Monthly Archives: August 2013

And So It Begins: This HAS to Work

Summer officially ends on Monday, when I return to school for a grade-level PD meeting, followed by a few more days of all-school PD. The kids turn up after Labor Day.

I’ve been thinking about this new group of kids quite a bit as I prepare to launch a new initiative, now called Honors Prep. 21 students (with the potential of reaching 23 by the time we are rolling along) have made the commitment to take my class this fall with the goal that it will prepare them to enter–AND STAY–in Honors English classes for the rest of the time in high school. Thus, by the time they finish a semester of the prep class, they enter my Honors English class, prepared to be awesome.

My contention is that they simply need a bit more time: to learn the skills required to write well, to spend some more time sharpening their critical thinking, to improve their reading skills. They also need a bit more time developing their grit: what to do when things get difficult. Rather than quitting, they need to learn strategies for surviving and thriving. Traditionally, underserved kids (insert all of understanding of kids who aren’t in Honors classes: kids of color, kids who are from low SES, some boys, etc.) show up for their Honors class, get the first assignment or two and then drop the class. Nearly all of them do not take an Honors English class again in their high school experience.

Not acceptable.

They need to learn that they have the power to be intellectuals if they 1) believe they can and 2) learn the requisite skills.

So while I’m developing a new class, the only big differences will be in the content and in the amount of scaffolding they receive. I’ll still be my warm-demander self, but I anticipate loving them up a bit more as they get used to being pushed. It’s going to be uncomfortable for them at first, true, but I believe in them more than they will believe in themselves at first. It’s fine. I’ve been in this position before.

It’s a parallel skills class: they’ll learn to cite evidence, close read, write arguments, conduct rhetorical analysis, ask their own questions (it’s an inquiry-based class anyway), lead discussions, the same things the Honors classes do, but they’ll have a semester to “practice” and “master” those skills before being thrown into the deep end. Now, I’m not necessarily reducing the amount of text complexity, but I am starting a bit slower.

My Honors classes tend to study: The Odyssey, Things Fall Apart, Macbeth, Huck Finn and Frankenstein, with some particular attention to smaller units that deal with women, postcolonial lit theory, rhetorical analysis, etc. They also write a good amount as they tackle the argument (it’s own challenge because we struggle with disabusing them of writing with formulas…it’s fun and eventually we find peace, but it takes us nearly all semester).

The Prepsters (as I call them unofficially; I’m thinking we should get some t-shirts!) will be practicing the same skills that the Honors kids are working on, but will use different texts. Their texts include Purple Hibiscus, Merchant of Venice, Malcolm X and smaller units on the short story, tracking a columnist for rhetorical analysis and, yes, lots of writing.

Both groups will get some early work on growth mindset. All students will be part of a smaller writing/review group. Honors Prep kids will have the support of some graduate students who will be responsible for monitoring the progress of the writing groups.

I’m moving to the writing groups (and I think that they’ll have a broader function of supporting the students within them as they collaborate) because I’ve been thinking about a comment a parent made to me last year. He wondered why American students tended to be so isolated when they studied. He, as Argentinian, was much more accustomed to working with a group, of being part of a regular community that shared ideas, helped each other out, became stronger because of a shared experience.

He’s right: I do a LOT of community building in the early months of school, then move into community maintenance for the remainder of our time because my students tend to be ridiculously competitive. I have to teach them–intentionally–how to work together, how to collaborate (which, by the way is one of the skills lacking in young people, the ability to collaborate and one which employers wished students were more adept at doing). Thus, if I set my mind to doing it from the beginning, then it will be something I can give due diligence rather than treat it as an add-on.

I’m grateful that so many people are behind this idea for the prep class. I’ve just decided that it has to work because these kids–the ones who rarely make it in an Honors class because of lack of preparation, the kids, I would argue, that we NEED in Honors classes–deserve it. They deserve to be in an environment where they know they have a shot to make it, and they need to know that they are prepared to answer the difficult questions, take the tough risks, write the hard papers because they’ve been prepared.

And because I am an eternal optimist, my hope is that next year, I teach a few more of these classes, get a few more kids ready to move up into the Honors track, and those kids become part of a support network of the kids that came before, and they look back and pull others up. Then, in five years, I hope to not be teaching these classes at all because–while I don’t believe in panaceas–at least this class will have become enough of a model that other folks realize that if we simply buckle down and do the hard work of believing first that ALL kids deserve this preparation and that it should be happening up and down the grade levels, others take up the challenge and…I can’t quite even finish that thought because if that were to happen, we might have a revolution.

I’m down for that.

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Finding My Way Back to YA Lit: Aristotle & Dante

The best measure for me to determine if I’m reading a book that is weighty and meaningful (and please keep in mind that these terms hold various currency at different times in my life, dependent on what I’m supposed to be doing or attempting to ignore) is if I’m unafraid to read and cry on the subway.

I’ve read several titles that had me weeping, furtively wiping my eyes, wearing my sunglasses UNDERGROUND because I was overcome with something emotional about a text. I admit that I hope people don’t think I’m insane, but, when a book takes you, you don’t really quite care enough about what people might say. All that matters is, well, the book.

In this frenzied summer of teaching writing with high schoolers and literacy to preservice and new teachers, I have also been attempting to help all of them broaden their understandings of what it means to read and write. The teachers participate in a book club in hopes of remembering what real readers do (funny, they tend to want to impose all of these arcane rules on students that they would never do to themselves. I constantly remind them that, if they don’t want to complete particular activities after doing something,  then students don’t want to either). Given that the class is a mix of elementary, middle and high school teachers, of all subjects (no comment on how much of a challenge this is, but I will say that thoughtful, flexible groupings make everything better), I provided a list of books along the grade-level spectrum.

One of them was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Now, as much as this is a young adult novel about two Latino young men discovering who they are, falling in love, and being loved by such wonderful parents (oh, I wanted their parents to be my parents or to be parents of kids I taught, or just, I don’t know, hang out with them or go bowling or just be in the same room with them…) it is equally as much a book about literacy. The boys read to each other, share poetry, draw, write letters…I wonder if this is caused because the setting is late 1980s El Paso, Texas and how much things would probably be different (I had a moment when I wondered, why don’t they just text, which sent me rereading for the actual year), but I am so grateful that this novel is set in the time before technology changed everything.

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Aristotle & Dante: Two kids you should get to know

This, too, is a story about boys who love each other. Machismo aside, they cry, they hug, they are true to each other. While one boy’s father is struggling to be demonstrative with his love around his son, the other boy’s father is loving, gentle, kind in ways that encourage his peer to do the same.

It’s a wonderful model for what friendship might mean between two boys who love each other on multiple levels, and who want to be who they are within and without the confines of societal expectations, regional (mis)understandings, and, for lack of a better word, the universe. Don’t we need such nuanced stories, particularly when it’s so easy to think of young men as hard, as uncaring, as ones who definitely don’t cry?

Now, I’m back on the YA lit train and I can’t get enough of it. It’s been years since I really was able to immerse myself in the genre. It’s so well-written, so evocative, so important for young adults and the folks who try to understand them and who value them.

I’m ordering a few copies of Aristotle and Dante (side note: and I’m also happy the Printz award committee selected this book–let’s hear it for diversity!!) and I can’t wait for kids to say to me, “Dr. P, can you believe it when…?” and I’ll nod, and we’ll dig in to those conversations about loving texts, and young folks who figure it out, and who we love as much as if they were real people, too.

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Showing Up

Anna Quindlen has this great philosophy about life, wherein she says something to the extent of “I show up, I listen, I try to laugh.”

I collect a lot of words: jot them down on scraps of paper, inside my planner, the app on my phone, my Moleskine, and try to remember them, but this is one of the few quotes that I have committed to memory. It’s probably because this is my general outlook on life.

This summer, I have been teaching writing again to another phenomenal group of young people, though I’ve had more of them for a summer (which has been perplexing for me because I feel like I just don’t know them like I used to–it’s much more difficult to figure out a kids’ writing quirks when there are +30 as compared to 15. I have even more sympathy and respect for teachers who have that many kids in their classes every day). Because I’ve had a larger class load, I’ve gotten creative about how I interact with kids. I’ve conducted writing conferences at breakfast, talked about integrating quotations over Google Docs and in the hall, given a quick recap of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade over lunch, and stopped to have intense chats between points on campus.

That’s what it means to show up.

Last night, I went to the summer showcase for a writing program because it featured a young man I urged to attend. He’s the type of writer whom you, essentially, get out of his way. We had sophisticated conversations about word choice, about intention, about meaning in ways that I’ve not spoken with many young people about, and that’s because he is curious, earnest and dedicated. (Funny, too, he’s the student who wrote quite adeptly about how he was dissatisfied with our classroom discussions about voice; he found them too reductive when, after all, voice can take a lifetime to develop. Touche. Absolutely correct…)

He was surprised to see me, and broke into a huge grin. As I chatted with his parents in the moments after the reading and before the young writers disbanded to find their families, his mother asked about my summer and thanked me again for suggesting he do the program. The student told me he’s submitted a few articles, rattled off something about words and length and I simply…marveled about how summers help young people to grow, and to be creative and to do powerful, amazing things. (On another note, how can we keep that fire from the summer in the school year?!)

And I’m pleased I was able to show up to let him know I was proud of him.

When I first began teaching, I showed up for everything: after school sessions, book clubs with students, parent events I created, community lectures that I attended with students. My week was on a seven-day cycle. Now, I am selective about my showing up: I get tired, and then I get cranky, and then I realize it’s not fun showing up if I am irritated and thinking about other things.

Thus, I try to pack a number of events into a weekend, say, or an afternoon. I can do a pancake breakfast sponsored by the crew team, see an early afternoon soccer game, hope that there’s a dance performance or a preview of a play, and perhaps squeak in some time to chat with a student who I’ve been hoping to build a stronger relationship with over a high point that I witnessed at one of those events.

There is a power in showing up for kids, and I understand, every time, that there is a power in showing up for them that extends to me. I am never sorry for the time I spent listening, laughing, pushing, stepping back, or just…being in their presence.

I’ll hope to build in those times to see them in other contexts beside the classroom throughout the upcoming school year.

I will show up. I will listen. I will try to laugh.

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Filed under Student Interactions, Teaching Writing in the Summer