Sophomore Slump

Once you reach a certain age, you really shouldn’t blame other people and circumstances for your personal decisions. I have a pattern of staying in places for two years, then moving on to something else. While it was easy to rack up reasons for those decisions: too suburban, too this, too that, I missed teaching in urban schools, etc., (and I’m mostly talking about teaching here), what has become most clear is this:

I love the first year in a school: it’s full of possibility, you can try new things, the kids are all new, your colleagues offer the potential for new discussions and learning–rose colored glasses fully activated. Near the end of that year, though, you realize that the current place has its own challenges and, while they are challenges in this new space, they really aren’t that different from what you left.

Thus, when I roll into year two, the glasses are off and the papers are stacking up, and the job gets hard and I, usually, get an itch to do something else. I miss the new. It might be some mix of my being a creative and loving the challenge of figuring something out, but, now, I understand that by leaving, I really haven’t given myself a chance to figure it out.

Until now.

So I’ve dragged my heels mightily in objection to teaching AP Lit. I was able to get away with it last year, but my department head dropped the hammer and said I had to do it this year. I have my issues with the AP: primarily that it becomes this test-driven industry that really doesn’t mirror ANY of the freshmen lit classes I took in college or, well, ever. And then, too, I am not the lover of literature I was in college or since I began teaching. I love writing, and teaching kids to write well, but I can take or leave most texts as long as kids read SOMETHING.

I had this interaction with my former department head at NCTE in November, wherein we essentially made peace, but I think about that interaction often because that two-year sabbatical in the suburb taught me more about TEACHING LITERATURE than I was ready to admit.

Herein, I condense those lessons:

  • My colleagues were brilliant about how to get into a text: how to teach it upside down, around and through, to all types of kids. I think if anyone wants to know how to do “close reading” they should start with these folks, because, essentially, close reading is simply what good readers do.
  • They created some amazing materials–that they readily share with me, STILL. Perhaps this is why I am not fearing traveling back in time with Hester Prynne and The Scarlet Letter. Perhaps.
  • Most importantly, they taught me that this stuff takes time to learn: that you can’t just do two years and leave in a fit of annoyance or a desire for the new. You’ll never get it. Thing is, I don’t think I ever would have come to that understanding if I stayed there. I simply wasn’t comfortable and I felt like I needed time to come to that. But I see it in my practice: how strategies and skills that I thought I would never be able to do (and there are many) now seem natural (ish). The way I approach a text, which used to be much more about activities, I am sure, now are about clearly focused objectives that matter to mastering the material. OMG–I am finally becoming THAT teacher.

Don’t get me wrong, though: the struggle is real and daily I ask myself a thousand questions, but, at this moment, I’m content to remain HERE, in this school, and attempt to figure them out.

See: growth can happen. Now, let me get back on this scaffold.

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De-Tracking: Harder, So Much Harder Than It Looks

The first semester is about over and, after being entirely consumed with getting this class to run, I have a moment to catch my breath. Here’s what I’m thinking at the moment:

The goal was to create a class–Honors Prep–that took a small group of students that had some desire to enter Honors English 10 classes and prepared them through learning and mastering parallel skills. Thus, that meant that essentially everything I teach in my Honors class, they do in their prep class–the only difference is that sometimes I took more time to scaffold the skills, I used a lot more encouragement and tough love, eked out a bit more patience, and did a whole lot of wraparound stuff. In the process, I tried to document as much as I could so I could think about writing it up for others who might want to try such an initiative in his/her own classroom.

Lessons learned:

  • You have to build an intentional literacy community: you have to help kids see themselves differently. I did that, first, through some growth mindset and resilience work (this video by Will Smith is awesome) and having students write their own resilience narratives about a time when something was hard but they kept going. Also, you have to help them build their reading skills explicitly. That meant I had to go back to my strategies of what good readers do and TEACH THEM that it’s not about reading Spark Notes but about actually making meaning of the text on the page. And then we had to read a lot of books, so we did: Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Purple Hibiscus, Merchant of Venice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Additionally, they read and wrote about a weekly news article (Article of the Week, adapted from Kelly Gallagher), did some study of rhetorical appeals and read some articles from The Atlantic by Ta-Nahesi Coates, and read daily in-class for 25 mins. (that’s for all classes, Honors and Prep).
  • Take the time to teach them how to write an argument: they hate writing. Still do, after a semester. But, they have a better idea about what makes a solid thesis statement and how to structure an argument. We wrote and revised papers, talked about writing, I modeled my own writing…that’s a work in progress, but they’re coming to see writing as just another part of what intellectuals in school do, and, since they are intellectuals, they can write papers, too.
  • Reveal the ghost in the machine: The Prep-Stars (my nickname for them) have all kind of misconceptions about what happens in Honors classes. I had a plan to have them conduct some observations to disabuse themselves of those notions but time got away from me. Instead, I was explicit about explaining what the HN kids do, and that’s usually being really good at “doing school.” That means, they act interested even when they’re not, they tend to do their homework consistently, they read the books (or not, usually Spark Notes), that they, essentially, play the game. They’re a bunch of fakers, actually. The Prep kid were kind of shocked by those revelations, but I think it helped them to realize that the only thing separating them from those kids was quite surface.
  • Give them a chance to shine: Look, I’m tough. I know it. I don’t offer empty praise and I tend to only celebrate excellence. But, I had to remember, if they don’t KNOW what excellence looks like, then I had to celebrate the steps they achieved to reach excellence. Thus, when they mastered explicit skills (look at the analysis in this paper–that’s Honors work right there, I might say), we’d clap it up, or made some amazing comment, we’d take a moment to relish in the moment. I baked cupcakes for the team that put together the best director’s playbook for Merchant. I called their parents to share praise. We went to Yogurt Land on the day before holiday break to celebrate kids who were doing well. I have been reminded how much, too, relationships matter with them.
  • Reflection counts: When the class began, I had them write weekly reflections about how they were doing, what they noticed about themselves as developing scholars, what they needed to do differently or keep doing. They were always serious and thoughtful, and from those reflections, I could help to keep them accountable and to help them stay on track. I would also be reminded that things were actually going better than I tended to think. Phew.
  • This is a one-shot deal: Look. This semester has been exhausting. For the most part, the majority of the kids should do well in Honors when they move into that class in a week or so. I’ll move into a support role, meeting with them, conferencing with them, staying in touch with their parents about how to keep them moving forward (my student teacher, who has been co-teaching with me in the first part of the course will take over full-time for the second part of the course). I’m not going to do this class again, though. Nope. Because it’s about changing the broader systems. I’ve always known that, when I set my mind to something, I can usually get it done. But I’m just one teacher in one classroom. On the fifth floor. Around me is a system that relentlessly tracks kids into Honors or CP. As we all know, most of the kids in CP are kids of color and other underserved kids. I wanted to do something that would make me not so complicit in what was happening, but I have realized that I can’t. This is one group of kids that had this pilot experience. Unless the broader school system changes, unless people actually OWN UP to the process being racist and classist, then I am just one person standing on the shore attempting to sweep the ocean back with a broom. And I’m simply not interested in being that person anymore.

Score: The system-1, Me-0

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Filed under Lab Classroom, Student Interactions, Writing About Race

Between Tweet Summaries, Shylock’s Defense and Sour Patch Kids: Places Where Learning Happens

I’ve been away for a bit to help with the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference, which was ultimately a wonderful success. While it was a good amount of work, the conference came at exactly the right time: my morale wasn’t particularly high, I was frustrated with administrative structures, annoyed that larger class sizes have slowed my ability to know my kids as well as I usually do, and concerned that the overall vibe of myself and colleagues was one of low morale, too.

Nothing like a conference full of good ideas, friendly faces, chats about books, favorite authors and everything else to change that! What is also important about conferences, and about this one in particular, is that NCTE got introduced to an entirely new audience of younger teachers, or teachers who had been teaching for years but had not been to a conference. I realized how much belonging to a professional organization matters. Already, being back in my school, the teachers who attended (my whole grade level team and most of the grade above me) have been simply ebullient about sessions they attended, new information they learned and are eager to try…there’s a spirit of re-invigoration.

Given that I’ve been away for a few days, I was not necessarily looking forward to returning to my classroom. I worried that my desk would be a mess, kids would have completed none of the work I’d left for them to do with their sub…overall chaos would await me. Luckily, none of that was the case. Desk was orderly, kids were happy to see me, wanted to know about the conference, if I brought them anything (books, books, books), and they turned in the work they completed. (That’s another story about how quickly I will get that all graded–I have to get better about these things).

My student teacher attended the conference. She’s been a great colleague because she actually has the time to observe what’s happening in class between students and me, between students and other students, etc. As is typical of a new teacher, most of her observations focus on behavior and classroom management. I don’t know if you remember, but this is the year I’m piloting a class with a group of sophomores that have a desire to enter Honors English classes but need some skills work (academic and habits of mind). While it’s by far my most difficult to teach, it is my joy every single day. I can see why she gets concerned with their behavior: they talk out, they get off task, they get me off task (I got caught up in a conversation about “Scandal” that was about 10 minutes too long, but it was so compelling…), they sometimes don’t do their homework, they can be resistant, they take everything personally…

So yesterday, on that first day back, after she voiced her thinking about students, I had to remind her about all the reasons I’m quite pleased that these kids are going to be ready to enter Honors in January. I had to give her a different way of looking at student progress that extends beyond classroom management.

In short:

  • We administered the Gates-McGinty reading assessment to get some sort of data about their current reading levels. Once I got the results, I asked the kids if they wanted to know their levels, reasoning that it’s just one type of data, and it’s good to be well-informed, because then you know where you can improve. While a few of them are reading on the post-high school level, many of them are hovering around middle school, but I told them that all they need to do is read more challenging books and write a lot, and they would raise those levels in no time. They just needed to be persistent. Add to that that I told them they needed to read 15 independent reading books over the course of the semester (why not set goals that are ambitious? If they read 10, I’ll be happy; what’s good to know is that they are all reading), in addition to the core texts. Lots of them like reading YA (who doesn’t?), but I told them that they needed to balance their reading diet with some more challenging texts (I have a great analogy that involves Doritos). Thing is, when you make such recommendations to kids who aren’t big readers, you best be ready to start pushing books at them. I’ve been bringing my books from home (I used to have a really great classroom library that I tend to donate to teachers when I leave schools, so I’m not at my current levels, but I still have some good ones), but we also have a fantastic school library. We read for 20 minutes to start every class, and kids go to the library when they need to. Yesterday, five kids needed to go, so I went with them. They wanted to read more challenging texts, and I was tired of them saying that and returning with YA, so we had a spontaneous trip, which yielded some new books and new interests. I also remembered that librarians don’t know all types of kids–my school librarian was recommending texts that I knew they weren’t going to read, or ones that were too challenging at the moment, or too…boring, so I had to pull books myself for them. But that’s progress! They want to read, they want to improve, they are on the path to becoming readers, and I need to step my own game up because they need my help.
  • To get some semblance of a status of the classroom, I had kids write a Tweet summary for an assigned act and scene from our current all-class text, The Merchant of Venice. After having arguments about characters and spaces, they summarized key points, used hash tags to emphasize the most important parts, and created a review sheet for their peers. More progress: they can distinguish between what is most important and what is interesting. 
  • On that same note, they then had to re-read Shylock’s defense and argue if he was a villain or a victim. It’s now become habit for them to remind themselves and each other to include textual evidence to support their claims, and to analyze that evidence. They would have just written their opinions and turned it in a few months ago.
  • I was at the candy store after school yesterday and ran into three of the kids from that class. It’s so great to see kids in environments outside of school, when they are themselves, and funny, and free. I made some fuss about scholars and Sour Patch kids and being happy to see them (why not make a fuss over them? Can’t be sure if anyone else will, so I make sure I do) before they wished me well and made their way into the evening. What is most important, too, is that they see themselves as part of a community of achievers that extends beyond what happens on the fifth floor. That community will see them through.

Progress happens, but sometimes it occurs on such a minute scale that we can miss it. I told my student teacher that we needed to remember those signs, and we spent a moment recounting those and others, just to make sure we don’t get so bogged down in the other stuff that we forget that these kids are moving forward, and that I just know they’re gonna do it. Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments over these last few months where I’ve wondered if it was going to work, but then, something like that happens: I either run into a kid outside of class who wants to show me something they’re reading, or invites me to come see her in the school musical, or submits what is a fantastically written paper, and I remember: we are going to do it, and for that, I’m grateful.

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Filed under Lab Classroom, Professional Development, Reading Lives, Student Interactions

Why Am I Exhausted? Oh Wait, I’m Teaching Huck Finn…

When I decided to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my sophomores, I decided to for several reasons, many of them about the importance of the text as “American” (whatever that means), and also because the character Jim presents all sorts of conundrums. I also wanted them to come to their own conclusions about whether the text should be taught in classrooms (the culminating debate for the text). That Huck can’t quite resolve the conflict between his conscience and his heart is just as compelling, and, while at the center of the novel, there are numerous other angles that also provide interesting moments of analysis.

I also remembered when I taught the text a couple of years ago that I was absolutely worn out once we got done with the book. With the last 12 chapters to go, I’m feeling that same way, and have been thinking about why.

The additional layer that often gets overlooked in these discussions about appropriateness, N-words and the rest is how much background knowledge you have to build for kids AND how much correcting of historical inaccuracies you also have to resolve. Students are as naive as Huck when it comes to thinking about Jim, and–this is where I understand why I have to teach this text and be on my game every single time I work with the kids–they will remain that way unless you help them think of him otherwise.

They want to call Jim illiterate. They want to say that he’s not “smart”. They want to think him illogical. They also have questions about enslaved Africans: would Jim have known his family in Africa? They ask with a genuine interest.

They also think they know everything about slavery because they saw Django Unchained.

I want to pass out, but I can’t.

I have been building text sets out of necessity (ah, the mother of invention) to give them a broader understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans. I’ve shown clips from Skip Gates’ newest documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross which talks about slavery and fugitive slave laws (and if you don’t cry when you watch the story of Margaret Garner, well, then…), pulled from slave narratives, Frederick Douglass, historical documents, etc.

I am cobbling together supplemental texts as quickly as I can, which is fine. It’s just…frustrating and disheartening and, yes, exhausting. Teaching HF is fraught with my own internal conflicts: is it worth reading a text that potentially takes so much out of me emotionally, through analyzing Huck’s conflict amidst the historical setting and contradictions? Is it worth having to correct so many plain-wrong misunderstandings about enslaved Africans, about romanticized notions of slavery, of fighting to help them see Jim as a person (before that all goes to hell when they reach Phelps’ farm)?

I would say yes, though I’m uneasy.

I think, too, that I’ve come to the point that I think this text should be taught as interdisciplinary, with a History teacher who can set to rights the wrongs that kids have internalized. And I’m not putting this work off on a History teacher; rather, I simply think that the more kids have the opportunity to learn counternarratives, and apply them to texts to broaden or correct their (mis)understandings, the better critical thinkers, writers and people they can become.

Because the struggle is so real right now, and I have never been happier to know that tomorrow is the weekend and I can shore up my own courage before returning down the Mississippi River with them on Monday.

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Some Argumentation Ideas from NCTE

Looking for ways to teach argument in your classroom? Here are some good ones, including one I wrote about the counterargument from the National Council of Teachers of English’s High School Matters blog. 

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Why Conferences with Kids Matter

There are lots of kids in my classes this year. It’s only now that I think (think) that I know all of their names (a fact that is both embarrassing and infuriating to me because I feel I should have it down by now).

Getting to know them as writers is much harder, particularly given attempts to turn papers around regularly. I write fewer and fewer comments on their actual papers and encourage them to schedule a conference with me to really talk about their work.

Those conference slots tend to fill up around the time a paper is due, which is what happened this week. While we get some good discussions about where they’re stuck and what they’re thinking, for me, the most important aspect of the conferences are that I can actually get to know the kids. In those moments, when they shyly push forward sentences and paragraphs, make the apologies full of fears of their work not being “good” (whatever that means; I tell them we are all in a state of revision, no apologies are necessary), I ask them how the class is working for them, let them talk through their challenging parts…I take notes then we make a plan for next steps, which I make them write down, because they are young people and they forget and one-on-one conferences are intimidating, I know.

It’s amazing, too, because the kids who sit in class and are the quiet ones, or the ones that seem so self-confident, are so different in conferences. So open, I guess, so willing to engage in a conversation about how to improve their writing.

I learn as much about who they are as people as about what they need to do to strengthen their thesis, in those conferences, and I never regret having them. I also have my student teacher conduct ones with students to understand how to be kind, how to listen to kids, how to give pithy advice that will send them confidently on their way. I find that once students come for one, and generally find it useful, they’ll return for more, and their confidence develops, their questions about their work gets more complex and nuanced, and that growth helps me to understand their development as young writers.

I continue to keep in touch with students I’ve taught over the years (though after 11 years, it takes me a moment to remember where I knew a kid, given that I’ve taught in so many different places; I guess I need to do some more Sudoku). I recently worked with a student who I taught as  a freshman four years ago. He’s a senior now, preparing to go to college. His mom contacted me, worried about what he needed to do, what she needed to do, to get him ready. So, I met him on a Saturday at one of the local public library branches to discuss the Common Essay application prompts. This is the prompt that resonated most with him:

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Apparently, he tried out for the high school basketball team as a freshman. Didn’t make the varsity or the JV. The following year, he didn’t make it as a sophomore, either. Ditto for junior year. I asked if he planned to try out this year and he nodded yes. What if you don’t make it? “I guess I’ll run track,” he said. Not bitterly, not quite resignedly, but factually. He wanted to do something that would keep him physically active and track seemed to be it.

We talked about what he learned over the years, when he didn’t make the team, and he said he kept trying out because he felt like he got a little bit better every year, and that people encouraged him to keep working. That this kid was willing to keep trying, even when there the chances of making the team are so small, was quite telling to me. He plays in local leagues, practices, hopes to make the team. Perhaps I’m even more impressed because so many kids would have just given up–heck, I would have given up, probably, after the second time. There definitely would not have been a third or a fourth time. Talk about grit, and perseverance and resilience…

“You have a great story,” I said. “Write it.”

I’d want that kid at my college. He seems to have the qualities that we want: being able to pick yourself up after things don’t go your way, to keep trying even when there is no guarantee of a winning outcome…and you’re 17 years old? Yeah, you’re gonna be just fine.

I never would have had the opportunity to be blown away had I not spent some time on a Saturday conferencing with a kid about what he learned about failure, and why he’s going to keep trying. Kids have great stories to tell and write; thankfully, I can listen and learn when I carve out time to sit beside them.

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Video from the Random House Teachers Event for New MLK HS Anthology

I spoke at Random House’s Author Event for NYC Educators on Friday, June 28, 2013. Best thing I might have said (and what I firmly believe): “Intertextuality is my jam.” The anthology is called A Time to Break Silence and is appropriate for grades 8-12.

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September 4, 2013 · 11:03 am