How to Save a Life

Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”
― James Joyce, The Dead

Five years ago I was farting my way through grad school.

The plan was to graduate with a Master’s degree in educational administration and become a principal.

I didn’t really want to be a principal. I wanted to be a writer.  But I did want more money, more prestige and a better parking spot.

Then I got sick.

Doctors found a hole in my brain. One doctor told me I should be dead.

I cried. I drank. I grew distant and despondent.

And then, in my most desperate hour, I dropped out of grad school, started writing. Which, consequently, saved my life.

Shakespeare believed that every third thought should be about death.

Though I don’t prescribe to the Barb’s frequent morbidity, I do believe a frequent acknowledgement of our mortality is a healthy practice.

Death is waiting in weeds for all of us.

We can choose simply to ignore him or when we need a little perspective– call him out, lock eyes, and realize how little time we have to do the things we were meant to do.

Be well,

Jay

The smartest student I ever taught was also the dumbest

This is a Micro (life) Lesson.

Micro (life) Lessons are simple, compressed stories (under 250 words) that, like good teachers, continue to teach long after graduation.


If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room. – Confucius

I once taught a student who turned down scholarships from several Ivy League universities.

She chose to attend a small, progressive college that I never heard of.

What a shame, I thought.

I couldn’t understand why such a promising student would decline scholarships from some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

So one day after class I asked her.

She smiled, “Because I want to go a place where its okay fail. Where failure, not success, is the teacher. I want to go where I can be dumb.”

Last time I heard, she was doing exceptionally well.

Be well,

Jay

The Great American School Experience: Hide In The Closet, Stay Quiet, and Hope Not To Die

They were still bagging up bodies at Stoneman Douglas High School when my 9 year old daughter told me her plan.

“We would hide in the closet.”

“Really? That’s all?”

“Yes, teacher told us that if there is an intruder we are to hide in the closet and stay quiet.”

I didn’t tell her that that plan wouldn’t work. I didn’t tell her if an intruder powered into her school, the first place they would look would be in the closets. No matter how quiet she was.

I also didn’t tell her that, intruder, is too advanced of a word for a 4th grader.

Intruder is a 7th grade word saved for learning about Cesar, the Roman Empire and barbarian migration.

As a parent and a teacher myself, I go to work scared now.

Today, in America, students and teachers pack their lunches, zip their school bags, go to school and die. They’re shot stepping off the bus, eating their Peanut Butter & Jelly, spinning their locker dial, and hiding quietly in closets like they were told.

In April of 1999, when I was 19, I sat in my Pennsylvania living room, watching students sprint out the double-doors of Columbine High School, across the green Colorado grass as police officers stood behind trees with leveled shotguns.

I, like most of America, was naive then. We believed that the massacre at Columbine High School was an isolated incident. An aberration. Two angry boys who slipped through the metaphorical cracks and found an armory of guns.

We said prayers, held hands and vigils and went back to school shaken but confident a tragedy like Columbine would never happen again.

It couldn’t. This was America.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

On Tuesday morning a student entered my classroom and announced there was another school shooting–the 17th school shooting in the first 11 weeks of 2018.

“Mr. Armstrong, did you know America now averages 1.5 school shooting a week?”

The closet in my daughter’s classroom is a long, narrow closet in the back of the room where the students hang their coats on little hooks and place their lunch bags on wooden shelves.

The closet has two doorways framed in white yet both are without doors. There’s no furniture inside the closets to hide behind. No bulletproof vests hanging from those little hooks. No trapdoors that drop the fourth graders into an underground tunnel system that mazes through the earth and branches into lite hallways that leads each child safely back to their bedrooms, leaving the booted intruder locked and loaded in an empty closet.

“Can you believe that Mr. Armstrong? Another school shooting.”

My daughter’s name is Haley. Cindy and I picked out the name months before she was born.  There was no debating. No coin flips. Our daughter would be forever Haley. And that was that.

Cindy was in labor with Haley for 16 hours. At one point the doctor peeked over Cindy’s knees and remarked how she refuses come out, “as if she’s hiding.”

As if, even before she was born, she was preparing for life in the American school system.

I cleared my throat, “Do you know where the shooting happened?”

“Somewhere in Maryland I think.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure. It was in Maryland.”

These are hard moments. Every time I learn about another school shooting I recoil and shake my head as if to say this is sad. This is so fucking sad.

What happened to the great American school experience that so many of us knew and enjoyed?

The one where you went to school and lived. The one where you pledge allegiance to a flag that you believed would protect you.

With all these dead children in the news, sometimes I feel guilty thinking about my daughter sitting at her desk, alive.

Right now she’s in math class–her favorite class. The teacher calls attention and spins and writes a multiplication problem on the board and challenges the class to solve it in under 30 seconds.

Haley flashes a smile. A smile that’s missing teeth but is unmistakably hers.

She tucks her blonde hair behind her ears and lets her pencil work the problem in her notebook.

The sun slants through the classroom windows on a fine American morning.

It’s spring outside. And a pair of eager yellow daffodils have pushed through the mulch outside her classroom and sway in the cool breeze.

And inside the classroom it’s warm and encouraging and my daughter is smiling. My daughter is alive and learning.

The way the great American school experience should be–always and forever.

Be well,

Jay

The Pilgramage (or why I really went to Atlantic City last week)

“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”

Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

Last Friday I made the 60 mile pilgrimage from Philadelphia to the Atlantic City, New Jersey to present my writing workshop “Learn to Write like No One is Reading” at New Jersey Educators Convention.

The workshop, a culmination of strategies and experiences I’ve accumulated over the last 15 years of teaching, explores how teachers can use storytelling as an instructional practice to deepen student learning while helping students further embrace the writing process.

The workshop was well received by the audience. They actively participate, smiled, laughed at my jokes and from what I could tell, left with at least one new strategy to use in their classrooms.

For the last few months I’ve been making presentations at various professional learning seminars. And I’ve come to really enjoy talking literacy and helping educators facilitate classrooms that promote writing and storytelling so to inspire their students to become better writers.

But if I’m being purely honest — the real reason I went to Atlantic City last week to present a writing workshop was a purely selfish one.

The Real Reason

In September of 2013 an MRI revealed that I had suffered significant brain damage.

However there was no clear catalyst — a car crash or a fall — to warrant such loss of brain matter so quickly.

In October of 2013, after the Director of Neurology at Jefferson University Hospital examined my MRI he acknowledged majority of my cerebellum had died, suggested I start testing for every known debilitating and fatal disease and then asked if I had long-term disability insurance.

“No.”

“I can’t predict what will happen to your brain,” he paused and looked over at the MRI still displayed on his computer screen, “but if you can somehow acquire long-term disability insurance I think you should.”

The Silver Lining

During its annual Convention, the New Jersey Educators Association has a no-physical-required, no-questions-asked open enrollment period for its long term disability insurance.

The only caveat was you have to enroll in person at the Convention in Atlantic City.

So in November of 2013, as mom drove the 60 some miles to Atlantic City, we outlined my plan —  enroll in long-term disability insurance and brave on long enough for the paper work to process so that when I when inevitability lose the ability to speak or see or lose muscle function and can no longer work, my family would’t be so financially burdened.

When mom dropped me off outside the Convention Center, I told her to circle around the block because I wasn’t going to be long. I guess because when your life is undergoing a massive reconstruction sometimes you have no choice but to work as fast as you can.

I mazed through the Convention floor until I found the Prudential Insurance booth where I asked a few questions, looked at a few charts, enrolled in the long-term disability program, hustled back the way I came, walked out of the Convention Center, into the cold November sunlight and waited for mom to pick me up and take me home.

The purpose of a pilgrimage is about setting aside a long period of time in which the only focus is to be the matters of the soul. Many believe a pilgrimage is about going away but it isn’t; it is about coming home. Those who choose to go on pilgrimage have already ventured away from themselves; and now set out in a longing to journey back to who they are.” 

L.M. Browning, Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations

Last Friday I selfishly trekked 60 miles from the Philadelphia suburbans to the Atlantic City Convention Center.

In a way, I found something redemptive in those hard-earned miles. And though skirting pot holes and grinding through traffic can not repair the damage in my brain, it did remind me that somehow I’m still very much alive and that I still have a story to tell.

Be well,

Jay

The Day the Girls Were Given Tampons

Our sixth grade teachers divide us into two groups: boys and girls.

In the boys’ room, the teacher wobbles behind her podium and says words like penis, testicles, erection and sperm and I struggle to breath. I choke on my laughter. My face grows hot and my insides hurt and I’m pretty sure I’m going to die. But it’s okay. Because it’s just so damn funny.

When the teacher runs out of funny words to say, she hustles through the classroom doorway, into the hall, to either cry or laugh, and since we’re boys, and now we’re unsupervised boys — we explode. We laugh and squeal and shake and cry and whimper because it’s just so damn funny.

For 12 year old boys, the word testicles tops the list of funny words. Especially, when your teacher says it — testicles. And if I’m being honest, at 37, the word testicles still makes me laugh.

As girls file back in the classroom with bowed heads, silent, like they just witnessed an execution our laughter tinkles out. Each girl carries tightly a white wand and I think how unfair it is that they got a prize and we didn’t. But maybe we would’ve been awarded a prize if we hadn’t howled like hairless wolves.

A girl with shoulder length auburn hair pinned back with butterfly berets slides into the desk in front of me. I tap on her shoulder. At first she doesn’t turn so I tap again and wait and before I’m about to tap again she turns and levels her eyes into mine, “What?”

“What kind of prize did you get?”

“It’s not a prize.”

“Well what is it?”

“It’s a tampon.”

“A what?”

“A tampon. You know, for when I get my period.”

I have no idea what she’s talking about.

Naturally, men want titles. Titles that will raise both pinkies and eyebrows at cocktail parties. Titles that will earn free drinks. Titles that will get the girl.

As I toiled through my 20’s and into my early 30’s I felt that the most important titles a man could collect were titles like CEO, Supervisor, Manager, Principal, General, Admiral, Chief, Coach, Quarterback.

In our defense, society has taught men that to prove our worth we need to collect titles the way we collect imported cars or empty bottles of imported beer (depending on a man’s financial situation).

For girls, the title of mother comes painfully yearly. They menstruate, wonder why, and a soft, older voice explains they’re now biologically ready to become a mother. About the same time, the same voice explains that mother is the most important title a girl will ever know.

Further cementing the gravity of mother, high school girls endure home economics and child development classes and are evaluated on their ability to care for a plastic baby who cries when it’s hungry or a sack of sugar (depending on a school district’s financial situation).

I find it interesting and, somewhat sad, that boys are not offered classes on fatherhood.

Boys are often evaluated on their ability to build and destroy things. To give commands. To take orders. But boys are rarely, if ever, praised for their ability to nurture, care and empathize.

Maybe that’s why fatherhood is such a confusing ordeal for men. Maybe that’s why the expectations for fathers continues to be shamefully low.

25 years ago I was in 6th grade, clueless about the origin of human life, about collecting titles. I was just a catholic school boy, laughing like an infidel at the pronunciation of the delicate instruments that would gift me with the most important title I would ever hold: Father.

I’m just slightly embarrassed it took so long to realize such truth.

Be well,

Jay

Let’s Take a Look at My 11th Grade Report Card

On a recent cleaning binge, my mom found my 11th grade report card stuffed in a file box along with old writings, homework assignments and a certificate announcing that I had passed Drivers Education class in August of 1997.

I’m 37 years old, and a high school teacher now, and everyday I witness the enormous pressures that 11th graders (and their parents) place on their still-rounding shoulders.

High school mythology decrees that 11th grade is the Acropolis. It’s the most important 10 months of your life. The make or break year. The one that demands academic greatness. The 11th grade transcript is the one colleges scrutinize and consider the most when deciding to accept or decline your admission. According to legend,11th grade is the year where your destiny is formed and fated.

Below you will find my 11th grade year end report card.

It’s apparent that at 16 years old I wasn’t overly concerned with achieving academic greatness. To be honest, my main concern was scoring a date with the pretty girl in Spanish class. Spoiler alert….9 years later I would marry that senorita… muy suave!

My Class Ranking

If my 11th grade report card is an approximation of my destiny, I’m destined to be stunningly average.

I ranked 168 out of 337 students in the 11th grade class. If you do the math (because, clearly, my algebra grade indicates I don’t math) 337/2 = 168.5

Analysis: In high school I was absolutely, fantastically, beautifully average.

Religion 3

Final Grade: 87

Analysis: Religion was my second highest grade in my report card. I believe the grade is slightly underwhelming given the fact this was my 11th year of Catholic education.

But like a true B+ Catholic, I knew the basics of the Bible, received the required sacraments and was a semi-annual church goer (Christmas & Easter) who pretended to go every Sunday.

English 3

Final Grade: 85

Analysis: This was a massive blow to my current (and slightly bloated) ego.

I have presented at writing workshops for college professors.

 My article, “It’s called The Alchemist and you should read it”was recently retweeted by International Bestselling Author Paulo Coehlo.

I will be featured on an upcoming episode of the television show, Classroom Close-up, NJ to highlight writeonfighton.org and the writing events I host for my students.

Yet, in spite of all that, an unimpressive B in 11th grade English will forever be etched in the annals of time.

American History 3

Final Grade: 89

Analysis: Everything I know about American History I learned from watching Forrest Gump.

Algebra 2

Final Grade: 74

Analysis: In high school I clearly did not understand algebra which, interestingly was the very last time in my life I was forced to multiply numbers by letters.

Environmental Science

Final Grade: 84

Analysis: According to my teacher, Mr. Krier, I was “one of the top one of the students in the class.” I earned an 84. Either he was just being nice or I was, in fact, the one star in a constellation of street lamps.

Spanish 3

Final Grade: 77

Analysis: I blame Cindy for this one. I spent the entire year distracted by her legs and perfecting such romantic expressions as “Coma estas, chica?” and “Muy caliente” in a deep, seductive inflection.

Gym

Final Grade:99

Analysis: One of my students once told me that he was going to be an accountant because in 11th grade he did well in accounting class. If 11th grade grades are indicators of future professions I clearly should have been a professional athlete.

Conduct

Final Grade: 97

Analysis: Minus a shirttail infraction, which was sheer blasphemy in a Catholic school, I was absolute saintly.

It’s time to be serious.

I didn’t learn much in high school.

It’s nothing against my teachers but, aside from meeting Cindy and a group of friends I’m still close with, the educational experience was uninspiring.

In fact, I can’t name one high school teacher who inspired me to become a teacher.

So why did I become a high school teacher if my experience in high school was incredibly forgettable?

It’s a question I’ve tussled with lately.

Selflessly, I want to spend my days talking and teaching about reading and writing. But I also think I’m attempting to vindicate my own stale high school experience.

Work is a tricky thing. Immersing yourself in work for only a paycheck is a soul-sucking existence. Working for personal fulfillment is righteous but doesn’t pay the electric bill.

Maybe, if we look hard enough, we find work that fills a previous void.

Maybe, teaching is my attempt to provide students with experiences I never had. And maybe, selfishly, I stand and deliver in the classroom everyday attempting to fall in favor with the teacher, earn some extra credit and improve that 85.

Be well,

Jay

“Travel is the best teacher.” The Educator Spotlight is on Spanish Teacher Michele Hill

Write on Fight on’s Educator Spotlight features insights, reflections and best practices from passionate classroom teachers and school administrators.

Meet Michele Hill. Michele is an high school Spanish teacher from New Jersey.  An active educational blogger, Michele believes engagement is the key to inspiring students. She recently took a group of students to Costa Rica to further teach them a lesson in altruism.

Check out my interview with Michele, visit her blog and enjoy!

I believe that an empowered student is one who is in charge of his/her learning and wants to pursue it with or without a teacher.- Michele Hill


Besides being an educator Michele Hill is….

a mother, wife and a grandmother, and a world traveler and a kind humanitarian.

What school and what subject do you currently teach?

I work at Delsea Regional High School. I teach Spanish and a special program called SWAG that works with our most at-risk students.

What is the one book ever educator should read? Why?

    There are so many to choose from. I think all teachers should read Todd Whitaker’s “What Great Teacher’s Do Differently”. It’s easy to understand and full of great advice that will help all teachers be successful with their students. It is sage advice on how to connect and manage all of the challenges that teachers face.

On your blog spiritededucator.blogspot.com you shared how you recently took a group of students to Costa Rica. Why are new experiences, such as your trip, so vital for student development?

I love taking students to new places to experience the world around them.  I think that it is so important for our students to be globally minded in the world that we live in today. I also believe that the greatest learning occurs when students are engaged…and new experiences keep them engaged! Travel is the best teacher of all… reading about the Colosseum is one thing, standing in it is another!

What has been your biggest roadblock as an educator? And how did you overcome it? Or what are you doing now to overcome it?

My biggest roadblock is being so passionate about education that others find it annoying. My family certainly gets tired of hearing about school and my students. Fortunately, I have developed great relationships through my PLN,  they have affirmed my desire to make education better and welcome my enthusiasm.

 What is an empowered student?

I believe that an empowered student is one who is in charge of his/her learning and wants to pursue it with or without a teacher. They are on a quest for knowledge and experiences!

 If, for one day, you were in charge of your school what would you do?

Make everyone feel welcomed! Celebrate staff and students and let them know that they all matter. Make school a place where everyone wants to be!

 Movie or book– what is your favorite work of fiction?

    Freedom Writers– Love that Ms. Gruell found a way to build meaningful relationships with ALL of her students!

Who inspires you?

Wow! This is a BIG question! I am inspired everyday by the teachers who care for their students, love them unconditionally and make them stretch and grow. Teachers are altruistic by nature. What they do day in and day out is inspirational for everyone!

What is your favorite non-teaching quote?

No matter how talented, educated, rich, or cool you think you are, ultimately how you treat people tells all!

Connect with Michele…

Twitter:@HillMrispo

Website: spiritededucator.blogspot.com


Do you know an awesome educator dedicated to inspiring and teaching others?

If so, please consider nominating them to be featured on Write on Fight on’s Teacher Spotlight Series. You can contact me at writeonfighton@gmail.com.

Be well,

Jay