Wednesday, February 22, 2017


I was recently dining in one of my favorite fancy restaurants when an odd and compelling thought struck me.  Sitting in a high-backed cushion chair, absorbing the blue light that cascaded down the modern-grey floor to ceiling drapes, and leaning my right forearm against the crisp linen of the white tablecloth, I peered left out the large fifth story window.  As I looked out onto the numerous crisscrossing highways of Tyson’s Corner, watching the many cars, matchbox-sized blurs of white and red zip into infinite directions, I realized that other people’s lives are merely just our scenery.

In each of the cars that passed my window, were lives.  Lives in states of happiness, turmoil, great success and despair.  Lives on their way home from work or on their way to fun in the city.  Lives in great rushes and lives unfolding at their own pace.  And yet, through the gargantuan windows of this high-rise easting establishment, those cars, that web of roads, and the lit and silhouetted buildings of the darkening horizon were nothing more than my entertainment.  An ongoing story through a large glass screen, playing on endless loop should I happen to glance left and need something on which to focus my thoughtless glances.

This realization made me instantly cognizant again (or perhaps for the first time) of my immediate surroundings.  Blue notes reverberated gently from the walls and appropriately-volumed conversations threatened to carefully envelop me.  Small traces of cognac hinted towards my nostrils from the cup of lobster bisque that had been placed in front of me with the all familiar warning “careful, the bowl is hot.” And decadent bread crumbs met my wandering tongue and were thus liberated from the small gaps between my teeth, meeting with saliva, before escaping down my esophagus in a fashion faintly reminiscent of walking back to the pew from communion.

And although surrounded by friends and literally a packed restaurant of people and friendly wait-staff, it was easy to feel alone. I brought this idea of “scenery” up to the group and they considered my thoughts.  We discussed how the strangers around us contributed to the “vibe” – a place with only a few patrons (or none aside from one’s party) would seem much different.  Likewise, décor centering around paintings, knick-knacks, and dressings gives off a much different feel than quite literally a wall of windows overlooking busy thoroughfares paralleled by tanks of live fish juxtaposed by racks of wine.  We, in this place, were surrounded by life… and yet when do we ever stop to truly appreciate this fact?

As with any bizarre life epiphany I have (and they happen surprisingly often), I always try to apply the lesson to my students and my teaching.  I wanted to look at this simple idea of “being someone else’s scenery” from both lenses and here is what I think:

1.      From a student’s perspective, we teachers (at the secondary level) are just one of many adults with whom they interact in a given day.  They likely have a total of six to eight different teachers, a handful of coaches/directors/club leaders, not to mention administration, family, adult friends, etc… so we can easily become just “scenery” in their lives.  However, we also have the potential to become more than “scenery.”
2.     From a teacher’s perspective, students can easily become the mere “scenery” of our lives.  With so many other forces campaigning for our time, it can be easy to look at a group of kids and just forever remember them as “year 6” – completely ignoring the specific qualities they possess as unique individuals.  Some years, I suppose, we just don’t have the bandwidth to elevate them any further than pieces of our setting – but these are human beings, not props.

So the task remains, how do we share our lives in ways that constitute something more than faceless mortals shuffling past each other, checking the boxes (that I mentioned in my previous post), and moving on with our lives?  Critics may ask the problem with this scenario.  After all, these students are not our REAL children.  And in a teacher’s career, we seek to encounter upwards of 6,000 students in our classrooms alone – surely we cannot make a resounding difference in each of their lives… can we?  Although, perhaps naïve, I would like to think: yes, we can!

And as with so many other facets of education, I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to model this behavior if they wish for it to be mirrored by students.  Meaning, we must address the above “issue 2” before we can properly attack “issue 1.”  To do so, let’s bring some humanity and fun back into what we do every day.  I am well aware of the elements of our day that can weigh us down and distract from our central goal of helping and teaching children.  There are endless e-mails, faculty meetings, paperwork, different people pulling us in all directions who desperately need our time… not to mention: lesson planning, grading, collaborating with colleagues, tutoring, coaching, oh, and actually teaching.  But, in having to be so good at multi-tasking, and having to check so many “boxes” in a given day – let’s really not lose sight of why we are there in the first place: the kids.  Make students the focal point of your day, all day, every day, and I promise the other items will fall into line.  Make paperwork your scenery.  Make e-mails your scenery.  Make meetings your scenery.  Do not make a child’s unique, brave, strong, beautiful, unafraid, challenging, brilliant, and individual life your scenery.

I know this sounds good on paper and is much harder to practice.  Trust me, I’ve come off of NCTE high before.  And if you have been to a conference, you know exactly what I mean.  You go to an epic city for four (or more) days, surrounded my inspired and inspirational educators who do important work in the name of children every day.  You converse with these people, share success stories and secrets, you talk books, have meals, attend breakout sessions and major keynotes.  You engage in interactive activities, take notes on the latest emerging technologies, and quote the gurus you can’t believe you just heard speak (and who you can’t believe were approachable enough to take a picture with you).  And then you return to the real world: your home school: and realize just how different your day to day is.

The best of us remember small slivers of what we learned and attempt to apply it amidst a sea of standards and a curriculum that kills creativity and the acquisition of real life skills.  The inspiration and energy we feel from the November conference would be lucky to last us until winter break.  And after that, it is back to the bleakness of winter without a break in sight.  WAIT!  But there we are…focusing on the wrong things again.  Make students the center part of your day. Develop real rapport – and allow each day to bring about an extension to that rapport – a chance to grow closer.  A chance to truly share your life as fellow people – rather than to pass each other by as scenery.

I remember telling my students when I taught middle school, “I am your one and only seventh grade language arts teacher – the only one you will ever have.  That’s a pretty big and important job to have.”  Now that I teach freshmen, I feel the same way.  I am well aware that I set the tone for their English instruction (and maybe high school career in general) for their remaining years.  I always love teaching first block freshmen because we get to share their first day of high school together.  It is for this reason I also hope to teach seniors during last block next year – so we can share their very last public school moments together too.  These are monumental ideas (they are ideas to cry about – and ideas many students and parents DO cry about) – but it seems like we only remember these moments at times like a commencement ceremony or graduation party.  This phenomenon can almost be likened to a tragedy or disaster.  We all know in the midst of heartbreak, humankind is excellent at coming together and supporting one another – but we also know how quickly we “forget” and resume “business as usual.”

But instead, putting students at the center will simultaneously resolve aforementioned issues 1 and 2 simultaneously.  Here are the simple steps I take every day to put students first:

1.      I get involved in other areas of the school aside from teaching content.  I direct the neighboring middle school’s (where I used to teach) musicals.  Through directing, I get to know students outside of an academic setting and the rapport we are able to create almost always translates to a positive rapport later in my high school English classroom.
2.     I go support my students in their various activities that I am not associated with.  Since I have a background in fine arts and see plenty of kids in that capacity, I make it a point to watch my students play sports.  I go to as many football, basketball, hockey, soccer, baseball, lacrosse games as I can.  As soon as I find out I have a student that is super dedicated to their sport, I ask them for a schedule, and let them know when I will be able to come see a game.  After all, we expect them to care about our content – can’t we repay the favor by caring about theirs?
3.     In class I have established an environment where students understand that everyone’s voice is both necessary and desired.  Take the time at the beginning of the year to establish these norms.  In doing so I never have to deal with classroom management.  Create fun traditions that kids can look forward to.  Students in my class respect me and each other, and it is because I model a deep respect for them from the moment they first enter our classroom.  English lends itself nicely to group discussions so my desks are shaped in a circle and students pass a talking piece to share (more on this in a future blog).  The students in my classes know each other’s names, know each other’s levels of comfort, strengths and weaknesses, and use these data points to their advantage when collaborating and completing group tasks.
4.     I am completely transparent with my students.  I frame my teaching and explain to students how the lessons will apply directly to their real life.  I teach skills rather than standards and give students the opportunity to be authentic leaders in my classroom.  Not only do I have the #bowtieboys , our high school also has an enormous National Honors Society program, a PEER (Positive Experiences in Educational Relationships) team, a PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Support) team, a student lesson-planning committee, a student council, and many more.  Make students leaders in your classrooms, your teams, your casts, your activities, and allow them to have experiences that will help them to be productive members of adult society.
5.     Spend time with the students outside of class.  I like to invite students in during their lunch blocks to practice oral presentations, to conference their writing, and to discuss the current books they are reading.  Sometimes students come in “just to chill” and we talk about anything.  Sometimes students come in large groups and sometimes the groups are smaller.  When I see that a student wants to connect, I almost always drop what I am doing in order to meet with that student.

What I am suggesting in these five points is not anything revolutionary or groundbreaking – they are just key components to the success I have found in nurturing real rapport with my students.  Students are human, just like we are human – and I think the best way to connect is to make each other aware of that humanity.  Too often, school creates this automatic and forced relationship between these two parties – and students can tell when teachers are “faking it” – just as astutely as we can tell when a student plagiarizes a paper.  Let us practice what we preach and be good human models for our students as we seek to ensure true connection rather than temporary scenery in each others’ lives.

Returning to that restaurant, I think of how different a public experience like dining out could be if it was socially acceptable to make connections with the people surrounding you.  Some times of course call for privacy, and when such intimacy is necessary, I can see need to fend off the advancements of strangers attempting to encroach on your dinner conversation.  However, looking around at how many people will sit across from each other anymore, both parties attached to their phone, eyes glued to their screens, I think upsetting the natural order could be vital.

Taking a look back at a classroom, I think of how many students sit at their desks before class begins, looking down, typing away on their electronics – whether texting, snapchatting, or playing a game, and I can’t help but feel them begging for the "green light" to connect with others.  Let us make our classrooms spaces that foster this kind of growth.  Let us convince our students that we are not merely water rushing by in the stream of their life – but something steadfast, and someone who is truly seeking to help them develop into the best individual they can become.  Let us turn their attention away from their phones and towards their neighbors.  Let us get students up and moving, collaborating and talking.  They don’t like sitting any more than we do at our faculty meetings.  They don’t like worksheets any more than we like paperwork.  They don’t like busy and poorly planned technology integration any more than we enjoy answering the onslaught of e-mails pestering our inboxes.  So let’s bring in some fun.  Let’s create some environment.  Let’s model what it means to be human.

And that’s not to say we last forever – scenery or not.  I hold dear the famous quote by Nikos Kazantzakis: True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.”  But let us also remember that students will never learn to create bridges on their own if we haven’t first fully become the bridge of which he speaks.  We must be the epitome of that bridge.  No more scenery.  No more glances.  Rather the detailed, nuanced, and careful bridge over that water.


If you are interested in hearing from these students yourself - please follow their blogs/twitters as well.  Even more shifts are taking place - and I can't wait to keep you in the loop of all there is to come.  It is our belief that shifting the classroom paradigm to a 50-50 partnership between student and teacher will be the key in making learning engaging, enjoyable, and accessible to all.  We seek to support teachers as well as students in this identity shift - all from the daily thoughts of teachers and high school students themselves.  :-)

Jason Augustowski, M.Ed. @misteramistera (Blogs updated weekly beginning 1/31)
Ryan Beaver @RBeaver05  (Blogs updated Mondays beginning 2/6)
Sam Fremin @thesammer88 (Blogs updated Fridays beginning 2/3)
Spencer Hill @spencerhill99  (Blogs updated Tuesdays beginning 2/7)
Ryan Hur @RyanHur09  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Joe O'Such @Joe_Osuch  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)
Sean Pettit @seanpettit9 (Blogs updated Sundays beginning 2/5)
Kellen Pluntke @kellenpluntke  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Jack Selman @jacksel6 (Blogs updated Wednesdays beginning 2/1)
Dawson Unger @dawsonunger  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)

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