Wednesday, May 26, 2010

This I Believe

I first shared This I Believe essays from National Public Radio (NPR) with my students a few months ago. We listened to pod casts of several essays, discussed their power and resonance, and then listened to a few more. I issued a set of guidelines and a rubric and off they went to create beautiful, heartfelt pieces that were a joy to read and comment upon.

So what is so special about these essays, broadcast over the radio in the authors’ own voices?

They are simple.

They are emotional.

They are profound.

While listening, my students were mesmerized, and often gasped at a surprise turn, or a particularly powerful experience as related by the authors. Using them in my classroom changed the way we wrote, and made everything more immediate and present. The writing we listened to, and the writing we did ourselves, took on new meaning and incredible intensity.

The history of the series is an interesting piece of writing itself. Here is this from the This I Believe website:

“This I Believe, Inc., was founded in 2004 as a not-for-profit organization that engages youth and adults from all walks of life in writing, sharing, and discussing brief essays about the core values that guide their daily lives.

“This I Believe is based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, hosted by acclaimed journalist Edward R. Murrow. Each day, Americans gathered by their radios to hear compelling essays from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, and Harry Truman as well as corporate leaders, cab drivers, scientists, and secretaries—anyone able to distill into a few minutes the guiding principles by which they lived. These essayists’ words brought comfort and inspiration to a country worried about the Cold War, McCarthyism, and racial division. (These essays are now featured in weekly broadcasts on
Bob Edwards‘ satellite and public radio shows.)

“In reviving This I Believe, executive producer Dan Gediman says, ‘The goal is not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, the hope is to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own…’

“Teachers around the country—and around the world—have embraced This I Believe as a powerful educational tool. They have downloaded our free educational curricula, posters, and brochures for using This I Believe in middle and high school classrooms and in college courses. These curricula help teachers guide students through exploring their beliefs and then composing personal essays about them. The students learn about themselves and their peers, and experience the delight of realizing their views and voices have value.”

The curriculum for the classroom is available here. The pod casts seemed to work better on the NPR website here. This I Believe also has a website where teachers can download and print the essays.

For great ideas for writing assignments, and powerful essays that will move students, This I Believe is an incredible tool for educating young writers.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Future of Journalism In The Digital Age**

Today, my students participated in a journalism conference at the school. Titled, “The Future of Journalism In The Digital Age,” the conference featured a discussion with three local journalists, Paul Chaderjian, Allen Yekikian, and Liana Aghajanian. My senior student, Vatche Yousefian, moderated the festivities.

Paul Chaderjian has a number of credits as a journalist in print, digital media, and television news. He has worked for ABC News, Asbarez News, The Armenian Reporter, Horizon Armenian TV, and most recently, Haytoug: The Official Publication of the Armenian Youth Federation Western United States.

Allen Yekikian represented digital media, having worked as the Assistant Editor and Online Media Director at Asbarez News as well as Haytoug. He is a graduate of UCLA, and has degrees in history and Armenian Studies.

Liana Aghajanian gave my students the print and digital news perspectives, having worked at The Glendale News-Press and Burbank Leader, both part of the Los Angeles Times conglomerate. She has also written for Edible Los Angeles, Bitch, Paste and The Outlook Newspaper. Her digital news experience includes being the “publisher, editor, and writer of ianyan, an online magazine of Armenian news, features, opinions, and more where she has written about the protests regarding the Armenia-Turkey Protocols and the effect of the 2009 Iranian Election and subsequent fallout on the Iranian-Armenian community.”

Prior to today’s conference, my students gathered together to draft topics and questions for the panelists. They boiled down their inquiries to several key areas: One, the students wanted to know the journalists’ opinions about devices such as IPads, Kindles, Nooks, and other electronic reading gadgets, and how they might benefit the writing and journalism industries. Since several students have blogs and also read them, they were looking for tips and techniques for creating content and reaching a wider audience. Third, the concept of citizen journalism was a prominent interest, since so many news organizations now have links for submitting stories from the average person-on-the-street. Finally, the subject of newspapers and magazines, particularly what form these traditional publications might take in the future, concerned many students, as they are interested in majoring in journalism or working in media in the future.

The presenters had several suggestions for students wanting to work in journalism, and along with key advice, discussion and insight, wisdom and experience, the three also traded phone numbers, email addresses, and blog sites with students, leading to valuable networking.

Mr. Yekikian brought along the latest issue of Haytoug for students, and the school provided copies of the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s own journalism publication. Copies of a recent article written by Mr. Yekikian and Mr. Chaderjian were also available for students.

I participated and took pictures, and my wife, also an English teacher at the school, observed in the audience. We were joined by two of the school’s Armenian studies instructors, both journalists: Dr. Minas Kojayan and Mr. Hratch Sepetjian.

The day was a great experience for students, offering a chance to dialogue with working journalists about their lives and vocations. We are thinking of ramping up the school’s journalism program in the future, so my interest in the discussion was to determine in what format to publish student work. Should we go with a traditional newspaper, or move everything online? The bottom line advice from our presenters was clear: do both. We can publish daily, or weekly, online, and take the best articles and publish in a magazine format once a quarter or semester.

Having kids work as journalists is the best way to teach writing. Students write, revise, and polish their work while learning the research and reporting techniques of journalism. Upon publication, they see the immediate effects of their writing on readers. It is a “win-win” situation; students writing papers for the teacher rarely see the power of writing to create change and foster a culture of ideas. Journalism allows them to explore their world and write about it, and one cannot get more relevant and immediate than that.

Mr. Yekikian suggested the magazine format, and from his experience, he felt that magazines did not face the same fate as newspapers. They have a longer shelf life, and often offer deeper, more thoroughly researched writing than newspapers that must be created daily with a pressing deadline. Online publishing offers writers a way to create content within a twenty-four hour news cycle in today’s world.

Both Ms. Aghajanian and Mr. Chaderjian told students that they must be able to be “multi-platform” journalists, writers and producers comfortable with video, print, and visual technology as well as with programming and source code like HTML. Mr. Yakikian and Ms. Aghajanian use a form of Wordpress technology for their sites, and they told students to learn the basic programming skills to modify existing platforms to create unique web and blog portals. All three panelists agreed that journalism today is multi-faceted and requires skills in a number of domains and disciplines. Students must be aggressive and learn about technology, programming, writing, photography, and video production in order to compete in the workplace. Mr. Chaderjian insisted several times that this is an incredible time to be alive, and that technology offered many avenues for storytelling and journalism.

So it was a good day, an important day, for writing, thinking, understanding, and most of all, meeting three individuals who offered inspiration and advice for the next generation of journalists.

*Update: A few minor corrections to this story are necessary. Paul Chaderjian is currently a columnist at Asbarez Armenian Newspaper and a host on Horizon Armenian TV. Allen Yekikian is the co-editor of Haytoug.

**Update: Our three presenters can be seen discussing the event here, at Horizon Armenian TV.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Teaching Writing and Grammar (Part II)

I know we have had some high profile movies and books that show a dedicated teacher who inspires her students (inner city kids make for good drama) to write meaningful prose. Usually, the teacher winds up resigning at the end of the movie because her methods were just too “out there,” because we all know that anyone who professes to love to teach teenagers to write, and write meaningfully, must be a little bit nuts.

The fact of the matter is that teachers who can get kids not only to write, but to care about what they write enough to use a process and struggle to say something meaningful, are few and far between. In twenty-four years, I have not taught with many teachers who were dedicated to writing. Sure, I’ve worked with grammarians, literature buffs, amateur actors and screen writers, but a good, solid teacher of writing, who slogged through endless papers because her students wrote every week, who tried to publish student work, and was willing to read draft after draft after draft, not so much.

Teaching writing is hard. All teaching is hard, but teaching writing is really hard. You have to love the written word. You have to respect the student voice. You have to want to know what a kid is thinking, and therefore, appreciate what he writes.

Combine the difficult task of teaching writing with the further complication of teaching proper grammar, and we have a laborious task worthy of Hercules. And I dare say, after watching television news, reading what passes for print journalism these days, and reading missives from administrators and teachers, we have largely failed to teach writing and grammar effectively in the last twenty years.

Recently, the Harvard Writing Project undertook a study of how we teach writing. In a “Special Issue: Responding To Student Writing,” scholars examined the undergraduate writing program over the last thirteen years. They came to some significant, if not earth-shattering conclusions about how we should teach writing.

The most prominent conclusion was that “timely and detailed feedback plays a crucial role in students’ development as thinkers and scholars.” This point immediately attracted my attention. At my school, I carry five preparations, all honors and Advanced Placement, and I struggle each evening with whether I should spend my time researching, developing, and preparing my lessons and readings for the next day, or grading papers. Since I would rather stand in front of my students with a solid plan and know where I am going with the lesson, the papers usually wait. As I mentioned in the previous post, this is beginning to drive me crazy because immediate, detailed feedback is what nurtures a new writer.

The study says that this feedback can take many forms, including “written comments on drafts and papers, e-mail messages responding to proposals or introductions, and personal conversations in office hours or after class.” This feedback is “central to their learning experience,” and what students should expect from their writing teachers. “Feedback improves their writing, as well as providing them with a more satisfying writing experience,” the report goes on to say.

If students see their work treated in a way that demonstrates the teacher values what they write, things change very quickly in the writing classroom. “…[T]hey learn to see writing as an opportunity for personal and intellectual engagement with course material…Students report feeling insulted and angry when they receive little or no feedback on their writing.”

The report contains many first-person accounts of writing experiences through a student’s eyes. This testimony serves to reinforce the main thrust of the report. The study also addresses marginalia, the practice of writing notes and comments in the margin of the paper by the teacher. Too many comments, and the student tunes out. Too few, and the student feels slighted. The study boils down the “Six Tips for Effective Marginal Commenting.” One, “Comment primarily on patterns—representative strengths and weaknesses.” Two, “Use a respectful tone.” Three, “Make positive comments,” and four, “Write legibly.” If only the students followed this advice on in-class timed work. Five, “Ask questions.” And finally, number six, “Use terms that students can understand.”

The report considers writing across the curriculum, including teachers’ voices about student work from departments of education, social sciences, and of course, English. There are also lists of “Pitfalls to Avoid,” “Making the Most of Final Comments,” and “Types of Problem Papers.”

When the report delves into the views of teaching fellows in the undergraduate program, the passion young educators have for their students becomes evident. “The real joy of responding to student writing is engaging in a dialogue about ideas and their presentation,” says Daniel Gutierrez, a teaching fellow in history. “If clear writing is a reflection of clear thinking, then there is no better way to help students improve their writing than to focus on the main ideas of their paper, to challenge them to re-think and better articulate their arguments.”

The bottom line is that grading papers is a time-consuming and often grueling process. According to the report, a paper can take “anywhere from 20-45 minutes for a typical 5-to-7-page paper.”

This is my assessment as well. And again, if a teacher must prepare lessons, handle other miscellaneous administrative paperwork, and read a variety of background texts and journals to stay up on his subject, grading papers is just one part of the picture. On some days, I receive a written paper from two to three classes. I lug home a set of forty to fifty papers that evening. If each one takes ten minutes, a very modest allowance, it takes me 500 minutes or more than eight hours to complete the sets. Teachers do have other lives. I laugh when I interview prospective teachers and they tell me they want to teach English because we get all that time off each summer, and we are home by four o’clock each day. Leaves plenty of time to work on that screenplay, right? Only if you never sleep.

The thing is, when you find that one gem of a paper where the student has poured out her heart and soul and she has something to say, not just a regurgitation of class notes, it is worth it. And I firmly believe that such students should be, must be, rewarded with publication. Ultimately, we do not write in a vacuum. We write to be heard, to have our say, to tell it like we see it.

I do not know how I can do my grading differently, but I am always on the look-out for new methods. Until I find a better way, I will continue to read my students’ work, draft after draft. They must know that someone cares what they have to say, even if it takes time to return the paper.

As one of my seniors said as he left my room for the last time: “All you wrote on my papers was ‘dig deeper, dig deeper. Go further.’” Yes, as weird as the comment sounds, I wanted him to keep thinking, keep probing the subject, keep looking. That is the rule of engagement. That is why we write, as so many writers have said: to find out what we know and what we believe.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Teaching Writing and Grammar (Part I)

Usually, around this time of year I am worrying about which books to teach next fall. I have written blog posts in the past detailing my reading lists for the coming year, and discussing the merits of this book or that book.

This year is different. My obsession this year is the teaching of writing and grammar.

We will be adopting writing and grammar textbooks for the high school English classes next year, and some literature will have to be cut from the syllabus to make room for this instruction. Although my students continue to be under-read, the teaching of writing skills and the structure of the language has become a dire necessity. SAT exams have grammar and writing sections, and I am discovering that students know less and less about the structure of English, and do not recognize even the terminology of grammar. If a student does not know what pronoun-antecedent agreement is, he cannot fix a sentence containing such an error.

Recently, I embarked on a thorough examination of how we teach writing and grammar in the English Department. I collected writing samples from every grade level and every teacher throughout the months of March, April and May. Currently, our middle school program utilizes a writing and grammar textbook and a workbook. The high school teachers focus on writing in the context of studying literature.

In examining each teacher’s corrected student essays, reviewing the workbooks, journals, formal assignments, and informal writing from several classes, and discussing the teaching of writing and grammar in conference with each department member, I discovered that there are gaping holes in our instruction.

The high school classes need a writing and grammar textbook. Simply assigning whole writing—papers, essays, and timed, in class writing—is not enough. Each paper contains teachers’ remarks and notes with phrases such as “awkward syntax,” “subject-verb agreement,” and “unclear sentence,” yet the mistakes are never remedied by the student on successive assignments. It is clear that the kid does not understand the note, and therefore is helpless to make the correction.

Teachers struggle to balance their class periods each week with literature, vocabulary skills, grammar, and writing. Across the board, we should have two periods per day for English: one for literature and one for writing and grammar. I have taught at schools that have done this and it works. The other option is to dedicate a particular grade level for heavy writing and grammar instruction and very little literature. From my experience, this did not work well. Writing skills need to be re-taught and reinforced each and every year from middle school through the end of high school.

What also became very clear are the weaknesses in student writing. Students do not understand the purpose of verb tense. They throw in helping verbs whether necessary or not. They see common indefinite pronouns as plural when they are singular. And there is no understanding of the components of a good sentence. Clauses, phrases, active voice verbs—all are mysteries to our student writers. Common usage errors riddled the papers.

Do we need to know these things to write well?

Yes, because the rules of grammar, syntax and usage help a student writer understand the structure and nuances of the language. Students learn the terms and parts, and when they make mistakes, teachers and students have a common terminology to discuss what is wrong.

The scary thing is, high school teachers rarely get the opportunity to address problems with organization, critical thinking, analysis, or content because there are so many technical problems with a student’s use of language. Expressing clear, articulated ideas cannot happen without a structure in which to frame those ideas. If language is a tool to convey meaning, one must have the tools in place or the meaning is lost.

So next year, we will continue to focus on improving language instruction by teaching grammar and writing. I have asked teachers to split their class time 50-50: fifty percent on literature and vocabulary development; fifty percent on writing and grammar skills. I want to see chapters covered in the textbook that correspond to those common errors: subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, verb tense, active voice, clauses, phrases, sentence structure and usage problems. Students must also write frequently within several rhetorical modes: narration, description, persuasion, cause and effect, comparison-contrast, analysis, and expository writing. Research should also be a key component of these courses. Kids today have no idea how to evaluate the reliability of sources on the internet.

The final area needing more attention is within the teacher’s domain. Teachers have to give student-writers immediate feedback.

Reading student work is time-consuming and labor-intensive. When the paper crosses my desk, I read it through once without making notes or marks. This pass is to simply understand the writer’s thesis and discussion. A second pass allows me to mark spelling and grammar mistakes. The third pass is dedicated to content and organization, coherence and clarity of thought. I make a final note at the bottom of the last page summarizing my assessment in detail. Each paper can take upwards of ten to thirty minutes to read and mark up. I must avoid copy editing the piece, as I will become bogged down and never finish. Marking too much and covering the paper in ink can cause the student writer to shut down.

My department policy is to return papers in five to seven class days. I struggle to hit this mark, and I lose sleep over the sets of papers that drag on longer before being returned to students. I have tried all kinds of methods and shortcuts, but there is no shortcut. A teacher must fully read and respond to a student’s work. Check marks, pass-fail grades, a comment bank from which a teacher chooses automated notes—nothing is as effective as reading and commenting to the student in a note on a student paper.

The best discussion on this subject can be found in the Harvard Writing Project Bulletin: Special Issue: Responding to Student Writing. This is an invaluable resource for writing teachers, and offers a detailed discussion of how we grade and comment upon student work.

This bulletin will be the focus of my next post this week in Part II.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Looking Around The Blogosphere

Every day, it becomes more and more apparent that blogs are the future of publication. The middle man—the magazine, newspaper, or book publisher—is virtually eliminated. Blogs are people speaking to people. Yes, that brings with it some problems like editing and relevance, but I find that reading blogs is like sifting through sand for diamonds. I drop in, read for a while, and if the writing stays fresh and interesting, I hang around. If not, there is always the delete button.

I have written in this space about William Michaelian, his poetry books, his Author’s Press Series, and his expansive website. His blog, Recently Banned Literature, offers daily doses of his poetry, ruminations, dreams, recent book acquisitions from local thrift shops, and other “marginalia.” William has amassed quite a following on the internet through blogging and Facebook, giving him a plethora of readers who often interact with his work within their own creations. He posts drawings, art work, and photographs, his own and those of his readers, making for some interesting symbiotic creativity. I found his post this week on a particular dream he had with his son to be interesting; Jungians should take note.

The late David Mills, a television writer whose credits include NYPD Blue, ER, The Corner, and the new HBO series, Treme, wrote a blog called Undercover Black Man. Mills died of a brain aneurysm on March 30th on the set of the New Orleans-based production. His blogging focused on racial issues, a subject Mills explored in his television writing. He also had a passionate love of music, especially funk and R&B. Read back through the years and you will discover a gifted writer and former journalist who was taken from us much too soon.

The final blog is one that is near and dear to me. Vatche Yousefian is my student, graduating this year from high school, and destined for the writing program at UC Irvine next fall. Vatche has been in my classes for four years, and has grown immensely as a writer.

He began this school year writing for my blog of student work, Saroyan’s Ghost. Shortly thereafter, he started his own blog, The Student Writer’s Mind. He posts several times a week in an eclectic series of genres, including nonfiction, fiction, and something he calls, “A Mental Snack,” usually a short quotation or snippet of writing meant to inspire comments and discussion.

When you visit Vatche’s site, make sure to read his hilarious story about meeting David Sedaris at UCLA.

Although newspapers and magazines have seen a decline in subscriptions and readership, there is a vigorous online catalogue of writing and art about every subject and nuance under the sun. Blogs are, without a doubt, a rich and democratic source of creative work.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Education Reform? Steal From Catholic Schools

The article in The New York Times caught my eye. I focused on a pair of sentences in the third paragraph: “Ms. Ravitch and her book offer evidence of how some public-education scholars and reformers have been learning from what Catholic education is doing right. What one might call the Catholic-school model is perhaps the most unappreciated influence on the nation’s public-education debate.”

The “Ms. Ravitch” to whom reporter Samuel G. Freedman refers is Diane Ravitch, and the book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System. It seems Ravitch, a proponent of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, has made a u-turn in her thoughts about education and moved away from standardized testing as a determining factor for successful schools and teachers, and charter schools as a panacea for what ails our public institutions, and is now advocating quite a different approach to education in America.

Freedman has discovered that Ravitch has a soft spot for the quality education of Catholic schools. “When Ms. Ravitch assails the emphasis on standardized testing, particularly under the No Child Left Behind Law,” he writes, “and when she exhorts schools to use a content-rich core curriculum and emphasize character and build ties to parents and neighborhoods, she is, without overtly saying so, extolling the essential traits of Catholic education.” To put it more succinctly, Ravitch has discovered what millions of people already know: the education offered at a Catholic school by dedicated teachers is as good as gold.

He goes on to say that Catholic schools “never gave over to the obsession with standardized tests.” They also “never conceded their curriculum to progressive trends like whole language, constructivist math and relativistic history.” The result? Students graduating from Catholic institutions “were far more likely to take rigorous classes, graduate on time and attend college.”

The only downside to all of this, according to Freedman, is that Catholic schools are in trouble today. “Already reeling from a shortage of priests and members of religious orders as teachers,” he writes, “already losing enrollment because of rising tuition and falling aid from parishes, urban Catholic schools face direct competition from charters, which as public entities are free.”

I do not think it is the charters that are taking away Catholic school students. The current scandal with pedophile priests has some bearing on the situation.

And then there is the economy.

Middle class and poor families are struggling to stay solvent in this new financial paradigm. They stretch their budget to the breaking point to send their kids to Catholic school. Often, parishes must subsidize the schools and offer tuition assistance. All of this is becoming more and more difficult, putting a strain on the entire system.

To add another dimension to the Catholic versus public school debate, in a separate op-ed piece in The New York Times, American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray, author of Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back To Reality, states that charter schools have failed. He also attacks other components of No Child Left Behind like reliance on standardized test scores. “Why not…finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another?” In his view, “Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.”

We cannot measure the success of a child’s education with test scores. No Child went off the reservation when scores became the main indicator of good teaching in a successful school. There are so many factors that go into a child’s cognitive development, including maturity, experience, and parental influence. The parent factor is one Murray considers has having the most profound impact on a child’s education.

“What happens in the classroom can have some effect,” he continues, “but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction.” Parents in Catholic schools, even if they are not highly educated themselves, believe in a rigorous education for their children. They are willing to make great sacrifices to pay for a Catholic education.

Catholic schools are successful because the recipe is simple: a challenging curriculum composed of literature, languages, science, math, social studies, history, art, music, and of course, religion. The theme running through every aspect of this curriculum is character—morals, values, ethics, and social justice.

Catholic education works. That is the bottom line. I do not know what the future holds for public schools, and the morass of bureaucracy seems unable to find answers. Public education “experts” are bankrupt when it comes to the currency of ideas.

Catholic schools continue to offer a superior educational program rooted in a classical model of a challenging curriculum and high standards. However, change is necessary.

Catholic educators must find a source other than the Church to support its scholastic endeavors. Parishes struggle to subsidize the schools. The financial base upon which Catholic education rests must be revised, creating a secure economic future for the institutions.

Those of us educated in the Catholic system know that it works. We know the enriching experience of a demanding curriculum taught by dedicated teachers without the distractions of trends, fads, and spiraling bureaucracy. In the end, it is not about test scores, but a solid, rigorous educational program with strong support for learning at home.

Diane Ravitch is on the right path in her advocacy of some of the successful strategies of Catholic schools. Those institutions have educated generations of students. Public education has always viewed its Catholic counterpart with disdain, ridiculing the lack of credentialed teachers and the focus on religious education. It is high time they dropped the self-righteous arrogance and look at what works. The Ten Commandments clearly prohibit stealing, but America will gladly look the other way if public education wants to usurp the educational strategies that have made Catholic schools so successful. In this one case, stealing is a good thing.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


This is the day I remember we grow older.

I still think of you as children, but you are not, and never will be again. Young men and women, you are off to find your lives, and ride the train wherever it may take you. I will stay behind and keep the light on for others to follow.

The letter lay open on my desk. “I’m not a big fan of having people in my life for years at end and then all of a sudden completely cutting them out of my life as if they never meant anything to me, so I found it appropriate to write…”

This was a difficult year. Loss and loneliness. Change. The first year where the future was less than certain, and the truths fell to pieces. Everything, everything piled on, and many days, I did not think I would make it through, only to drive home in the gathering darkness and feel my own diminishing heart beat. I felt “time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” The dead of winter, empty trees, and nothing left to say. You were the first class that I ever lost my composure in front of, and in that moment, I felt you hold me up.

“These last four years in your class have been a pleasure. I really appreciate all that you have done for our class and for me. You have taught me to think outside of the box, and to question everything.”

Sometimes, I wonder if I teach you or is it you who teach me? Human beings teach each other what it means to be alive. I grow older, but I am kept young by you. You remind me of the hope and promise of those teenage years. You remind me of all the things left in our hearts to discover.

“This chapter of my life is over, and it’s time for the next one to begin. I am anxious for college to start. Fear of the unknown, right? But I can say that I have gained a confidence that is irreplaceable and I owe part of that confidence to you and your English class.”

You all wanted me to say something about each of you. Here goes:

Andrew, do not forget the mystery of flight, do not look down, do not let anything get in your way. Fly. And when you feel angry or discouraged, know that I believe in you, and that you have greatness inside.

Natalie, I never had to tell you to speak the truth; you are blunt and outspoken. Don’t be lazy; don’t sell yourself short. You are smart and you are capable of more than you know. Your words to your grandfather still make me cry.

Roselyn, I will miss your quiet strength, your resilience. Mount St. Mary’s will change your life and help you realize your dreams. Stick with it, and know that I am pulling for you.

Elda, I will miss our discussions. You are a deep thinker and a philosopher. You see the truth and you are persistent. I will lend you my camera anytime you want to see the world.

Chris, stop hiding in the shadows. You are smart, really smart. Step up and fight. I kept waiting for the moment when you would break out. It did not happen in my class, but I know what you can do, and so do you. Now do it.

Armen, you will be the first CEO with compassion and empathy for mankind. You will make money, lots of money, and you will reach your dreams. Just remember that poetry and capitalism can exist in the same soul.

Nyssa, you are a great writer. How many times have I said that since ninth grade? I loved reading your essays because of the way you said things. There you were, reading Shirley Jackson in my class. Nyssa, you always surprised me.

Nairi, I loved your passion. You were always part of the discussion, always with some insightful, thoughtful thing to say. Somewhere in the future, I see you arguing a case, making a statement, fighting for a cause. Keep fighting.

Rafi, yes, you have matured since ninth grade. I always thought you were joking with me. This year, though, I saw you for what you truly are: a serious, thoughtful man. Believe it or not, I really appreciated when you ask me how I was doing each day before class started. I think of the boy who lost his father, your strength; you are my hero.

Ashley, you almost were kept from being in my class. Thankfully, fate stepped in and here you are. I loved the way you would be silent, listening to everyone, and then raise your hand and just slay me with some incredibly insightful comment. I loved your razor-sharp truthfulness.

Narineh, I will forever see you as a dreamer. You were quiet in my class, but I knew you had strong opinions. I loved it when you shared them. I also knew that you were thinking because I could see it in the look in your eyes. There were so many facets to your character, and I feel I only saw a few of them.

Tamar, you infuriated me, challenged me, made me a better teacher. Strength should be your middle name. Thanks for the music and the recommendation. And thank you for being the strong and confident woman you are.

Serli, you entered my class a mature lady. You were integral to the class discussions, and I loved reading your work. Have a splendiferous, obsessively joyous, quantitatively spectacular life. In your writing, do not waste ink and always write what you feel. You did in my class, and that made all the difference.

Ani, the letter, the letter! Do you know, I sat at my desk after all of you left, and I just lost my equilibrium. You are right; I have not been myself these last months. But your words came at the perfect time. You are smart, tenacious, and you feel for others. Do not lose your compassion, your soul. I will remember you, too.

Talia, I thought your lecture to me about being more aggressive was so teacher-like. Your strength and intelligence will take you far, and I know you are capable of greatness. Your father would be proud, and if you would not mind, I will stand in for him and tell you that I am proud of you. Go get the world, girl.

Vatche, I drew strength from your words, your determination, your poise, your grace. I know you will find your dreams, and I will see you at the Festival of Books. Will you sign my copy of your book? Will you remember me? Thank you for being so wise.

“You are such a strong person for enduring the things you have in your life. I admire you for everything you have done and everything you continue to do.”

It is I who admire you, Ani.

I hope I have not let any of you down. I hope I have given you the best lessons, the best advice. I hope I have challenged you to think, to have opinions, to seize life by the throat.

Because while I was teaching you those things, you were teaching me.

“I remember you telling me that an essay or a book is a great one if years later you still remember the plot. I know you’re a good teacher because years from now I will still remember you.”

I remember when you entered my classroom in ninth grade. I remember our discussions, our arguments, and how sick of me all of you were at the end of eleventh grade.

This is the day for leaving, for moving on, for growing older, for realizing your dreams.

This is the first day of the rest of your lives.

This is the day I remember we must say goodbye.