Monthly Archives: January 2014

Sophomore Slump

Once you reach a certain age, you really shouldn’t blame other people and circumstances for your personal decisions. I have a pattern of staying in places for two years, then moving on to something else. While it was easy to rack up reasons for those decisions: too suburban, too this, too that, I missed teaching in urban schools, etc., (and I’m mostly talking about teaching here), what has become most clear is this:

I love the first year in a school: it’s full of possibility, you can try new things, the kids are all new, your colleagues offer the potential for new discussions and learning–rose colored glasses fully activated. Near the end of that year, though, you realize that the current place has its own challenges and, while they are challenges in this new space, they really aren’t that different from what you left.

Thus, when I roll into year two, the glasses are off and the papers are stacking up, and the job gets hard and I, usually, get an itch to do something else. I miss the new. It might be some mix of my being a creative and loving the challenge of figuring something out, but, now, I understand that by leaving, I really haven’t given myself a chance to figure it out.

Until now.

So I’ve dragged my heels mightily in objection to teaching AP Lit. I was able to get away with it last year, but my department head dropped the hammer and said I had to do it this year. I have my issues with the AP: primarily that it becomes this test-driven industry that really doesn’t mirror ANY of the freshmen lit classes I took in college or, well, ever. And then, too, I am not the lover of literature I was in college or since I began teaching. I love writing, and teaching kids to write well, but I can take or leave most texts as long as kids read SOMETHING.

I had this interaction with my former department head at NCTE in November, wherein we essentially made peace, but I think about that interaction often because that two-year sabbatical in the suburb taught me more about TEACHING LITERATURE than I was ready to admit.

Herein, I condense those lessons:

  • My colleagues were brilliant about how to get into a text: how to teach it upside down, around and through, to all types of kids. I think if anyone wants to know how to do “close reading” they should start with these folks, because, essentially, close reading is simply what good readers do.
  • They created some amazing materials–that they readily share with me, STILL. Perhaps this is why I am not fearing traveling back in time with Hester Prynne and The Scarlet Letter. Perhaps.
  • Most importantly, they taught me that this stuff takes time to learn: that you can’t just do two years and leave in a fit of annoyance or a desire for the new. You’ll never get it. Thing is, I don’t think I ever would have come to that understanding if I stayed there. I simply wasn’t comfortable and I felt like I needed time to come to that. But I see it in my practice: how strategies and skills that I thought I would never be able to do (and there are many) now seem natural (ish). The way I approach a text, which used to be much more about activities, I am sure, now are about clearly focused objectives that matter to mastering the material. OMG–I am finally becoming THAT teacher.

Don’t get me wrong, though: the struggle is real and daily I ask myself a thousand questions, but, at this moment, I’m content to remain HERE, in this school, and attempt to figure them out.

See: growth can happen. Now, let me get back on this scaffold.

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Filed under Professional Development, Reflective Practice

De-Tracking: Harder, So Much Harder Than It Looks

The first semester is about over and, after being entirely consumed with getting this class to run, I have a moment to catch my breath. Here’s what I’m thinking at the moment:

The goal was to create a class–Honors Prep–that took a small group of students that had some desire to enter Honors English 10 classes and prepared them through learning and mastering parallel skills. Thus, that meant that essentially everything I teach in my Honors class, they do in their prep class–the only difference is that sometimes I took more time to scaffold the skills, I used a lot more encouragement and tough love, eked out a bit more patience, and did a whole lot of wraparound stuff. In the process, I tried to document as much as I could so I could think about writing it up for others who might want to try such an initiative in his/her own classroom.

Lessons learned:

  • You have to build an intentional literacy community: you have to help kids see themselves differently. I did that, first, through some growth mindset and resilience work (this video by Will Smith is awesome) and having students write their own resilience narratives about a time when something was hard but they kept going. Also, you have to help them build their reading skills explicitly. That meant I had to go back to my strategies of what good readers do and TEACH THEM that it’s not about reading Spark Notes but about actually making meaning of the text on the page. And then we had to read a lot of books, so we did: Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Purple Hibiscus, Merchant of Venice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Additionally, they read and wrote about a weekly news article (Article of the Week, adapted from Kelly Gallagher), did some study of rhetorical appeals and read some articles from The Atlantic by Ta-Nahesi Coates, and read daily in-class for 25 mins. (that’s for all classes, Honors and Prep).
  • Take the time to teach them how to write an argument: they hate writing. Still do, after a semester. But, they have a better idea about what makes a solid thesis statement and how to structure an argument. We wrote and revised papers, talked about writing, I modeled my own writing…that’s a work in progress, but they’re coming to see writing as just another part of what intellectuals in school do, and, since they are intellectuals, they can write papers, too.
  • Reveal the ghost in the machine: The Prep-Stars (my nickname for them) have all kind of misconceptions about what happens in Honors classes. I had a plan to have them conduct some observations to disabuse themselves of those notions but time got away from me. Instead, I was explicit about explaining what the HN kids do, and that’s usually being really good at “doing school.” That means, they act interested even when they’re not, they tend to do their homework consistently, they read the books (or not, usually Spark Notes), that they, essentially, play the game. They’re a bunch of fakers, actually. The Prep kid were kind of shocked by those revelations, but I think it helped them to realize that the only thing separating them from those kids was quite surface.
  • Give them a chance to shine: Look, I’m tough. I know it. I don’t offer empty praise and I tend to only celebrate excellence. But, I had to remember, if they don’t KNOW what excellence looks like, then I had to celebrate the steps they achieved to reach excellence. Thus, when they mastered explicit skills (look at the analysis in this paper–that’s Honors work right there, I might say), we’d clap it up, or made some amazing comment, we’d take a moment to relish in the moment. I baked cupcakes for the team that put together the best director’s playbook for Merchant. I called their parents to share praise. We went to Yogurt Land on the day before holiday break to celebrate kids who were doing well. I have been reminded how much, too, relationships matter with them.
  • Reflection counts: When the class began, I had them write weekly reflections about how they were doing, what they noticed about themselves as developing scholars, what they needed to do differently or keep doing. They were always serious and thoughtful, and from those reflections, I could help to keep them accountable and to help them stay on track. I would also be reminded that things were actually going better than I tended to think. Phew.
  • This is a one-shot deal: Look. This semester has been exhausting. For the most part, the majority of the kids should do well in Honors when they move into that class in a week or so. I’ll move into a support role, meeting with them, conferencing with them, staying in touch with their parents about how to keep them moving forward (my student teacher, who has been co-teaching with me in the first part of the course will take over full-time for the second part of the course). I’m not going to do this class again, though. Nope. Because it’s about changing the broader systems. I’ve always known that, when I set my mind to something, I can usually get it done. But I’m just one teacher in one classroom. On the fifth floor. Around me is a system that relentlessly tracks kids into Honors or CP. As we all know, most of the kids in CP are kids of color and other underserved kids. I wanted to do something that would make me not so complicit in what was happening, but I have realized that I can’t. This is one group of kids that had this pilot experience. Unless the broader school system changes, unless people actually OWN UP to the process being racist and classist, then I am just one person standing on the shore attempting to sweep the ocean back with a broom. And I’m simply not interested in being that person anymore.

Score: The system-1, Me-0

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Filed under Lab Classroom, Student Interactions, Writing About Race