Monthly Archives: December 2012

Everybody Deserves a Party: Holiday Break

One of the pleasures of teaching in my current city is that I have students of parents who are visiting academics at the local university. I had one such student this semester. Since his dad’s fellowship ended this week, today was our last day with this student, who was headed back to Georgia.

The students organized a party, down to a homemade chocolate multi-layer cake and other homemade joys, and we said farewell to a young man who quickly established himself as one who was honest, quirky, insightful and a part of our classroom community.

When the cake was unveiled, he was overcome by emotion. We all waited for him to take a moment and then he said “No one has ever had a party for me.”

Such a simple explanation for his joy.

Doesn’t every child deserve a party? It’s those little jolts that occur during classroom interactions that I’m reminded of the things that matter: kids need their teachers to have parties for them.

I try to have parties frequently: when a student that caused me to pull out my nearly non-existent hair because I was running out of ways to explain to her how to connect analysis to quotes rather than summarize them turned in a paper in which she was ANALYZING the quote, was DOING the thing I worried we’d run out of time before she mastered, I had a party for her. I called her over, read her the paragraph, explained WHY I was pleased and told her that we’d turned the corner. She had a smile as wide as [insert apt simile here]. And it came at a moment when we were both down on each other: I was sucking as a teacher and she was worried she was doomed as a writer. Then…there it was.

Yeah, have a party.

I’ve had other smaller parties throughout the year: when silent kids speak up and have said something profound that sets us all back on our heels; when others make some comment or connection that drags us from the literary time period we inhabit into the present; when typically self-absorbed young people open up a classroom to create real community, one in which everyone matters, one in which when a young man cries, we don’t bat an eyelash but hug him even harder because we want him to take our love with him…yeah, I have a party for them.

I hope to have many more parties for my students–small and large–but we will party down in as many ways as I can find and they can create to celebrate learning when it happens.

The pleasures and necessities of joyful learning…happy holidays.

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Filed under Equity, Student Interactions

Thinking About…

This stretch between Thanksgiving and the winter break might just turn me inside out if I allow myself to get “overwhelmed” with everything that’s to be accomplished. We have about five weeks remaining in the semester. In that time, we’ve got to sprint through Frankenstein, I’d like to have kids do some independent work by posing their own questions, pursuing their own lenses as they read and some other ideas I’d like to try…

But we’re also finishing up Macbeth. At one point in time, kids had simultaneous projects going on and I was feeling unsettled. I knew that because while they were working on something, I was reading recipes on food blogs. That’s usually what I do to find a moment of clarity: read recipes. There’s something so soothing about measures and baking and temperatures.

On Wednesday, I had kids watch Thinking About You from Brave New Voices and write a response about what they were thinking about at that moment. I told them, honestly, that I was thinking about what mattered most and what was most important.

I told them I wanted them to create excellent Macbeth final projects. That I was thinking about my concern that I was asking them to do to much at one time, that I worried we were going to compromise quality. I had to remind myself that the time we have remaining still matters. Above all, I was thinking about excellence–honest excellence–and making sure all kids had a chance to shine.

I tend to have moments where I have to stop myself and check in. That’s what I did on Wednesday. I told the kids where my head was at and then I adjusted the timeline to allow for an additional day for them to make any necessary changes/adjustments/whatever last-minute things they needed to do in preparation for today: The Shakespeare Festival.

They’ve uploaded their films onto our Macbeth You Tube channel. I couldn’t help myself: at 4 a.m. this morning, I watched bits and pieces of all of their films and they are–as I’d hoped and expected–brilliant in all kinds of different ways. And later today, we’ll eat some food, watch the films and debrief the experience. We’ll enjoy the time we have, knowing that–because I created more time for them–they, yet again, return the favor with excellent demonstrations of what they’ve learned.

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Filed under Housekeeping

The Dawn of a New Day

The Dawn of a New Day

Was on my way to pick up something–rushing, as usual–and had to stop and admire the view from the other side of the fifth floor.

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December 7, 2012 · 12:57 am

Teaching Up

One of the last writing assignments I ask students to do is called The Last Word Is Yours (not my original assignment; I have taken it from some brilliant teacher somewhere who offered it up). In it, students are encouraged to evaluate the year, subjects they liked, ones that they didn’t think worked so well, and provide some overall advice about the class for future years. They tend to be honest, thoughtful and quite helpful.

About three years ago, one of my students told me–nicely, I have to note–that I should teach honors classes because he felt like that would be the group of students that would fit me best. I didn’t think much of it. I’ve always taught kids who struggle. I have never had a desire to teach kids who were on or above level; honestly, the challenge for me is to get the kids who are below up and past grade level. I’ve tended, also, to be relatively successful in those endeavors.

My niche was/is(?) kids who struggle.

Then, this year, through some over-enrollment problem (maybe?), I ended up with three sections of honors sophomore English.

Three. That’s teaching the same class back-to-back-to-back, which means that the first time is shaky, the second time the lesson is usually entirely revamped, and the third time, I teach it like I intended to teach it. I thought I’d initially be bored with the same thing, but it’s amazing how reflection helps to immediately change what didn’t work into what works better. (Side note: I should do a separate post about the power of reflection. It’s perhaps the most useful habit I’ve ever cultivated that I can directly tie to improved practice)

So maybe that student from the past is laughing now that I’m teaching honors, but I‘ve also gotten a much better understanding of what it means to teach for equity. Because in honors classes, the expectations are simply…higher. Read 30 pages and be prepared to discuss character motivations, motifs, themes, whatever. They do it. Write a 2-3 page response about something that interested you about this article, making intertextual connections that demonstrates your understanding of the essential questions. Done. Attend this event because, as a literary citizen of the world (what I call them), that’s what smart people do. Done.

This is similar to my realization that kids in the suburbs write more papers than ones in the city. Honors kids have entirely different expectations for what they’re expected to do. As we all know, though, kids rise (or fall) to our level of expectation. What would happen if we simply (ha, simply is such an understatement, but go with it) expected kids in the track below honors to do the same thing? Sure, we’d have to work like hell to make that happen–I mean, we’d have to counter years of low expectations and bad habits, but it’s been done before by numerous excellent educators–but what’s stopping us?

My immediate future goal is to create an intentional community in which the students in the track below honors spend a year with me and leave prepared to be successful in an honors class the following year. This means that I’m going to have to think about all the “stuff” that goes into creating an environment in which an honors student is successful, but geez–I spend my time immersed in data. Isn’t this another chance to look at the data in a way that actually privileges kids who need it most? I’m moving beyond deficits.  I already have some hunches, so I’ll spend the next few months creating this space and then, hopefully, the next school year making it happen.

Working Title of this endeavor: Project Lab Classroom 2013. I told a former colleague that this might just be the hardest thing I will have ever done in my life, but it could be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can live with that.

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Filed under Equity, Lab Classroom