Monday, September 27, 2010


"Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever."

--Naomi Shihab Nye, from "Kindness" poem

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Special Treat: This I Believe

My junior honors students wrote "This I Believe" essays, a la NPR, this week. There were a lot of tears shed as they read them aloud in class. I wrote one, too, but ran out of time to read it to them. Perhaps I will when we return from break. Here it is:

Flying Free

Liz Peterson loved to swing. Everyday at recess while the girls headed for the monkey bars to do dangerous gymnastics and I ran to the basketball courts to play with the boys, Liz climbed onto a swing and moved herself back and forth until she was flying. She would swing until the teacher on duty would blow the whistle and we’d run in for water break, bathroom, and back to class. As we were only in third grade, I obviously did not analyze the symbolic nature of Liz’s swinging at the time. But now it makes sense to me. Swinging, see, is very freeing. It’s like flying for a kid; for an instant you are weightless, hanging in the air, able to see the world from a new perspective. There were probably many moments in her life when Liz wanted to fly away. But she was stuck, as we all are, in a sense, so she would swing.

The kids rarely spoke to Liz. They didn’t sit with her at lunch or play with her at recess. I can’t remember a single person who I could say was Liz’s friend. I’m not sure that I can count myself as one, either. But I was already viewed as a little strange by my classmates. I played basketball with the boys, left class every afternoon for the gifted program, and didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of me. So they let me talk to Liz. I was strange enough to get away with being near Liz, but the kids never forgave her because she was truly different. In fact, they teased her relentlessly.

Liz’s family was poor in such a true and sad sense of the word. To this day, I don’t know that I’ve ever known anyone as poor as Liz Peterson. There were ten children in the Peterson family and they came to school dirty and hungry. Liz told me that she was born with a hole in her heart (awfully symbolic, now, too), and was often sick as a child. She had a really short haircut when long hair was popular. She told me that her mother cut it all off when the she and her siblings all had head lice. But worst of all, Liz wore her Girl Scout uniform to school. She didn’t have enough clothes, so at least two days each week Liz would come to school in her uniform, sash and all. It was too easy to pick on this homely little girl wearing her Girl Scout uniform when she wasn’t supposed to. So Liz would swing.

As a teacher, I see Liz Petersons all the time. They are overweight, completely uncool, or too short or too tall. They have speech impediments or are painfully shy. They are poor, wear headscarves, are gay, or have learning disabilities. They are the kids who sit by themselves at lunch, or hide away in some corner of the school, trying not to be noticed. But they can’t hide. Whatever makes them different is their own Girl Scout uniform. Like Liz’s poverty, they can never take it off.

Liz Peterson, I suppose, is part of the reason I am a teacher today. As a third-grader, I would occasionally sit on the swings and talk to Liz. But I never defended her against her tormenters. I never stood up and said, “STOP.” I don’t think my small act made a difference in her life. I had the opportunity to change attitudes and perceptions. But I didn’t. As a teacher, though, I can now. Every day I get the chance to not only swing with a kid like Liz, but to teach other kids to value one another, too. Through my example, I get to demonstrate the kindness and inclusion that our society often lacks.

I believe in Girl Scouts. I believe in the inherent value every person in the world has. We have done an incredible job creating hierarchies, splitting ourselves into groups, and deciding what makes a person right or wrong. Sometimes we treat each other so badly that we make people hide, hurt themselves, or simply want to fly away. I don’t know what happened to Liz Peterson or if anyone ever believed in her. What I’ve learned is that if we know our value, it’s our job to find and honor the value in others. So for Liz, and for Girl Scouts, for gays and kids who are overweight, for the shy, the disabled, the nerds, the poor, and the minorities, for kids who feel sad inside and don’t like themselves, I believe.

If We Can Just Get Through This Day, It'll All Be Okay

The title today is the mantra of my next door neighbor here on the fourth floor of Kennedy High School. And she's right, in a sense. Today is a day that brings relief. It's the last day of class before break. It's also a stopping point. When we come back from break, the new semester begins. Kids start fresh without their poor grades dragging them down. Classes get switched around a little and you have new faces in class to change the dynamics. The kids also grow up a little over break, and come back excited to see their friends and get back into a schedule again. Teachers often clean up their rooms and rearrange the desks. It's got almost all the hope of a new school year.

That said, these last few days before the break are both tender and horrific. The students wear Santa Hats and eat too much candy. They have so much excitement and often don't know what to do with it. They can also be emotional wrecks. Some dread the holidays because their families are a mess, or it reminds them that they don't have a mom or dad. One of my students had a look of panic about her. On Friday, her family is driving to Guadalajara, Mexico, and she's afraid that they'll be killed by drug dealers at the border. Another student has to spend the break with her father, whom she hates. Yet a third lost her mother around Christmas last year. It brings new meaning to the words "Happy Holidays".

But even the saddest and angriest students are the most tender around the holidays. The student you would least expect brings you a card. You get Snowman candles and chocolate covered cherries and Batman Pez and bookmarks...all with little notes, misspelled and written in marker. You'd think you taught elementary school, but these are high school kids and they've come to regard you as they would a parent or an aunt. They feel something for you and they want to express it. They are sad and happy at once. Even the kids who don't have very nice things done for them want to do something nice for you.

I'd like to package it up, this day. I could sell it, like a movie that makes you laugh and cry and feel better about the world. The holidays give my students a chance to open up, but it's scary what you see inside. There is a lot of pain in there. There is also a lot of hope.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Socratic Circles

Today one of my students wished that Socrates (were he alive today...damn that poisoned hemlock!) could be the principal of the school. Then, he said, every class could center around Socratic discussion. I also had a very interesting conversation in second period yesterday about whether or not teachers were even necessary in a Socratic classroom. This is the joy of using Socratic Circles.

So, it sounds like just another pop-pedegogy thing that comes in and out of usage. Like, for instance, the Word Wall. Right now, the world begins and ends with the Word Wall. Everyone not only should HAVE a Word Wall, but INTERACT with the Word Wall on a daily basis. I had one up but the words got old. For a week or two it just had the sign, "Word Wall" with no words. So I added the suffix "less" to "word". I haven't interacted with my Wordless Wall since.

But Socratic Circles (or anything, for that matter, if the teacher isn't being required to use it whether it's pertinent or not) are so much more than pop-pedegogy. I am such a fan. They teach kids to question, they structure discussion to keep kids on task, and they get the teacher out of the center of everything (except when she's biting her tongue so hard that blood is dripping down her chin, so she steps into the "hot seat" for a moment). There are actually two circles: inner and outer, and each student gets to participate in both. The inner circle is in charge of questioning, discussing, creating commraderie, digging into the text, etc. The outer circle listens and watches (and can step into the discussion briefly to use the hot seat). This gives kids multiple modes by which to learn from each other. And I get to learn so much from them, too!

But best of all, the way students are evaluated is primarily through their Socratic Reflections. This gives them the chance to think carefully about how they participated or interacted in the circle and what they learned from the experience. Most importantly, students must consider what new questions have arisen based on the discussion. Learning, said Socrates, is about questions, not answers.

I think Socrates would be proud today.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Things I Keep Track Of

Some days when I stop and think about what I'm doing (yikes, I should probably do that more often!) I realize just how much I have to keep track of. Now, I'm not trying to brag here, but damn, I keep track of a lot of stuff! How does my brain handle it all?! Today, for instance, I have kept track of:

1. The teacher who borrowed my DVD player and when I can get it back
2. Which students missed class on Thursday and need make-up work
3. Which students are gone today and will need make-up work on Monday
4. The students who told me that they would come in to make-up the vocabulary quiz they missed, and when
5. The student who asked for a letter of recommendation and when it needs to be written
6. How far in Antigone each of my classes read--where we needed to start today and wheere we'll start on Monday
7. The students in each of my classes who read a part in Antigone so they can earn points for participation
8. How many pennies my 4th hour collected for the Penny Harvest
9. When the next GSA meeting (Gay Straight Alliance) is and who will hang up posters
10. When the next book club meeting is and who will hang up posters
11. What days I need to sign up to take my students to the library and computer labs
12. Which students handed in make-up work from being absent and where I put it
13. What happened in chapters 13-16 of Wuthering Heights
14. This week's vocabulary lists, which are different for periods 2/4, 5, 7, and 8
15. Which students were absent because they were at a college visit or field trip
16. What roles in Antigone were being read by which students in periods 2, 4, and 8
17. Whether or not I assigned homework in all 6 of my classes and when it is due
18. To dismiss students early for girls swimming and boys basketball
19. To make an announcement in my 2nd period class about the canned food drive
20. Whether I have made copies of all the right handouts for all the right classes in the right amounts
21. Whether or not I remembered to eat lunch
22. Taking attendence in all 6 classes--both in hard copy and computer format
23. Putting notes in the students computer file when I talked to him/her about classroom behavior or academic work
24. Calling the parents of students who are in danger of failing for the semester
25. What's cool and what's on tv so my students' comments don't go way over my head

That was a fun list to make, but a little overwhelming. I notice that many of my entires come in the form of lists and I think it's a control thing. Hey, if you had to keep track of all those things every day and you just never know when the fire alarm is going to go off or some kid is going to have a break down in your'd probably want control, too.

Happy Weekend!

Thursday, November 06, 2008


So, I can't tell you how much hope I feel this week. I have a little bit of a "hope hangover" that's still lingering a couple of days after the election. Here's what has sealed the hope double ziplock bag for me: my students' sense of excitement. It's one thing to feel personal satisfaction and elation over the electoral victory of a candidate in which you can believe (who also happens to make historical inroads and has really cute little kids of his own). It's another experience all together when hundreds of students--young people who missed the chance to vote by a year or two and are genuinely upset about that--greet you with smiles and wide eyes. "Can you believe it, Ms. Stutelberg?" "I think he can change the world, Ms." and "I feel like I matter now." Okay, that last one almost got me as much as watching Jesse Jackson's cheeks drown in tears as he stood in Grant Park. My students' hope is shocking; these are minority kids who live in poverty stricken or lower-middle class homes and normally have a very healthy dose of cynicism about...everything. Never before have I seen so much idealism and joy in them.

I guess that's why, on the morning after, I drove to work and listened to NPR (okay, that's usually what I do) and suddenly had to announce to myself aloud in the car, "This makes me want to be a better person!"

I bring you, Things I've Done This Week To Be a Better Person:

1. I allowed my students to pound on their desks and chant each others' names before they presented their Beowulf Boasts to the class. Then I let them chant Dr. Le's name (he teaches math across the hall) to see if he'd come over to the room. He did. That was a little embarrassing.

2. I used my Sigmund Freud finger puppet to present Freud's theory of psychosexual development to my students before we read Oedipus Rex.

3. I brought cupcakes to my 1st period class when I found out that two of my 20 students had their birthday on the same day.

4. I found on the internet the official "code" for determining what one's Captain Underpants villain name would be, and I spent actual class time allowing students to determine and announce names like, "Crusty Pizzapants" and "Poopsie Toiletchunks".

5. I shared my damaging middle school bullying experiences with my freshmen class. I even told them about how bad puberty was, how I finally broke down and had my mom get me Converse All-Stars so I would fit in, only to be harassed for wearing the wrong socks, and how the only girl who would be nice to me in seventh grade was the girl with the insulin pump, because no one would be nice to her either.

6. I helped a student read and understand a biology article (The Birth of Complex Cells) by showing her how you can turn any science article into a cartoon by using cartoon voices and imagining everything drawn like it's in SpongeBob Squarepants.

7. Something to be added tomorrow as I still have a day this week to be a better person.

So, what can HOPE do for you? As for me, I'm exhausted. This hope, change, be a better person stuff is a lot of work. Thank goodness I've got my students to inspire me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


There has been many a thing that has inspired me over the course of the last week or so, but alas, time as my enemy has thwarted each attempt to blog about it. So, in the genre of the Late Show's Top Ten or the Bill 'o Rights, or the incredibly racist song "Ten Little Indians" I present the miscellaneous stuff of my teaching life.

1. Getting Thank Yous is so awesome. Our wondrous counselors at school have been hounding the kids to do things the right way: ask for the letter of recommendation a few weeks before you need it, provide a resume and other relevant information, get your own stamps and envelopes, and most importantly, write a thank you note. I have gotten two this week, a card and a lovely phone message, and even though I know they were told to do it, it makes me so happy.

2. An English teacher's best asset is a wonderful librarian, and I have one. We call her "The Book Whisperer" because she can sense what kind of book you should read, even if you're reluctant to do so. She does this by gazing into your eyes and channelling great dead librarians of the past. Anyway, Nancy does book club with me, too, and has set up a cool website so YOU can always know what we're reading!

3. An important grammar lesson (non partisan?): Obama's Change We Can Believe In slogan should really be rewritten to say Change In Which We Can Believe in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. This message has not been approved by Barack Obama.

4. A Fall Break doesn't really make much sense. After all, in less than a month we'll be getting most of a week off for Thanksgiving. I like things that don't make sense. Like how gas prices are falling fast. I am leaving town right after school today to visit my fantastic nephews.

5. Comments on Wuthering Heights so far (this is the first time I've attempted to teach it...I think it's quite a nice book, but you can imagine how it might go over with a group of today's teenagers. I have made them promise to keep an open mind about it): "Heathcliff is so emo!" "Are you sure this isn't a werewolf/vampire book like Stephanie Meyers'?" "I understood three words in that sentence: a, if, and when." "Hey, Mr. Lockwood gets a bloody nose just like Adam used to in sixth grade when he got really nervous!" "Ewww...they got married and they're cousins?!" "Ms. Stutelberg, did ejaculated mean back then what it means now? If so, why are they always talking when they're ejaculating?"

This should be interesting.

6. Ahh...Parent Teacher Conferences. I've learned to start with "What are your concerns about _________________ (insert student's name)?" No monkey-ing around. Just cut to the uncomfortable come-to-Jesus chase!

7. The 9th grade AVID class (study skills/college prep stuff) is doing the Penny Harvest charity fund raiser. Normally I don't get into these class competition things. I have too much to worry about to collect pennies or cans of baby food or wear the right color on the right day to earn points. But this time I have become militant about winning the Penny Drive. Guess which 4th period class is in 1st Place this week? That's Right. I've threatened my students within an inch of their lives if they don't bring in pennies. What's wrong with me?

That seems like a good note to end on: What's wrong with me? The answer, as always, is forthcoming. For now, I just need to make it through lunch and two more block periods before the end of the day and the beginning of a 5-day weekend. Thank you, students who thank me, librarians, things that don't make sense, sentences without prepositions at the end, parents who cut to the chase, Wuthering Heights hilarity, and Nazi penny roundups!

Thursday, October 16, 2008


There are a lot of teachers who complain about parents and society and video games and poverty and our consumer culture and Paris Hilton or whatever and I'm not really one of those teachers. I mean, it all has an impact, but it's not really anything I can control in my classroom. It's endlessly frustrating, of course, when you feel like NO ONE is acknowledging it at all as if we teach in little bubbles and learning is linear and the world isn't changing. And then we hear that it must be the teachers' fault when the tests don't come out right...'cause what else could be screwing it up?!? It's just so much more complicated than that.

So I was glad to read, "But there's one last ingredient that I just want to mention, and that's parents. We can't do it just in the schools. Parents are going to have to show more responsibility. They've got to turn off the TV set, put away the video games, and, finally, start instilling that thirst for knowledge that our students need."

I missed the debate because I went the Powderpuff football game, sponsored Mock Trial, and watched the end of the last girls' Varsity Volleyball game. I don't agree with Barack on pay for performance and I feel pretty iffy about the way charter schools are run (systematically...well, especially in Denver), but I think that the president does have the power to inspire people to be different kinds of parents, to lessen poverty in our country, and to change the culture a lot more than I do.

Also, I end up saying stupid things like "some people should just be sterilized," which I don't really mean. But I'd be first in line.