20160127_130118Found a donut flattened in a napkin in the supplies pouch of a seventh grader’s binder minutes after the bell.

Spent most of third period huddled against the west wall of my classroom with thirty students until admins were sure the man in the green puffy jacket who stumbled across our schoolyard with a gun meant us no harm.

By sixth period I was too low on patience to mediate a conflict with the co-ed quartet of Study Skills students poking each other with pencils with sparkly jelly grips and arguing over a glue stick.

I walked over and held out my hand.

The note in the glue container read, “TRUTH: If you HAD to French kiss Jason or Jesús, who would you pick and why?”

Middle school. (more…)

Tall Timber Ranch leafAfter my group of 12- and 13-year-old middle school students lined the riverbank with foraged materials arranged in Andy-Goldsworthy inspired patterns, they walked back to camp. Preoccupied with my ongoing roadside search for a leaf to flatten in a book, I didn’t hear everything they said. A couple of them talked about the inability of cameras to capture fall colors. Hugo walked alongside me. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m looking for a perfect leaf,” I said, pulling on a low branch.

“What do you mean? Isn’t everyone’s definition of perfect different?” he asked.

School’s been in session long enough for me to know Hugo knows things I don’t know, like swing dance moves and the history of yoga’s religious roots, so I hesitated. (more…)

Just kidding.

A girl “dislocated” her jaw on a cheeseburger, but everything else on the field trip was fine. The kids toured campus and listened to a college lecture. No one cried.

I got here because after a few months of exploring Central America and contemplating my future in education, I scored a two-month job teaching Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” to 11- and 12-year-olds in Renton, Wash. We had a few weeks until we started the play about a woman who finds happiness by being obedient to the man who deprives her of food and sleep – why a curriculum writer would find this “comedy” suitable for sixth graders, I didn’t know – so we had time for things like building college dreams and getting to know each other.

“Are you chewing gum?” a girl with a purple butterfly clip in her hair asked me on the first day.

“Why?” I asked.

“We can chew gum?”

“Ummm…” I swallowed.

“Can I go to my locker and get a book?” a boy in a DEPT OF PURE GENIUS shirt asked on the second day.

“Run quick,” I said.

“We’re allowed to run?”

All accidental revolutions considered, I started paying attention to the basic rules of the middle school handbook and to the quirky characteristics of my sixth graders who, like lots of other sixth graders, love folding notebook paper into footballs, fortune-tellers, ninja stars, and inflatable sweet rice dumplings. (more…)

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Last night I wasn’t sure if I’d have work today, so I was happy to see your absence in the online substitute register. I couldn’t find the lesson plan anywhere, so your students played volleyball and basketball.

In first period, a girl with dishwater hair didn’t care to serve, but when she reached back and went for a basic underhand the ball cleared the net, reminding me that serving a volleyball is no small thing, especially with onlookers, and that some days it’s best to take the form that gets results.

Your students in second period told me you’ve been recovering from back surgery, and that they knocked out their first sub. “What?” I asked. “Knocked out?” The kid got suspended, they explained, for hitting the substitute lady in the head with a volleyball, and the other two kids who aimed but missed stuck around and got into new kinds of mischief, like rolling free weights down the stairs. That’s why second period now walks laps instead of playing games, they said. (more…)

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Here’s the beginning of my memoir, Magical Teaching: Nuanced Conversations About Big Ideas, Witty Banter in the Hallways, and Other Fantasies of a Rookie Teacher.


Here is a headless, hand-less, foot-less English teacher purchased from Target. I stare at the brown khakis and white shirt on my bed and wonder how I, accustomed to flannel pajama pants and sweatshirts, will wear the outfit.

I’m here because I stuttered as a child and fell in love with books as a way to avoid interacting with my peers. In fourth grade the teacher put my name on the board for reading No Coins, Please when I should have been working on my multiplication tables. When I cracked the book to find out how many New Yorkers Artie could swindle into buying jars of grape jelly labeled “Attack Jelly” (intended to defend against home invaders the likes of which run rampant in urban jungles like New York City), Mr. Segur forced me to skip recess and stay inside, as if gleaning tips from an entrepreneur like Artie in an air-conditioned teacher-supervised space would deter me from reading in the future. (more…)

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On Wednesday I’ll share the first chapter of my memoir Magical Teaching: Nuanced Conversations About Big Ideas, Witty Banter in the Hallways, and Other Fantasies of a Rookie Teacher. Details below.

Mr. Smith is not your average teacher. He smokes cigarettes confiscated from students, serves fresh tea to a perpetually tardy boy, and when a young woman catches him wearing pajamas and reading “Rolling Stone” in Target, that becomes the topic for class discussion the next day.

Welcome to Derek Smith’s journal of his first year teaching English at a public high school. With relentless momentum and self-effacing honesty, Magical Teaching: Nuanced Conversations About Big Ideas, Witty Banter in the Hallways, and Other Fantasies of a Rookie Teacher tells a hilarious and touching tale that romps though the education of one young man and 120 first-years in a run-down portable on the edge of campus. Smith, whose life is as fragmented and frantic as his students, skips and trips through a year in which he confronts sly-eyed rats, leaky ceiling tiles, misbehaving students, negative colleagues, and one outlandish principal – predictable obstacles for a first-year teacher, he knows.

Chronicling both the sweep of American education and small successes of life and learning, Magical Teaching puts breath and bones on one of our nearly universal experiences: high school. LouAnne Johnson, bestselling author of “Dangerous Minds,” writes that Smith “has the soul of a poet and the wit of a stand-up comic.” Bret Lott, bestselling author of “Jewel,” calls Magical Teaching “a sharp and funny and brutally honest book that has at its core a kind of shape-shifting elegance—it is at once a terror-ride through that first year of teaching and a nuanced homage… the result is a beautiful and funny story.”

Recent second-order changes to the manuscript include a heightened focus on narrative momentum and a reduction in length from 76,000 words to 49,000 words. A more formal proposal – including information about primary and secondary markets, chapter summaries, competitive works, and endorsements – is available.

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When I wake in the night and think
of what I might have said in class that day,
I wonder why my life consists

of inarticulate occasions.
No timely word, only belated ones.
Every hour a first draft, and then another.

It makes me want to announce, “Listen!
Listen to what I do not say. Listen
to what it is you cannot say yourselves.”

There are sighs and groans,
just sighs and groans.
Interpret them, dear ones, as you may.

Paul J. Willis is a professor of English at Westmont College and the former poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California. His most recent collections of poetry are Rosing from the Dead (WordFarm, 2009) and Say This Prayer into the Past (Cascade Books, 2013). He is also the co-editor of the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare (University of Iowa Press, 2005).

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On the phone with an admin at a Utah high school, recommending my student teacher for a job / complimenting his work with our diverse population, and the admin asks, “At a low-income school? How is he with rigor? Our school is high-achieving…”


I understand. Our sophomores and juniors take the PSAT and SAT for free. Our talent show sells out. Our culinary students provide hors d’oeuvres for the Seattle International Film Festival, our student journalists produce professional publications, and our choir writes original compositions for graduation. Next week our annual multicultural mash-up takes over. Wanna come? Our students hold doors for visitors, so they’ll definitely hold one for you. You and I can go to ping-pong or anime club after school, and track practice some time after that. We’ll sit on the bleachers and watch our 4 x 400 m sprinters run circles around your racist logic…