Dear 8th Grade,
I was wondering what to write to you all this week. In our Socioemotional Learning or SEL class, we read Zero by Kathryn Otoshi, a book about being valued and making your life count. (I told you about how I first read this book when I was at Columbia, and I guess that made it seem less like a book for the "littles" and appropriate for your age group.) We discussed Zero's statement, "I’ll never have value. I’ll never be part of the count.” We spoke of the statement as having a double-entendre. I want you all to know that even adults struggle with this idea of making sure that our lives have significance.
I think the hard thing about living during this day and age is how much access we have to what other people are doing. We feel this push to be perfect now. We feel this pull towards being immediately successful We have stopped realizing that growth is progressive, and that becoming takes time. I read this quote on Twitter this past week, "Don’t let the internet rush you. No one is posting their failures." In many instances, that is a truth we can embrace. We're humans - we really like looking like we have it all together. The truth is the moment you have it all together, or think that you do, something else throws you off balance, and now you have to learn something new.
But the cool thing about being in school is that you get to see failure, and it should be normal. School is supposed to be the place where you realize no one is perfect - least of all me. This year, I hope you learn from my failures, and hopefully there will be places to celebrate our successes. Don't be discouraged because today you're not perfect, just keep moving forward.
Ms. St. Jean
Dear 8th Grade,
I can't seem to get away from this science based theme. Today, I am thinking about Newton's first law, "An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an outside force."
I can't help but think of all the forces in my life that have changed my not just my direction but overall velocity. We learned that velocity is what we call a vector quantity, meaning that it has a speed and direction. One of the biggest forces I faced was when my dad died. It changed the speed at which I was going, and ultimately my career path. It forced me to slow down, and reevaluate what's important to me.
When you're a teenager sometimes life appears to be going faster than it takes the earth to spin on it's axis, and you just can't seem to keep up with all the changes. Your voice is changing. Your mood is changing. Your friends are changing. Your relationships are changing. And most of the time you're not sure of what to do - and sometimes you just wish the change would stop. You feel like there are forces stronger than gravity pushing and pulling and are unsure which way to go.
I just ask that in the midst of all the change you find at least two-three things to keep consistent. It's like brushing your teeth, there are things you have an automatic reflex to complete. That never changes. You wake up, and brush your teeth. Find a few things in life that are like brushing your teeth. They become so automatic that you don't even realize you're completing them. Those are the things that keep us grounded while the world keeps spinning and we do our best to keep up.
Keep moving forward beautiful people. Put one foot in front of the other and don't quit - even when you desperately want to.
I'm proud to be your teacher.
Ms. St. Jean
Dear 8th Grade,
I’m thinking a lot about the term inertia. It’s a vocabulary word for Unit 1, “May the Forces be With You,” in Science. Inertia we said is an object’s inclination or better yet tendency to not want to move. This year it seems like sometimes we are fighting the inability to move. We are fighting to build momentum. We are fighting to move forward so we can grow. But I think we all have some habits that are detrimental to us moving forward. And we have to fight those. We have some thoughts and ways of being that make us want to stay the same and not get better.
Life is progress. Life is progressive. At times life is cyclical, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t progressing. But my dear children, I digress, or I am not being concise or clear. What I mean is this year the work is not just about moving forward, but figuring out what forces are holding us back. Why when faced with a myriad or many decisions do we humans choose to stay in the same place?
We are, my dear people, resistant to change. It’s our nature. We rather stay still and conserve energy. But we need to move. We need to get on it. We need to look at what isn’t working and push ourselves forward. We know that force is a push or pull. I think this year my job is to really help push you forward so that you can reach your goals. It’s my job to hold you accountable.
Your job is to hold me accountable, and boy are you all doing a great job at that! You guys remember so much. I find that kids will forget to do their homework, forget they have other responsibilities, but they will never forget a promise made by an adult! Why is that?!!! [Insert TEACHER + EVERY ADULT WAIL here.]
Helping you this year is helping me to be a better teacher. You are quite literally forcing me to come up with new strategies, and innovative ways of teaching content. I feel like I am being pushed and pulled – this is not a bad thing. It actually is a good thing, because you are moving me forward as a learner and a teacher. I am learning how to better differentiate content and processes, and for that I am grateful. My brain is being stretched. I don’t get it all – yet – and neither do you - yet. But together we will push past this inertia as we find our motivation. Let’s get moving people. You know my motto: "Head up, heart up, and keep moving forward."
Ms. St. Jean
Dear 8th Grade,
Two of you asked me if I could write a letter once a week. I’m not going to lie, this year I feel like I’m at capacity. But for something like this I can always make more room.
Between this week and last there have been a lot of tears over academics. Some of us feel like we can’t focus. Others have said, “I’ve never been good at this.” And some of us have said nothing - and that nothing has spoken loudest of all. The nondisclosure is disclosure. This means that by not saying anything you have told me everything. Walking around or circulating in Math, Science, or Social Studies, I am peeking at notebooks, peering into faces and searching for answers of how I can best be serving you lovely people.
One of the most potent conversations I had this week was with someone who is charming and disarming. I shared with this student that I had been listening to a podcast. The podcast was about our support systems.
“We compare, we compete, and sometimes we get so tired of playing this game that we just check out,” she said. I think that’s something that happens or occurs so much in 8th grade. You’ve learned and internalized this idea of what it means to be a successful student. Being successful means check marks, and stamps, and “Great jobs,” from the teacher. So sometimes you pretend to have it all together. Can I tell you that adults do the same thing? I’m learning not to pretend anymore. I’m learning to reach out when I need help. I’m learning to trust. Maybe you, like me, have been hurt in relationships with people, in this case teachers you trusted to help you. Instead you had a negative interaction that left you feeling some type of way. So you stopped asking questions, you stopped saying, “I need help.” You just stopped doing the work. And maybe people missed that because in class you’re kind, and quiet or pleasant and super charming - and teachers are so happy to have compliant behavior that we have just missed the problem or that fact that you had a complaint.
This year your cover has been blown. You have teachers who are intentional. We ask questions to the point of annoyance and persist with calling parents. We are sounding the alarm that you need help. Please know that teachers like me are not trying to embarrass you but help. I want us to disrupt the narratives or the stories we have been telling ourselves about intelligence, and learn to operate differently.
This woman in the podcast said that we start to compose. We went over this word a few times this year. We talked about composition as writing, or having a composition notebook. She said in her podcast that we begin to compose or put together a persona. In other words we start to fake it. Middle schoolers smell fake and inauthenticity miles away. You can call it out. So I’m inviting you to be safe in the classroom and be honest about what you don’t understand. Your honesty will find help; when you add help with honesty things will change. That doesn’t mean you will understand all the content overnight, but it does mean that you will find strategies to deal with your struggle. A struggle isn’t the end but an invitation. I invite you to become purposeful about how you learn. Let’s be intentional about admitting things to those in your support system - your teachers, your family, and friends.
Ms. St. Jean
Dear 8th Graders,
Last week, in Science, I promised that I would write you a letter. This year is challenging. I sense that we are all struggling. Is there a solution to the struggle? I want us to work productively towards becoming who we want to be in the classroom. We are wondering about our strengths and weaknesses. Some days all we see are the weaknesses, and I see you asking yourself, "When will this or when will I get better?
Eighth grade is a struggle for so many reasons. For one, you are worried about high school. You are inundated (overwhelmed) with questions and fears. Mostly, I think you're scared of failure. I want to encourage you to embrace failure. I didn't learn how to start doing that until I was a junior in high school facing getting my first F in AP Calc. I felt stupid. My intelligence was what I equated with success. And we know from studying forces and mathematical equations that what I set up was an inequality and an attempt at balancing something that could not be balanced.
Recently, I was with 30 of you (I teach 60) when I reminded you that you all are taking part in the Growth Mindset Institute because I am one of the NYC Public School teachers working with the Office of Leadership on helping us all grow our brains. I loved how excited you all were about that. You all clapped! Then, we read an article discussing the neuroplasticity of our brains.
During class, I challenged you all to think about your mindset being the foundation for your motivation. I am now challenging you to keep thinking about that. Keep thinking about what you can do on your own, with my help, with the help of friends, family, and classmates to grow your brain. The queen of Growth Mindset, Carol Dweck, said that students who turned intelligence into a judgment of their worth ran away from difficulty, error, and failure. This year I want to push you to think that in failure there are lessons. I want you to engage in the difficulty of being in middle school. I want you to confront the negative mindset that tells you challenges are bad. I want you to know that challenges provide opportunity, and that struggle is normal.
Beautiful people, guess what?! Teaching is hard. I am right now working on how to find effective strategies to help teach you, and make sure I have the effort necessary for an 8th grade classroom. Thank you for having patience with me this year, as I work with all of you to figure out what you need to be successful. Let's work on stretching beyond our comfort zones in this.
Ms. St. Jean
As a teacher this year the question that most comes to mind regarding my students is, “Are you underperforming your potential?” I think about the concept of potential energy as it relates to physics, and the ways in which it can be applied in every day life. Simply put potential energy is stored energy. When potential energy is released that is when we refer to it as kinetic energy.
I can’t rightly speak to my students about these ideas unless I am also living it. My potential energy exists in my writing. When I finally release it in the form of a post such as this, there has been a transfer of energy. Teaching takes time and much energy. Being a middle schooler takes much energy. In observing my students and myself, I find that the problems begin in not realizing or knowing what capabilities or capacities we hold. If we do not know what we have, we will not put them to use. It then becomes unused, and in my humble opinion wasted energy. I do not want to waste my life, nor do I want my students to waste theirs. How then do I battle this complacency and the thoughts that have concretized into ineffectual beliefs that become increasingly ineffective systems of thought?
As I coteach science this year my thoughts will be how can I change so that I use my potential energy, and how can I impart that idea to my students whom I hope will make better decisions on how to apply their potential than I ever did. Then again, it’s never to late to change.
I am so excited to be back in the classroom this year. Things are a little different. Last year I cotaught Math along with Social Studies. This year I will be coteaching Math and Science! As someone who loves the Humanities this is a complete departure from my comfort zone. This is the year that I am pushing myself to practice what I like to tell my students, "You change when you are challenged. Growth is found in the process." I am also very gladly participating in teaching Socioemotional Learning or SEL.
Last year I learned that "I can teach math." This new found knowledges allows me to better appreciate all the articles that have come out recently including, "Make Your Daughter Practice Math, She'll Thank You Later," by Professor Barbara Oakley for The New York Times. They are encouraging me to keep working at it. Fellow teachers, parents, and other readers, I hope you have a productive academic year. I will continue to use this site to communicate my thoughts this year.
Dear 8th Grade,
Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to be your teacher. Thank you for loving me unconditionally, and forgiving me freely. Ours has not been a relationship where I have been only a teacher and you have been a student, but vice versa – you were my teachers, and daily I was your student. I was challenged to learn, study, and grow in my knowledge of people, places, and things. I cannot be grateful enough that I was given the privilege of knowing each and every one of you.
At the beginning of this year I told you that what I love about teaching 8th grade is that I am given the gift of letting you go. As much as I would like to hold on, and keep you here, letting you go means that you are ready. My telling the world that you are ready to move on requires saying goodbye. I have never been fond of or liked goodbyes, so I will say, “Fantastic human beings who captured my heart, you will always have first place as my students. No other group will compare to the Class of 2018. A class full of spunk, personality, and individuals who will fill the world as spotlights of good. Shine, beautiful people, shine bright!”
You are always building your brain capacity. Education is not something that just happens in school, learning happens everywhere. Remember Martin Luther King Jr. taught from a jail cell, Cesar Chavez dropped out of school at 15 and learned while being a migrant worker, Justin Dart Jr. considered himself a “super-loser,” until he lost use of his legs due to polio. Women including Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks did their best work by sitting down, others such as Shirley Chisholm and Dolores Huerta by standing up. These people were activists and organizers cut from very different cloths. What made them similar is that they all found their cause. Find your cause. Find your why, and you will learn, and teach others, and in turn have an impact.
History is the story of us. It is the story of people and power. Continue to ask yourself critical questions, “Whose voice matters? What stories do we tell? Who tells the stories?” This year you explored the truth of the African Proverb, “Until the Story of the hunt is told by the Lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” You asked if heroes and villains can be one and the same. You disputed facts that people said were indisputable. You were noble-minded, fair, and worked in pursuit of justice. I charge you 8th grade to always keep moving forward, go higher, and dig deeper. You are the people this world needs – men and women full of integrity, kindness, respect, curiosity, and resilience.
There are 19 things I never want you to forget:
I love each of you. I want your best. I cannot wait to hear what you are up to. Class of 2018, I expect GREAT things.
Ms. St. Jean
I'm not a very public person, I do not share my feelings easily. Writing changes that. One of the first letters I ever wrote was to my mom expressing my displeasure at something I felt she had done wrong towards me. I did not have the ability to speak my truth, so I wrote it. My mom kept that letter, and once showed it to me when I was in my late teens. Today, I want to share about the struggle of being unapologetically myself.
This was written in 2016, but is applicable today.
I think that as special educators we are given the opportunity to not only practice inclusion with students, but with other professionals within the educational space. We may not necessarily agree with all practices considered inclusive, but there should be a willingness to examine beliefs, attitudes, and values in light of another’s position. My fear is that I will be perceived as “too emotional,” “angry,” “aggressive,” or compoundingly as the “angry black woman,” a caricature perceived to be reality, as perpetuated by American popular media. I am also tall. I speak boldly. My face is sometimes called “poker”. And I like to think I am smart. In a recent Humans of New York post, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton states:
I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena.
I can relate. The wall is protection. Protection against the flood of emotions that may rise when faced with racism, sexism, ageism, colorism. You learn to control your spirit, which is not a bad thing, and build a wall around the city known as your life. A problem I have been facing, not simply in the educational sector but in general is having critical conversations. How do I communicate well with men and women who are uncertain, or even threatened by my presence, without compromising who I am? Over the past few weeks, I have been a participant in a situation where I feel as if my identity as an intelligent black woman is being called into question. For example, my name was written out for me. (I thought I knew how to spell.) When I make a statement, it is immediately questioned, and once confirmed, there is a small shocking nod of surprise. (Wow! Who knew! With a dash of awe, as the salt, and wonder, the pepper.)
What I am not comfortable confronting in person, I find easier to dole out on paper.
I was going to send you some version of this email, but a wise friend stopped me. She said something akin to, “Why add fuel to the fire?” She is right, you know. Why instigate a conversation where my concerns will be brushed aside? Why use my precious pearls of words on someone unwilling to understand? This is kind of like the time I discovered that my mom could not help with the ferocious itching of my eczema when I was three. I still remember thinking, “Mommy can’t help, I’ll just stay in bed.” Like the eczema you win. Like the eczema you too will clear away, leaving smoother skin in its place. My life has indeed had rough patches, but the waves of the shore beat against the rocks leaving smooth pebbles in its place.
No one goes to the beach and picks up the jagged edged rocks, they pick up the smooth stones created by storms. The storms communicate roughly, leaving in their wake objects that are better for its passing.
You think you know me, but you do not. I see the way you check out my outfit and talk about how practical yours is. I hear the shift in tone when there is condescension. I see the undercover undermining. I have been down this road before. Same street, different name. When you ask that I sit out of a section of science, and ELA it was and is my perception that I am being excluded from full participation. You acted like you were helping, but you was straight blocking . I cannot help but come to the conclusion that I am indeed the decisive element. And the conclusion is indeed frightening. So I put my belief in something bigger and better, whose name is Love and has been Love since the foundation of the world. I put my belief in One who accepts me in all that I am.
Often with students who have disabilities, assumptions are made regarding ability, and as Jorgensen writes (2010, pg. 28). Through the years people have looked at me and decided many, many things. “Trust your gut,” they say, I say, “Trust your biases more.”
From the beginning, at that first meeting, you were so bent on proving yourself, that my interests were not taken into consideration. Did you ever consider, that I was trusting those who told me you were good, and guess what you are? You are great with kids, but lousy with adults, especially adults you try to figure out. Ah! The age of Google makes everyone bigger than they are, and pretty soon we are all puffer fish in an ocean of competition, vying to see who can puff out the most. “Puff, Puff, Puff,” and the house comes down. It’s all a house of cards, and magicians’ mirrors, and there is no Wizard of Oz. Didn’t you get the memo?
I do not say this to lay blame but to speak about ways in which communication can be improved. Discussions take the full involvement of two parties, not the decisions of one. In the classroom, of life, feeling as if a teacher who has the gift of providing education is condescending and dictatorial reduces and eliminates the possibility of learning. I see that it has been decided that I will no longer participate in certain classes. If I am disappointed it is in the fact that communication has not been clear. I do my best to say what I mean and mean what I say. If the Martha I am learning to love again threatens you, I am #sorrynotsorry . You see, I need to believe in me again. I need to believe that I am not a failure. I need to believe that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, because if I don’t the students divinely placed in my life won’t either.
Thanks for reading through this letter, even though you may never receive it. I wrote it more for me, and faced this conflict with faith.
Ms. St. Jean
Native New Yorker teaching and living the middle school life, using this site to keep it 100. My students are the embodiment of joy.