Here in California, our teachers have been asked to adapt almost overnight to the new CAL TPA 2.0. As we prepare our interns and student teachers to master the new tasks, it has been challenging to be part of the initial rollout. The new TPA has two cycles rather than four tasks. While it’s been difficult to keep up as the Commission comes out with policies on the fly, we’ve been pretty successful in our first iteration of the seminar courses. Our university has high pass rates for Cycle 1 and we anticipate the same for Cycle 2.

Despite the chaos of rapid implementation, I’m especially happy about the new TPA. It has been well thought out and it demands critical thinking from teachers as well as students. I happen to think it’s a vast improvement over the 1.0. Teacher candidates have to begin by carefully understanding their students. They have to think about contextual information, including demographics, learning abilities, language learners, and what’s an especially useful addition to the usual categories of EL and SPED. Teachers now have to consider three focus students rather than two. The third category is a student whose learning is affected by life circumstances. This can be poverty, it can be violence or abuse, it can be neglect, or migrant status. I am thrilled that this category is finally being recognized as legitimate, since it does deeply affect learning.

In the next few weeks, I plan to write more about how this set of tasks helps build good teachers.

Student Voice


I can’t stress enough how important it is to encourage student voice. When students are allowed to speak and to write their truth, they begin the process of introspection, inquiry and critical thinking.  While this process may be rudimentary at first, and the words may seem to be reactive rather than reflective, it is crucial that the words come before real reflection can begin.  Below is an essay by one of my former high school students, a young man with dreams of being an artist, torn by the need to maintain street cred, survive in the neighborhood, struggle with lack of finances, and still pursue his art. His words, while  they may seem on the surface to be juvenile rantings about life being unfair, when examined more closely, show a deep commitment to his art, a will to survive and succeed, and a rage born of frustration and lack of real guidance. By fostering student voice, we create an opportunity as teachers to understand, to intervene and to guide our students as they go forward.

Just the Beginning


My dream for the future is that someone can help me show my life, my expression, through art. I would like to be an artist. My skill is in play now but I want to go to the Academy   of Art in San Francisco. First I need to graduate from high school. I don’t know how to make my way out there. Life is full of obstacles and I am just a Mexican that lives in a messed up town with the worst people in it. I know I’m with the wrong people, and if they say I can make it, that doesn’t mean I can. The only way I can come up with them is if I start making my money the way I used to make it. But I don’t want to do that anymore, not unless I really have to. In this freakin’ town we cannot even get a waiver to go to college. I was rejected once all ready and that was just because I didn’t have the hundred dollar application fee. What would it take to actually go there or even spend one day there? Imagine that!

In this life we have to learn how make it on our own. Maybe teachers will help a little, but they don’t know what we go through all day just to find out that we can’t go to a high quality school. That still isn’t going to stop me. I do my art now when I want, at the time I want. People say that we can do a lot around here to display my art and attract the eyes of the world. But that’s just an American dream. People like me know how to learn off people’s mistakes. My cousin helped me see that. He told me to see how the world works before I play it. He’s an art teacher. He had a tough time getting to where he is. His life was similar to mine. He also did drugs. For people like us it’s very hard to get somewhere. My cousin had a hard time and so will I, but I might get farther than him. This is just the beginning.

Bathina (2007) Dreams are for Others: Voices of the Children Left Behind.

Honoring Diversity


Many years ago, when I was teaching at a small liberal arts college, and suggested introducing a course on literacy and diversity, I was immediately encouraged. Although this was a good thing, and my chair meant well, it was the term she used that bothered me. “I’m so glad you are doing this. Any efforts we can make to help our teachers manage diversity are more than welcome.” It’s the word manage that I took issue with then and continue to find disturbing today.

I see it in schools, as well as in universities, this effort to manage diversity, as if it were some unwieldy negative force that needed to be quelled and streamlined in order for us to make progress. While we have definitely moved forward from the old days when diversity was a thing to be either submerged or ignored, we still have a long way to go in moving from merely managing it to fully honoring the multiplicity of languages, cultures, religions, socioeconomic levels, and backgrounds that exist in our classrooms today.

So how can a teacher honor the diversity in his or her classroom with something more than the usual show and tell, or international food day? There are several immediate ways in which we can honor the richness our students bring and at the same time provide them with more material for honoring their own identity.

Acknowledging Students’ Funds of Knowledge

Too often, we tend to push our content, with no regard for the contents already within our students’ minds. I tend to repeat this often, but it’s an important point. Our children do not come into the classroom as blank slates. They have a wealth of knowledge, a unique perspective on the world, informed by both their circumstances and their experiences. While this perspective or knowledge may not always be positive, it is a rich soil in which to sow the seeds of further learning. When we ignore what our students bring to the table, good or bad or mixed, we are dumping more manure on a well-tilled field that is open for sowing, rather than using that opportunity to plant new ideas that can flourish.

 Choosing Materials that Reflect our Students’ Lives

In our eagerness to present curriculum, we forget to take into account the individuals we have in our classroom. An effective teacher plans carefully for the specific population they are dealing with and chooses materials accordingly. True, they may be limited in their choice of textbook, but bringing in articles on female scientists, or African American inventors, or Hmong athletes, or Latino political leaders is easy to do. If some students are interested in sports, or others obsessed with music, art or fashion, a little planning will yield plenty of materials that tie content to those specific arenas. When we tie our content to what students care about and at the same time bring in cultural references, we increase engagement and provide role models for our students, enabling them to see themselves as capable of success in their chosen field.

Honestly Discussing Stereotypes, Racism and Violence

We tend to think that such topics are taboo in the classroom. Yet, these very topics are relevant, urgent and necessary for the well being of our students. Those who feel that we need to stick to our content and leave such topics to counselors, are missing an incredible opportunity to reach and to teach their students. After all, what happens outside the classroom doors immediately impacts what happens inside. For real learning to occur, students need to feel safe and respected. How can they, when their teacher does not even acknowledge issues that affect their lives on a daily basis?

The classroom is often the only place where students, led by a skilled and sensitive teacher, can discuss such topics in a balanced and safe manner. Such discussions allow them to see multiple perspectives on the same issue and to realize that others may be going through similar experiences.

I am sure there are amazing teachers out there who continue to find other ways to include, encourage and honor students from every background within their classrooms. Unless we take the time to be mindful of who our students are, we may manage them, but we can never fully honor them.

Literate Voices Media Coverage

Book Launch in India


Television Interview in the Bay Area

Beyond the Fields Release- Sanger

Left to right: Jyothi Bathina, Seth Gardner, Aaron Galbraith and Stacy Lazzari (Photo contributed)

Published: Thursday, May 20, 2010 8:23 AM PDTSanger Herald

A wonderful project is nearing completion at a local school in Sanger. The students at Fairmont School have been working on building literacy through using personal narrative, a unit designed by Dr. Jyothi Bathina, Director of Literate Voices, and a faculty member at Fresno State.With her guidance, English teacher Stacy Lazzari, Bathina’s student in the credential program and a former Fairmont student herself, has been working to implement the project in her eighth grade classroom. The project has proven to have amazing success at motivating, encouraging and inspiring students to read and write and engage in the literacy process.The student work will soon be published in book form as a Literate Voices anthology entitled “Beyond the Fields: Sanger Stories.”

The unit is designed to meet ELA standards while at the same time providing incredible opportunities for authentic learning. As they read and write, students are being guided through the process of Personal Action Research, through which students learn not only to voice their opinions but to analyze their world and effect positive change.

Students are applying grammar, syntax and literary devices in their writing and editing, knowing that they will soon be published authors. Students are also learning other relevant cross-curricular life skills such as designing their covers, marketing their book, creating promotional materials and calculating royalties.

The Literate Voices project is founded on the belief that all students learn best through finding and expressing their personal voice. The project resulted in a previous anthology “Dreams Are for Others,” written by students in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Bathina is currently guiding the process in a high school in Visalia as well, where students are working on an anthology called “Against the Odds: Visalia Voices.” For more information on current and previous publications and the mission of the project itself, see

The culminating event for all this hard work is a grand joint book launch to be held on May 27 from 6-9 p.m. at the Satellite Student Union at Fresno State. The budding authors from both Fairmont School in Sanger and Sequoia will attend.

Book Launch at Fresno State
Fresno State project publishes Visalia, Sanger narrative anthologies

The Literate Voices project will celebrate the coming publication of two books of Sanger middle school and Visalia high school students’ narratives at a launch party 6-9 p.m. Thursday, May 27, at the California State University, Fresno Satellite Student Union.

The project director is Dr. Jyothi Bathina, an assistant professor of literacy and early education in the Kremen School of Education and Human Development.

“The project has proven to have amazing success at motivating, encouraging and inspiring students to read and write and engage in the literacy process,” said Bathina, who worked with students at Sequoia High School in Visalia and Fairmont School in Sanger.

In June, “Against the Odds: Visalia Voices” and “Beyond the Fields: Sanger Stories” will be published.

At the May 27 event, budding authors from both schools will present their work and sign books. The event is free and open to the public, and will include live entertainment and refreshments.

The unit is designed to meet English Language Arts standards, while providing students opportunities to learn to voice their opinions and to analyze their world and effect positive change, Bathina said.

“Students learned to apply grammar, syntax and literary devices in their writing and editing, knowing they would soon be published authors,” she added. “Students also learned other relevant cross-curricular life skills such as designing their covers, marketing their book, creating promotional materials, and calculating royalties.

The Literate Voices project is founded on the belief that all students learn best through finding and expressing their personal voice. The project resulted in a previous anthology “Dreams Are for Others,” written by students in East Palo Alto.

Classroom Management 101: Relevance


I’ve said this many times in many ways but I believe it bears repeating. The inescapable truth is that students don’t care for content the way teachers care for content. That is, they aren’t exhilarated by the thought of a perfectly formed sentence or a flawless mathematical proof. They don’t find excitement in uncovering a new primary source for a historical event, or thrill to the discovery of a new element. Students in most classrooms aren’t passionate about delivering the perfect volley using the right stance, nor are they intense in their pursuit of musical accuracy or artistic aptitude.
Simply put, most kids could care less about what teachers have spent what seem to be the best years of their lives studying, absorbing and hoping to pass along to eager students.
In order to get students to even begin paying attention much less share a passion for the subject, teachers need to begin by demonstrating the relevance of what they are teaching, not only to real life, but in particular to students’ lives. Why should a student who is overburdened with adolescent angst and all the drama that goes with it, along with home, work, school and a series of classes that seek to impart a series of facts that seemingly have no connection to his or her life whatsoever, bother to pay attention?
Yes, it’s possible to regiment a classroom, bully, threaten and punish students into putting on a semblance of attention, but that is not the way to create genuine interest in a subject, nor encourage lasting learning that they can apply outside the classroom.
Genuine interest comes from excitement born of the clear knowledge that what I am learning will benefit me directly. For adolescents and to be honest for most adults, “what’s in it for me?” is the most pressing question when it comes to doing something. Teachers need to answer that question every day in ways that make sense to their classes. “We are learning this because it helps you in the following ways:____________________ “ should be a sentence that precedes every single lesson. By respecting students enough to take the time to explain how your content is useful to them other than in passing the class or the test, you allow them to question and you are forced as well to think of how your content is valuable and relevant in the real world. Thinking deeply about how each facet of your curriculum and your content connects to the big picture and to practical and functional purposes, may in fact, not only spark your students’ interest, but serve to rekindle your own.

Classroom Management 101: Respect


How is it that we expect to command respect from a group of strangers who have never met us, know nothing about us, and very often want nothing to do with us or our content? And yet, teachers everywhere walk into classrooms on that first day, read out a syllabus and a list of rules, attempt to impose order, and are bewildered that they are not being respected.

Respect needs to be earned. We all know that. Yet we don’t seem to apply that self-evident truth in a classroom environment. Kathleen Cushman’s book Fires in the Bathroom (2005) points out that in a survey of hundreds of high school students across the United States, the number one quality kids look for in a good teacher is that he or she respects their students.

Why is this is such a high priority? Especially in challenging environments, where students grow up never receiving the respect all human beings deserve, never having the opportunity to voice their opinions or be heard, where violent wars are fought everyday over turf and respect, it is crucial that students are both respected and teachers earn their respect.

How do we respect students?

By acknowledging their funds of knowledge. Students are not blank canvasses waiting to be filled with the masterly strokes of our brilliant pedagogy, they are works of art already in the making, each a masterpiece crafted by their own experiences. If we as teachers allow them to express their views, to share their experiences, to voice their opinions, then we open the door to sharing knowledge. When we understand that teaching is not a one way flow but that true learning happens in a back and forth dialogue between students and teacher, where each understands and values the contributions of the other, then we are showing respect.

So how does a teacher earn respect?

When a teacher begins by respecting the voices and experiences of the students, then he or she begins to earn their respect. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s messy and at times a bit scary. Students don’t sit in neat rows, eagerly soaking up knowledge. They will challenge you, resist you, defy you and ignore you. At first. Keep in mind that they have spent years viewing the teacher as the enemy, the one who shuts them down, ignores their voice and imposes their will, forcing them to plod through a dead and dry curriculum in which they have no interest.

Mastery of content is not enough. A teacher earns respect by taking the time to explain to students why the content is important and how it will be useful to student lives.

A teacher earns respect by simply showing up every day ready to teach and to learn and demonstrating an unwavering commitment to helping students gain the skills they need to succeed.

As I explained to my credential students, the teacher is often the only reliable adult in many students’ lives, the only one who shows up everyday, who is willing to share information, who is willing to guide and motivate, who is a role model whether or not they realize it. While they may begin by resisting, most students appreciate this and when allowed voice and given respect, will return that respect tenfold.

Classroom Management 101: Being Human


Yesterday as I was wrapping up a class on content literacy writing strategies, one of my credential students raised his hand. I was in a great mood, having waxed eloquent on ways to build writing into the curriculum and had them all practice implementing the strategies in their content area groups. It had been a good class, a productive class, where I felt I had actually offered meaningful instruction and my students had gained valuable insight and practical skills.
My student’s question however was not related to my topic at all. “Dr. Bathina,” he exclaimed, a look of frustration on his face. “ What you’re doing here is great and everything, but how the heck am I supposed to do any of this when my students don’t listen? None of this can happen unless the class is actually listening!”
The other students murmured in agreement and when I asked them if they wanted to learn more about classroom management, they agreed enthusiastically.
I was surprised to hear that my students felt so underprepared for the crucial task of managing their classrooms, much less delivering effective content.
So I volunteered to provide basic pointers. The next day when I shared the experience with my other class, they were equally eager to hear ways in which they could build an effective classroom environment, voicing their own concerns at being able to implement strategies without proper management techniques.
It was time for me to put content literacy aside for the moment and begin at the beginning. I am constantly telling my students to pre-assess and gauge their students needs before instruction, and clearly it was time for me to fulfill my own students needs as well.
To be honest, I do emphasize good classroom environments from the very start. However I don’t call it classroom management because that sounds too much like a power structure, where the teacher manages her students so that they will do as they are told and then learn what is taught. This goes against all my principles as an educator and what’s more simply does not work.
After seeing how hungry my students are for tips on this subject, I’ve decided to post a series of entries that will be dealing with the different aspects of creating an effective classroom where teaching and learning are possible and will actually flourish. I’m hoping they will be useful for a wider audience.
Today I want to talk about the first requirement for an effective classroom, being human.
Forget everything you’ve heard about maintaining your authority. Teachers need to be human. That is, they cannot enter a classroom at the beginning of the year encased in the armor of education, authority and privilege. They cannot present a façade of perfection and professionalism which never falters. They simply cannot follow the dictates of not smiling before Christmas, lest their students take advantage of them.
Teachers need to share their personal side with students. They need to share their background, their experiences, their flaws, their vulnerabilities. They need to explain that they have also faced challenges and overcome them, fought bad habits and discarded them, persisted in order to succeed. They need to admit that they don’t know everything, that they too are constantly learning and correcting their own belief systems. Too often teachers, especially those who are young and new to the profession, believe that they need to maintain a severe and authoritarian façade in order to command respect from their students. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, nothing will turn off students to learning faster than the standoffish, condescending approach that results from this false belief.
Each semester, I begin my classes by sharing my life story. I show my class a powerpoint with the ups and downs of my learning life map. There are ups, when I excel academically, and downs, where I flounder and nearly drown under the weight of disabilities, personal tragedy, cultural dissonance, rigid beliefs, bullying, all the outside factors that can affect our lives as learners.
By sharing this personal life map, I reach out to my students as an imperfect human being, one who has not always been a professor in the ivory tower, but a struggling, failing, overwhelmed individual who used her education and her persistence to overcome odds and succeed.
My students share their own life maps. We each begin to see the other as human, and therefore worthy of our respect and our empathy.
In our eagerness to establish our position as teachers, we forget that our students find the gap between where they are as struggling confused individuals and where we seem to be as enlightened, confident and powerful beings, much too wide and impossible to cross. If instead, we come across as people, who followed an often painstaking and challenge ridden path ourselves to get where we are, we show them there is hope and that we can help them get there as well.
If teachers begin by acknowledging their humanity, students can no longer dismiss them as other, as the enemy, as the oppressor. If teachers are willing to share even a small part of themselves, and are equally willing to acknowledge even a small part of their students, then that initial connection becomes possible.

Writing From the Heart

My latest paper in Ed Leadership

Text Version

Writing from the Heart


Challenged by a classroom full of silent, angry, and disengaged students, a teacher makes a promise and ignites student learning.


Jyothi Bathina

When I was hired to teach at-risk students in the poverty-stricken, gang-infested former murder capital of East Palo Alto, California, I wasn’t worried. After all, I had just returned from the South Bronx, New York, where I had taught high school juniors who lived in the constant shadow of poverty, crime, drugs, and violence. So I walked into my first class of the day, with confidence that I could successfully teach these students living in the sunny Bay Area.

I immediately launched into my welcome speech, full of enthusiasm and personal anecdotes, sharing my story with my students to make them see me as a person and begin the process of sharing and trusting one another. The class of 17 juniors stared back at me, unresponsive. Unlike my students in the Bronx, a mix of black, Dominican, and Puerto Rican adolescents who had come in swearing, jostling, and shoving, these students, almost all Latino, were quiet, seemingly respectful, never leaving their seats or uttering a profanity in class. When the bell rang, I watched them quietly file out. I was puzzled by this new behavior, unsure how to proceed.

Loud, I could handle. Rebellious, I could handle. After all, loudness indicated a need to be heard, and rebellion indicated a willingness to actively resist. Both of those openings enabled me to foster student voice and debate, thus encouraging learning. But this silence, this passive refusal to interact–and, more important, to learn–was shocking and painful. Still, I kept trying. For nearly a week, I kept at it, coming in every day with new materials, new ideas to break the ice, all to no avail. There were no questions, no responses, no raised hands. I stood alone at the front of the room, clearly an uninvited guest to be tolerated until the bell rang.

After a week, the rejection was getting to me. I spent time reading about the area, trying to understand where my students were coming from and what their backgrounds were. East Palo Alto, I learned, is considered the “servants’ quarters” to the affluent city of Palo Alto, where Stanford University is based. Palo Alto is home to distinguished faculty, professionals, and wealthy businessmen; East Palo Alto is where their “help”–the maids, cooks, gardeners, and laborers–live, often in rundown tenements and substandard housing, surrounded by rampant crime and violence.

My students were the children of this community, growing up silent, resentful, angry, and often violent. In the 1990s, youth-on-youth murder was at an all-time high, leading to East Palo Alto’s notoriety as the murder capital of the United States. By the time I got there in 2006, things had improved only slightly.

A Promise Made

When I went back to school on Monday, I had a better understanding of why my students were disengaged, but I still had no clear idea of how to break the silence and engage them. As a last resort, I pulled out my copy of Drown (Riverhead, 1997), a collection of short stories by Junot Diaz that never failed to engage my former students in both East Side San Jose and the South Bronx. Because my students chose to remain silent, I reasoned, I would read them a story and let them listen instead. The story I chose was “How to Date a Black Girl, Brown Girl, White Girl, Halfie.” It’s a brilliant story written in the voice of a young Dominican boy living in New Jersey. He talks about government cheese, goats in the campo, and his nemesis, a Puerto Rican kid named Howie who likes to kill cats.

The story took a good 10 minutes to read aloud and when I finished, I was afraid to look up. There had been no murmurs while I read, no laughter at the funny parts, no response whatsoever. Disappointed that my final ploy to get my students interested had failed miserably, I finally lifted my gaze.

To my utter shock, the young men who sat in the back row, usually sprawled in their seats, were now on their feet. I wasn’t sure what to think, wondering in a panic if my storytelling had finally pushed them over the edge and they were getting up to leave. Instead, Angel, one of my students with a knife scar that had left a zigzag mark across his face from his forehead to his chin, stepped forward and with a broad motion began to clap his hands. The others joined him in resounding applause, and I stood there amazed at their response. Afraid to break the spell, I ventured to ask,” You like that, Angel?” He nodded his head vigorously, emboldening me to ask a follow-up question. “What do you like about it?”

Angel took a step forward, pointed at the book, and said emphatically, “That @#$% is for real, Miss!” The others immediately broke out in a chorus of approval, the boys as well as the girls. Pleased beyond belief that I had finally made some headway, I was eager to keep the momentum going. I explained that the author was Junot Diaz, who was a professor at MIT, and that the book was a big success.

The students had a difficult time believing this. They were sure that the author was someone like them and that no one else could possibly be interested in his work. Angel then turned to me and asked, “Who reads this @#$%”? I said that many people read it because they enjoyed learning about how other people experience the world and about circumstances that differ from their own.

This was hard for the students to comprehend. Although they were clearly moved by the story, they failed to see why anyone else would be interested in what to them was commonplace. Their firm disbelief made clear to me the sad truth of how many of our students’ lives are completely marginalized in most of the literature that schools provide. Seldom, if ever, seeing themselves reflected in the stories, plays, and novels they’re forced to read in school, they begin to believe that their own lives are unimportant, that they’re invisible.

I could see I was losing them and unwilling to let this opportunity slip away, I began insisting that not only did people want to read Junot Diaz’s stories about poverty and life in the barrio, but also they would be equally eager to read the students’ stories as well. “I guarantee that if you write about your own lives, people will want to read it.” As I saw some of them start to turn away, I added in desperation, “In fact, if you write your stories in class, I’ll make sure you get published and have your own book.” That got their attention.

Angel, ever the cynic, asked me, “You mean those stupid Kinko books, with the spiral binding?”

“Of course not,” I responded. “These will be real books, like you see in a bookstore, with your picture on the back, and an author bio just like Junot Diaz!” As the bell rang and they gathered their things, I continued, “So what do you say? If I promise to get you published, will you write your stories?” As he walked out the door, Angel nodded and the others seemed to agree. Jubilant, I couldn’t stop smiling, until it hit me that in my eagerness to get them interested, I had just made a promise that I had no way of knowing how to fulfill.

The Work Begins

Dozens of frantic phone calls to publishers later, I finally made contact with one who was willing to publish the books as long as the students could each pre-sell at least 10 copies. He explained that this would cover his printing cost and that any copies the students sold beyond that would earn them a small royalty as well. Ecstatic, I rushed into class the next morning with the news that we had a publisher.

From that day on, my formerly recalcitrant, subdued, and passive students transformed before my eyes into passionate, engaged, and prolific readers and writers. Each day I read to them from authors like Sandra Cisneros, Sapphire, and Junot Diaz; showed them clips from films like City of God; and had discussions about the issues that mattered most in their lives and affected them most deeply. We talked about what it means to be poor, about the cycle of poverty that keeps people chained to their circumstances. We talked about stereotypes, race, and gender, and about power–who has it, who doesn’t, and why. Once we had read about and discussed these things, the students would write their own narratives.

I used Sandra Cisneros’s novel, House on Mango Street (Vintage, 1991), as a framework. I had the students write short vignettes about their name, their neighborhood, their family, their friends, and finally their dreams. Each week, they would write a new vignette, and then they would edit one another’s work in small groups.

It was amazing to see what relevant curriculum and using personal narrative could accomplish with my students when all else had failed. Students who barely attended school were now present every day. Those who continued to miss school regularly because of suspensions, fights, or illness would make a point of e-mailing me their work. Whatever else they missed, the one thing that never suffered was their book project.

The most telling incident was with one of my freshmen, Tina. Tina had walked into my classroom on the first day of school with several inches of makeup caked on her face and a low-cut top and too tight jeans. Without even giving me a second glance, she strutted into the room, stood facing the class, and yelled “Holla!” Once I managed to get her to sit down, she continued to talk loudly to students across the room, interrupting the lesson.

Once the book project started however, Tina was transformed. Allowed to have a voice, allowed to tell her story, she began writing with a vengeance. Tina would be absent at least once every week because she would get suspended for bad behavior in her other classes. One day, I received a phone call during my prep period. It was Tina. When I asked her where she was, she responded, “Miss, that b—- suspended me again, but can you come out to the quad? I have my stuff for you.” Incredulous that she had come to school despite being suspended to give me her “stuff,” I walked out to the quad. There indeed was Tina, hiding behind a clump of bushes, her handwritten stories clutched firmly in hand. She delivered them to me carefully and ran back to her friend’s waiting car, trusting that I would get them into the book.

The trust these students placed in me was incredibly touching. Knowing little about me, having only met me a few weeks before, they clung desperately to the hope that I would indeed be the one to finally let them be heard. The mere fact that I was allowing them a space to speak and write about what mattered to them was enough for them to open up and entrust me with their deepest thoughts. Their trust left me humbled, honored, and inspired to help them succeed.

After two months of hard work, during which students stayed in of their own volition during lunch, after school, and even got permission to skip other classes so they could work on their narratives, the combined manuscript was finally ready. The next step was for each student to pre-sell 10 copies of the book. I saw this as an opportunity for them to build further literacy skills, including communicating with others effectively, persuading their customers that their book was worth buying, identifying audience and purpose, and making a convincing argument, all in the real-life, hands-on context of getting their 10 books sold. To my surprise, they were all able to pre-sell their copies within a week of having completed the book. Many of the teachers ordered copies, and family members and community members were equally responsive.

We sent the money off to the printer and a month later, the books arrived, shiny and new, fresh off the presses. The title, Dreams Are for Others, was inspired by a conversation I had early on in the process with Jose, one of the students. We were discussing a chapter in the book titled “Dreams” and how it would contain all of their hopes and dreams. José began to laugh. When I asked him what was so funny, he replied, “Dreams are for other people, Miss. Not those in East Palo Alto. Here, you never know if you will be here tomorrow, or if you will ever wake up again.”

Building Hope

José’s comment compelled me to reflect deeply on the reality for so many students in U.S. classrooms. So many are bereft of dreams because they’re bereft of hope. Motivating such students becomes impossible unless we understand their underlying hopelessness and do what we can to connect our content area with a concrete path to success. One of the most powerful ways we can motivate students is by allowing them to speak, read, and write about what matters to them. This doesn’t necessarily preclude them from reading and writing about other things. However, unless we draw such students in by first validating their own experiences and interests, we cannot bridge those experiences and interests with the larger world of experience and knowledge that we seek to introduce.

The book enabled Angel to voice his frustration with a system that allowed some kids to have everything, while he often had to steal to make ends meet. It also enabled him to articulate his hope of attending the art academy one day. The Dreams chapter enabled Jose to voice for the first time his tentative dream of owning a mechanic shop and escaping gang violence so he could keep his family safe. It enabled Tina to reveal that under that overly made-up and brash façade was a scared young woman who found solace in drugs and alcohol. She was able to take on the role of mentor for the first time, advising readers to love their children so their children don’t succumb to drugs.

Personal narrative is not merely an exercise in narcissistic self-indulgence. Rather, it becomes a way to build literacy while empowering students and motivating them to engage, often for the first time, with school and all it has to offer.

Writing from the Heart

The Secret Hook: Reeling Students In


Dwayne. He was my most memorable student in the South Bronx high school where I taught freshman and junior English nearly a decade ago.  He was one of those kids that doesn’t fight you, doesn’t resist, doesn’t participate, just puts his head down on the desk and doesn’t lift it up again till the bell rings.  Dwayne was a junior and he clearly wanted nothing to do with me or my class.

For me, kids like Dwayne are often the hardest challenge. When students are loud and unruly, when they aggressively challenge what you say or do, there is some opportunity to interact and possibly to persuade. But what do you do with kids like Dwayne? How do you engage someone who shuts down the minute they get to class?

Every day, I would see him slouch into class, his face expressionless, his eyes downcast, and slide into the chair at the table he shared with two others.  Only two rows from the front of the class, he would then dump his book bag on the desk, cross his arms, and with a deliberate sigh put his head down between his arms and attempt to sleep.

No matter what stories I told, what exciting topics I discussed, Dwayne’s head remained firmly on the desk. Until one day, I was teaching a lesson on stereotypes. All the students were engaged in this controversial topic, yelling out answers and opinions on why stereotypes exist and how we can combat them. Not Dwayne. At the end of the lesson, I was reviewing the connotations of words and to illustrate, asked my students who they considered one of the most influential poets of their times.  The room grew immediately silent as the topic moved from one they cared about deeply to one they felt unsure of.  “Shakespeare?” mumbled one brave student, drawing on his past knowledge of English teachers and their love for the bard. “No!” I responded. “What about Tupac?” Dwayne’s head shot up as if he had been jolted with an electric prod. He now sat straight up in his chair, staring at the board and at me in disbelief.

“Tupac? You mean Tupac Shakur?” They were the first words he uttered in my class.

“Yes, exactly.  Wouldn’t you say Tupac had a wide influence on many young people?”

Dwayne nodded silently, but his face reflected a range of expressions from astonishment to euphoria to a bewildered joy.  I was meanwhile equally stunned and determined to keep him upright.

I had found the secret hook to Dwayne’s motivation and I reeled him in without relenting. “Which of his poems would you say affected you the most?”  Before Dwayne could even muster up an answer the entire class jumped in again, excited to offer their own opinions.  As the bell rang and they streamed reluctantly out, still arguing over which poem was the best, Dwayne turned toward me with an expression of wonder and begrudging respect, his mouth turned upward in the semblance of a smile. As I stood at the door, waiting for my next class to enter, I watched Dwayne joining animatedly in the conversation that continued in the hallways as my students proceeded to their next class.

From that day on, Dwayne sat up straight throughout the entire class period. He would stop by my desk on his way out, leaving me copies of his favorite Tupac poems, and I would be sure to bring up something about Tupac or the topics of his writing at every opportunity. Eventually he began sharing some of his own poetry, beautiful profound verses about life in the midst of violence and poverty.

It was that simple. Suddenly, with just one shared interest, one instance where I demonstrated respect and understanding for what he held dear, Dwayne was now willing to demonstrate the same respect and understanding for what I had to offer in terms of content.

When I left the school at the end of the semester, Dwayne stood in front of my car, blocking my path. When I said goodbye, he asked me plaintively, “ What do I do now, Miss?” It was as if, by losing the one teacher who “got” him, he was losing the path to progress and the chance to graduate.  Sadly, he was right. While I reassured him that he would be fine, Dwayne never did graduate. His teachers during his senior year didn’t connect with him and he was written off as a student who slept through class and just didn’t care.

I am still in touch with him, as I am with many of my former students, and Dwayne continues to write books of poetry.  Currently he is working on a volume of “Haiku from the Hood”. He lives and works in the same South Bronx neighborhood, unable to obtain a diploma and unsure how to improve his condition.  While I do my best to guide him from a distance, it disturbs me greatly to think of all the Dwaynes who inhabit our schools today, full of potential and promise that go unrecognized. If only we could take the time to get to know their secret hook, to catch that glimmer in their eyes when they hear a certain phrase or topic, and to fan that spark into a flame that lights their path to success.

Student Engagement: Why Are We Learning This?

sangerkidsI’ve had some questions both here on the blog and in my classroom about the challenge of getting and keeping students engaged.  Rigid discipline and strong armed guidance have been mentioned as a possible necessity, given middle schoolers who may be behind in reading and writing skills. While this seems like an inevitability to many teachers, I don’t believe that it’s necessary.

It is my unequivocal contention that children will not only learn, but they will be eager and willing to learn regardless of their background, socioeconomic status or academic level. However, what is needed to make this happen is a complete shift in the way educators present their material. If school and education are presented from the outset as a service to the student rather than an obligation they must fulfill to “succeed,” there is no need to coerce or keep students in line. Let me explain.

If I, as an English teacher, greet my students on the first day of class with a lecture on how important it is that they learn the curriculum and do well on their tests in order to pass the class and go to the next grade and graduate, I have already lost most of my students, except those few who are innately competitive and/or under tremendous pressure to succeed from parents. Even those students will be much more excited and eager to learn if I present the whole matter differently.

If instead, I talk about why English is necessary for students in their own life, why grammar and poetry and fluid prose are essential for their own progress, how being able to communicate effectively can make the difference between getting that guy or girl or that job or that position on the team, then my students no longer see it as a chore but as a valuable tool.

The same goes for a History teacher. Reeling off a list of dates and important events and emphasizing the need to memorize those dry and distant facts can hardly be considered effective in engaging students, however much those facts are exciting and essential to the teacher.  If instead, that teacher focuses for a moment on the purpose of history, on the incredible insight it offers to where all of us as human beings have traveled, have learned, have grown, the mistakes we’ve made, the wars we’ve fought, the tragedies we’ve survived and the heroism we have witnessed, then he or she makes the subject come alive for their students.  Again, the crucial step is to connect that living subject to the lives and interests and purpose of our students. Why should students care about the human saga? How will it serve them directly? If we take the trouble to explain how history can help us learn from past mistakes without having to make them ourselves, gain a perspective on the various cultures and religions and ethnicities we encounter in our lives, understand the political and economic processes that govern whether or not we prosper, then which student wouldn’t want to equip themselves with this knowledge?

Each subject has fundamental value in improving our lives directly, whether it’s math to figure out what we should be paid or should be paying, or science to figure out how the world works and how we can impact it, or music or art to learn self expression or p.e. to understand teamwork and cooperation. Sometimes as content teachers we become so wrapped up in knowledge for knowledge’s sake that we forget this fact. Yet, it is the single most important fact we can impart to our students, the importance of our subject in directly improving their lives. If we can effectively answer the question “Why are we doing this?” with such an explanation rather than “because its on the test” then engagement will never be an issue.