Monthly Archives: October 2012

Othering, Adrienne Rich and Truth

My class is hard. I’m not going to lie. I ask kids to do a lot of reading, writing and thinking, and they complain but they generally do their work. That fact–that they always do their work–has taken some adjusting, as I tend to get about 80-95% of a return on my assignments in general if I’m lucky. Now, I’m probably always going to get 100%.

What I’ve found is that the kids of color and the low income kids are struggling mightily. I’m starting to (warmly) demand that they schedule conferences to talk about their work, checking in with them more frequently, encouraging them to stick with it. I need them to realize, through my words, my actions and my beliefs, that they can do this work. It’s gonna be hard as all get out, but they can do the work.

It’s discouraging when I give out grades and one student’s score has moved incrementally. I want to rage with her, at me (are you really doing right by these kids? I often goad myself). But then, just when I’m at the point when I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into and if my approach is wrong, the literature gives me an answer.

In this case, there were a few minutes last week before all my writing conferences began, and three of the kids were hanging out (I think one had intentionally “confused” his conference time and wanted to chat sooner rather than later; I obliged). I asked them some questions about their lack of participation, and one brave soul admitted that she felt intimidated by the vocabulary her peers were using. I told her that half the time, they weren’t even using the words correctly; rather, what mattered was that they were trying. That’s how you learn, I said. You got to get the words into your mouth, turn them around, so that they begin to feel like your own. Most of this work we’re doing, I continued, is about a willingness to try, and to know that yes, in the beginning we might all feel like we’re clueless, but at least we keep trying.

We’d just talked about post-colonialism and Othering and the Other, and I said something to the extent of, “You’re letting them Other you. You can’t let that happen. In a way, too, you’re Othering yourself because you think you can’t do it. Don’t let your fear win.”

Silence.

But that’s what it was, othering, on multiple levels: their silence building, their fear of not knowing preventing them from even trying to speak at all. After that conversation, I became even more aware of interactions and discussions and creating spaces for kids to enter into the talk of a classroom. (Funny how I forget my own hesitancies and reluctance when I’m talking to kids. I know exactly what it feels like to sit in a group and sweat and worry about how to interject, how to disagree, how to offer something new to the conversation. That’s why I’m trying to figure out how to get them involved.)

This week, we’re about to celebrate the National Day of Writing and a student’s father, who’s a poet, is coming in tomorrow to do some reading with us. He’s asked kids to read an Adrienne Rich essay, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Writing,” as well as having them read several versions of a poem. I asked him to show them his process, of how a draft moves from an idea, through revision to a momentary final poem. He’s agreed, and I’m so stoked to see this all play out tomorrow.

I gave the essay out yesterday (Wed.) with the instruction to read it in preparation for Friday. One student, of the three that stayed behind last week, came into homeroom and said she was up all night reading Adrienne Rich.

Um, stop. Rewind. HOLD UP. She showed me her thoroughly annotated essay, pointing out places where she agreed with Rich, bold paragraphs marked to indicate where she was moved and inspired.

“I have lots to say,” she said. “I’m going to speak up. I can’t wait.”

And I still need to unpack everything that happened in that moment and I’m sure after tomorrow, when they blow my head open with their talk I’ll have to unpack even another suitcase, but here we were, a teacher who was quickly running out of strategies and a student who sincerely doubts herself, and there’s Adrienne Rich, offering us a way through.

Much of teaching is about trust: can you work with students, create a community that encourages them to take risks, to listen to each other, to try new ways to write, to read to think. I’ve also found that it’s about just telling them when you make a mistake (sorry, that timeline I proposed was entirely unrealistic. My class is not the only class you’re taking; let’s rethink); that you’re off your game (yup, I was up grading so I’m not going to get that other thing back to you today); that you don’t know (seriously, I’m going to have to look up this punctuation rule; I just don’t remember it).

This truth is incredibly freeing, and the start of something meaningful.

Rich: Yet, if we can risk it, the something born of that nothing is the beginning of our truth.

Maybe this is the beginning of their truth, too.

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October 18, 2012 · 11:13 pm

New School Chronicles: My Albatross

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Papers, there are always papers to be graded (or at least schlepped around until I feel guilty enough to grade them)…

If you look closely at the picture that accompanies this post, you’ll see a couple of things: first, you’ll see a pumpkin that a friend brought me as a housewarming gift. You’ll see my red teacher bag, most likely filled with stuff that I can’t quite ever clean out, and you’ll see that blue reusable bag teeming with student papers to be graded.

Two things remain constant in that picture: first, my teacher bag seems to always have the same contents: a couple of folders that catch stray papers, handouts I want to amend, something left on the copier I forgot to file away, a half-finished book of some genre. The blue bag is similar in its consistency as well: it always has some handful of papers from students that I’m in-the-progress of grading. ALWAYS.

Here’s what happens: I assign a paper for the week or two-week period, we write hard and, because the kids are honors kids, they all turn in their papers. On time. Maximum length. That’s probably about 25 papers on average, per class. I have equal parts exhilaration and dread when it’s paper turn-in day. I’m stoked that I’m going to get some relatively decently written papers and I’m reticent because I then have about 1 1/2 weeks to turn them around. I binder clip the papers by class, then put them into the blue bag to bring home with me. When I get home, though, the bag goes on the chair, my sweater usually atop that, and then I start doing other things (like, I don’t know, LIVING). The next morning, as I’m rushing to get out of the door, I look at the bag again, sitting in the exact place where I left it, taunting me. As I sit on the subway, I always have a brief, intense conversation with myself about whether I should just start grading, but then, I get selfish and remind myself that I’ve promised that, for the 40ish minutes that I’m on the train, I will read whatever I want to, because that is my right as a reader and that is what I need in my life.

The papers don’t get graded. Repeat this cycle for about a week, of carrying the papers to and from school, of not removing said papers from the bag, of dodging student comments about when those papers will be returned.

Mind you, I’ve become an even more efficient grader over the last three years. A former colleague taught me how to notice themes and write these brilliant writing notes that address issues, but, in order to craft those writing notes, you first have to…wait for it…read the papers.

Finally I reach a point–usually after I am made to feel guilty by a student who never asks any questions but, on this particular day was “just wondering” when we were going to get our papers back because they wanted to work on improving their writing and something about feedback (good one; they know that if they ever couch their requests in such a way as writers improving their craft, I’ll attempt to move heaven and earth to make it happen), I cave.

I stay at school, pull out the papers and grade, and grade, and grade. Or at least read them, make notes, and occasionally get blown away by kids who are coming into their own by learning to write a compelling argument. I lay the albatross down momentarily, at least for another week, when the cycle begins anew.

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Filed under New School Chronicles

Re-Envisioning the Dinner Table

I was between places for about two weeks. It was an experience I found both unsettling (where to put my dogs, my stuff, my BOOKS?!) and freeing (once the dogs were in their favorite kennel, that left me copious time to loiter in book stores, see neglected friends, attempt to dig myself out of the mishegas that had somehow become my life). It was also during this time that some great friends offered me a place to stay. One of them was a teacher and we’d spend moments here and there throughout those weeks chatting about teaching. She teaches in the city, in an under-resourced school, and she’s amazing because she just gets it done. She does not allow the fact that they are poor, or second-language learners, or have a disability prevent her from teaching them to be great.

I often reflect on moving to the suburbs and now back into the city, the differences between the two places. Finally, in one of our conversations about Lisa Delpit and cultural capital and all that stuff that’s difficult yet critical to discuss, we hit upon it: Kids who are privileged–in whatever ways they are privileged–have incredible opportunities to sit around a dinner table and soak in knowledge. So it might not matter that something is “missed” in school in favor of test prep or remediation. A parent or someone is going to probably mention some fact, or concept, or build background information, fill in those gaps.

For many underserved kids, they don’t have those opportunities. This is not a pity party, so hold on. They have plenty of strengths, but–and I’m channeling Theresa Perry here–they don’t have someone/anyone systematically handing over knowledge and cultural capital in any consistent format.

About a week ago, I took up another friend on her offer to have dinner, the night after I’d moved into my new place (finally). Of course I took her up on that! We enjoyed this stick-to-your-ribs soup and then, the parents of another family that was there, too, asked their son about a quiz he had the next day.

The cities in Japan. They quizzed him. Then, because he couldn’t name all the cities, they printed out a map of Japan, labeled the cities with him, and then proceeded to come up with a creative mnemonic for him to remember on his quiz the next day.

I was in awe: it was exactly what I meant about the handing over of cultural capital AT THE DINNER TABLE.

I could not have scripted a better moment if I’d tried.

Now what if we re-envisioned the dinner table, took it out of our houses (for those that even have those things, and let’s be real–not all kids do) and brought it to places where kids could sit down and “eat,” as it were? What if we encouraged kids (and adults, too, most likely) to pull up a table and give them the nourishment that they need?

Classrooms can be such places, yes. Wherever these spaces crop up, shouldn’t we hand over the cultural capital in a way that allows them to walk in the world as more knowledgeable, more brilliant young people?

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Filed under Equity, Writing About Race