Monthly Archives: November 2013

Between Tweet Summaries, Shylock’s Defense and Sour Patch Kids: Places Where Learning Happens

I’ve been away for a bit to help with the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference, which was ultimately a wonderful success. While it was a good amount of work, the conference came at exactly the right time: my morale wasn’t particularly high, I was frustrated with administrative structures, annoyed that larger class sizes have slowed my ability to know my kids as well as I usually do, and concerned that the overall vibe of myself and colleagues was one of low morale, too.

Nothing like a conference full of good ideas, friendly faces, chats about books, favorite authors and everything else to change that! What is also important about conferences, and about this one in particular, is that NCTE got introduced to an entirely new audience of younger teachers, or teachers who had been teaching for years but had not been to a conference. I realized how much belonging to a professional organization matters. Already, being back in my school, the teachers who attended (my whole grade level team and most of the grade above me) have been simply ebullient about sessions they attended, new information they learned and are eager to try…there’s a spirit of re-invigoration.

Given that I’ve been away for a few days, I was not necessarily looking forward to returning to my classroom. I worried that my desk would be a mess, kids would have completed none of the work I’d left for them to do with their sub…overall chaos would await me. Luckily, none of that was the case. Desk was orderly, kids were happy to see me, wanted to know about the conference, if I brought them anything (books, books, books), and they turned in the work they completed. (That’s another story about how quickly I will get that all graded–I have to get better about these things).

My student teacher attended the conference. She’s been a great colleague because she actually has the time to observe what’s happening in class between students and me, between students and other students, etc. As is typical of a new teacher, most of her observations focus on behavior and classroom management. I don’t know if you remember, but this is the year I’m piloting a class with a group of sophomores that have a desire to enter Honors English classes but need some skills work (academic and habits of mind). While it’s by far my most difficult to teach, it is my joy every single day. I can see why she gets concerned with their behavior: they talk out, they get off task, they get me off task (I got caught up in a conversation about “Scandal” that was about 10 minutes too long, but it was so compelling…), they sometimes don’t do their homework, they can be resistant, they take everything personally…

So yesterday, on that first day back, after she voiced her thinking about students, I had to remind her about all the reasons I’m quite pleased that these kids are going to be ready to enter Honors in January. I had to give her a different way of looking at student progress that extends beyond classroom management.

In short:

  • We administered the Gates-McGinty reading assessment to get some sort of data about their current reading levels. Once I got the results, I asked the kids if they wanted to know their levels, reasoning that it’s just one type of data, and it’s good to be well-informed, because then you know where you can improve. While a few of them are reading on the post-high school level, many of them are hovering around middle school, but I told them that all they need to do is read more challenging books and write a lot, and they would raise those levels in no time. They just needed to be persistent. Add to that that I told them they needed to read 15 independent reading books over the course of the semester (why not set goals that are ambitious? If they read 10, I’ll be happy; what’s good to know is that they are all reading), in addition to the core texts. Lots of them like reading YA (who doesn’t?), but I told them that they needed to balance their reading diet with some more challenging texts (I have a great analogy that involves Doritos).¬†Thing is, when you make such recommendations to kids who aren’t big readers, you best be ready to start pushing books at them. I’ve been bringing my books from home (I used to have a really great classroom library that I tend to donate to teachers when I leave schools, so I’m not at my current levels, but I still have some good ones), but we also have a fantastic school library. We read for 20 minutes to start every class, and kids go to the library when they need to. Yesterday, five kids needed to go, so I went with them. They wanted to read more challenging texts, and I was tired of them saying that and returning with YA, so we had a spontaneous trip, which yielded some new books and new interests. I also remembered that librarians don’t know all types of kids–my school librarian was recommending texts that I knew they weren’t going to read, or ones that were too challenging at the moment, or too…boring, so I had to pull books myself for them. But that’s progress! They want to read, they want to improve, they are on the path to becoming readers, and I need to step my own game up because they need my help.
  • To get some semblance of a status of the classroom, I had kids write a Tweet summary for an assigned act and scene from our current all-class text, The Merchant of Venice. After having arguments about characters and spaces, they summarized key points, used hash tags to emphasize the most important parts, and created a review sheet for their peers. More progress: they can distinguish between what is most important and what is interesting.¬†
  • On that same note, they then had to re-read Shylock’s defense and argue if he was a villain or a victim. It’s now become habit for them to remind themselves and each other to include textual evidence to support their claims, and to analyze that evidence. They would have just written their opinions and turned it in a few months ago.
  • I was at the candy store after school yesterday and ran into three of the kids from that class. It’s so great to see kids in environments outside of school, when they are themselves, and funny, and free. I made some fuss about scholars and Sour Patch kids and being happy to see them (why not make a fuss over them? Can’t be sure if anyone else will, so I make sure I do) before they wished me well and made their way into the evening. What is most important, too, is that they see themselves as part of a community of achievers that extends beyond what happens on the fifth floor. That community will see them through.

Progress happens, but sometimes it occurs on such a minute scale that we can miss it. I told my student teacher that we needed to remember those signs, and we spent a moment recounting those and others, just to make sure we don’t get so bogged down in the other stuff that we forget that these kids are moving forward, and that I just know they’re gonna do it. Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments over these last few months where I’ve wondered if it was going to work, but then, something like that happens: I either run into a kid outside of class who wants to show me something they’re reading, or invites me to come see her in the school musical, or submits what is a fantastically written paper, and I remember: we are going to do it, and for that, I’m grateful.

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Filed under Lab Classroom, Professional Development, Reading Lives, Student Interactions

Why Am I Exhausted? Oh Wait, I’m Teaching Huck Finn…

When I decided to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my sophomores, I decided to for several reasons, many of them about the importance of the text as “American” (whatever that means), and also because the character Jim presents all sorts of conundrums. I also wanted them to come to their own conclusions about whether the text should be taught in classrooms (the culminating debate for the text). That Huck can’t quite resolve the conflict between his conscience and his heart is just as compelling, and, while at the center of the novel, there are numerous other angles that also provide interesting moments of analysis.

I also remembered when I taught the text a couple of years ago that I was absolutely worn out once we got done with the book. With the last 12 chapters to go, I’m feeling that same way, and have been thinking about why.

The additional layer that often gets overlooked in these discussions about appropriateness, N-words and the rest is how much background knowledge you have to build for kids AND how much correcting of historical inaccuracies you also have to resolve. Students are as naive as Huck when it comes to thinking about Jim, and–this is where I understand why I have to teach this text and be on my game every single time I work with the kids–they will remain that way unless you help them think of him otherwise.

They want to call Jim illiterate. They want to say that he’s not “smart”. They want to think him illogical. They also have questions about enslaved Africans: would Jim have known his family in Africa? They ask with a genuine interest.

They also think they know everything about slavery because they saw Django Unchained.

I want to pass out, but I can’t.

I have been building text sets out of necessity (ah, the mother of invention) to give them a broader understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans. I’ve shown clips from Skip Gates’ newest documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross which talks about slavery and fugitive slave laws (and if you don’t cry when you watch the story of Margaret Garner, well, then…), pulled from slave narratives, Frederick Douglass, historical documents, etc.

I am cobbling together supplemental texts as quickly as I can, which is fine. It’s just…frustrating and disheartening and, yes, exhausting. Teaching HF is fraught with my own internal conflicts: is it worth reading a text that potentially takes so much out of me emotionally, through analyzing Huck’s conflict amidst the historical setting and contradictions? Is it worth having to correct so many plain-wrong misunderstandings about enslaved Africans, about romanticized notions of slavery, of fighting to help them see Jim as a person (before that all goes to hell when they reach Phelps’ farm)?

I would say yes, though I’m uneasy.

I think, too, that I’ve come to the point that I think this text should be taught as interdisciplinary, with a History teacher who can set to rights the wrongs that kids have internalized. And I’m not putting this work off on a History teacher; rather, I simply think that the more kids have the opportunity to learn counternarratives, and apply them to texts to broaden or correct their (mis)understandings, the better critical thinkers, writers and people they can become.

Because the struggle is so real right now, and I have never been happier to know that tomorrow is the weekend and I can shore up my own courage before returning down the Mississippi River with them on Monday.


Filed under Teaching Texts