Author - Christina Torres

Marathon Runner- Rock Like a Teacher Series

Ed. Note- In honor of the CUE Rock Star Camps, which run all summer, we will be presenting a Rock Like a Teacher series of posts in which educators talk about the music and musicians who made them better teachers.

I am a marathon runner/ and my legs are sore/

and I’m anxious to see/ what I’m running for./

I am a hot air balloon/ on a sailboat./

and I’d make this my home/ If I’d learn to float.

Yellow Ostrich – Marathon Runner

Silhouette of athletic girl running down the road to a sunsetWe all know the moment: you are moving your way along a trail— real or proverbial— and all of a sudden, the thought pops into your head:

“I don’t want to do this anymore. I would like to stop now, please.”

And with that, your body hits what runners know as “The Wall”: your legs get heavy, your shoulders hunch down, your chest feels like it’s weighed down with a bag of lead. Your entire being is telling you to give up, to stop whatever you’re doing, and surrender to failure.

Teaching has Walls too. I hit one in my first year of teaching- in October of 2012. The Wall was called DEVOLSON, otherwise known as “The Disillusionment Stage.” To be fair, I didn’t set myself up for success: instead of starting the year off with a plan, I assumed I’d be able to coast by on charisma and good execution.

Boy, was I wrong. The first few months of my teaching career were, in short, a disaster. My students sensed both my lack of direction as well as my lack of authenticity. By the time October hit, my classroom was far from the safe haven I had hoped. Every morning I woke up, I’d have a few minutes of blissful ignorance before realization I had to return to this place that made me feel anxious, helpless, and ineffective.

Then, I started running with my students.

We didn’t have a field. We ran laps around our school in preparation for the LA Marathon. My body rejected every single step and, after the first mile, all I wanted to do was quit. Who do you think you are? my mind screamed. You’re not built for this.

Then, I heard screams from the balcony of our building. “Go Ms. T! You can do this!” I looked up and saw a handful of students smiling and waving at us as we ran along. I was a new teacher at the school, and we were only a few months in, so I was surprised they knew me.

I couldn’t help but laugh, wave back, and start running again. I wanted them to see me keep trying. I wanted them to know they made me want to keep trying, because of how hard they worked. I wanted to keep going– no matter how slowly– because I wanted to make them proud, the way they made me proud.

Running with my kids through the SRLA program
ultimately put me on a better path to build relationships with them. We began to see each other as people, instead of adversaries, as we would tick off mile after mile together.

Eventually, I made it through DEVOLSON. When I went home that winter, I sat down and realized I needed a game plan. Just like I had a training program for the marathon, my students and I needed something we could rally around until we reached an ultimate goal that we were all invested in.

When I came back in January I had plans and a desire to be myself with them– they had already seen me sweating it out as we hit pavement. By the time March of that year came, a number of my students and I ran our first L.A. marathon together.

Now, as a teacher, running is the place I go to when I lose sight of myself, or a hit a wall in my practice. Running provided not just a physical way to relieve my stresses, but an important mental lesson: sometimes, the best option is simply to keep moving forward, even when everything hurts it seems impossible. The trail may have become murky or the end seems ridiculously far, however we must keep putting one foot in front of the other. We must keep trying to float and succeed.

All of us occasionally have the moment where we look around our classroom, hear the din of students outside, and wonder, “Can I do this?”

The answer isn’t always the optimistic, “Of course!” or “You can do anything!” The answer is also not to say, “NOPE!” and run out of the room screaming.

Sometimes, the best answer is to take a deep breath, close our eyes for a moment, and decide there’s only one way to find out– open the door, and keep running the trail with our students.

Torres HeadshotChristina Torres currently teaches 7th and 9th grade English and Drama at University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. She previously taught in Los Angeles, and worked on Teach For America – Hawai‘i staff. Christina holds a Masters in Education with a focus on Digital Education from Loyola Marymount University, and more info can be found at christinatorres.org. She’s also writes ‘The Intersection,’ a weekly column for EdWeek Teacher.

Technology As Privilege: Why Using It Matters

“Itsy? IT? It was an Edtech thing in Philly.” I heard my coworker say.wpid-img_36431.jpg

“ISTE?” I interjected excitedly. “Did you go? Did you have fun? How was it?”

He took a moment to measure his reaction. “Well, it was good to get swag…?”

“That’s it?”

He sighed, “It’s not that it was bad, it’s that it’s hard when you know your school doesn’t have the resources for the things there and you don’t control the budget.” He shrugged.

I nodded, knowing that similar feeling of frustration.

In my piece about going paperless, I knew I was coming from a privileged experience: my students and I are at a school that celebrates innovation, and their one-to-one education begins far before me. We have the budget and support to provide students with technology and experience using it.

When I taught in California though, that wasn’t always the case. There was a laptop cart we all shared, and a computer lab we could reserve. We had the drive, but not all the resources. Still, I counted myself blessed: there are many schools where access isn’t an option at all and the “digital divide” is very real.

It’s this knowledge that occasionally infuriates me about teachers who have access, but refuse to attempt trying technology in their classrooms. Having access and time to use any technology is an immense privilege, and I can’t help but feel that innovation is not just a best practice, but also a responsibility for those of us who are given that luxury.

I am not asking teachers to be inauthentic. I have met teachers who are amazing without a scrap of technology. That’s awesome. I am very impressed. I am not saying that if you refuse to let your classroom become full of student iPad stations or any version of that, I’m angry with you (or even that I disagree with you).

Still, it feels wrong to ignore that the world is digital. Assumedly, if you’re reading a CUE piece, I’m preaching to the choir, and I think it’s safe to say that technology is a thing that our students will interact with.

There’s a belief in social justice work that if you come from a place of privilege, you should come “collect and educate your own” (see #8 here).

So, this is me collecting teachers with rows of computers at their disposal, but an unwillingness to open them: Being able to choose the role technology has in our classroom is privilege. Having the space and opportunity to innovate and try new things is privilege.

If we can try something (and really, I mean anything), I think that it’s essential that we do—both for our students, and the education field as a whole. If it works, that’s great, and we can celebrate (and perhaps even share!) our success so that we can all learn from each other.

If we give something a wholehearted attempt and it doesn’t work, or the tech didn’t really fit our needs, we

try something and fail is more than try nothing and succeed phrase handwritten on sticker notes

should share that. If something doesn’t work for us, we deserve to name that and ask “why?” Was it something we missed? Or perhaps something in the design that wasn’t a good fit with our classroom culture. Or that style or type of technology doesn’t fit with our particular teaching style. That’s fine. At least we tried, and can all learn from that too.

We tell kids to try their hardest and give their best effort when they are afraid of attempting something new. We encourage them, tell them that failure is an important step to learning and figuring out what works for them. Why are we so unwilling to take the same approach towards innovation in our own practice? If we are centered on our students, then we must model the same things we ask of them every day in the classroom.

If you don’t have access to technology, I hope you get that support. If you’ve tried something and it didn’t work, I empathize. I keep trying to understand Snapchat and fail consistently. I hope you keep trying new things.

But if the access and the opportunity are there, and we are tempted to leave it on the table because it is “inconvenient” or “too hard,” I encourage us all to do something that lots of teachers do:

Ask ourselves, “What would I say to my students right now if they were in my shoes? What would they say to me?”

In the end, I think they would want us both to hit the ground running, and try big, crazy things together.


Ed. Note- This post begins CUE’s series of Connected Educator Month (#ce15) blog posts. For all things Connected Educator Month visit their schedule on the CEM main site and follow #ce15 on the tweets. Connect with the CUE blog by tweeting at me (@TheWeirdTeacher) and leaving comments in the comment section (where else would you leave comments? Sticky notes on your computer screen? That’s not very connected, except with extremely weak glue).

Torres Headshot

Christina Torres currently teaches 7th and 9th grade English and Drama at University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. She previously taught in Los Angeles, and worked on Teach For America – Hawai‘i staff. Christina holds a Masters in Education with a focus on Digital Education from Loyola Marymount University, and more info can be found at http://christinatorres.org

Less Paper, More Play

Close-up view on white conceptual keyboard - Paperless (blue key)

I’d like to tell you my paperless classroom stems from a deep belief in using technology to empower students, or to attempt innovation in my classroom and practice. Those things are true, but it also is rooted in another, perhaps equally essential, motivation: I wanted things to be just a little easier, for me and my students.

My first day of teaching I showed up to school at least 45 minutes before everyone else did. Yes, there were first-day jitters, and the terrifying daydream of students revolting in mass anarchy and attacking me with trashcan-based armor. There was a much bigger concern I was facing though:

I had at least 420 copies I needed to make. Would I get it all done?

My school had two copiers for its 30+ teachers, and the logistics of it all often kept me anxious the night before school. Should I have copied this sooner?! I’d ask myself, frantically and tragically at 11:30PM on a Sunday evening. What will I do if I don’t have these worksheets?

As I progressed as a teacher, my classroom activities moved far beyond worksheets and more towards student-created work. The copier and its woes always loom nearby though– there were texts to get students, sample essays to show, rubrics to share.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a one-to-one Chromebook program this past year. At first, the additional access was simply an easier way for my students to receive email, turn in essays, and have the ability to research more in class. It also meant constantly monitoring what they were up to online.

Once my students had more digital access, I realized that saying it was “easier” wasn’t true. Having a paperless classroom requires work, it’s just that the work begins to look different, and is ultimately much, much better. Instead of working to have streamlined, teacher-focused lessons, the work began keeping up with my students. After a semester of walking the digital/analog line, I jumped into my paperless classroom with both feet.

Here’s what I ultimately realized: getting rid of the traditional makings of a classroom– worksheets and pencils and board markers– frees up everyone’s mind. Within the first week, I noticed a huge difference: Not only was I able to, but I had to be more flexible in my lesson planning.

As soon as my students were allowed to have even a little ownership of what we learned, they would discover new things quicker than I could have given them. They would ask questions I hadn’t planned, they would completely rethink the assignment I had shown them.

At first, that was terrifying. While I like being student-centered, I also worked hard to become a well-planned teacher. As much as I would try to reign in my classroom, going digital forced me to give up the reigns altogether. They never really existed.

If I kept considering it my job to steer kids in a direction, I was doing it all wrong. Ultimately, going paperless just showed me that imagination is king. All I was trying to do was focus my students’ unbridled imagination in certain directions (and not allow them to run free in a Minecraft-based anarchy).

I faced some tough truths: I had wanted to declutter my classroom, yet I saw the clutter wasn’t necessarily gone, it was just digital.

The lack of physical clutter made my classroom leaps and bounds better, but it was important to realize I couldn’t cop-out of creating clear systems and routines. SUCF|||$|1N|000000000000000000000000000000000000000000|16$9@5005006.239_5005025.534@148$145$@Industry.Miscellaneous$Objects.Miscellaneous$@$@36$27@$@$@$@313$331@$@$@$@$@$@$@$@$@57$45@$@$@0x6x240.15$0x6x228.15$@Industry.Miscellaneous$Objects.Miscellaneous$@111$111$@16$9@$@$@$@$@$@$@13.316$NA$@$@$@$@$@$@$@$$@$$@@$|||$$-1$0$0|_________________________________________|000000000000000000000000000000000000000100|It’s easy to forget with Google Drive’s ability to search everything you’ve ever done, but in order to work quickly, I had to be thoughtful about naming documents and ordering files. On the recommendation of my department chair, I also drilled my students time and time again on naming conventions– the pattern which they title documents– so that things wouldn’t get lost (mine: Last Name, First Name, Doc Title. Google Classroom does a lot of sorting on its own, but that’s another post!). It seems like a hassle, but students face similar requests when they go to college, and much like physical organization skills, it is a good habit to have.

Finally, yes: I have to be watchful all. the. time. This is a primary concern, not just to ensure students are using their time well, but for student safety. There are quite a few laws in place that all teachers should be following, but it’s also our job to make sure that students are keeping their own identity safe and understand why that’s important. Have the conversation early and often about how to be safe online.

My school sets up multiple evenings to educate students and parents about what safe online behavior looked like, and students had to pass certain tests and online courses to get access to their devices. We also use Hapara to monitor and I use Google Classroom for nearly everything.

While nothing is perfect, I have to say that my experience of doing everything online has created a space for me to completely rethink my practice. Now that I’ve broken away from the mental ties to my own traditional classroom experience, I have come to see that I was using paper– its routines and the rigidity of its simple, tangible existence– often as a way to hold me back. I have moved towards less paper, and for now, a little more play.

Torres HeadshotChristina Torres currently teaches 7th and 9th grade English and Drama at University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. She previously taught in Los Angeles, and worked on Teach For America – Hawai‘i staff. Christina holds a Masters in Education with a focus on Digital Education from Loyola Marymount University, and more info can be found at http://christinatorres.org