Monthly Archives: August 2012

New School Chronicles: Looking for Opportunities to “Bump Up”

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My Room With a View

Someone has this concept of “bumping up” in respect to collaboration and space allocation. Essentially, if you put people together, say, in an office, then chances are they’re going to talk to each other, share ideas (hopefully), and improve their practice, in the case of schools. Two heads are always better than one, yes?

I’ve been getting oriented to my new school for the last couple of days. While this is not my first orientation, it somehow feels the most exhausting, but I think that’s attributable to other major life events that are happening to me. I have what might be the best room I’ve ever been fortunate to teach in. In my life. Seriously. See the picture for yourself. 

Today, I sat at a desk, sketching a layout, daydreaming out the window, thinking about what it is going to be like to be energized by young people. I lost all track of time. My room is on the fifth floor; it’s a reward: you climb to the top and you get to sit and talk about ideas, about reading, about writing, in what I hope to create as a warm, welcoming space.

But not today. I am so very tired that I feel my creative juices are drained. I need to recharge, go out in nature, perhaps, or just check into a hotel for a day or so and re-energize before it’s go time.

In my haste to leave my former position, I think I took something for granted (I love reflection–it’s how I actually learn stuff): I had fantastic, brilliant colleagues, who were so generous with their knowledge, so supportive, so…I don’t know, awesome in many respects. Many were the teachers I strive to be. And in the design of the school, we bumped up against each other.

All the time.

If I was thinking of a way to teach vocabulary, I could just wheel around in my chair and ask my colleague. Or, I could walk around our shared space and discuss a short story, or a literary device, how to teach something…with all of us in close proximity, there was a frequent, steady supply of discussion about practice.

My new place also stresses collaboration, and I’m excited to work with my new colleagues. The opportunities for bumping up, though, will be quite different. The school is so spread out and teachers spend most of their time in their classrooms. What I think–and I’ve only been there for a couple of days, so I’m still in the discovery phase–is that time together becomes much more rushed and intentional, more of the interactions are done via technology. That’s just my sense. There are shared spaces, within the school, though, so I’ll be curious to understand how they’re used.

What I began to understand much more saliently, though, was how much of what I learned about practice came, again, during those unstructured moments that bumping up afforded us all. Now, with the possibility of letting my classroom become my primary space (and I know that I’m not going to be gung-ho for running out of the building once it gets colder), I have to be much more intentional about interactions. I don’t want to be that teacher who just closes her door and teaches. I’ve come too far and have too much respect for how improved my teaching becomes from working with others.

I just want to take a minute to slow clap for my progress as an educator. Again, ten years ago, I never would have been able to say that.

I had that instance, today, though, where I wished MK was there to lift my spirits, suggest a great poem to teach, laugh…bump up.

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Dipping My Toes into the Waters of Academe

I was conflicted while completing my Ph.D. and haven’t necessarily resolved the issue: how do I live a life as a teacher and as an academic? And, because I hate conflict, I took the easier (?) track of being a classroom teacher rather than a professor.

Some of that decision was easy: I didn’t have many academic leads, and I didn’t really invest a lot of time and energy into finding an academic job. In my mind, becoming an academic meant sacrificing in ways I’m not really willing to do: giving up all joy for seven years to run on a wheel, publish, publish, publish…

My attention span is barely longer than the adolescents I teach at times, so I let those excuses suffice and remained in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong. I love teaching; otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. Seriously.

Now, however, I have the opportunity this year to teach a couple of graduate classes to preservice teachers at a local small, private, liberal arts college and, dare I say, I’m excited?! My excitement manifests itself as planning: lots of lists (with highlighted items to mark importance), notes, bullet points that double as aspirations, multiple revisions upon revisions of a syllabus, running through simulation of classes in the middle of the night (I’m weird like that; don’t judge me).

A completely unexpected reaction, frankly. I thought this decision would be attended by hesitancy, by doubt, but that isn’t the story.

Maybe it’s time for me to think about working the hypen: teacher-academic. I could get used to that…and in the meantime, as I try this on for size, I’ll be working out the daily pressures of theory and practice. How else am I going to be able to talk about (or not talk about) kids and literacy and teaching without commenting on what happened/happens in real time?

We’ll see if it works. If this dip is positive enough, maybe I’ll go wading.

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The Kids They Want to Be Rather Than the Kids We Need Them To Be

I saw another group of former students last week. After a few stops and starts, we finally managed to coordinate our schedules and met at a Tasty Burger in the city. I’d taught these students during their senior year, a year that was illustrative of most of my experiences teaching students: it began with adversity and ended in some sort of respectful relationship between us…eventually. The kids would probably tell you that they balked because I put the screws to them: largely, I said–blatantly–that because they were behind academically, we needed to cover seven years of education in as many months. In retrospect, if I was them and I heard my teacher say that to me, in the fall of my senior year in high school, I’d have pushed back, too. But, I always like to know what I’m up against, and why I have to work hard, so I don’t tend to treat kids any differently, in that respect. I (and my awesome co-teacher) also assured them that if they stuck with me, I was going to work as hard as I could to make sure that they would make it through their freshman year in college.

We actually modeled our class after a freshman comp class. Yup, we rigored and vigored that year UP!

Of the kids that I met the other night, three are in college (and about to start their junior year–WOW), one is working and the other is a full-time mother. At this moment, I think they are all exactly where they want to be. Not where I, as their teacher and as someone invested in their future, need them to be, but where they, as young people making their way in the world, need to be.

This is a difficult position for me to admit. I wanted them all to be collegiate stars, wanted them all to have experiences that prepared them to make good choices, to think critically and deeply, to do something with themselves. Again, they’re all in the process of doing that. And sure, one of them is a Gates Scholar, a couple of them went on study abroad trips, another of them decided to be brave and transfer schools…and a couple others decided to try school and then do something else, maybe return, while another had a kid and is doing all she can to be the best mom she can be.

Success on varying levels, right?

What impressed me, too, was how savvy they are to understand the divergence between what adults want for them and what they want for themselves. They spoke quite candidly–and somewhat bitterly–about the high school they’d attended, about how they knew they were the “trained seals” for the school, trotted out to brag about where they attended school. But they said they didn’t feel prepared for college, that they felt the school had failed them in many respects.

If we, as school personnel who laud their achievements, revel in their successes, I contend it’s just as important to acknowledge the feedback and the kids who live up to our expectations, or challenge our expectations, or make us rethink our expectations entirely. If these kids are the stars, then shouldn’t we listen carefully to the messages they’re sending? For every Gates Scholar, there’s an entire class of students that didn’t even make it through the 4+ years required to graduate.

No big shocker: the kids know the odds, know the stakes, know the reality of the situation. They don’t buy the smoke and mirrors, that if you work hard, you can be successful, because, for some, that success isn’t what they need at that moment. I still think that a college education is an important investment, but we cannot devalue the kids who choose different paths, who get there on their own timelines. They count for something.

Don’t they?

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Community Serving

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My view out the window of the Boston Athenaeum

Yesterday, I cut an afternoon of enjoying cupcakes with my former colleagues short to have a sort of intervention with a former student. Those cupcakes (from Georgetown Cupcake) were quite delightful, as was the company once we got through the details of my leaving.

My former student graduated from high school in 2011 and has been working at the Gap and the movie theatre since then. When I had her as a sophomore, she was one of the most difficult students I might have ever taught: loud, pushy, challenging…and hilarious. It’s often tough to discipline a student when they have a comeback to something you’ve said that is so witty and/or ingenious that you just have to give them credit. She was that student.  She was also gifted; seriously. She had a way of writing that was quite compelling, loved words, and was a voracious reader (of primarily urban lit). The same qualities that I came to covet, however, were her eventual downfall at that school. She decided to withdraw from that small pilot school before her senior year started out of worry that she wouldn’t be able to restart anywhere if she was expelled. Thus, she ended her senior year at one of the large, failing public high schools a few blocks away, where she says she didn’t work particularly hard.

She tells me that she knows she didn’t work hard, that she usually doesn’t work hard, and that she hasn’t been pushed to do hard work since my class, her sophomore year.

Look, I’m a good teacher, but I wouldn’t call myself an amazing teacher. Transformative in moments, but transformative is up for grabs, particularly depending on the context and the student. With this young woman, though, I figured out early on that she was quite smart and that she acted up in her other classes because she was bored and wasn’t challenged. Her coping mechanism was to draw attention to herself, stop the instruction that was happening, and perhaps learn something that she didn’t already know. Unfortunately, it was too easy to send her to the office, suspend her, kick her out of class, take other punitive measures that deprived her from learning.

I can’t quite remember what it was, exactly, that clued me in to her brilliance, but I bet it happened in unstructured time: either coming or going from class, or in the hallway, or something I overheard. Long story short: once I figured her out, I pushed her, demanded more, kept delivering the same message that she was too smart to make dumb choices and that, in the words of Research for Better Teaching, I wasn’t going to give up on her, even if she gave up on herself.

She’ll tell you that she is one of my favorites. Maybe she’s right. But she earned that status. And I probably never worked as hard as I had to that point to figure out what students who already “get it” need in a classroom of their peers, many of whom are struggling to even get to grade level. For me, I learned to praise the good, to add more advanced tasks, to put her in a leadership role. She never disappointed me.

No big shocker that when she called (after standing me up twice previously), I said I’d meet her, even if that meant curtailing my socializing.

In our hour conversation, seated at a picnic table, she told me that she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but that she wanted to “be ill.” She’s obsessed with being comfortable, or a level above comfortable, as she explained. I was more concerned with the practical: an undergraduate degree, a career, a retirement plan, but it was hard to make much headway with her. Finally, after coming at the question of what she wanted to do from different avenues, she finally admitted that she doesn’t want to be her mother or her grandmother, who are constantly struggling, having to ask for money from other family members, hating their jobs. That led to some brainstorming about people with jobs she admired (short list: agent, music producer, guidance counselor–can you guess which one I picked?!), which segued into thinking about skills she needed to have and where to get them. Then, we talked about the power to change our lives: that even though she wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to do now (and I had to keep trying to disabuse her of that notion: that you’re really not supposed to know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life when you’re only 19), she could change her mind. And then, finally, that if all signs were telling her that she should work with children, then she should, in some capacity. Teacher salaries were fairly decent, particularly in Boston.

She would be a phenomenal teacher or guidance counselor because, as a tough kid, I think she’d bring an understanding to how to reach tough kids. We ended with an action plan: she was going to make a list of schools with programs she might apply to and I was going to track down some former students who were working in the fields in which she indicated interest. She’s supposed to report back on Sunday.

Then, she asked me to spell “minutiae” for her. I used that word a lot when I was her teacher, reminding students that they were getting too caught up in that and not nearly enough in the bigger picture (i.e., they’d go ballistic about my requirement to format ALL papers in 12-point, Times New Roman but wouldn’t bat an eye about being asked to write an analytical argument about a text they’d read). Maybe that was a reminder not to get caught up in my own minutiae this year…?

I left urban teaching a few years ago because I was exhausted: I think being a Black teacher exacts its own glories and sacrifices. I loved the kids–at the same time, I was also the person they often turned to…so while one student doing that might be okay, multiply that number by 10, or 20. I’m ready to return to urban schools after my sabbatical, though, and I’m trying to do a better job about connecting my former students to each other: surely they can draw on their experiences to help each other. That’s what I told my student yesterday: we have a responsibility to help the community. Otherwise, what is this work for?!

Now, as I begin to turn the corner and approach another school year, I decided to begin my fellowship at the Boston Athenaeum today. I sit at a table in the fifth floor, designated for quiet, as I pull out my notes, my hopes, and my beliefs for an excellent school year. The picture above is my view from my table.

And my hope springs, yet, anew.

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Undoing

My summer program ended yesterday and I’ve begun to read reflections about the class, the final assignment students write. These reflections reaffirm many of the things I know to be true about myself: that I’m initially imposing, that I’m relatively harsh, that I love what I do, that I love my students.

Eventually, we reach a place of peace, but the 4-5 weeks that are required to get there are usually fraught with under-the-breath swears (and I’m sure they’re quite colorful, as adolescents have lovely vocabularies in that regard) and worries about passing the course.

For the most part, they all do pass. I tell them I’m not necessarily concerned with how they start, but how they finish. It’s not rocket science, I continue. If you buy into the class, if you commit to being excellent, then we’ll work together to be excellent. And you might just become a great writer, or at least start down the path to being a great writer.

In this course, excellence requires revision: lots of it. It’s a near constant process. Thing is, once the kids begin revising and pass the paper, some ask what they can do to achieve an exceeds. Those conversations are some of the best, because then they are about word choice, about sentence variety, about punctuation…those conversations are about what real writers do.

But I don’t have those conversations with everyone; for the most part, they are generally worried about meeting expectations, which, I’ve suspected for a couple of years but now confirmed, is difficult because I’m undoing.

Undoing, in this respect, means breaking them outside of what they are accustomed to. No formulas, no minute details about what goes where in what paragraph. I didn’t realize how much that freaked them out until so many of them wrote about it in their reflections. They said that initially they were concerned by so much freedom (WTH? As a writer–even an academic writer–I relish freedom), that that freedom caused them so much panic that it led to inertia (seriously, they couldn’t get started)…

But once they began to just write, they surprised themselves. Most importantly, they found themselves. Here’s a snippet from one kid who knows the formulas for essays in his sleep. He didn’t know what to do with me because I challenged him to find himself in his writing, to leave those formulas in the past. He wrote about, essentially, wearing a mask as a writer, that allowed him to detach and write perfectly functional but emotionally devoid essays:

A poker face that said nothing, had nothing to say, and could not say anything on his own. Why? I remember you telling me that I should try personalizing my essay, try to change from  using the traditional formulas for essays. And now I see why, because I can remember the times in eighth grade when I felt proud of everything I wrote. It was not just the satisfaction of finishing my essays, but also the joy of writing my own essay. An essay that was all from me, no one else’s. Originality, they call it.

[My reflection] and the Literature Appreciation Essay are great examples of the improvement I have made. I tried to refresh my style in papers that give me the opportunity to do so. I think that it would be the ideal way for me to change, step after step, like a turtle. Although I have made changes such as using the dictionary and thesaurus more, changing my sentence structure, using punctuation marks and separating or combining sentences, I think that the poker face now sitting somewhere else than my own face is a more significant change. It just makes me happy to know that I can now, after all, write things that I can be proud of writing, that I can be happy writing.

I might be a sentimentalist, and I might just be overwhelmed with packing up my apartment for my impending move and endings in general, but this reflection gets at what I work really hard to undo, or, actually, what I’m realizing is a process of undoing.

If we teach kids to write so well in these formulas, how do they ever know how to break them? How do they ever know what their voice is? How will they ever know how writing can work for different purposes? I’m not such a fool to believe that kids will love writing, but at least I would like for them to know in their bones that they can do it, in whatever form, and be good at it.

I have been so complicit in promoting the formulas when I first began teaching 10 years ago. What changed was that I had to write a lot in graduate school and I became much more aware of my own processes and desire to write for an audience that mattered. If I was bored, then my audience was sure to be bored, too (another gem I tell the kids: don’t bore me).

Don’t kids deserve that chance, too?

I know this summer class is just that, a summer class for high achieving students, many of color, some not, all low-income and all of promise. And if these kids are writing like this, then that does not bode well for the ones who are not here.

But I end knowing that we have to change the writing instruction we do with students. We have to teach them that what they have to say matters, and what they have to say doesn’t fit within a structure. Sure, structure is important and certain tasks demand a particular response, but if that response is all we train kids to do, we are committing a tremendous disservice: to them, but also to ourselves. I simply cannot stomach that.

In that move towards helping and convincing students, really, that their voices matter, they get it.

One final piece from another reflection: Kim’s class was not the regular class that I expected. It did not teach us how to write based on lectures and long talks. We learned from our own writing and mistakes, both inside and outside of class. She taught us that we can learn from ourselves.

I feel like I don’t even know what regular means at this point in my career. I know what teaching writing looks like in this context, and I know what helping kids find their voices and produce excellent pieces of writing looks like. I simply wish more teachers (and I know they’re out there) could do the same.

There’s more to writing than formulas. Now, at least, some kids know that. And while they’re writing in their classes over the next year, they’ll know what else they could be doing and how they could be doing it, and perhaps they’ll take some risks, break the formula, and be commended for writing themselves into their papers.

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Give It Away

Whether it’s a by-product of working in under-resourced schools for much of my teaching career or just being selfish, I was unwilling to share. My refusal to share a pack of Sharpies with my now-dear-friend, then-frenemy Ain, is legendary. I squirreled away everything: paper, markers, books, ideas, for myself and really no one else. I wasn’t necessarily even moved to change by people who were generous with their resources and knowledge.

I just kept taking.

Until finally, I reached the point where I wanted to change my hoarding ways. That change was largely precipitated by an amazing student teacher (who wasn’t really a student; he’d had two years of teaching in New Orleans under his belt by the time we met) who kept asking. And, because I’m a sucker for flattery, and because he was genuine in his desire to be an excellent teacher, and because he improved daily with just a simple suggestion or reflection, I started giving. I gave ideas, I gave feedback, I gave of my knowledge.

Damned if I didn’t begin to realize how much I was growing because of my generosity. Funny, that.

I reached a place, eventually (it didn’t happen overnight), where I was willing to make a photocopy of a short story that moved me, a poem that puzzled me, a blog post or link I stumbled upon that was so well written I had to share it with someone.

Another confession: I’m riddled by my own insecurities, but I realized that people accept these small offerings because we ALL can help each other, ALL need different ways of looking at something…heck, we ALL need sub plans (even if I was at a school for the last two years that didn’t have subs)!

In that spirit, as I sat on the subway crossing the Charles River this morning, reading “Ms. Lora,” a new short story from Junot Diaz that was in a recent New Yorker, I thought of one of my students (always, thinking about teaching, right?! I don’t know any good teacher that can completely keep the two separate; instead, we always think about how everything we read might be good for some or all of our students). He’s Dominican but didn’t know Junot Diaz (don’t even get me started). And that day when we were walking across Harvard Yard, I told him a bit about Diaz, and about Drown, and Oscar Wao, and how Diaz teaches in Cambridge and you never know, you might see him around…writers have to drink coffee, you know. That conversation was also about reading literature by people who look like us (and I’m not Dominican, but I’m Black and a woman, and that means something). It just changes things, I think I said. Lets you know someone KNOWS you (and even lets you know what they don’t know about you). The next day in class, I made a quick list of Dominican authors on the board (chalk…my fave). Many of the kids wrote down the titles, said they were going to look them up, try to find them.

That one particular kid will follow up. I just know it. As we wrapped up that class, I noticed him looking up an app to read The Economist online. He told me that he’d won a contest in the eighth grade that gave him a subscription but that, two years later, he’d still not received it.

I quickly fired off an email to the school’s founder. That’s one of the small perks: I worked at that school years ago. The founder responded a day later, said he’s purchase the subscription himself.

Another instance of giving away: using some small advantage to help this kid. If you’re reading The Economist heading into the tenth grade, who are ANY of us to stop you?

And so, as I read this short story and get excited about Diaz’ forthcoming book, I finish it and have a moment of indecision: do I keep this story to myself, mention it in passing to the kids and hope that they’ll read it? Or do I give it away, allow them to experience Diaz for themselves, make them their own copies?

No question. Make the copies. Give it away. Share so that we might all know. I’m learning.

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Writing Workshop Gets Real (Or, Working My Way Out of a Job)

Every teacher hopes for the moment when the kids GET it, and that moment is not often accompanied by bells or whistles; instead, sometimes it’s a subtle click and the students begin owning the material. They don’t regurgitate it just for approval; rather, they’ve taken it in, reformulated it so it makes sense to them, and have begun to incorporate it into their learning.

Best case in point: Friday Writing Workshop. At this point, the kids are well-versed in how to give feedback, and they are usually constructive. We had our last four writers present their work last week, and from the moment they started, I knew that I was sharing a moment with them that they owned. The first writer said she wanted feedback about flow, about word choice, about places where she could strengthen her analysis (they were writing a poetry analysis essay). Another asked for help on his organization. Another asked for feedback on the nebulous “everything.”

And their peers responded in kind. They offered insight about where the balance seemed off in their peers’ papers, where they noticed repetition, where a more concise word would suffice rather than the wordy, overly flowery construction another favored. They marked up drafts for specificity, circling points in the papers for added emphasis, making notes, helping, always helping.

I didn’t have to say a word. In fact, I think that if I’d have said anything, it would have first been repetitive, because the kids say everything (and more, actually) that I was thinking, and it also would have taken the power away from the writer to lead a workshop, receive feedback, and use that feedback.

They absolutely understand what a writing workshop is all about. What’s critical, in this space, I think, is that they own it. They feel the communal responsibility: that we are all responsible for making each of us better writers.

We are all writers here. Every single one of us.

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