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

6 Reasons Why You Should Tell a Story on the First Day of School

In 8 Reasons How To Be A More Interesting Teacher This Year I explained stories are how I often communicate complex concepts to my students and how stories help heighten student engagement.

With that being said, there is no better school day than the first day to engage students with a story.

Here are five reasons why you should tell a story on the first day of school:

1.You Will be Memorable

The first day of school is the last day to make a first impression.

For students, the excitement of the first day quickly ends when all their teachers are doing the same thing, “Hello…How was your summer?…Here is the course syllabus and here are the classroom rules…”

Do something different. Leave a good impression. Tell a story.

A first day story will get students excited for the impending school year. It will be something they tell their friends and parents about. Which, by them sharing your story, they are learning an important lesson– we are all storytellers and we pass our stories along to deepen our connection with others.

Suggestion–The first day is a great time to share a story about a personal failure. Talking openly about failure shows humility and vulnerability, two qualities children too rarely find in adults. Admitting you failed will immediately make you more relatable to your students.

2.You Will Calm Your First Day Jitters

Like students, teachers also get first day jitters. These jitters are often fueled by the new school year blitz of emails introducing new teachers, new initiatives, new procedures, and new curriculum.

In addition to all this newness, you still have to plan for your first class. A first class where you may feel the squeeze of trying to include every detail about class, its content and the year ahead. But you don’t. The school year is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Take a deep breath and remember, we were storytellers long before we were teachers. Sharing stories is natural, nonthreatening way to communicate important ideas.

3.You Will Begin Establishing Classroom Management

By telling a story, you are establishing the value listening. A value that you expect your students practice. Because listening is how we honor relationships. Because listening is the foundation of effective classroom management and effective teaching and learning. 

4.You Will Begin Creating a Classroom Community

Stories bring people together. Stories are for sharing. 

The first day story will help your students understand they’re part of a community and acknowledge that your classroom is a place of acceptance. A healthy environment which promotes vulnerability and authenticity.  If students feel safe and supported they will be more open to future learning.

Open to me, so that I may open.

Provide me your inspiration

So that I might see mine. —Rumi

5.You Will Be Creating Emotional Engagement

Stories make us feel.

While immersed in a story we begin to feel what the characters feel. If they cry, we may want to cry. This empathy is a vital classroom component. When students are emotionally engaged, your instruction will be more impactful and they will be more responsive to constructive criticism from you.

6.You Will Be Speaking Their Language

Though the content of your subject may be new to students, stories are not.

According to Business Insider, two-fifths of American teenagers use the photo sharing app Shapchat multiple times a day. The app allows users to post and share Snapchat stories, which are personal pictures users share to tell a narrative.

The modern student has been raised on social media.And at its core, social media is simply an advanced form of storytelling. As a teaching strategy, storytelling will help student see how their classroom learning can be similar and as entertaining as their favorite phone app. 

 

Storytelling is our most primitive vehicle for transferring information, for connecting and teaching.  And despite all their modernity, the story form remains incredibly recognizable and important to our students. Use the power of storytelling on the first day to introduce yourself and your content to the students and they will be excited to return for the second day. 

Good Luck with the New School Year!

Be well,

Jay

Before you go…

I highly recommend checking out the Tedx Talk, The Magical Science of Storytelling  presented by speaker and author David JP Phillips.  David explains the biology behind storytelling. How listening to stories release positive chemical reactions in the body, including the release of dopamine in the brain which increases both focus and motivation. 

8 Simple Ways To Be A More Interesting Teacher This School Year

As a teacher, I want to be interesting. I want my students to want to be in my class.

In fact, my philosophy of education has always been rooted in a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man:

Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been coming to see                         To forget about life for a while.

But a student’s perpetual compliant about school is that it’s “so boring.” (Heck, it was my complaint when I was slugging my way through high school 20 years ago.)

But now a teacher myself, I know the job of a teacher is never boring. Teachers are never just teachers. They are therapists, philosophers, referees, doctors, mechanics, meteorologists, secretaries and rodeo clowns.

Teaching requires you to switch professions on a dime. It also requires you to develop new skills, ask deep questions and be a curious and relentless learner.

In short, to be a successful teacher you need to be interesting.

When you’re interesting, students want to be in your class. And when you create such interest, students more willingly immerse themselves in the wonders of the learning process and “forget about life for awhile.”

1.Tell Stories

An administrator once told me that I had to stop telling stories in the classroom. I reacted to the edict by returning to my classroom, opening up my personal anthology and telling even more stories then ever before.

Stories are my bread and butter. If I can’t tell stories, I don’t want to be a teacher anymore.

Stories are how I communicate complex concepts and ideas to my students.

When used properly (not just to waste time or glorify how awesome you are) stories are a fantastic way to hook students into your classroom narrative. A narrative centered on your subject, communicated by you.

2.Teach Life Lessons

You’re older than your students. You’ve been around the block.

Your experience with things like failure and regret and joy and love harbor a wealth of teaching material. By tying your content into the human condition allows students to see how the content relates to things beyond the cinder blocks of school.

3.Inside Jokes

I wear khaki pants and canvas Adidas sneakers to school everyday. My             “uniform” serves as good fodder for classroom jokes. Jokes that weave into the fabric of the classroom.

Everyone, especially students, love to be a part of an inside joke. Inside jokes are shared experiences that create connections, deepen relationships and show your students that you have a sense of humor.

4.Listen more and ask more questions

Sometimes, you just need to step back and let your students have the floor.

You don’t need to be the center of attention to be an interesting teacher.  By really listening to your students and asking them questions about their interests and integrating their interests into your lessons you will establish yourself as a teacher (and an adult) who really listens.

5. Flaunt Your Funk

If you teach middle-school or high school, most of your students think your weird.

It’s hard for students to imagine their teacher having interests that reach beyond the subject matter they teach. But bringing your other interests, your funk into the classroom is a great way to tell more of your story.

Interesting teachers have the audacity to be themselves. They flaunt their funk. It’s what makes them interesting and inspires students to embrace and flaunt there own funkiness.

6. Listen to Podcasts

Listening to podcasts is a great way to be mentally productive outside of the classroom.

The right podcast ( I like TED Radio Hour and The Tim Ferriss Show) can teach you interesting facts and share compelling stories that you can relay to your students.

7. Connect Your Content to Current Events

Teachers often get so wrapped up in daily demands of teaching that we forget that there is a world outside our school walls.

A world that both you and your students are experiencing.

Connecting content to the current world offers students perspective on a current and common subject.  These connections help to captivate students while allowing them to see that school content is relatable to the happenings of the world.

8. Be Positive

By nature, adolescents are an angsty bunch. And looking past the negativity in their lives is difficult.

As a teacher, you have the power to establish the mood in your classroom. By being positive, by leaving your own baggage at home, you offer students a fresh perspective and attitude that they will gravitate toward because they want to be positive but when your 15, being miserable is the cool thing to do.

Being an interesting teacher goes a long way in your classroom and in the lives of your students.  You have the unique power to be a positive, interesting force in lives of your students that will shape important attitudes they have about school and learning.

Playing School (or why I still want to be a teacher)-Guest Post

Playing School (or why I still want to be a teacher) is guest post written by  Julianne Frascella. Julianne is currently a 12th grade student in my AP Literature class at Robbinsville High School (NJ). She will be attending The College of New Jersey in September 2017.


It was like we were playing school.

Except, this was not supposed to be a game.

Wearing old glasses with the lenses popped out and clacking about in my mom’s oversized black high heels, I asserted myself as the head teacher. A pointer with the white gloved finger at the tip, in hand, I was in charge and my classroom was an orderly hierarchy.

One person played teacher.

In my classroom, I had a diverse array of students, consisting of teddies, American Girl dolls, Barbies, Power Rangers, and my little brother.

Arranged one behind the other in columns of four, my class of twelve “students” arrived each day, sitting neatly with their legs tucked under their makeshift cardboard desks. Strips of construction paper glued to the tops, printed with their first and last names in Sharpie, the letters stretching to reach the dotted lines.

The teacher’s desk (which magically transformed into a coffee table when “school” let out) was shoved in the corner, the swivel sofa behind it imitated the staple teacher’s spinny chair. My Barbie laptop plopped upon it, I clacked my fingers against the keys, typing very professional emails to the principal.

Each day, I’d call attendance, logging checks and x’s in my teacher’s book (a stack of white printer paper with three-staples down the side and grid lines that my mom sketched on for me in black pen did the trick).

The whiteboard, the one my dad reluctantly nailed to the wall, displayed the date in the top right corner and the spotlighted Morning Message, exuded cheerfulness in its rainbow letters.

My expectations of a structured classroom developed from the make- believe school in my playroom at home. However, my anticipations were completely defied as I entered the first grade. For most seven-year olds, their largest source of stress stems from a coloring mishap or their word sorting homework.

First grade was a rough year.

My school day often began with hyperventilating at the bus stop and concluded with a bellyache complaint and a nurse visit.

While I should have been enjoying the thrills of the first grade, I was instead inundated with anxiety- a consequence of my classroom environment, a mere discrepancy of my idealistic imaginary classroom.

Our class recycled through at least three teachers over the course of that year, with random substitutes scattered in between. They varied from apathetic to dictatorial, with few falling in between the extremes. And the majority of which, did not have the competence to organize our collapsed classroom.

They’d fumble through the teacher’s desk at the front of the class, which was cluttered with worksheets, yet to be graded and new copies, strewn throughout. They’d quickly scribble their name on the whiteboard upon their arrival, leaving the board bare and dreary otherwise. The date in the corner never seemed to switch, except when it was half erased and fading off.

It was November 3rd for three weeks.

Each day, I’d peek in my classroom to see who was playing teacher. Who would be squinting at the teacher’s book awkwardly trying to sound out our names for attendance? Who would be hollering to quiet down, overwhelmed by the lack of routine and order?

Where is the attendance book? How long do you usually read for? Where do you keep the markers? What are you learning in science?

Different students would jump to their feet arguing whether math or social studies came first on the schedule and whether we left off on chapter three or thirteen in the class novel.

We had twenty- three teachers leading our class, the better of which seemed to be under the age of 8.

And me, praying for an orderly routine, would tremble in my desk, completely distraught by the disorder I was immersed in.

School wasn’t supposed to be a game of role play, yet it had become just that. Wilting in my chair, amidst the mayhem of the classroom, my love for school along with my idealized vision of a harmonized school environment had been tarnished.

I now understand that being a real teacher will differ from my childhood fantasies. Nevertheless, I aspire to carry my childhood passion for teaching throughout my career.

 Why I Still Want to be a Teacher

  1. Offer a Comfortable Place to Learn

The school environment should offer children a consistent routine and a comfortable atmosphere. There is no need to impose extra anxiety on a child by having unexpected changes and irregularities. I want to ensure that my students feel prepared and excited for school each day, not fearful.

  1. Instill Respect as the Foundation of a Child’s Education

Realistically, students will not need to retain the details of American Revolution or the life cycle of a worm. However, they will need well-founded social skills. Classmates can be as much of a hindrance as they are an asset to a child’s education, hence my desire to develop a socially synchronized community within the classroom.

Teachers have a significant hand in shaping the future of society (that’s a lot of power!). Therefore, one of my greatest values is to impart respect as the primacy of learning to instill it as a foundation of future society.

  1. Cherish the Value of Individuality

It is easy to overlook the individual needs of every student with the overwhelming responsibilities of operating a classroom. The instruction of each child should be tailored to their identity, specifically their mannerisms, behaviors, and learning methods. Different tone, approach, and consequences should apply to every distinct child. I never want a child to feel inferior because a situation was not handled to compliment their personalities and abilities; emphasis on a child’s individuality may hold the key to their greatest growth potential.

  1. Emphasize the Inevitability of Imperfections

Learning is infinite, except when hindered by the trepidation of failure.

Dreading to answer a question and fretting over the repulsive B grade has become the reality of the education system from a student’s perspective. As a teacher, I aspire to break this falsified stereotype of failure and rather highlight the value in making mistakes. In fact, I want my classroom to be a place where mistakes are encouraged and no longer seem a place of consistent performance, but instead a place of constant practice.

Despite, my early experiences in the public school system, I still believe in education.

As I am about to leave high school and embark on my future, I often think of myself as a timorous, little girl sitting in a first grade class. I know there are other girls out there just like me and I feel it is my responsibility to make school no longer a place of fear and chaos, but instead the start of an exciting journey.

 

WoFo’s Teacher Spotlight is on Jill Vaz

WoFo’s Teacher Spotlight features awesome educators who are dedicated to teaching and inspiring young people everyday.

In this edition, WoFo features first grade teacher, chocolate lover and one of my former students Jill Vaz. I would like to thank Jill for her interview and for her dedication to the teaching profession.

…when you forget where you are and what is going on in the world around you- it’s just you and your students lost in the moment of learning.


Besides being a teacher Jill Vaz is….

An avid runner, beach lover, chocolate eating, shopping and organization enthusiast!

Where do you currently teach, what do you teach and for how long?

It is my third year teaching first grade at Sharon School in Robbinsville, New Jersey and I absolutely love it! Recently, I have also taken on the role as one of our K-5 math coaches. I have found a new passion for writing math curriculum and working alongside colleagues to establish the best mathematical teaching practices in the classroom. Sharon School is not necessarily new to me. I am so fortunate to be working with all the teachers that made me fall in love with learning at my old elementary school!

What is your favorite lesson to teach and why?

Typically my favorite lessons are those that bring me by surprise and do not turn out as planned. Or even the lessons when you forget where you are and what is going on in the world around you- it’s just you and your students lost in the moment of learning.

Although if I had to choose a specific lesson that is my favorite, it would be the introduction to place value in math. It begins when my students are interested in asking about all my favorite things at the beginning of the year. I mention how zero is my favorite number. They’re usually surprised by my response and I assure them that eventually I will explain why. Every winter when it comes time to teach the place value unit, I ask if they are finally ready to find out why zero is my favorite number. I take out a special book to read,  Zero the Hero by Tom Litchenheld and Amy Krouse Rosenthal, which helps me to share the message to my students of the importance of zero. It’s not just a big old round nothing, it’s actually the coolest number in math! It saves the place for all the other numbers, allowing us to have numbers larger than 9. Then zero quickly becomes their hero and I have a class full of students intrigued by the wonders of math- my favorite!

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

If I were given the opportunity to be in charge of my school for a day, I would encourage everyone to slow down- myself included. I would encourage all to listen to their student’s conversations at snack time, ask what they did over the weekend, pay attention to who’s using the bathroom all the time during writer’s workshop, or eat lunch with colleagues in the faculty room instead of in front of the copier. It’s only natural that with the pressure of today’s high paced society and the recent high demands in education, we as teachers feel the need to teach as much as we can as fast as we can. I feel it would be nice if everyone slowed down and paid more attention to the little details.

If you could write one quote on the board for your students what would it be?

“Make someone’s day today.”  -Steven J. Mayer

If you weren’t a teacher, what would you be?

If I weren’t a teacher I would, without question, be a meteorologist! If you know me personally, this may not come as a surprise. I am an avid watcher of the Weather Channel (for fun) and Al Roker is one of my biggest idols! I have always been intrigued by extreme weather and enjoy being able to tell the weather forecast to my family and friends. I’m lucky enough to be able to share this passion with my students during our Air and Weather science unit.

What advice would you give to all new teachers?

Unfortunately I can’t claim it as my own but a fellow veteran teacher once told me, your students won’t adapt to you, you need to adapt to your students. Your first year and every year, you will need to modify and adjust your classroom structure and routines to best fit the needs of your students. This might mean trying something three, four or even five times before it works!

If the best thing about teaching is the students, what’s the second best thing?

The second best thing is most definitely their families! I have been fortunate enough to have nothing but the most supportive families. They have done more than just donating supplies and their time in the classroom, they have opened up their families and invited me into their lives. In my three years of teaching I have attended soccer games, birthday parties, communions, pool parties and baseball games. I am blessed with their constant appreciation and without that, my job wouldn’t be possible!

Who inspires you?

This is a difficult question for me to answer and I think it’s because their are so many people that inspire me each and everyday. Growing up, I always admired my teachers. I distinctly remember I would go home and imitate them because I wanted to be just like them- so compassionate, happy and knowledgeable. That’s ultimately how I chose my profession. My cooperating teacher from student teaching, Mrs. Deb Smith, has had a huge impact on the teacher that I am- her positive attitude and love of learning is infectious. I continue to look up to my mom and my sister, two dominate and fearless female role models, and my dad reminds me how to be patient, gentle, honest and kind. All of which are crucial when working with six and seven year olds.

My classroom superpower is…

My classroom superpower is color because I love to bring everything to life, whether it be in my lesson, my activities, my materials or my classroom design. Vibrant colors create a positive and inviting environment, which cultivates an enthusiastic and engaged community of learners. I want to color the lives of my students and I hope that this is how they remember me as their teacher.

Connect with Jill…

Blog: thefirstgrademade.blogspot.com

Instagram: @firstgrade_made

Twitter: @missjillianvaz


Do you know an awesome educator dedicated to inspiring and teaching others? If so, please consider nominating them to be featured on WoFo’s  Teacher Spotlight Series. You can send their contact information to writeonfighton@gmail.com.

A Message of Hope For All Those Stressed-out Teachers

The other day I felt that familiar hot streak of panic rush through my chest as I stared down a mound of ungraded assignments, as a slew of unanswered emails festered in my inbox, as the guidance department requested a meeting for that “special” student.

To all those stressed-out teachers… I feel you.

Make no mistake, we’re in the armpit of the school year.

Winter break is over. Spring break is light years away. It’s a stretch of time where the teaching blood runs cold, where like sunlight, hope and motivation work in slivers, and where June seems like an impossible dream.

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But I reassure you friends…there is hope. There is good news.

The calendar will continue to turn over. Spring break will come. Summer will happen.

But in order to get to our flip-flopian paradise we must roll up our sleeves, roll back our shoulders, and stare down some hard truths…

You will lose your lunch and prep periods.

Administration will make decisions you don’t agree with.

You will spend hours completing nonsensical, state-mandated paperwork.

Your students will celebrate when you’re absent.

You will consider a career change.

Your coffee will turn cold.

You will disagree with your observation.

You will want alcohol before lunch.

You will hear the upcoming grade is worse then the current grade.

You will get sick.

You will be overwhelmed by acronyms (PLC, SLO, SGO, PAARC, CST, CCCS, IEP, NCLB)

A colleague will stress bake, deliver a plate of confections to the faculty lounge and you will stuff your face. Then you will feel guilty. Then you will ponder a diet. Then you will realize you don’t have time to diet.

Your students will fail the test you spent weeks preparing them for.

You will compare yourself to your colleagues and convince yourself you’re the worst teacher in the world.

Your printer will run out of ink.

The school copy machine will jam at the most inopportune time.

You will spend hours writing and editing an 8 sentence email to a parent. And after you send it you will find a grammatical error.

You will endure uninspiring professional development.

Just when you get your class settled and focused there will be an unannounced fire drill.

You will call a student by the wrong name.

You will submit your lesson plans late.

You will be more excited about your lesson then your students will be.

On Friday, you will convince yourself that you will spend the entire weekend grading. On Saturday, you will convince yourself you will grade on all day Sunday. On Sunday, instead of grading, you will drink wine and binge watch Lifetime movies.

You will lose your favorite pen.

Students will dispute grades.

Parents will dispute grades.

You will feel like crying when you learn there’s 20 full school days in March.

You will lose sleep over things that won’t matter in a week.

After 13 years of teaching, here’s what I’ve learned– acknowledging these inconvenient truths is the first step in overcoming them.

Worrying about them will instigate ulcers.

Avoiding them will incite paranoia.

Remember, you are a teacher. You are a problem solver. The only thing we can do about our inconvenient truths is address them, solve them, and  resolve them.

And if you can do that my friend, you will emerge from the murk. You will find yourself, many days from now, lounging on a sandy beach, sipping that alcohol you desperately craved on that cold January morning, bathing in the dreamy June sun.

Be well,

Jay

PS… If you know a stressed-out teacher who would enjoy this post,  by all means, be awesome and share it with them!