ozzie, isaly, sour, joe, benito, arturo, luis, miguel, max, amanda, clarissa, catherince, sergio, reina, maria, josue, and nalleli.

this is a letter to each of you. why? because i want to personally tell you how i feel about this class. i don't always have time to talk to you in person, one-on-one, so this is my chance.

i like this class. i would not give it up for any other class. and i like how we have the opportunity to choose our own direction. for all of our assignments, i want to give you the freedom to read and research and write about what interests you as a person. speaking on our current photojournalism project, i really like the topics that you have chosen and i can't wait to see what you can do.

* i like the topics about your neighborhoods--i think that every person should understand and interact with her/his community. if you see something great happening in your neighborhood, everyone should know about it. likewise, if something destructive or harmful is occurring in your community, we should all be talking about the problems and figuring out solutions.

* i think the topics about families are great. taking pictures and writing stories about the joy and pain of living with your family, or especially raising a child, is invaluable. you will have this project to keep with you forever, to look back and remember how you felt at this point in your life.

* to those of you shooting street photography--strangers on the street, people on the busses and trains, gangs, and graffiti--your topics remind me of my own work and how i love documenting signs of life in the city. musicians, commuters, local business owners, families, kids, friends, and enemies... we see these people everyday, but each in our own experience. i am looking forward to seeing your photographs and understanding how you view the world around you.

* the projects on friends and hobbies are unique and interesting. documenting your friends and what you all enjoy doing is not simple--you have to take a step back and closely examine the everyday things that you do. at the same time, your work will be fun to do and the project will become a unique first-hand documentary of the lives you and your friends.

i would usually say that i can only hope for the best out my students, but i feel like this is not a usual class. i already feel like this class is going to be something better. and i think you have an advantage when you work on projects based on the world circling around you. thank you for everything.

keep it real,

Wednesday, January 21, 2004


the plea.

it is quite a task to effectively manage twenty, sometimes twenty-five students.
i have the most difficulty dealing with the fact that i cannot spend reasonable one-on-one time with students and simultaneously guide the entire class through a proper lesson. today, one of my students asked me, "what's my grade?" i couldn't tell him. i didn't want to. yes, he is failing my environmental science class. failing from lack of work. failing from zero class participation. but i still felt responsible for his apathy. i told him, "you don't do any work. i have nothing for which i can give you a passing grade." he is a sincere kid. he isn't rambunctious and disruptive. if he could stay awake in class, he might manage a C. but here he is, pleading for anything but an F after he spent an entire class period ignoring the worksheet on his desk in front of him. he stares at me for a couple seconds... i think i see worry in his eyes. something hits me: he is going to suffer some sort of consequence for this F. maybe his parents will punish him. or perhaps his academic advisor just told him he's on his last chance. will this grade push him out of school? he has great attendance. he is here every day with the potential to learn, but i have yet to reach him with work that stimulates his interest. he is bored with school. he does not yet see where high school could take him. he just wants to pass to satisfy the demands set for him by someone else. who does this remind me of?


my little sister gave me words of encouragement back in october, telling me what she felt i had to offer to students: "think of how hard a time the two of us had in school.... your endless patience and constant wonderment are reasons why you need to be in the school system."

Tuesday, January 20, 2004


beginning at the beginning

hi. this is me, again. up too late, procrastinating and creating something new and important only to the extent that it gives me something fun to do... another distraction. but all these years and years of distractions have given me a wealth of diverse knowledge and experience. and i won't give it up no matter what. so there.

and this is for you:
tonight, i install this web journal to begin logging my thoughts and experiences as a high school teacher. i have so many words jotted down on scraps of paper already, various notebooks filled with my best and worst stories. i want to make it public. i want to share my downfalls and my successes in this extraordinary period in my life. and, yes, there are the many voices of my friends and relatives, both near and far, who are urging me to tell them my stories. so here's to you, and to all who stumble upon this site. thank you for reading.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004


notes from the field

today is hard.
i get discouraged easily, but something keeps me holding on. i don't know what to do with this feeling sometimes. i listen to myself, listen to the words i said the other day about how this is my opportunity to see if i can withstand the challenge. if i can get through any obstacle.

this is really exciting and really scary to not know how things will turn out. will i find the much needed strength to get through this? will i be able to keep focus? will i be able to stay on task and concentrate on the pursuit of becoming a well prepared and inspirational teacher?

today i sat thinking in the lobby area where all the students congregate to eat lunch. i thought about how today has been hard because most of the students have been struggling to stay on task and how i very easily lose their attention. i thought also about how their goals in life are set low--some students tell me they can only see themselves doing construction work or working in retail. while i sat eating lunch today, i recognized how they feel. i have felt the same way and still often do. they want to enjoy living day to day and not worry about a career and expectations and responsibilities. i know that feeling well. and this feeling is not horrible--it is honest and human. but i have also felt the beauty of succeeding and achieving something through hard work and determination. i am sure some of these students have never felt that, not to mention they have so many forces working against them.

maybe if i can offer support, to provide them with a place they feel like they can succeed. show them what their work is worth. offer a place where they can be open and expressive and look forward to doing class work--work that they know will take them somewhere better.

i have very few ideas on how to achieve such a classroom environment; however, i know that being in the classroom everyday is only moving me closer to figuring it out.

i guess that is what keeps me going in the toughest of situations.


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