Monthly Archives: March 2013

Conversations with Student Writers

When my students submit a draft, I ask them to give me some areas of particular growth that they’d like my feedback on. Here, a couple of my comments in response to a student:

After reading her draft: I would like to see your writing become more sophisticated. I think one place to start is with sentence variety and sentence length. You have lots of choppy sentences that are just…boring. From this draft, I can tell you can write. Now, you have to push your limits. Go.

She asked, “Can you detect my voice in my essay?” [Side note: what a brilliant, BRILLIANT question from such a young writer. My heart, my smile…VOICE?! Remind me to write about what Keith Gilyard said about voice that made everything crystal clear-ish to me about that].

Me: It’s there, hidden underneath some dry language. You actually have a voice that is quite poetic. You’ll develop it this term. It will be fun.

Indeed, it will be–and is–fun. I needed a reminder of the joy I have working with my students. March attempts to wring it from me as it marches forth (ha), but there is such joy in this work…

2 Comments

Filed under Student Interactions

Night School (or, crying at my desk)…

It’s a rookie move to sit crying at your desk WHILE THE KIDS ARE WORKING AWAY, isn’t it? I’m supposed to excuse myself to run to the bathroom, or step outside and slump down in a ball of messiness, but…today, it all happened too fast. My students are at work independently doing some standardized testing preparation for next week’s high-stakes affair, and I—diligent multi-tasker that I am—use that time to check my school email.

There’s a reply from a student who’s asked me to write a recommendation for her for a summer program that has a strong social justice component. This student, who is that one amazing kid we are fortunate to teach at least once in a lifetime, knows this proposed program is quite similar to the one she did last year. Might you do something more academic, I ask? You know, build out your resume and learn some new academic stuff. I’ve no doubt you’d be even more amazing in those summer programs.

Her reply is that she knows she should do something more academic, but she pays for everything in school (afterschool activities add up) and…this is the part that got me…maybe she could take a night school class.

Night school? You are 15 years old, can address issues of privilege and power better than most adults, write a dream piece of analysis, have a voice that is poetic and brilliant and memorable…and you know you should do something like go to night school because there’s no way to think about programs otherwise.

Tears. Leaking. I’m looking away from them—or trying to look but I keep looking at the email and it’s blurred because I feel so incredibly helpless at that moment–staring away from the kids who are diligently writing because they take everything so seriously, and I am crying. At 10:30 a.m., after we return from a fire drill and are re-starting after our disruption, I’m catching up on housekeeping, and I’m crying.

Because WHEN, for the love of all we do as educators, do the good kids get to win?! I’ve been thinking about this article from Slate for a few days now.

She’s one of those kids. She’s White, low-income, over-involved in school, but can’t dare to think of an opportunity that’s offered by the local colleges and universities, or others across the country, because she needs the money. I hate it when I am reminded that young people have to deal with grown-up problems. I hate that in this friggin’ school district that spends nearly 30K per child (!) that we can’t give her enough—or her peers who are equally well-deserving and eager and will change the world, I’m quite certain, if we JUST LET THEM—can’t think creatively enough to consider allocating funds for stipends, or making other things free. I hate that they have to make decisions that will mean something, ultimately, and will impact them, unfortunately, and so much of these decisions are predicated on factors they cannot control, cannot change, cannot surmount.

That is, until they do…surmount them, that is. I remind myself that I was one of those kids, smart and poor, who benefitted from reading the Fiske Guide to Colleges, dog-earing some pages about schools I couldn’t necessarily place on a map with any good accuracy, and who said yes when others suggested I leave my hometown, major in English and American Studies, hire me back for summer after summer and not mind while I read my way through the days. Make no mistake. It’s been incredibly hard and I’ve wanted to quit, but I didn’t. But I also didn’t understand—until now, when I am faced with students who are trying to essentially make a way the best they can—that one little decision can change everything, and how precarious the path is that we ask them to traverse, largely unaided and uninformed.

Everything.

Usually, I am overcome by moments of intense emotion—teaching does that to you—before I get myself together and think of what I am able to do with these moments, and I cannot anticipate when or where they will occur. That’s what happened today, as the students worked and as I slowly (but silently—maybe I’m not so much of a rookie after all) fell apart and put myself back together again. I’m reminded that the local college has an extension school that is taught by the best professors and that high school students from here can go free. She’s going to come chat next week, I hope, and we can think about that as an option. I’m sure we’ll consider other options, as well, as we sit down, research, talk, hope, do…

And I won’t cry, but I’ll hope really hard, put my head back down, and get to work to think of how we can make decisions—or pressure those in the power to make the bigger decisions—to envision how to create equity for these brilliant, brilliant children that are going to change the world.

1 Comment

Filed under Student Interactions

Are We Tackling Race, Or is Race Tackling Me?

In the last three days, I forked over nearly $20 for chips and salsa at the overpriced market across the street from school without batting an eye, consumed half of that purchase before giving my dogs a half-a#@ed walk and throwing myself into bed, nearly the rest of the other half of the chips and salsa and a Grasshopper Sundae (size small, but that makes no difference at all) the following day, kept a 6:30 pm bedtime, and prayed to whoever runs the universe that tomorrow is a snow day.

My poor eating habits and sudden onset exhaustion are directly correlated to introducing issues of race in the classroom this week. Such an endeavor utterly wears me out–like so much so I will probably sleep all weekend to recover a bit of myself–and now, today, I realize why people just choose to avoid teaching race.

Cause to really do it, to go all in, particularly as a Black woman teaching mostly white kids, means I have to steel myself for the ignorance–because they really DO NOT know–while reminding myself not to react too viscerally (particularly hard today when one innocently remarked that he didn’t know why Black folks had problems with one picture of a lawn jockey that smacked of racist tropes) and to occupy the stance and the mantra: raise awareness, but don’t preach, as English educator Bruce Penniman suggested in his book.

Real talk. To even raise awareness is incredibly challenging, largely because if one is perpetually in the position of Colonizer, why should that person even care about the Colonized?!?

Therein comes the theory. Oh post colonial theory, you are both a conduit and a curse because when you give kids a different way to read a text and they start to think about what voices have been left out of the conversation and what that means?!? Get ready for the mishegas that follows. You can’t prepare yourself for it, actually. You will be bowled over (silently, of course, as you bite your lip to keep from reacting) at their comments about skin tone (and why and how people of color can be so many different…colors?!?), as they repeat the stereotypes as they try to present their views, as they make their classmates of color attempt to make the floor open up beneath their seats so they can stop having this conversation. You will step into the conversation gingerly, but confidently, as you give them the language to talk about what they’ve internalized for years and what they believe to be true. 

There’s a moment, sorta like in the Matrix, where I hear a bunch of students’ voices transposed over my own, another that’s not my own yelling you better right this ship, KP, and I step out of the room to gulp some air that feels incredibly stale and repeat 100 times, as fast as I can, itsworthititsworhtititsworthit.

I thank the universe again for a White male student teacher who isn’t afraid to speak truth and own his privilege and who spells me while I have a minor meltdown because this is so hard and why do I have to do this, all I wanted to do was give them a different lens for reading a text. I didn’t think THIS was going to open up so many doors that I knew were going to open but…all…on the same day?!

I’ve become increasingly more agile at talking about issues of power, race, privilege, equity with non-POC students, while positioning myself as a person who cares about my students and one who also considers it critically important that they understand–or at least wake up for a moment–why we live in a world that isn’t fair for everyone because others have particular rights and privileges that are unearned, closely protected, and unwilling to relinquish.

But all those thoughts go through my mind, as I stand in the hallway gulping (or am I gasping?) air, sipping water, getting myself together, reminding myself not to take it personally. Of course, I’m lying. I can’t help but take it personally. They are my students. On my watch. I have complete confidence that some of them might just run the world some day. I need to make sure they’re paying attention and actually doing some good in the world. 

This work with postcolonial lit theory is merely a crack in the door as we confront these big ideas and issues, and debate Okonkwo’s inflexibility, and question if Dolce and Gabbana bears any responsibility for sending their racist earrings down the spring 2012 runway. But I do know that they’re becoming more aware–and again, it’s incremental progress, but, in issues such as this, it’s best to take progress where one can find it–and questioning what single story/master narrative it is that they’ve been consuming for years and why we need counternarratives. 

I did sit at my desk for a good thirty minutes after my last writing conference today:  immobilized because it takes so much out of me mentally to talk about these issues. I do know that if more of us were talking about this stuff, then I could share the load and not feel so wrung out at the sheer amount of work required simply to raise awareness. I cannot even begin to fathom, at this moment, the next necessary steps that will help them continue making connections between these ideas and texts and what’s to come.

There it is. I used to be so skeptical–disbelieving is probably a better word–when people would tell me that they didn’t really “teach race” in their classrooms, thinking that they didn’t do it because they didn’t want to do it. I think, now, that there’s some truth in that. How do you initiate these conversations knowing that they will require far more of you as a teacher than drafting an essay assignment? That you’re going to probably feel wiped out as a result of those conversations for at least the next week? That you’re going to replay myriad comments and interactions for weeks to come? 

It can wear you out. It’s certainly worn me out.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized