Monthly Archives: July 2013

One Year!

Word Press just informed me that I’ve been blogging for one year. One year?! Already? I swear that I blinked and I missed it. But this picture of Octavia Butler is a fantastic way to celebrate. Image

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Trying to Turn to Wonder

The strange part about social media is that, even when you don’t want to, you find out what people you know (or, in this case, think you know) are thinking.

This week has been difficult, largely because injustice prevailed in the Trayvon Martin case. I have been inundated via the media, as people express feelings of hurt, disappointment, lack of surprise, all of those emotions and more as many of us attempt to get some sort of perspective on this moment when yet another young Black man is killed and justice isn’t served. 

I intentionally decided to limit reading of social media. I didn’t want people telling me how I should feel about the verdict, attempting to justify any laws, making dismissive comments about the values–or lack of values–of Black bodies. I also didn’t want to have to, as a surprising number of friends have been doing, un-friend folks for their comments and perspectives.

Not this week.

However, given that I’m teaching in my summer program, it’s not like I could stay holed up in my apartment during what has been a heatwave and refuse to engage with anyone. So, I began to process the verdict with people I trust, and showed up for school on Monday. 

The kids knew what had happened, but I don’t think they quite knew how to talk about it. Thus, I started with my own feelings, wherein I expressed my sadness, my feelings of hopelessness, my…worry that, as the aunt of two Black boys they might one day experience this. I recalled my student who was killed the first year of my student teaching and how the school essentially kept moving along while the teachers who loved him were left to pick up our own pieces. If anything, I was trying to feel hopeful when I was fearful.

Gotta tell the kids the truth.

They began to speak, and their responses were similar to mine, and different, close and far, but they were their responses, and they were real, and valued, and they mattered. 

Still matter. Will always matter, as far as I’m concerned. 

This is one of those difficult conversations that teachers can have with kids, or choose NOT to have with kids. Race is going to come up–it’s the axis on which everything turns, I’d argue–but these conversations are challenging, scary, and also easy to “convince” students what they should be thinking. I try not to do that, but that, too, is difficult to manage around sensitive topics. I do a better job of it sometimes rather than others.

Another group of student writers read King’s “What is Your Life’s Blueprint?” and had to write about the relationship between that text and another. Many of them chose this article, an apology to Rachel Jeanteal. The letter and Rachel are compelling to them. Like Trayvon, we know Rachel, too. And many of them are grappling with the bigger idea of what to do when your “somebodiness” as King defines it is challenged by forces over which you have no control.

I read this quote somewhere that said when times get tough, turn to wonder, and I’m really, really trying, but I am so very disappointed. 

Trying, though. Ever trying.

Then, it happens: I sit and talk to a young writer about the article, about quotes that stand out to him, about details that matter, and I realize that in those spaces, hope does exist. I do try to turn to wonder with them, and we marvel over the relevance of “Blueprint” to all young people, not just the underserved ones. I do think and believe, too, that they can be change agents in the world, and I say it to them, while swallowing my own worries of racial profiling, presumed guilt, other concerns that threaten to paralyze me if I sit and think about them too much. 

We’re going to see Fruitvale Station. Their decision. I read them a bit of the review from the New York Times and they said we should go. I suspect I’ll be chaperoning a trip once it comes to the city, then spending even more time afterwards trying to help us all figure out what it all means: to be people of color, living in a world where wonder is important, but is, at this moment, so difficult to find.

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Teaching At This Moment: Already Missing the Time I Don’t Have

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Random House Annual Educators’ Event in New York City, where, I started by saying that I refuse to be freaked out by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I then was able to explain how I’m anticipating being able to be creative, to think broadly about texts, to help my students engage in complex, higher-order tasks around literature and literacy.

At the moment–and still–I believe that. 

However, the problem is that the more I read about the CCSS–the vast amounts of money that are driving the initiatives, the stakes that are going to impact educators and students–I realize that staying true to the desire not to be freaked out, to hold on to those beliefs, is going to be more difficult than I anticipated.

I’ll explain:

  • Complex writing tasks mean more people are going to need to be expert writing teachers. There are simply not enough of us in the field who feel confident teaching writing. Thus, we see lots of reductions of writing to acronyms, to numbers (paragraphs, sentences, words, whatever), and we move further away from what we know to be true about how to turn kids into powerful writers.
  • Appendix B is a suggestion, not a mandate. I am excited about using it as a suggestion and building some unbelievable text sets that encourages intertextuality, synthesis, real writing. However, there will still be schools and departments that use those texts only. How can we expand our understanding of literature and literacy (as evidenced by my current reading of this fantastic book that I highly recommend) if we only use Appendix B?
  • I have become interested, of late, in text-dependent questions (TDQ) because, as I’ve stated before, I’m a much stronger writing teacher than I am a lit teacher, so I’m constantly thinking about ways to improve my craft. TDQ drive students back into the text, which makes sense, right? What makes you think that? Where in the text can you find evidence to either support or refute those ideas? But, there are formulas for these things, too (related to generating questions. This site made my head spin).  I worry that in our quest to make everything systematic, or “accessible” or whatever that we make it too uniform. Why not have kids create their own TDQ? In all of this desire to get kids “college and career ready,” I don’t see a lot about how teachers can systematically teach kids to take control of their own learning in the classroom. I usually teach them how to ask questions, we spend time (most of the term) generating, critiquing, revising questions for ones that do what we need them to do. I don’t know…I am not optimistic that that independence is quick to come for kids. 
  • Time, the need for so much time to understand what is coming. And time is the one thing we simply do not have. Currently, I’m fretting about systems, how to create peer review that works, how to reduce the amount of direct instruction to allow for more time for kids to master the content through hands-on work, but most of all, I’m worried that since my principal lifted the caps for class sizes, next year, I could very well have three sections a semester of 30 kids in a class. How will I be an effective teacher with classes that are this large? What kind of teacher will I be if I don’t have time to read papers, give feedback, conference, etc.? Will we have time for those moments–those in-between moments–where the learning happens? 

While the above concerns are all relevant, I think the last one is the most perplexing for me. I have never taught classes of this size, though I have many colleagues who do. I worry that these adjustments, of the class size, will force me to change my practice in ways that concern me. 

As I said, though, I refuse to be freaked out, and I’m pretty good at finding end runs around potential road blocks. 

And, it is summer, after all. 

Thus, I’m thinking about systems. I’m pretty sure I can get kids to work in groups for writing feedback and I just need to get better about rotations of due dates, what I will grade, what counts as indicators of learning. I’m also going back through what I need to teach and making myself justify what’s important (not interesting; sometimes, I get caught up in what’s interesting and shiny, pretty, things) and only do that. Only do that. That’s kind of fun for me and my neuroses. It’s also the only way I can contend with being able to be in control of the situation rather than the situation controlling me. 

 

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