That’s a Wrap!

Yesterday, in the early hazy morning hours, I typed the final sentences to my 38,000 word, 135 page doctoral dissertation.

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The two glaring typos have since been fixed.

That is right. Yesterday morning, I finished writing my doctoral dissertation. I dedicated to my son because he was very much my dissertation baby. I got pregnant with him three months before I entered my doctoral comprehensive exam. I also dedicated it to my husband because he was the one that was there when I yelled and screamed and during that brief period when Logan was just born and hormones were raging when I declared I DIDN’T NEED A DOCTORATE. Guys, it’s really hard to write a doctoral dissertation and it’s almost impossible to do it when your body is in postpartum and your hormones are all over the place. If my husband hadn’t been there to force me into the basement and put up with my I TYPED 400 WORDS THIS AFTERNOON AND IF YOU SO MUCH AS TOUCH MY BOOKS….kind of rants than I don’t think I would have gotten to this point.

I chose to acknowledge all of the faculty that had helped me to get to this point and also my godparents. My uncle died when I was young, I was 12 years old, but he was the only other PhD in my family and it is because of him I set out on this crazy journey. I wanted to be the PhD of my family for my generation. I also included my aunt because she was such a foundation of my upbringing and she thought that I was never going to be able to complete this, but here I am. She died last June and it makes me sad that she never got to meet Logan or see that despite the intensity of a doctoral program, I have (almost) completed it.

What I am hoping to be my final quarter of dissertation begins on Monday. I am hopeful that I will attain mentor and committee approval within the first half and have my manuscript sent off to my dean and school quickly. I am hoping to defend my dissertation before the summer and if all goes smoothly, I will be graduating in Minneapolis in August.

My son has been sick with an upper respiratory infection and a double ear infection so sleep has not been something that I have been enjoying recently. I have been up with him or I have been writing this dissertation while being up with him. I was almost delirious yesterday with how bad my overall exhaustion was. Thankfully, my son slept last night and so did I because I had nothing to do and also my celebratory dinner with my husband and brother was enough to ease my stress and make me drowsy:

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Clearly, champagne and nachos are the only way you celebrate the end of a long 4-year journey. I don’t know what I am going to do with all of the time I am now going to have. I imagine that I will get to have more uninterrupted cuddle time with my son and spring and summertime adventures with him that will be so much fun and amazing because I will no longer have this monster of a study hanging over my head. I will just be able to focus on myself and my family.

But then there is also that side of me that has gotten myself to this point which makes me think how much farther can I go? I looked up this morning how many classes I would need to take in order to get my superintendent certificate.

It is one class.

I might be seeing that in my near future as well. Until then though, I am going to enjoy being a mom to the best little boy and reading all the for fun books that I can get my hands on this summer.

Now, I just can’t wait for those final approvals and an accepted defense.

As my mentor has told me throughout this process….ONWARD!

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Trenton Makes, the World Takes: Leadership & Teaching in the Capital City

There is a saying in Trenton which states: Trenton makes, the world takes. It is a bold statement made by a city as vibrant as its diversity. It’s also something you wouldn’t know about Trenton unless you lived and worked in the area. While the statement comes from a time where Trenton was a huge manufacturing hub for Roebling Steel, the adage has taken on new meaning in more recent time.

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From nj.com via google images

For me, personally, I can say that Trenton made me the educator that I became. I grew up in East Brunswick, NJ about an hour north of our Capital City. I lived in a suburb of New York City and on 9/11 we were lived close enough that we were able to see the dust cloud from the top of my street. I attended Rutgers University and graduated with a dual degree in Art History and Journalism and Media Studies. I lived abroad in Paris and thought my life was going to take me to places very far from here. Trenton was not on my radar other than it being a place that you didn’t go. Where I lived, Trenton was the hood and we were often told that if you stepped foot in Trenton you would be shot. That is all I knew about our capital.

Fast forward some years to my mid-20’s when I was a teacher that was tired of my original school district making me a French teacher each chance they had instead of hiring me for tenure track English positions. I sent resumes out to everywhere I could and had several offers that summer. Trenton was one of them and Trenton was the one that I chose.

Yes, I chose to come to Trenton.

I chose Trenton because for a couple of summers I wrote and facilitated programming for the CYO in Ewing and I found that I loved the kids and the families. While Trenton is rough and raw and yes, you can get shot and killed in Trenton, our capital city also makes some of the best families and kids I have ever had the privilege to work with.

In my six years in the capital city, I have lost a student to gang violence (she was one of my favorites too), watched several of my students become mothers before their time, coached sports and facilitated clubs, run home instruction for sick kids that are often forgotten in the system, met my husband and gotten married, bought a house, finished my master’s degree and am in the final chapter of writing my doctoral dissertation. I have had kids write essays about being smuggled into our country, sat and listened to them as they cried about their losses—no matter how big or small, and have sat with kids in police stations after they were arrested and waited with them until their parents came.

And in each of these experiences and relationships I have made with students and their families, I became the educator I couldn’t have been able to become had I stayed in my original district. Trenton taught me the importance of relationships and the importance of rising up to meet the needs of your students. However, those needs aren’t always academic and sometimes a student just needs someone who would listen.

I think that is true of most people, not just kids. I moved into teaching college at a campus within our capital city and I teach foundation courses for students who do not test into regular classes. I teach reading and so often, my students are products of Trenton who are trying to better themselves. Foundation classes have a high dropout rate because they are hard and work heavy. And so often with nontraditional students, you have nontraditional problems. I have students who are under 30 and already have five or six kids. Some women are pregnant and others are part of a parole program with the state that are coming to school to better their lives out of poverty and out of the system.

And that’s the tricky piece: poverty. When you live in poverty all you know is survival. If you’re lucky enough to get to the mind frame of betterment, then you need people who are going to lead you to accomplishing something better for your life and more often than not, the key to bettering your life is through getting some form of an education whether it is completing a college degree, certificate or learning a trade is up to the person, but regardless of their choice, they need people who will help lead them out of poverty.

For me, on a teaching level, that means I allow my college students to bring their kids to class if they can’t find a baby sitter. I allow my students makeup blocks to fix any grade they don’t like. I offer embedded extra credit opportunities that they often don’t even realize is extra work because it’s quick and often, they take ownership of the task because it lends to their interest or their point that they are trying to assert on any given topic.

Now, as an emerging school leader, I see helping students living in poverty not only needing everything I provide them on a teaching level, but on a leadership level we need to be offering students consistency. We need to stop implementing new program every other year, we need leaders who are going to stay in our schools and not push to privatize and outsource teachers and staff to save money. We need to put money into our infrastructure and fix the buildings we have been teaching in (and neglecting) since the 1920’s. Our kids and our families deserve better.

They deserve a light that leads them out of poverty and into a comfortable life where day to day survival isn’t at the heart of their existence. We need leaders who care and who are going to stay and fight for our kids instead of creating situations where we’re just fighting each other.

Finally, the IRB approves.

In June of 2015, I was on the brink of turning 29 and had just signed all the papers to become the new owner of our little house by the ocean. A week later, I would be fully enrolled in a doctoral program.

I have never done things small.

Today, I am on the brink of turning 32 and am about to have my first baby. Today, I have also been married for 6 months already as well! I don’t know where that time went, but it went.

But also…today, I finally got full IRB approval for my dissertation study which means that this summer, as I am having Logan, I will also have to be writing the first two chapters of my paper to be ready for next school year when my data collection will begin in September.

The hiccup in the entire process for me was that I needed a supervisor to sign off on allowing me to talk to teachers. It’s incredibly hard to get in touch with someone that does not work in your building and really, has no idea who you are amongst a sea of other employees too. I was getting annoyed with the entire process.

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However, something changed in me this year. I’m not sure what it was. I used to be someone who internalized a lot of stuff and who more often than not took other people’s issues/opinions/lack of responses as some reflection of me. The more I think about it, the more deeply rooted in my upbringing I think that all is, but that’s for a much deeper post some other time.

Something did indeed snap within me this year and I just got really tired of being pushed around and swallowing how I was always made to feel mad or inadequate or wrong, what have you in whatever the situation and always by other people. So, when I saw one of the potential people at work yesterday who could very well help me in that scenario, I literally pushed my way through a crowd of children and inserted myself into the conversation he was having.

I introduced myself and who I was and what I needed. The surprising part is that he knew exactly who I was and was more than happy to give me the letter that I needed. Within 20 minutes, the IRB had a digital copy of the letter they were not going to let up on and this morning as I was talking to my dissertation mentor about how I was hopeful that this meant the conditional approval would be lifted in favor of a full approval, the email came in that it was in fact, fully approved and that I was cleared for data collection come September.

Sometimes you just have to push back and you’ll get what you need in order to be where you need to be.

 

Back to School

This summer was an absolutely crazy period of my life, so I apologize for going MIA for a little bit. I worked full time to save money for our wedding, wrote a lot of big checks to people FOR the wedding, interned at my district’s high school where I logged over 160 hours, took a stats class (my LAST PhD course) and took another class towards my certification in arts integration.

It was absolutely crazy and I actually found myself longing for school to start so that the craziness would kind of end. I finished the stats class and the art class. However, I am still working 3 jobs but the wedding is…58 days away so it shouldn’t be for that much longer even though the extra money has been nice.

I also re-did my entire classroom for the year with special thanks to Princeton University for the couch and chairs donations and to Target for heir amazing dollar bins this summer:

I hope everyone else has had a wonderful start to a fantastic school year!

The Secret to Success as an Urban Educator

I saw a status from someone who began teaching around the time that I was deciding to commit to teaching myself. She wrote that her former students were shocked that she had had a baby and that just because she has high expectations and wasn’t a “nice” teacher doesn’t mean she wasn’t a nice person in life.

Seeing that, just dumbfounded me. Particularly because we both teach in inner cities and teach special education populations, her more so than me as I am not a special education teacher, but for the majority of my years in the inner city, I had volunteered to be the general education teacher in inclusive classrooms for my grade level.

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And there is a side to teaching wherein if you want to be successful, meaning you help students achieve academically in your subject area, then you have to have high expectations, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t love your kids as well or that you have to be “a not nice teacher” to communicate those expectations. With city kids, that means being consistent in your judgement, consistent in your love and your criticism as well as being flexible and truly listening to what these kids have to say.

The majority of the students I have taught remain in contact with me, updating me on their lives and their dreams. They visit sometimes and when they do, it’s always with big hugs and excitement. That is how I know I am successful in what I do. Sure, I have years of data that back me and show my administrators that I am successful in teaching kids how to read and bringing them towards career and college readiness, but that’s not all there is to teaching.

I remember the first time a student called me mom. Continually. Later, when I asked them why I had become their mom I was told it was because they knew that I was there for them, even when they were acting a fool. They knew that they could come to me with anything and I would do my best for them. That was when I knew that I was on the path of becoming the kind of teacher I knew that urban kids needed.

Urban kids are different from your suburban kids that come from nice homes, with semi-intact families and better financial support systems. Urban kids are often starting school well below their suburban counter parts because of the environments they are raised in, they often have parents or grandparents working multiple jobs meaning they’re home alone more times than not or in state-funded daycare. Urban kids are also semi street smart, because really, kids are also kids in any environment and come into school with an attitude more times than not because they feel like they don’t fit.

However, if you hold these kids to a high expectation of achievement as well as give them them the empathy and love that so many just need, then you are not only going to have success in their academics, but you’re also going to have success in helping to raise a better future in that, your love and acceptance may be what sets that kid up for an entirely different path in life.

Within urban education, I firmly believe all students need it. Some more than others, specifically kids with difficult home lives and worse yet, the kids that have spent their lives in and out of the system. If you pursue your teaching career in an inner city district, you have to become an educator with clear expectations as well as someone who will become another mother or father towards the kids that you are working to educate.

And I carry that belief with me in everything I do. For instance, the college class I am teaching this summer is at the city campus. It took me less than 5 minutes to e-mail the students who missed the first class to just remind them that class was today. Within 30 minutes, I even had one show up late to class.

Sometimes, you just have to be that person for other people. If you want to be a successful teacher, you need to remember that you have chosen a profession where you are in service to others.

The Longest Wait

At the beginning of each school year, I think the longest wait is until Christmas break. Then we hit that mark of the school year and I look forward to the 100th day of school mark which brings us to the dregs of the year where school just feels endless. You’ll blink and it’ll be spring break and the year will start wrapping up pretty quickly.

That is, until, you hit June. In New  Jersey, we pretty much go to the end of June. This year it is June 26th. Which means as of today, if we don’t count weekends we have 13 days left of school.

13. 13 days that really feel like 50 sometimes. The kids are done. PARCC testing kills their desire to do anything after that and then when you add in all the end of year testing we have to do to them on top of curriculum and the like, the kids are just done. And really? So are you.

You start envisioning what it would be like if you could just take over total control. What would it be like if you could snatch every water bottle that is flipped? What about slapping every fidget spinner there is in your sight right into the garbage? What if you took every cell phone and made yourself a throne of cell phones? What if you could say everything exactly the way that inner devil is thinking it without sugar coating it? What if….

Of course you won’t because you love teaching and know you’re just burnt out from the year, but during this final sprint into summer sometimes the day dreams just take over and you think maybe Mrs. Krabappel did really have the best day ever when Bart spikes her coffee with booze after she gives him a “Z”:

 

Just Me, Myself and my $500 Amazon Cart

Writing a dissertation is hard and it’s also expensive. It’s also terrifying how close to the end I am and how close I am to running out of funding. It also doesn’t help that I have to buy any book I need for my dissertation because I have to not only annotate it, but I also will need to have it in my possession for the next two years.

I had to start an Amazon wishlist because my cart actually went over $500. If you’re feeling philanthropic and want to help me to help poor urban kids get access to the arts and better literacy skill sets, then my wish list is here. I don’t regret doing this program, but I do wish I really thought about just how expensive and just how much work this was going to take to finish. I’ve sacrificed a lot over the past two years, but it really has been worth it.

Why do you teach?

For moments like this.

Student: “Do you have ketchup in your purse?”

Me: “Nope.”

Student: “But you’re a mom, you’re supposed to have everything in your purse!”

Me: “Well, I don’t have kids yet soooo I guess I get a free pass!”

Student: “Um, I was talking about us, Kuzma. You have us and as a mom, you should have ketchup in your purse.”

Love you guys, too.