Tag: my classroom

The world is falling apart – be a pessoptimist

fistI was at a talk today about race in education, specifically focused on the role that white teachers play in regard to black boys, and the presenter ended by urging us to be “pessoptimistic.”

It’s like optimism, but you don’t just hope things get better – you’re out there doing something and demanding results.

According to the Urban Dictionary, it’s

A philosophy that encourages forward-thinking optimism with an educated acceptance of a basic level of pessimism. Optimism’s fault is it’s naivete, pessimism’s it’s blind jadedness. We live on Earth and are human. There is, was and will be good and bad. Shit happens, dreams come true.

As I write this, American headlines are detailing our 18th school shooting this year, with at least 16 dead. As an educator, as a parent, as a human being – this breaks my heart, especially because it’ll happen tomorrow, or next week, and we’ll see the same response: handwringing, thoughts and prayers, and nothing.

When I go to my job, I work with kids who have been beaten and raped and witnessed attempted murders and all kinds of horrible things that no one, not even adults but especially not kids, should endure.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially when everywhere you look there’s negativity and it seems like people with power are going out of their way to be cruel to the least among us, only to protect and enrich themselves.

Today, however, was a reminder that we CAN do something.

We can become pessoptimists, and demand accountability from our leaders.

We can become pessoptimists, and step up as community leaders that will be accountable to our communities.

We can become pessoptimists, and talk to the people who are most affected and learn what they want us and need us to do.

I’m not saying bad things won’t still happen. They will. There will always be apathy and greed and a million other reasons why someone can walk into a school and kill 16 people, or beat their children, or systemically deny others basic human rights.

Change won’t happen overnight, but it also won’t happen at all if we don’t make an effort to do something, anything, to speak up and fix the problems around us.

Will you join me in being a pessoptimist? What will you do to make things better, not worse?

Thursday Things: teaching ain’t always butterflies and rainbows

thursday thingsI taught high school English for two years and a high school job and life skills class for another year. I also did a year long school social work internship in an elementary school and an alternative junior high/high school. And in the next few weeks, I’ll be (hopefully!) starting a job as a counselor at a residential facility for adjudicated teens (ie, court-ordered). So, I know a thing or two about being in the classroom.

There’s all kinds of stuff out there, from books to movies, about feel good, inspirational stories in the classroom. Michelle Pfeiffer inspired poor gangsta kids to care! Jaime Escalante (who actually is one of my heroes) taught poor gangsta kids calculus! Sister Whoopie Goldberg inspired poor gangsta kids to love life through singing!

Yeah, teachers and faculty do teach and inspire kids every day. Lots of our kids are success stories, like a student in my remedial reading class who went on to college. But for every kid that succeeds, there’s a line behind him of kids who either don’t succeed (but don’t fail), or who do fail. And a lot of times, teachers don’t even know it because that kid we’ve been trying to help leaves our lives, leaving us to worry and wonder what happened.

And that’s what inspired my short story “Slipping Through the Cracks,” which is in my short story collection Us, Together and also over on Medium.

It’s about a boy I had in my high school class, R, who told me one day that he didn’t know the alphabet. So I worked with him and he made great progress – and then he left. That was twelve years ago, and I sometimes wonder what happened to him. Did he find another teacher to help him continue to learn to read? Did he drop out of school to work in the fields with his family? Did he get deported back to Mexico?

I’ll never know, and as much as I might have wanted to give Alejandro in the story a happy ending, it wouldn’t be fair to R.

* * * * * * *


About Us, Together:

Six stories about the problems teenagers face, from relationships and unplanned pregnancy, to absent parents and poverty, loosely based on stories and students E.D. Martin encountered while teaching at-risk kids.

“The stories are easy to read, well-crafted, and deal with human issues in a sensitive way.”

Available for $.99 at Amazon or free through Kindle Unlimited

* * * * * * *

Thursday Things is a weekly-ish feature highlighting little known facts, ideas, and stories behind my stories. Is there something you want to know more about? Let me know!

The importance of self-care – and how to do it

My cat's self-care involves sleeping on the floor all day.

My cat’s self-care involves sleeping on the floor all day.

It hasn’t been the best week. One of my former students was killed over the weekend in a horrific, preventable accident. She was 24 and one of the most genuinely nice people I’ve ever met.

Everywhere I look on the news, I see stories and videos about Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott and Tyre King and Korryn Gaines and hundreds of other people who are also killed in horrible, preventable ways. And I see videos of their families and friends, and thousands of people supporting them (as well as thousands actively not supporting them). With each new death, I grow more fearful for the junior high and high school students I’ve taught, as well as their friends and families, because really, it seems to be only a matter of when, not if, that their names will be all over the media as well.

It makes me tired.

As a social work PhD student, my focus right now is on trauma-informed care, which is a perspective that emphasizes a gentle approach to clients because there’s a good chance they’ve experienced a traumatic event in their lives or vicariously experienced it through someone they know, and that exposure manifests itself in a stressful physiological fight-or-flight response that wears you down. Social workers aren’t immune to this either; we experience our clients’ traumas every day, and it can take its toll.

Fortunately, part of a TIC approach involves self-care. I attended a workshop on the topic today and thought now would be a good time to share what I learned, because I’m guessing there are a lot of other soul-tired people out there right now too.


  1. Identify your patterns by thinking about what your triggers are – situations that will negatively increase your stress.
  2. Identify as well what your reactions to those triggers are – do you shut down? Cry? Lash out?

During/after trauma:

  1. Remember that you have choices – this situation is different from the past, and you can choose to respond differently than you did to pass situations where you may have felt helpless.
  2. Use comfort objects – something small and manageable, like a wedding ring, that can ground you in the present and help you focus.
  3. If possible, go to a previously-identified safe spot: your couch, a friend’s couch, somewhere where it’s okay to let your emotions out.
  4. Focus on the senses – listen to soothing sounds, try deep breathing, maybe splash cool water on your face or hands.
  5. Have a Plan B for your job situation – is it okay if you go home for the rest of the day or take a couple days off?
  6. Rely on peer support. Reach out to your friends and family. Let them know your self-care preferences so they can better support you.
  7. Understand that what you’re feeling is normal, but that everyone has their own reaction to their own stimuli. What you’re feeling, and how you go about caring for yourself, is normal for you, and that’s what matters – YOU.

What approaches do you take for self-care?

Bathrooms, zombies, and second grade semantics

beware bathroomsToday I chaperoned a trip for an after school program. We took about 60 elementary school kids to a local art museum. My duties basically consisted of making sure 10 K-2 graders quietly paid attention to the docent and had adequate bathroom breaks.

I’m pretty sure most of the kids didn’t actually need to use the bathroom; they just wanted to go because they weren’t interested in art, and because they couldn’t let their friends use the bathrooms and not them.

(Side note for people not familiar with children: M = N3, where M = chaotic mess and N = the number of kids. In order to keep the mess to a minimum, you make them do things one at a time, even if it takes longer.)

The bathrooms at the museum were “weird,” as several kids told me. You walked through a door with a man/woman sign on it, which led the kids to think they were using the wrong sex’s bathroom. This door led to a room with drinking fountains and two more doors, one for the men’s room and one for the women’s. Through these doors was another room with sinks and another door. Through this door, finally, were the actual toilets.

One little girl told me, as we walked through each door, that she was scared. While washing her hands, she told a woman in the room (not part of our group) that the bathrooms reminded her of The Walking Dead. She then described the plot, but reassured the woman that she prayed, so it was okay that she watched the show. The woman agreed that prayer was powerful – although if I’m ever confronted with zombies, I’m not relying on prayer for survival. Double tap.

Zombies are a pretty popular topic with kids, so I wasn’t surprised when this little girl brought them up later. Several other kids chimed in with their views on zombies, which led to the question, “Would you rather be dead alive or alive dead?”


Dead alive, as they explained, is when you’re dead but still alive. Alive dead is when you’re alive but you’re dead.

Before I could answer, I had to calm down a kid who was crying because a classmate had rolled her eyes at her (“Next time, just close your eyes and don’t look at her.” “But I’ll still know!!”).

Either way – dead alive or alive dead – I can see a great horror movie coming from this:

Night at the Museum 4 – Ben Stiller trapped in a museum with two dozen 1st graders who can’t be left alone, can’t use the bathroom together, and they all think they have to pee. Zombies optional.

I’m thankful for…

This year I get to have four Thanksgivings. Three are with family, and those are nice and all, but the best one was at one of the schools where I’m doing a social work internship this year. Every year for Thanksgiving, the teachers show the students how thankful they are for their students by providing the kids a big meal.

These aren’t average kids; it’s an alternative high school, and many of the students are there by court order, or because they’ve been sent from a regular high school. Most of the students are dealing with multiple other problems, too: addiction (either theirs or a parent’s), incarceration (again, theirs or a parent’s), poverty, violence…. the list goes on, and it’s heartbreaking.

But these kids, despite their problems, are wonderful. I’ve only been working with them a few months, and already I can see how thankful they are for their caring teachers – even if they don’t express it.

It’s a wonderful experience when the teachers can turn that around and show how thankful they are for their kids. It takes a village, after all, and I’m thankful to be part of that village this year.

Weekend Writing Warriors 4/27/14 #WeWriWa

ustogethercoverIt finally appears we’re getting spring this year after all. To commemorate the warmer weather, green grass, and chance for outdoor activities not requiring mittens, this week’s excerpt is from a short story, “Man of the House,” that’s in my collection Us, Together.

For eight-year-old Jerry, Sunday, May 17th, 1987, started as a day just like any other, with church in the morning followed by an afternoon on the couch watching baseball with Dad. Mom kept popping her head in from the kitchen to complain about the beer, the cigarettes, the TV being so goddamn loud and didn’t he realize the baby was trying to sleep?


Of course Dad must have realized it, sitting there hunched over, rubbing his temples and downing can after can of Budweiser. Good American beer for a good American man, he always said. When Jerry was older he was never able to drink the stuff himself, told everyone it tasted like crap but really the taste brought back memories that made him cry.


But that day in May, that Sunday, Jerry wasn’t crying. He was eight years old, bouncing on the couch, rooting for the Cubbies. Asking Dad if he saw that play, if he thought it could’ve gone another way, if that ump was crazy, and Dad just sat there on the couch, drinking beer after beer, not answering.

Read the rest of the story, and five others about kids trying to cope with what life throws at them, in Us, Together, just $.99 at Amazon.

And then post a link to your eight sentences blog entry, or join the fun at the Weekend Writing Warriors website.

Looks can be deceiving

Most people hate icebreakers. That said, they’re often a necessary inconvenience, so you may as well sweeten the deal with food. My favorite/least hated one for the classroom involves giving everyone a handful of Starbursts, then requiring them tell something about themselves based on the color. Red is a hobby, yellow is a random fact, orange is a goal for the class, orange is your bucket list. Or something like that.

I always include the bucket list category because it’s so telling about my students, to find out what they want to do in life. And they love learning about me.

Last time I did it, I used my orange Starburst to tell them I want to both pick up a hitchhiker and be a hitchhiker. And when I say this, the kids universally freak out. “You can’t do that! That’s not safe! That’s really f’ing stupid!” Yeah, whatever.

A year-and-a-half ago, I found myself wandering around Door County, Wisconsin. I took the ferry as a passenger, no car, to Washington Island, which really confused the ticket lady. “You realize it’s a three-mile walk to town, right?” Yeah. No problem. I didn’t tell her this, but I figured if I got tired of walking, maybe someone would give me a ride back to the docks.

Washington Island stavekirke

Sure enough, after I’d checked out an awesome little church in the woods and was heading back, an old guy in a pickup stopped and offered me a ride. It’s not quite what I had in mind when telling my kids I wanted to hitchhike, but concerned friends assure me that yes, it was hitchhiking. One thing down.

Since then, I’ve been trying to find someone to pick up, but it never works out: either my kid is with me, or they have too much stuff/dog for me car, or I’m going the wrong direction.

Last week, I was at the gas station airing up my bike tires when I noticed a scruffy kid and dog, surrounded by scruffy gear, sitting in the shade. I asked him if he needed a ride, and where he was headed.


“How far south?”

“As far as you can take me.”

“I can take you to the next town. Let me ride home and get my car. I’ll be back in about twenty minutes.”

I was absolutely thrilled by this. I wrote a story about an inexperienced hobo, “Riding the Rails,” which was published by Hobo Camp Review in 2012, but I’d never really had a chance to talk to anyone about their experiences. This would be my chance for some great research.

“Cricket,” as he preferred to be called, was very quiet at first, barely answering my questions. He’d been traveling for about nine years (I’m guessing he was about twenty-five), had been to forty-eight states, and was making his way south to train to become a truck driver.

As the miles passed, he opened up more. He explained how to hop a train, why people in Massachusetts are crazy and Indianapolis is not a nice place, and the best ways to deal with asshole police officers on power trips. He didn’t finish high school, he said, and had been traveling since, staying with friends and working odd jobs, but he was getting tired of it and wanted something more permanent. I told him a little about the students I worked with, the at-risk kids everyone gave up on, and how sometimes they just needed someone to put things in a perspective they could understand. Sometimes, they just needed someone willing to give them a chance.

And then I got to see his sense of humor.

I asked him who gave him more rides, men or women. He told me I was the first women to give him a ride in nearly two years, and I mentioned people thought it was a bad idea because he might be a serial killer.

“If I was a serial killer,” he responded, “don’t you think I’d have my own car? Or five or six of them?”

As we neared our destination, nearly seventy-five miles from where I’d picked him up, we discussed the best place to drop him off. Downtown was out, because it was mostly just college kids walking or biking.

I asked him if he’d considered getting a bike.

“Well, actually,” he said, “I’m gonna get five more dogs and hitch them to a sled, to pull me around. I do too much walking.”

I was really kind of disappointed to drop him off. I’d had a great conversation with him and learned a lot. For his part, he told me it was the best ride he’d had “in a long minute” (he told me that most rides he got were about two-five miles, just from one tiny town to the next, usually in the back of a pickup with no one talking to him). If it hadn’t been for his dog frequently licking my face, and me needing to pick my kid up, I would’ve kept driving him.

I make a point of talking to people who are different from me. Everyone has a story, everyone can teach you something, if you’re just willing to give them a chance.

I know I am; are you?

Review: Stories from a Teacher by J. Flores

I’m currently in grad school, working on my MSW with a focus on school social work. I was sitting in my policy class the other night and overheard a classmate say, “When I was young I thought I could change the world. Now I know better.”

Of the twenty people in my cohort, I’m pretty much the only one interested in policy; everyone else is going for direct service provision. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

As our professor explained: DSP are at the bottom of the waterfall to help people who’ve already been swept over the edge, while policy people are building a barrier to keep people from going over.

When it comes to education, I’ve done the DSP route. My short story collection, Us, Together, tells about some of the students I’ve worked with, of what they’ve faced. I know what it’s like working with at-risk kids everyone’s given up on.

I also know how much work there is to be done, and as I wrote in a paper for class recently, I’m not giving up. For better or worse, naive as it may seem, I’m going to make a difference, but I feel I’m better off in policy analysis and formation rather than teaching.

Sometimes I feel like that’s taking the easy way out, because teaching is hard. Excruciatingly, heartbreakingly difficult. If you’ve never been in a classroom, officially responsible for subject matter but becoming a counselor, a parole officer, a shoulder to cry on; or if you have, and need articulation of what keeps you going or what made you stop, I highly recommend Stories From a Teacher by J. Flores.

He chronicles his four years teaching high school English, told in about two dozen stories. He writes about the ups and downs, the humor and the despair:

  • meeting with a parent who wanted his son’s grade changed from passing to failing, to teach him that life is tough.
  • joking with his students about skipping school, until one girl missed because of a miscarriage.
  • guiding the students to open up about their troubled home life and helping them find help.
  • turning a story about his college days into a lesson on alcohol consumption.
  • making an impact on a student and not realizing it until he meets her again five years later.

Each story teaches a lesson, either to the kids or to the author himself – and often, it may not be a lesson he wants to learn. Basically, this book boils down to: life is hard for these kids. How much of himself can he truly give to make it better? Can he actually make it better?

And that’s something I ask myself too: can I make it better? I’m not sure, but I’m damn well going to try.

Us, Together: A Short Story Collection

While looking through a folder of finished stories, I realized I had a handful or so I’d written about teenagers and adolescents. A writing group to which I belong has been reiterating the importance of getting more works out there, so I decided to put six of the stories together on Amazon.

Us, Together: A Short Story Collection

Six stories about the problems teenagers face, from relationships and unplanned pregnancy to absent parents and poverty, loosely based on stories and students I encountered while teaching at-risk kids.

It’s just 1 cheeseburger ($.99) on Amazon.

Your character is not you (and neither am I)

There are a few topics that come up frequently on writing forums: the value of adverbs, what constitutes passive voice, whether you should self-publish or go the traditional route, and what to use to form your characters’ personalities, actions, and motivations to make them believable.

Today I want to tackle that last one, and I’m going to start by saying


Yes, he may share similar traits.  She may have had a similar childhood, or the same goals.  But your character is not you.

I’m sure you’re a wonderful person.  But as Mark Twain said, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”  And for you to be in your story, as yourself, it’s not going to make sense.  I struggled with this while writing The Lone Wolf.  It was only when I realized that Kasey’s primary motivation was her family, that the story came together; I’d been trying to have her react how I would react.  And I definitely wouldn’t have made the same choices she did, because she’s not me.

But it goes beyond your personal goals and traits; your expectations and views of societal norms can also affect your character, without you even realizing it.

After I graduated college, I taught high school in rural North Carolina as part of a national program.  One of the things that was hammered into us was that these kids and their families had different cultural expectations.  They were a different religion, a different race, a different economic class, living in a different region.  We had to understand why they acted how they did, influenced by their backgrounds and surroundings, before we could reach them.

In social work, this is referred to as an ecological systems theory, but I think it applies everywhere.

Part of the fun of reading is getting into someone else’s head, into their thoughts and actions. But why stop there? Why not apply this to everyone you come across?

I like opera; you don’t. That’s fine. But rather than tell me how no one could pay you enough money to go to a show, why not just leave it at, “I don’t like opera,” or actually try going to a show before passing judgment?

Same with writing. I write; many people I know don’t. Rather than make fun of my novel, why not just acknowledge that I like to write, and you like to watch reality TV, and agree that we don’t have common ground with our interests?

Try putting yourself in your characters’ heads, or in the heads of those around you. Try seeing the world how they see it, for better or for worse. You might just be surprised what you learn about yourself in return.

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