Monthly Archives: February 2013

Yes, and?

I’m at the point in February where I have to make peace with my plans for the weeklong recess: my to-do list is unbalanced with too many have-to dos and not enough get-to dos. The upshot is that I get to deal with my list while in the sticks of North Carolina, where I’ll have spotty Internet access and can begin to wean myself off Facebook. I schedule this break intentionally every year and I realize I’m usually so frazzled for the first couple of days that I tend to miss the beauty of being somewhere else.

Not this year. Yes, I have stuff to do. I’m goal-oriented, so there’s no doubt I’ll get those tasks accomplished, but I’m going to remind myself that I will NEVER be in the world of done and that I need to slow it down. I’ll go into the nearby small towns, do some leisurely reading at the book store, pick up some gifts for my niece and nephews, some new yarn for yet another project I probably won’t finish…I will enjoy my time.

Oh, and I have to grade the latest set of papers from my students. Rookie move, assigning a paper that was due the day before break. But, they needed the practice…

Crazily (?) enough, I’m most looking forward to embracing a way of responding to student writing that I learned about after attending an NCTE presentation by Katherine Bomer in November. She suggested that rather than entering into a conversation with a piece of student writing by seeing what’s wrong, that instead we start saying yes, and? Yes, you’re making this point…and what else might you add to help the reader understand why it matters, for example.

I tend to be relatively encouraging with young writers, but, there are times when I know I’m too brusque, or too vague (imagine that), or too caught up in my own writing that I can potentially shut out a writer. And working with adolescent writers is difficult, particularly if they think they aren’t great writers in the first place. 

Yes, and? allows me to check myself. So, when I’m writing a comment in the margin via Google docs (the way I respond to most drafts now), I’m more likely to write yes, and? rather than something less inviting. Yes, and? is an invitation, as it were, to say more, to expand on ideas, to illuminate relevance. To keep writing. That’s the ultimate goal, actually. 

Thus, I like this way of interacting with their writing, a way of responding that is both validating and encouraging for students, and  a reminder for me to keep the doors open for the writing improvement that inevitably happens if you just keep working on improvement…yes, I’m interested in what you have to say and the myriad ways you might say it. 

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Taking Them As They Are…

Once the first semester ended in mid-January, I had exactly a weekend to turn around and start teaching the same couse to a new group of sophomores.

After reminding myself about the need to just keep breathing, I also had to remind myself that the new kids who entered my classroom, filled with a mixture of excitement, anxiety and dread (thanks to their predecessors who told everyone they knew about how hard the class was, how much they learned but mostly, too, how glad they were that the class, for them, was OVER), were just that: new kids.

That’s why summers are so great when we teach: we end the year more than exhausted, but we have the summer to forget how difficult it is to break in a new crop of students. We forget that we have to teach them procedures, that there are days when it feels like we’re caught so deep in the muck that a thesis statement is as foreign to them as learning…I don’t know…insert something that’s difficult; that there were plenty of days when discord tiptoed around the edges of the classroom, threatening to overtake whatever it was that was supposed to be happening at any given moment.

Instead, as we laze (ha!) through summer, we instead replace those real memories with fond ones of kids who hung around and wanted to share their poetry (that was actually good), the reflections wherein students waxed about how much they learned, the thank you notes that parents and students were nice enough to write.

Revisionism is a beautiful thing, particularly when related to teaching. And it’s not, necessarily, a horrible thing, because it enables us to hold dear to the various meanings of success we see in our classrooms over the course of a term. And it probably enables us to muster the courage to come back in the fall.

Let me repeat that, though: over the course of a term. It does not happen overnight.

And so, this George Washington quote–this fantastic quote that Jim Burke uses to begin a chapter in his incredibly useful book What’s the Big Idea–resonates with me now more than ever, particularly as I begin to grade the first papers from new kids in a new term.

“Well, we must take them as they are and make them into the soldiers we need them to be.” 

Thank goodness for an unexpected snow day, that allows me to read through the papers with more leisure than I am usually permitted. I had to remind myself, again and again, that these were new students, that they had not been privy to the writing workshops, the practice, the expectations that we are all writers, with important things to say and that good writing takes time. Thus, their theses statements would not be as well developed, their language not as sophisticated, their analysis not as through and interesting, their voices still clanking along in essay voice.

Yet.

And that’s okay.

For now.

More than anything, I think I’ve finally reached the point where, after giving fond farewells to the old kids, I can open the door to the new students and be excited about who they will become, the powerful readers and writers I know they can be.

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