Connecting With Students (or the importance of “Dr. Who” and “Sherlock”)

Yesterday afternoon while I was teaching, a student from last year popped her head in my room and said, “Mrs. Polen, I have something for you”.  I told her to wait a second and when I went over to her, she had pulled three pictures out of her backpack and put them on the table.  “Pick one,” she said with a smile; they were her senior pictures.  While they were all very pretty, I picked the one that I thought looked most like her natural smile and she told me everyone picked that one.  I told her it was because it looked most like her.  I went back to my class and didn’t notice when she went to my desk and laid the picture on top of my papers.  At the end of the period after reminding the students of their assignment that was due tomorrow, I walked over to my desk and found the picture.  When I turned it over, this is what she had written:


She and I talk almost daily about TV shows (we both love Dr. Who and Sherlock), books we’ve read (she made me promise to read Eleanor and Park this past weekend, which I did and it was fabulous!) and how her classes are going.  Honestly, she reminds me so much of my oldest daughter, that I truly look forward to our daily conversations; I do feel a real connection with her.  I haven’t had her as a student since last year, but I love that she makes an effort to stay in touch.

Her gesture yesterday reminded me of the importance of building relationships with students; if they feel safe and welcomed in your classroom then they will always remember that and it can make a real difference in their lives.  I will keep her picture as a reminder of this, especially on days when I’m cranky or when I’m frustrated if the lesson falls flat.  As long as I can make a connection with my students, then I have at least accomplished that, and that is something which is just as important as any lesson.


Old Tech v. New Tech


I was writing on my chalkboard the other day and another teacher walked into my room and asked why I was writing on the board when I have a Smartboard, iPads and AppleTV.  I stopped for a minute and thought about it and realized I had no real answer to this question besides the fact that I love to write on a chalkboard.  It is part of my daily routine when I come into the classroom in the morning; I hang my coat, turn on my computer, make a cup of tea, then always write the day’s activities on the chalkboard.  Old habits I suppose.  I also think I’m a bit nostalgic-when people think of schools and teachers, they think of chalkboards.  And pencils.  I stopped writing lesson plans to write this post and I was using a pencil to write them.  Yes, I have my iPad with my Google Drive app.  Yes, I have my laptop with Microsoft Word on it.  But nothing beats putting pencil to paper; I love the feel of the lead gliding across the paper.  Just as I still love reading books with paper pages on which I can scribble, annotate and underline great words and phrases. Weird, I know.  But it is what it is.

In today’s age of new technology and gadgets galore (all of which I use in class and appreciate), I think it important to never forget the “old technology” that is the chalkboard, the pencil, the paper book.  They are what led us to where we are today.

Genius Hour-Learning From My Mistakes

I took the plunge and started Genius Hour this year in my eleventh grade English classes.  The last year, I’d been reading about it all over Twitter, talking to other teachers about it and wondering how it would work.  Then, at the end of last school year, my teacher friend Cara asked me if I’d heard of Genius Hour and got me on board to try it this year.  Then came a flurry of looking up information (mostly on Twitter, thank you, PLN!), creating resources and having many conversations about how to really make this work realistically in a high school classroom.  I can honestly say, four months into it, Genius Hour has changed the way I teach.

Basically, I allow my students every Friday (or the last day of the week) to work on their individual projects.  This includes completing research, creating and presenting genre pieces (pictures, written reflection of process, drawings, etc), talking with their program teachers (we are a career/tech school) and discussing ideas with others.  The end project will be a TED-Talk inspired talk about their process, successes, failures and overall final product(s) given in the lecture hall to not only their English class, but other classes, and I plan on inviting outside audience members as well to ensure an authentic presenting experience.  Students are also required to have a 15 source Annotated Bibliography of resources which helped them in creating their projects this year and they will write a Reflective Writing Piece, all of which will be their final semester exam.  While I originally envisioned Fridays being a day to just “let students go”, I have to admit (a bit sheepishly), that this did not go as planned the first few times I tried it and became an exercise in frustration; hence, my adding more structure to Genius Hour.  Honestly, students are not used to having complete freedom in a classroom, so we, as teachers, must guide them to that place where they can be independent and self-motivated learners, otherwise, many do not know what to do in that type of situation.  I looked at it as another “teachable moment” for both me and my students, not as a “failed lesson”.

So, here are the top five “things” I’ve learned about Genius Hour in the last four months of implementing Genius Hour, making mistakes and tweaking my approach:

1.  Spend many weeks allowing students to explore interests and passions before deciding on a Genius Hour Project to which they will commit.  I was amazed at how many students told me they had no hobbies or were not curious about different things and were not sure what they wanted to learn about.  That both saddened me and made me realize how much this type of Project-Based Learning is needed in an educational culture of standardized testing and regurgitation of easily-forgotten knowledge.  Students need to be intrinsically motivated to learn and do-it’s slowly being stripped from students!  So, the more time they have to explore project ideas, the better.  Chris Kesler has a great blog to help teachers get started, with many resources, project ideas, etc.:

Another idea to help students gather ideas is to use a Google Form; here is the one I used in the beginning-feel free to use it or tweak it for your needs:

2.  Add some structure to your Genius Hour Days.  It took me awhile to be okay with this because it was not what I imagined when I originally had visions of Genius Hour dancing through my head.  I expected excited, motivated and bright-eyed students scurrying around the room with their iPads, finding relevant resources and information, having in-depth discussions with other students about their project ideas and creating genre pieces which would rival Picasso or Michelangelo.  Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what did not what happen.  Instead, I had a roomful of students who saw it as free time and as such, I heard many conversations about Friday night’s football game or many requests to see a picture of a Homecoming dress on a phone.  I love the dress and I really hope you win the game, but it’s time to work…the funny thing is, they didn’t know what to work on.  I did not provide enough explanation nor structure to allow them the creativity to work.  Completely my fault, but a learning opportunity for me and I changed it to make it work for everyone.  So, I have a “plan” or a “goal” for each Friday.  For example, one Friday, a genre piece posted on their social media site might be due to present to the class (a picture of a cake they tried making, a drawing of an album cover, etc.), a resource or two may be due on the Annotated Bibliography, or a reflective piece may be written.  Each Friday is different, but it still allows for creativity within some structure.  I now find as each week goes by, students are getting more and more comfortable with being independent and are not relying on me as much for encouragement or ideas, which shows a growth of confidence.

3.  Really structure the research componentI love my students, but they are terrible researchers.  We all know the drill; we ask students to research “global warming” and they Google it, click on the first link, throw it on their Works Cited page without reading it, and are done.  This is something else I did not think through when I asked students to work on a 15 source Annotated Bibliography throughout this process of creating their Genius Hour Project.  Students did not know what to research because I had not given them enough time to create research questions, nor did they understand the plethora of resources beyond Google (such as Twitter, apps, interviews, etc).  First, I taught students how to use Twitter and social media as a resource (they were shocked and amazed until I showed them MLA recognizes these as genuine sources and we practiced citing a tweet together as a class). Then, I had a brainstorm one day and it seems to be effective:  Have students use Bloom’s Taxonomy to create and answer research questions from the resources they find and add the question and answer as a part of their annotation.  This is the form I used to help students write these questions, again, feel free to use it or change it as needed:

These question cues give students a guide when trying to decide what it is they are learning from this process and forces them to truly read and re-read a source to make sure it is relevant and helps to answer one of the questions they have.  In the process, it is making them perfect and master the research process, which applies to many other skills in school and life.  And hello, CCSS-this has you written all over it!

4.  Use social media as a component of Genius Hour-have students post and write about their genre pieces to ensure an authentic audience.  I originally was going to have all students create a blog to chart and reflect on their progress throughout the year.  Then I felt it was too structured; why would I force students to blog if that’s not what they love to do?  Isn’t the point of blogging to create an authentic audience and why can’t other forms of social media serve the same purpose?  Instead, I told students they could use any form of social media they wanted, including Twitter, Instagram, Google Sites, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, WordPress, etc.  They got to choose how they wanted to showcase their genre pieces and their written reflection, but they had to use social media to do so unless their parents were against it and if so, we would come up with another solution.  Honestly, I had no issues or concerns from parents on this and it gave us an opportunity to discuss netiquette and how not to ruin their chances for college scholarships and other future opportunities by posting dumb and inappropriate things online (again, another “teachable moment”)!

The fun part about this has been how excited kids get when people “follow” them or they get positive feedback on their social media site.  After posting a genre piece, I have kids saying, “Mrs. Polen, I got five ‘likes’ on my picture” and other similar comments.  Funny, they don’t get that excited when I ‘like’ or ‘comment’ on a paper they’ve written (about which I always remind them to the response of rolled eyeballs or a giggle). But, it shows the importance of that authentic audience; it creates a sense of confidence and motivation to do and be better.  Love it!  That’s why students are in school…

5.  Show inspirational videos at the beginning of Genius Hour Days. This has become my favorite way to start a Genius Hour Friday because it’s motivating and inspirational and allows students to see why we are doing Genius Hour.  There are so many out there, and you can choose based on time and topic, but here are my two favorite resources:

*23 Videos that Sparked Genius Hour:

*15 Inspiring TED Talks Every Freshman Should Watch:

If time permits, this may be a good opportunity to incorporate a TodaysMeet talk or a Twitter chat based on the video.  I especially like to do this during TED Talks, since they are a bit longer and it gives all students, especially my introverted students, a chance to discuss and reflect on Genius Hour.

That’s it for now, but I hope to write again at the conclusion of the year to add to this list of mistakes and reflections that go along with implementing Genius Hour into my curriculum.  I hope to continually grow and change Genius Hour as I become more comfortable with it as a teacher and a facilitator.  As a final note, I have also created a blog to document my students’ progress and to let parents know what we are doing in class; feel free to check it out if interested:

Best of luck as you jump into the creative, chaotic, exciting and scary world of Genius Hour!










“Magic Legs”

Last night my husband and I had to put down our dog Rosie.  I’ve known this day has been coming for a long time, ever since the moment we adopted her two years ago when my daughter found her abandoned in a field.  This day has always lurked in the back of my mind and has at times kept me awake at night, filling me with dread at the idea of it.  She was at least 13 when we brought her into our family and she had been badly injured, causing her to struggle when she walked.  Her front left leg was strangely curved, probably the result of being broken and healing badly and she had no feeling in her backside, for her legs seemed as if they had minds of their own, sometimes going in strange directions as she walked. To top that off, she was infested with fleas, about 20 pounds underweight and in rough shape when we brought her home.

I remember the first week we had her and I was doing work in the yard.  Rosie had been staying in the garage for a few days while we cleaned the fleas off her and acclimated her to our other dog.  She was quiet and lethargic that first week, seeming unresponsive to the hugs and kisses we were giving her, turning her head from us and avoiding eye contact.  She seemed depressed, resigned to the fact that she was living in a garage and unwilling to make a connection with any of us.  But that day I was out in the yard, I had opened the garage door and called to her, inviting her out with me; she ignored me and laid on the blanket and went back to sleep.  After a few minutes, however, I heard a panting behind me and when I turned around, Rosie was walking after me and she followed me around the yard all morning long.  Though she struggled and had to lay down after walking just a few feet, she insisted on being near me at all times, a constant theme that played out over the next two years.  That was the moment I fell in love with her and was the moment I knew my time with her was limited.  I vowed then and there that I would make her time with us the best as I could and I wanted her to know what it was like to be loved and part of a family.  She deserved at least that after all she had suffered.

Fast forward two years and it’s the morning after we had to make the painful decision to let her go and I miss her more than I would ever imagine.  She had been having accidents in the house for a couple of weeks; barely noticeable at first, but getting progressively worse.  Finally this week we had to leave her in the kitchen at night, causing her to cry and whine like a baby at the thought of not laying on the floor in our room, next to our bed, which was her sleeping spot.  It killed me to listen to her, but it was necessary, since the last two mornings I had gone downstairs to find her covered with her own urine and huge puddles all over the kitchen.  The vet had given us medicine to try to help her but they weren’t sure what was going on with her.  Kidney infection?  Bladder infection?  Though I dutifully gave her the medication each morning, I knew in the back of my mind it was in vain.  I knew we had to make a decision and I knew we had to do it soon.  I didn’t want her to suffer; this sweet and loving dog did not deserve that.

When I came home from school yesterday afternoon, my daughter was upset since she had stayed home sick and was with Rosie all day.  Ella had tried to let her outside several times and Rosie wouldn’t go.  She hadn’t eaten or had any water all day and seemed lethargic and sick.  When I tried to let her out, calling her name as cheerfully as I could, she ignored me and lay her head down on her paws.  I walked over to her and lay down on the floor with her; she was shaking.  I knew.  A few years ago I was struggling with the decision to put down my cat and I remember running into a teacher at our school who teaches the Animal Management Program.  I told her how sick my cat was but I was struggling with making that final decision.  She asked me point blank if I loved my cat.  I remember staring at her in disbelief and saying, “Of course I love my cat.”  She told me, “Then make that decision for him.  It’s an act of love.”  That conversation was going through my head as I sat with Rosie on the kitchen floor.  I loved her and I was making the decision for her. It was an act of love.

I called the vet, and they told me to bring her in as soon as my husband got home and they would wait for us and stay open since they usually close earlier on Fridays.  The woman on the phone said, “What’s more important?  Your dog or going home?”  Thank you, Clareann.  There are good people out there.

When my husband Kent got home, he could tell from my look that it was time.  We lifted Rosie into the car and I rode in the back with her and talked to her on the ride to the office; she had gotten a little spurt of energy and seemed to be listening to what I was saying.  She was able to walk into the office and they brought her to a room right away.  When the vet came in, a very kind man, he examined Rosie and began rattling off the list of medicines to help with incontinence, to help with infection, etc.  Kent just shook his head “no” and I said quietly and through tears, “I don’t want her to suffer”.  The doctor immediately changed his tone and told me all of these meds would just prolong the inevitable and he told us he just had to put his own dog down on Sunday night.  Then he asked if that was what we wanted to do.  My husband and I both nodded our heads “yes” and I noticed the vet assistant immediately well up with tears.  I remember thinking what a difficult job this would be to deal with this on a daily basis and now I have a newfound respect for vets and their assistants; they are heroes in my eyes.

As they prepped Rosie and gave her the sedative to help her relax, I laid with her on the floor and talked to her.  I told her she would have “magic legs” in heaven (a joke we always made about her, a’la “Lieutenant Dan”) and she would chase all the kitty cats and tennis balls she wanted to (she always got in trouble for chasing our poor cat and loved to steal tennis balls from our other dog, Molly).  I told her how much I loved her and I kissed her head a hundred times as the doctor put the needle in her back leg.  The medicine was quick; she breathed heavily a few times and then fell silent.  The vet allowed us to stay with her for a few minutes and we kissed her a few more times, then said goodbye one last time and quietly left the room.

As we were driving home, a rainbow peeked out through the clouds.  Kent turned to me and told me that was Rosie telling us she was okay.  I know she’s okay.  Now she has “magic legs”.  Rosie, I hope you are running through fields as fast as you can, chasing after kitty cats and tennis balls.  Thank you for being part of our family; know that you are dearly loved and we will miss you more than you’ll ever know.Image


This week, I completed training for the new Ohio Teacher Evaluation System. Why? If this is how I am to be evaluated in the near future, I feel I need to know exactly how it works. Truthfully, I was not happy about giving up three precious days in my summer to learn about this-even my husband called me a crab the morning of the first day. If it were a workshop on curriculum or writing strategies or how to incorporate tech in my classroom, I know my attitude would have been very different and I would have been excited to go. No, this did not excite me in the very least; heading out the door that first day, a root canal would have been more enticing. But, I went, knowing it was one of those experiences in life in which I would dread going, but would appreciate that I did it once it was over.

Well, I survived the three days of training and am glad it is over, but also thankful I went. Overall, there are aspects of OTES which I like and those with which I do not agree. But because I want to stay positive, I will focus on what I feel are the two most important benefits to the system:

*It encourages much conversation between teacher and admin. Anyone who is in education knows how crazy a school day can be, so taking the time to sit down and having a discussion about what you are doing in your classroom can definitely be moved to the back burner on most days. This system requires that the communication is happening on a consistent basis. This is so important to keeping lines of communication open between teachers and admin; it fosters positive and professional working relationships, which only benefits the students (and is the true reason we are in education, a sentiment that sometimes gets forgotten with the politics and firestorms constantly surrounding the field of education these days).

*OTES allows teachers to get true and authentic feedback. I’ve been teaching in some capacity for over fifteen years and would never begin to call myself an expert; I am always changing and trying to improve as a teacher. I personally feel like I constantly need someone to observe my practice and give me suggestions and feedback so I can become a better educator. OTES requires that this happens with two 30-minute formal evals and walk-throughs throughout the school year. I really appreciate this! Because of time constraints, admin usually have to focus much of their time and energy with teachers who need more help, many times not worrying about the effective teachers because they are doing a ‘good’ job without any help. I get it, because that is something I see happening in classrooms as well; teachers spend the majority of their time with the kids who are struggling, assuming the other students are doing well on their own. It’s a matter of a lack of time in the school day and trying to prioritize what is most important to tackle first. But OTES fosters this feedback, encouragement and constructive criticism for all teachers, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. That is truly a positive.

Again, there are portions of the evaluation system I do not like, nor with which I agree. But, overall, I’m glad that I completed the training and would encourage other educators to do the same if able. I feel more informed and ready for OTES once it comes into play and will not have to rely on others’ interpretation of it to understand all of its elements.


Common Core…Is It To Be Feared?


Earlier this summer, I took a class in implementing non-fiction into the Common Core Curriculum. To be quite honest, the CCSS has never freaked me out too much, but after taking this course and listening to some of the concerns of the other teachers in the class, I began to think that maybe I should be worrying more, that maybe it was worse than I originally thought. Some of the concerns were that there were too many standards to teach, there is no time for creative writing, most literature has to be taken out of the curriculum to replace with non-fiction, among other worries, including the upcoming PARCC exams as well as OTES (to throw more acronyms into the mix).

I listened to some of the concerns with a growing sense of anxiety and worry, thinking maybe I was missing something with CCSS. Then, I took some time during the class to delve into the standards and pick apart what they were really saying, and I’m so glad I did. Do I have some concerns about CCSS? Of course. Do I feel they are perfect and will cure all that is wrong with education? Absolutely not. But, quite honestly, I appreciate an overriding idea behind CCSS-to streamline the standards. I am going to admit a dark secret; I never truly “got” the benchmarks and performance standards from the previous Ohio Content Standards. There were too many standards, sub-categories, benchmarks, etc., etc. and I could never fully wrap my brain around what “they” truly wanted. The documents were confusing, filled with educational jargon and ideas that were not tangible and were more theoretical in nature. I am an English teacher, so I taught my students to love (or try to love, in some cases) reading, how to write well, how to be creative and take risks, how to use technology and I gave them opportunities to present information to hone their public speaking skills. I taught what I knew students should be learning in an English class.

However, after looking more closely at the CCSS, I feel they are much more clear and easier to read and they have streamlined the previous confusing standards. Here are the three most important personal conclusions I’ve made about the CCSS so far:

  1. There is room for fiction in the CCSS Curriculum. Here is my philosophy: Teach the fiction pieces as well as the classics (being an E.D. Hirsch supporter, classics are imperative!), but supplement with non-fiction pieces. There are so many ways to do this, including articles and essays, such as Kelly Gallagher’s “Article of the Week”, or asking the students to bring in news stories which relate to the literature. Many ways to do this, but never take out the fiction. Fiction is what gives us, as a society, humanity and empathy. It also allows for imagination and creativity and, therefore, should never be taken out of a Language Arts Curriculum.
  2. There is room for creative writing in the CCSS Curriculum. The term “creative writing” is absent in all of the standards, but I feel the Narrative Writing mode allows for this and I’m going to use it as such! The standards ask that students have opportunities to, and I quote, “use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple story lines” as well as to use “precise words and phrases, telling details and sensory language”. That, to me, is double-speak for “creative writing”. I laugh, because it’s almost as if the writers of CCSS were too nervous to actually write the words “creative” and “writing” in the same sentence in the standards as if it would encourage frivolous behavior in a time of serious college and career readiness training! Students need to be creative and imaginative; it’s an integral part of being ready to go to post-secondary training or to work at a job or career. It’s how our society moves forward by implementing the ideas of others-how else would we have new technology or innovations? Think Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Google, Twitter, to name a few innovations and innovators. It’s okay, CCSS writers-my kids are going to be creative in class and they’ll be all the better for it.
  3. Students are going to have to learn to be better researchers and curators of information as a result of CCSS, as well as become better users of technology. This is so important to be college and career ready. Honestly, though students are “digital natives”, many are not great users of technology. Facebook? Check. Texting? Check. But to use technology to create and edit videos, to create presentations or to take risks using new tech or apps? Many students are not willing to do this without some guidance and support from teachers. Also, many students do not know there are any search engines or databases beyond “Google”; we, as teachers, need to show them how to reach beyond their comfort zones to become stronger researchers and creators through the use of technology. I believe the CCSS focuses on these skills by asking students to “gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources” and to avoid “plagiarism and over reliance on any one source”. Basically, it emphasizes stronger research and analytical skills, again, crucial in being successful in college and career.

I have a few more ideas in relation to CCSS, but I think I’ll save those for another post. While looking through the standards, I stumbled across a fantastic blog by Dave Stuart, Jr., a middle-school teacher in Michigan, who writes about the CCSS in a relaxed, “non-freaked out” way. It’s called “Teaching the Core” and he’s gone through the CCSS and has dissected them into layman’s terms, making it easy to truly understand them. The web address is: and I highly suggest taking a look, especially those who have many concerns about implementing CCSS into their classroom. It alleviated many of my fears and concerns.

Final thoughts: CCSS are a reality, so I personally need to spend more time looking at them and deciding how to best acclimate myself to them and use them to benefit my students. However, I also realize that as educators, we need to have confidence in our innate abilities as teachers to do what is best for our students and to give them the most valuable education we can; the CCSS are not going to do that for us. Instead, it’ll ultimately be our teaching skills and talents, as well as our empathy, patience and passion for teaching that will.

Dogs and Students

Two years ago my daughter called me while she was visiting my mother for the weekend. This is briefly how the conversation went:

Lily: “Mom, Grandma and I found a dog today. She’s beautiful and I’ve named her Rosie. Can we keep her-please?!”
Me: “Honey, we already have two animals. We really can’t keep another.”
Lily: “Please? I promise I’ll take really good care of her and feed her everyday and I will never ask you for anything again. I love her and want to bring her home.”
Me: “No, Lily. I really don’t want two dogs. But we’ll see if we can find her a home.”

Fast forward two years and Rosie is sitting next to me on our front porch while I’m typing this blog post. That night of the phone call, I drove to my mom’s house with every intention of meeting Rosie and seeing what I could do to find her a nice home. What Lily did not tell me was Rosie was old, crippled, dripping with fleas and her once-brown eyes were cloudy with bright green cataracts. I knew immediately when I first laid eyes on her, Rosie would be a tough sell in trying to convince someone to take her. I knew my life was about to change when I took her to the vet and he asked me, “What are you going to do with her? You know they’ll put her down immediately if you take her to the pound.” I looked at him and without thinking said, “Well then, I’m going to keep her,” and she’s been a part of my family ever since. I was determined that this dog would not go from being hurt and lonely, to going straight to a dog pound where she would be sentenced to death for the crime of being abandoned, old and crippled. I would make sure she lived out her days, even if they were few, knowing what it was like to be loved and to be a part of a family. I was determined, even at the cost of many fights with my husband over it. My arguments won out and we were keeping her-it was final.

To say it was an easy transition bringing her into our family would be an outright lie. She spent a week in our garage as we combed dead fleas out of her thick German Shepard fur and allowed her to become acclimated to our other dog, Molly. She would rip food out of our hands as if it were her last meal and whine incessantly all night since she was alone. But then she would follow me around the yard on her crippled legs, pausing frequently to rest since walking even a few feet was a tremendous effort, causing her to pant like a freight train and whine if she couldn’t get close enough. She would bark happily when the girls would come out to pet her; they had to teach her to play “fetch” because she didn’t know how and she would play for hours, retrieving the ball enthusiastically with her strange, hobbled gait.

When Rosie was finally allowed in the house, she would growl and snap at Molly if Molly would so much as walk by her. I broke up many small dog fights which could have turned ugly very quickly! The cat disappeared into the basement for days at a time, frightened of the huge Shepard who bared her teeth at him a few too many times. I was nervous; I had vowed to save this dog, but not at the expense of my other two animals. It wasn’t fair to them and I began to question myself. Could I keep her? What would happen to her if I could not? I was very upset and began hoping and praying things would change so I would be able to keep her and show her the love she was missing and so desperately needed.

Within a few months, things did change. Rosie began to feel secure in the fact that she would have food each day and did not have to fight for it nor snap at Molly for walking by her food bowl. She allowed the cat to walk by without feeling the need to snap at him or attack him. She and Molly began hanging out on the front porch together, both barking at the mailman or UPS truck in solidarity, both vowing to protect their home. She started crawling up the stairs at night to lay by our bed, needing help back down them in the morning, but so proud of herself nonetheless. She has become a part of our family and has thrived (as well as put on 20+ pounds) with the love and affection she’s gotten by having her new ‘people’, especially from my husband who grew very attached to her.

I write all this while thinking about students I’ve had in the past and those I will have every year-those who are unloved, abandoned in some way, hurt and needing someone to tell them they are valuable and worthy. While we, as teachers, can’t save them all, we can certainly try to make them feel as if they are a part of something. We can try to understand why these students may be angry or why they are moody and snap at us or others; it is a defense mechanism and their way of protecting themselves from more hurt. We know this, deep down, but it still does not make it easy in dealing with these students, nor does it excuse their actions. But I think when we try to employ empathy for these students, it helps us to see these students’ true potential and what they could become with just a little faith and encouragement from us. We need to be patient and willing to try with them-we can’t discount them immediately because who knows what they could become with the right encouragement, discipline and support.

Having Rosie has made me understand this idea of empathy in the classroom even more. Had I given up on her right away because she was cranky and hard to deal with, I wouldn’t know the wonderful dog she is today. I think back upon many difficult students I’ve had in my 13 years of teaching; I wish I could have them back and try again because I think I’d do much better with them this time and would see their potential more clearly. Having Rosie has given me more empathy and has made me a better teacher. For that, I am thankful.