My article featured on the Classcraft Blog

I’ve talked a bit about Classcraft, and its uses in the classroom.  I hope to post more comprehensively about it in the future, but I thought I would share a post that I wrote for them that they recently featured.  There’s an excerpt here with a link below!

Hip hop forces discussion about race, poverty, identity, family, hate, and the Man—all of which are things students worry about daily when they’re supposed to be thinking about your step-by-step tutorial on Shakespearean sonnets. You have an opportunity with hip hop to acknowledge pain, hate, anger, and injustice instead of denying it and further losing respect from students, who go home to these real issues and face them instead of your homework. You can show them through hip hop staples (rhyme, repetition, storytelling, catharsis, reflection) how to handle these issues and even use them to navigate another discomfort: your academic world.

via Why teachers need Hip Hop Education in the classroom – Classcraft Blog

You Don’t Like Sleep.

Sleep is a beautiful thing.  Sleep helps you lose weight, grow taller, heighten your senses, process memories, dump old memories – you get all that for SLEEPING, an activity that, in theory, takes little to no effort, and only requires you to take the time to do it.

When I was young, I squandered the opportunities to sleep as often as I could.  Well, according to my memory anyway; apparently, when I was a baby I was a very good napper.  I didn’t do any of that crib-climbing stuff that I watched my little brother do with fascination.  In fact, at one point, my mom said she put me on a mattress on the ground – no restraints, fences, nothing – and I made no attempt to escape whatsoever.  What a loser.  My brother in that same situation for one parent-imposed naptime was crawling out of there like Gollum.

But intellectually, I fought naptimes, and I stayed up late doing homework, IMing, gaming, binge-watching Netflix and staying up with my insomniac brother.  Over time, I kind of forgot what it was like to have a full, complete sleep.  Sometimes I noted that I was too tired to sleep.  Yep, in moments of extreme tiredness, my body would do things not conducive to sleeping.  My body was too sleepy to figure out how to sleep – short of collapsing in exhaustion when I finally hit zero.

It was actually my wife who pushed me to go to bed on time during my first two or so years of teaching.  I still remember what it was like that first morning after an eight hours sleep.  I had super powers!  My food didn’t drag me down, my senses were loading up my brain with information, my work got done so fast with my usual planning that I had all this extra time, too!  Life was… better!  Who wouldn’t do this?!

Now, sleep is one of the only things that lacks in my life.  Lack of sleep makes it hard to lose weight, work, and even spend time with my wife – which, because I’m suffering from lack of sleep, makes it so I have to make up for all of this by… you got it: NOT sleeping – which made it WORSE.  Yes, learn this lesson now.  Right my wrongs.  Not sleeping will make you so bad at being awake that you won’t get a chance to sleep.

So now I see these young teenagers every day at my work, and on the surface of it, it looks like they’re smarter than I was.  “I love sleep!” they’ll say.  Yet, day after day, students will wander into my classroom with half-lidded eyes and profess to long nights of Netflix, gaming and Snapchatting.  I thought you loved sleep?

When I love something, I prioritize it.  I make time for it.  That’s not what’s happening when my students are thinking about sleep.  They are doing things that aren’t sleep, and putting it off further and further, and only thinking of it wistfully because they’re bad at being awake.  “I can’t wait till spring break so I can just get some sleep,” which means that they can do all of their night time stuff and oversleep with no consequences.

So maybe it’s time to be precise: Do you love sleep, or do you hate waking up?

If it’s the latter, would you hate waking up so much if you just got some sleep?

To People Who Don’t Read

A lot of young people like to make the excuse that they “don’t read.”

Word?

Reading books and writing are among brain-stimulating activities shown to slow down cognitive decline in old age, with people who participated in more mentally stimulating activities over their lifetimes having a slower rate of decline in memory and other mental capacities.

Translation: How do you not read? It’s literally the other way to communicate.

“No, no, I don’t read for fun.”

That’s like saying I’m bad at math because I don’t spend my evenings graphing parabolas.  Like mathematicians are at home begging, “Mom, after dinner can I recite the quadratic formula? I love the way that everything divides by 2a!”

Even so, if you know that not reading is the reason you’re awful, then doesn’t it make sense to start now?

Here’s the thing; there’s some guff on the internet that says something about how “you don’t even use what you learn in school, anyway” or something like that.  That’s complete malarkey – a successful person will figure out how to use most of what they learn in high school to some degree.  But even if you accept that flawed premise, here’s a stone cold truth: Reading and writing are NOT on the list of things you won’t need.

I tell this story to everyone who tells me they won’t need reading and writing skills.  In my first job at a bowling alley, I worked with a coworker/supervisor (I’m not telling which because that’s too specific for creepy internet stalkers) who wanted to advertise a special deal: Pepperoni pizza for $1.00 a slice.  He had the bright idea of making this special appear on the score screens of all 32 lanes in large letters that would march across the screen.

“Peperroni Piza, $1.OO per slise – munday thru thirsday!!!”

Not only is every word except “per” and “thru,” (an acceptable abbreviation) misspelled, but he even had a typo on the part with “$1.00,” because he used O’s instead of zeroes.  Yes – dude misspelled a number.  I was mortified and had to fix it immediately, and of course, anyone who saw it was probably similarly mortified.

I’m not stopping the story here, though, as a cautionary tale where all listeners go “Well, I’m not THAT bad!”

The reason I tell that story is to deliver a message: If you write without capitalizing, it’s exactly as noticeable as this situation.  If you can’t write three sentences without showing why you didn’t get a diploma, it will look exactly the same as if you had written that pizza sign.  If you can’t read in the work world, it will be noticed and seen in exactly the same way as I, and now you, look at this guy.  There is no way to reveal a lack of reading and writing skill that isn’t embarrassing, except in school.

In my head, I feel like even youths caught up in gang activity might even be like “I’m gonna trust you to have my back?  I’m gonna trust you with a gun?  You didn’t even pass English 1, man.”  After all, if you can’t sit still long enough to learn how to read with people paid to help you, how are you going to fend for your life in this world?

I’m not saying people not good at these things have no value; I’m saying that there’s no way to hide it or ignore it.  It’s not like a scar you can conceal.  In most cases, within minutes of knowing you and hearing you talk, reading your texts, or viewing your Snapchat, employers, friends, enemies, and everyone else will know whether you would sell “piza” or “pizza.”

Here’s the kicker: Even people with similarly bad or worse spelling and grammar can tell when someone can’t write.

“I never read when I was young, Mr. Phan, so it’s too late for me.”

A lot of people seem to think that if you don’t start reading at a young age, then you’ll never become good at it. And I see why they might think that.

According to studies done by the University of Oxford, “Young brains do tend to be able to absorb new information better than old ones, although not necessarily to integrate it as well with what has been learned previously.”

That’s why little kids can’t take over the world. Little kids can learn faster, but older people use what they learn better.

That’s why I’m better at arguing than you are.

However, learning how to read at an earlier age doesn’t mean a rooster’s crow.

“Being taught to read at an early age (such as five years old) does not ultimately result in better reading skills, and if it replaces more developmentally appropriate activities, then it may cause other harms.”

Studies conducted in 2015 indicate that

“there is no evidence to support a widespread belief in the United States that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success.”

You can start NOW!  So what if it’s harder for your mind to absorb?  You’re also older – perhaps more mature now, and better able to suck it up and do the work.  It’s never too late to improve your reading skill.  Gorillas are doing sign language, man!

“Mr. Phan, I don’t have any books!”

Get a library card, homey!  Plus, I’ve got some more tips and tricks for you:

1: Borrow books from people.

The reason you want to do this is because, for many people, reading isn’t attractive because it’s a solitary activity, and we like to be social. If you borrow a book from someone, you instantly have someone else who also read the book, so you can talk about that one epic scene where the warrior slapped the king in the face. For bonus points, ask teachers! They’ll probably let you borrow some stuff!  You also will make more friends who also read, a really important thing that can help if you need to be surrounded by a positive atmosphere.

2. Read your interests.

Don’t be afraid to re-tread some of your old interests. See a movie recently? Read the book. Reading a book of a story you already know lets you not stress out about understanding the plot and instead can let you focus on other things – like the differences between the two.  Find the sequels.  Find other books by authors of books you already read.

3. Watch all of your movies with subtitles.

Even if you think you’re ignoring them, your brain will actually do a lot of work without you knowing. Also when you don’t hear something, you’ll instinctively look at the subtitles before bothering anybody with questions. Lastly, hearing the words being used will help expand your vocabulary and also help you recognize difficult words. That’s right, you can watch Terminator 2 and still increase your reading level.  Arnold definitely taught some people how to say “cybernetic organism.”  Netflix offers captions for almost everything.  This is great for rewatching movies that you’ve already seen.

4. Pronounce long words.

Sound that stuff out! I can’t stand it when someone’s reading in my class and they get to a word longer than two syllables and stop dead.  Everyone in my class now knows what I want them to do: Be brave. Sound it out, say it the best you can. If you say it wrong, say it wrong forever until someone teaches you the right way. You gotta keep a growth mindset. You’re not going to learn how letters work in the awful, complicated world of English unless you’re wrong first.

This will also help you if you learned to read by sight (memorizing words) vs phonetically (sounding them out.)  Reading by sight with memorized words leads to students being stopped in their tracks at even the most rudimentary words.  It’s like teaching someone to skate and then expecting them to be able to dance – and then finding out they never learned to walk.  Sound out the words.  Do that old-fashioned thing in Sesame Street where they combine two signs into one word.

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5. Google stuff.

Google is a verb here, but it works as an adjective too.  Ask Google what stuff means.  Most devices will allow you to do this in seconds.  “Okay Google, define equilibrium.”  It’s over.  There was a time when if you had questions about something you read, it meant consulting this:

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This is a real photo from the place in which I grew up.

Those days are gone.  In seconds you’ll know that equilibrium means “a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced,” AND is also an underrated action movie with Christian Bale and Sean Bean about a dystopian world that destroys books and drugs people into happy submission.  How can encyclopedias compete?  The only possible answer is: by looking so wonderfully photogenic.

It’s never too late to learn to read skillfully… until you embarrass yourself.  Blogs are a great start.  So I suppose, while you’re increasing your reading level, enjoy your stay, and feel free to click around!