Category Archives: Interesting Conversations

When You Try Your Best but the ship still sinks

I had a smaller group today of about 8 7th grade boys.
After they finished making fun of at my saying “dude”, we talked about which classes they felt “grounded” in and which classes worried them, and then talked about why they felt each way, and then about what they could adopt from the “good class” to the “bad class.”

They love humanities (because it’s fun, they ask questions, they try their best, and complete their work).  From a teacher perspective, I also see that there is a real community and within the structure and expectations, students know what to do to succeed. They feel successful!

The class that the boys were most “worried” about was (surprise, surprise), TTO, our math pilot.  They brought up things like…
– not wanting to be laughed at
– teachers not able to answer their question right away and then their session is done during the “independent zone” time
– teachers not explaining why but just how (CM was referring to our recent project, and all I could do was nod sympathetically, because it’s true!)

And I’m just nodding.. because I *totally* get it. And yet, what can I say? I’m the teacher in this program. I can’t honestly bash it with a clear conscience because we are still working at fixing it.  They did ask me why I was teaching TTO, and I did honestly respond that I didn’t have much of a choice.  I told them I didn’t want to teach humanities and that I wanted to teach math, and this was the choice of our school.

My question is… why do we want to keep tweaking and fixing it? What does it offer that we so desire?

  • Honestly, were our students pretty behind when they started? yes.
  • (Are we setting the curve in Oakland flats schools? yes).
  • Are kids learning math? yes.
  • Are kids learning more math? sure! possibly!

But what about considering these other questions:

  • Are they happy? maybe that’s a nonissue.
  • Are they getting opportunities to work deeply with math through inquiry, pauses, wonderings, and struggle? no. And maybe that’s our fault. we’re “just not leveraging the tasks and small group collaborations to their full potential.”
  • Do they understand expectations? Maybe.. but again, that’s our fault too, because we could have better management.

With TTO, our students might be learning more math.  But is it at the rate that it’s worth the opportunity cost of happiness and … just.. kiddo noises?  I think I’m actually fine with them slowing down if it means we can have a better relationship, and they don’t leave thinking math is boring and online programs suck (because if used in moderation, it wouldn’t be bad).  During the short transition period between schools, I like to visit other classrooms.  These past 2 weeks, this is what I’ve seen:

  • 1 humanities class pausing before starting the day because kids have been working so hard, they did 10 minutes of theater games before getting started
  • science class finishing up their lab reports, color-coding their drafts, and listening to music and staying focused and walking around to get the supplies they needed.
  • another humanities class doing a jeopardy review game before a test
  • another humanities class spending earned time outside on a Friday
  • classes starting to gear up for their expeditions

Basically, the more I’m with this pilot, the more I realize that I came to teach middle school so that we could get excited and learn to be fine with struggle and pause and reflect (for real — I mean if you do reflections like every 3 weeks, how do you even measure growth?  how do you grow in 3 weeks???) and stop being motivated by external factors so that the kids could become super pre-adults who have creativity, assurance, and communication skills………. I didn’t come to teach middle school so that my kids could become testing automatons a la Korea and Singapore. Been there. Done that. Left that. Leaving this.


This is why I teach


“Ms. Kim, you probably feel pissed off when I called the guest teacher sexist because you believe I was rude and shouldn’t have said that.  to be honest, I agree with you, I was out of line.  However, I felt that way, I just felt that word.  I chose to do this because it was just another way of expression.  That word, sexist, was a word I used because I felt like when an instruction was given, I was called out, as well as keven, not because we’re dudes, but also because I just needed to say that word.  I could’ve just perservered and held it in till the end so that no one will get the wrong idea about who I was calling sexist.  Ms. kim, you probably want me to apologize for what I said.  If you really want me to, I can.  but, what I feel whats best is just respect her throughout the time we still have with Cal Shakes because I owe that to her.”

So, context.  We’re having this amazing visiting teacher from Cal Shakes – a Bay Area Shakespeare group.  They’re awesome and this teacher is great at managing. Unfortunately, I saw the same things from the students that they gave me when I came in at the beginning of the year.  A lot of testing, a lot of rudeness… just a lot of sh…enanigans.   Plus, I’ve been dealing with this issue of kids throwing out the word “racist” and “sexist” especially at adults… and I’m sort of like, these are loaded words, and in the sphere of adults, they’re overused.  These issues –sexism and racism– are real, but they lose their clout when people misuse them! Anyway, kids know that I’m sensitive about those words.

Anyway, she’s really great at management and has been calling kids out on it, and so of course, they’re responding with derogatory speech and attitude.  I’ve been having different students reflect, but at this point, it sometimes feels fake.

I read this letter today after school, and I smiled big in my head.  This boy had left my room angry saying, “Why do we always have to check in? I’m never checking in.”  He missed school the next day, but today, he gave me this letter, happier.  I read it, and honestly, to spell it out for all you readers, this is why I teach.  I get to witness the awesomeness that’s inside each kid that I come across.  Sure, there are parts that our school has instilled in them… and maybe even a teensy piece has to do with me.  But really, I didn’t teach him to write THIS.  I didn’t teach him to put these pieces together and follow up with me like this.

Tomorrow, I’m going to tell him I read the letter. I’m going to suggest that apologies still go a really long way, and that he should apologize because as an adult, I know how much it means to me.  And I’m going to leave it at that.  He doesn’t need a standing ovation.  I just hope he continues to grow.

Update 4/3 —

Had a talk with him in the morning.  I was rambly (per usual).  Midspeak, I stopped myself.

“Do you get what I mean?”

“I hear you.”

“Can you speak back what you heard?”

“Hold on, I’m processing.”

“Okay, okay. Well..”

“I’ll do what needs to be done.”




I guess I’m lucky because at my school, we don’t have very much parent-teacher interaction.  Most of it is mediated through the front desk and the principal.  Yet, sometimes it would save me much time if I could just explain to the parent right away.  And, I think it would be good practice.  

Today, I saw a lady sitting in the office and I smiled at her.  She then beamed at me and nodded so I looked at her quizzically trying to place her.  She greeted me by name, and I responded with a smile and a hello.  She then introduced herself as Tutor’s mom (Tutor is a boy from the other class who comes into my class twice a week to help his best friend out in math.  He’s a sweet, sweet boy, and I wrote him a rec for some after school programs).  She shook my hand warmly and said that Tutor is really happy that I’m at our school – that I’m calm and gentle, and she thanked me for writing his rec and for being such a good teacher for him.  I was super confused.  “Did you mean Mr. —?” I queried.  “No, no, you, Ms. Kim, you!” 

I think I felt super warm fuzzies.  Apart from a really sweet card from a rather introverted girl, and a hug from a teary mother who was leaving our school to move, I have never had a parent or a student ever thank me of their own accord (I don’t count the “thank yous” after the awkward parent meetings where I have to be present to present my case on why their child is failing or how their child has crazy discipline problems).  

Then I laughed because honestly, the other 8th grade teacher is the calmest, most zen man I have ever met.  I admire him so much, and yet I know, I will *never* be him.  He told me he used to lose his temper a lot when he began teaching, but I don’t believe him!  So to be described as “gentle” and “calm”…  Well, I’m thankful that he said positive things about me when he didn’t have to, and that his mother said those things when she didn’t have to either. 


I had to teach on MLK Jr. Day


…because it is my school’s belief that Martin Luther King Jr. would be more honored by our  work at school than by our sleeping in and relaxing. The cynical side of me says, “Bullocks!” and thinks that this is yet another demonstration of asserting power for the sake of asserting power.  But I’m glad I went to school today. (I sometimes wish that during breaks, I could take my students on trips.  Or just do little things.  Like garden.  or paint the walls.  Or set up a dodgeball tournament.  We could do homework together during breaks, and they wouldn’t feel bored and at home.)

Today at school, I got to talk to a student.  I was making copies, and I saw him in the room across mine.  Head buried in his arms.

Now, I’m at a charter, so I’m not sure what the rules are, but I patted his back with my left arm as he cried into his arms.

A tough weekend. Family fought. Sister left.  This goofy kid who strutted in at the bottom rung of middle school and told all the 8th grade girls that his name was that of a high-profile rapper.  Tall for his age, his mom chose to hold him back because she wanted him to be ready-ready for middle school.  She felt he still had some growing up to do.  I got to know him because he never does his homework, but he holds his head high and greets me anyway.  I can’t help but laugh at the little mischievous curve of his mouth, his full cheeks, and beautiful bovine eyes.  Girls would kill for lashes like his.

Today they trembled under the watery weight of his pain.  He looks so big, but his heart is still so tender.  In a few years, he’ll learn to be like his older siblings and mask that hurt.  But today, we were able to acknowledge that crying is okay because it shows us that we’re hurting.  And pain is good because it’s a signal that something is wrong.  And God forbid the day when we witness and experience wrong but do not have the physical wherewithal to acknowledge it.

I had him write his feelings, which seems so cliche but it also works.  Kid might hate writing for school, but he’s willing to put his thoughts on paper.  His thoughts are simple, yet I forget the truths he pens.  Families are not supposed to be broken or hurting.  And he wishes he could make it all better.  I asked him what he could do to help the situation, and he said he could do better at school.  And that simple answer tore at my heart a little because for these kids, they truly believe that doing better at school is their ticket.  It’s because that’s what we say all the time.  (But is that even true?  It’s not the golden ticket.)  We discussed what his good qualities were, and I was glad that he knows his strengths.  I also suggested  that we don’t need to suppress our sorrow, but at the same time, sometimes doing something else helps to ease the burden.  It was a gentle hint for him to return to class.  When I came back, he was gone.

At the end of the day, he casually knocked on my doorframe.  “I’m better now, Ms. Kim.”  His friends were nearby and he was on his way home.  “Good,” I responded shortly.  He smiled and turned lazily away, backpack slung over one arm.  Then I went back to tutoring chemistry. Today I hope he remembers that someone cares.


Conversations with 8th grade girls are so hard.

“Hi, how are you.”


“Getting a lot of work done?”


“How’s your grandma?  Is she back?”

“My grandma, she’s in Mexico still.  I hung out with my cousin.”

“Aw, that sounds fun.”


“Wait, do you have a rabbit?”


“Or, you have.. a cat?”

“Yeah, I have a cat.”

“Oh cool.




“Do you smoke pot?  When?  Where?  Does your cousin give it to you?  How did you get it?  Do you do other things too?  Why are you posed like that in your Facebook picture?  Why are you so spacey in class?  You could be brilliant, you know.”

Player or Gamer? Lofty aspirations.

I have a few things I want to say.  But, as a teacher, I’m not sure if it’s the best thing to voice things onto a “public blog” (which is partly why my blog has been so quiet lately).  However, I just want to get some ideas out there.

1.  It’s humbling teaching after graduate school.  I realized a lot of my peers used grad school as the launching point for an education-related sector jump or to take that next career step.  Although I’m sure that with the name and the network (and by not being picky and moving to any random state) I could have gotten a “prestigious” position, if I learned anything at grad school, it was that I wanted to have more hands-on experience before I began to make decisions or give advice to others.  Also, during graduate school, I realized I’m happiest when I’m with little people teaching.

So. I went back.  But now that I’m back, it’s hard to balance what I “know” with what’s happening.  I suppose that’s just the reality of the public education system.  In a sense, I’m glad that I am mainly positive about my school, and I do get to see that it’s true – not all charters are alike.  But I do feel that charters reflect the tenor of our nation and this really “assessment-based” curriculum kills my soul a little.  Although if anyone is teaching in that environment, I’m glad that it’s me and not someone else who heart-and-soul buys into it.

Another area where it’s difficult to balance the knowledge with reality is in the area of leadership.  I took classes and read books.  I’d also venture to say that I have a streak of leadership and a desire to hone that.  SO it’s always fascinating to learn how to engage people and lead and collectively effect change.  It’s also really easy to feel entitled.  Perhaps entitlement isn’t the right word since it seems to imply a sense of deserving something huge when really what I feel that I deserve is occasional positive reinforcement, some warning, clear communication, and psychological safety.  I see myself shutting down and getting nervous every time my site director comes in because I’m not sure if she’s leaving me a note or if she’s going to observe my class (and eventually give me a write up or a recommendation to “tighten up my class.”).  I always assume the worst and when I see her, I always try to assert my best attitude.  Frankly, I’m just a wuss.  But then again, what can you do?  It’s your first year, you don’t want to make waves.

From their point of view, I can understand that it’s important to be really tight and tough because of the constant influx of weaker teachers who don’t deliver. But also, if the delivery is packaged in the form of standardized tests…  …

But THEN… it’s not the charters’ faults for being so score-heavy.  It’s their only way of assuring renewal and assuring that students come.  If CA demands it, how can you ignore it?

and AMIDST all this, there are DEFINITE issues of race politics that gets brushed under the carpet.  I’m glad that I can still stand behind my leaders and that I have some great coworkers.  I’m glad that we can commiserate together.  I’m glad that I respect the people I work with.  I’m glad that I have my kids (but even THEY get so tough… this week was so tough..).

Anyway, I guess I got carried away.

Here are some points:

1 – psychological safety is important in the workplace

2 – encouraging teachers to SHARE resources / lesson plans / pacing guides just makes sense. I don’t know why nobody gives me their stuff from last year.  I always try to give out an extra copy of the tests and quizzes I create. Why not? (On another note: ed resources should be SHARED; ie FREE).

3 – I don’t see the benefit of write-ups.  Even rhetorically change the name.  Call them reminders.  OR if there are write-ups (ie negative feedback) then have positive feedback systems in place too.  And no, giving me a few hundred dollars for value-added score improvements or perfect attendance (impossible) is not what I mean.  Just a kind word or two.  Or an acknowledgement that what I’m doing is good.   I start to feel insecure.  And then it makes me become a less effective teacher.  You can’t really put all that blame on me (I’m not trying to write my way out of my mistakes/issues, I’m just saying there’s lot of factors involved).

4 – Happy hours are crucial.

5 – Positive encouragement is honestly the BEST for kids.  Even “inner-city kids who don’t need sympathy but people willing to expect much from them.”  I think only a select few (namely the few that have ACTUALLY EXPERIENCED everything negative that they bring up) can inspire kids with their horror stories of what will happen if they drop out of school.  I would say that the founder of my school is one of them.  Probably because he came from their very neighborhood and has been local for a long time.  For the rest of the cases, it’s pretty condescending AND many of these students don’t need added fear stress.

6.  Our PD was a little laughable.  It consisted of directors swearing and telling us how hard our school would be.  Maybe to scare the new folks in being too soft?  I was directly told that if a student ever said, “F*ck you” to me, to “Say ‘F*ck you right back’.”  (That was a bit hard to swallow since I don’t like that word at all).  Last week, I snapped at a student for his “crappy answer” and my whole class became deathly quiet.  I felt so remorseful and I saw my student’s face drop.  Basically, my students, even if they come from pretty harsh areas (from what the other teachers tell me and from stories I hear randomly from my kids about their lives), they’re still really soft.

7.  The whole reason I even came to my blog was because I wanted to capture this really funny thing that happened in class yesterday.  I tried to remember it yesterday, but I forgot.  Today, I remembered!

[While trying to get students to use a linking verb with a noun.]

Me:  Bob, what will you be when you grow up?

*Bob: I will be a player.

Me:  Um, what do you mean by “player”? (Surprisingly nobody laughed except for one older boy who definitely knew what a player was).

Bob:  I want to play video games.

Me: Oh!  You mean a “gamer”!

Bob:  Oh! Yes.  A gamer.  I will be a gamer.

The end.

Always learning

My friend Eunice and I had a coffee date last week.  She’s one of those people I met and knew by name and face in college, but didn’t really get to connect with until after college.  It’s interesting to see how relationships evolve. Especially since many of the relationships forged in college feel substantial — the idea that they may change seems improbable at the time.  Anyway, it’s sweet.

We discussed her future plans and my future plans.  We were talking about practical classes I might need to take and Eunice mentioned that MIT was offering free online classes for possible certification.  I expressed my disbelief — surely they’re not offering free certification — and then we went on to talk about other ways to take classes.

Anyway, I looked into it and yes, MIT is launching an online learning initiative: MITx.  It offers a variety of courses and the learning tools will be freely available. Certification or credentials may be available for extra fees though.  Anyway, it looks pretty cool and it’s launching in 2012. FAQs here!

I probably won’t delve into that, but it did make me think about other free resources to stay learning.  Most likely next year I’ll be taking finance classes at a community college in order to have a better handle on starting the Mind Garden. And hopefully, for the rest of my life, I’ll have formal and informal opportunities to learn.

With that in mind, below are a wide variety of ways to take courses and learn for free!