Category Archives: New School Chronicles

What Happened That Time We Asked Students to Think: Part I

The greatest reason I’m having an intellectually stimulating year is because of my colleague, Ms. L. We tend to have similar big picture ways of thinking: we like to dwell in the so what, I’d say. What makes this collaboration work, most importantly, is that Ms. L is concerned with the details. I love big ideas but tend to be less interested in the day-to-day, which is why sometimes, for me, planning on the daily can be draining. Ms. L, though, LOVES the details. I mean, loves them so much that when she says she’ll spend some time working on a project, I know that when she’s done, it will include so many aspects of that plan that she’ll have accounted for contingencies B-Z, and they’ll all be amazing.

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How lucky am I? Her desire to work together and her endless ability to step out of the present moment to remember the WHY of what we’re doing has made a year that I was dreading actually into one that excites me to work with kids and with teachers who want to do hard things. I also appreciate her honesty to tell me when I’m way off base, or her willingness to make suggestions. I’ve found that in the best working relationships I have, my collaborators speak honestly and are less concerned with hurting my feelings. I’m tough. I can take it. And oftentimes I’m so caught up in my own ideas that I need someone to give me different ways of thinking and doing something.

We launched two successful projects. The first was from this incredible website, Moving Writers that used a photo book of essays called It’s Complicated: The American Teenager. Daily, we shared what was happening in her Honors classroom and my College Prep one. We modified the Moving Writers’ work and kept everything in a folder on Google Drive. To say that the final portraits exceeded our expectations was an understatement.

Buoyed by that success, we then decided that we’d revise my earlier work I’ve done in years past based on Carol Dweck’s work with growth and fixed mindsets. This is where Ms. L is even more amazing: she suggested we have students experience learning through principles of design theory. Design theory was all new to me. What I realized, though, was what better way was there to learn and model the processes of learning than to do something that might, indeed, not be as successful as I’d hoped? Wasn’t that the beauty of a growth mindset? If it bombed (and it didn’t, but you’ll have to read the next post for the nitty gritty–you should, too; spoiler: it’s amazing!), that would be okay, because I would have learned something about practice during the process. And while I was most concerned that I’d be failing the kids, what I’ve come to realize is that the failure would be in if I just kept teaching the GM unit like I’d done in the past. If I wasn’t willing to challenge myself and to grow, then, seriously, how could I expect my students to do the same?

Coming next: what happened when we asked students to get comfortable with failure…

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Hellos and Goodbyes

Ready, Set, GO

Image: American Bar

Memory is funny. I think I purposely erased all memories of teaching seniors. Thus, my current experience with seniors seems new. But, it’s not. That we keep them in school for a month, once they’ve checked out, after the college acceptances or job plans have been made, is perhaps not the most logical decision for anyone. When, finally, we reach that point–similar to what I experienced when I was leaving for college and had the argument with my grandmother over something so insignificant because, well, you have to have that fight so you can leave and then come back–then I know the end is near and it’s time for them to leave.

That leaving-time moment occurred this week. Their final reflection written, last critical reflection submitted, they rushed out the door and, I would think, we all breathed collective sighs of relief. Finally, high school was at its end for them. Finally, they were set to begin the next part of their lives and I could grade their papers and close the books on that block, at least, for me.

Yet, the following day, when they really didn’t have to be there…they came back. I actually was mystified to see them: WHY would you return after complaining miserably the whole semester about how hard the class was, how I was asking too much to require they, gasp, read at least 8 books plus Malcolm X, that I made them write, and write, and write? In their final reflections, they answered those questions: that while the number of books required was intense, they learned to love reading, or at least like it a good deal; that they finally understand how to put together an argument; that the financial literacy unit was a resounding success because since then, they ask themselves: do I want it or do I need it and have learned to save for the future…

And then there were the other young people I’ve taught as sophomores and haven’t had in my classroom since, but have seen around school. They came by with cards and cupcakes, genuinely grateful and happy. Oh, and the tears. A student stopped by to tell me she had been crying all day. My response: “Why?” I guess that was not what she wanted to hear because that exchange was texted around as “typical Dr. Parker.” But I do try to temper the sorrow with lots of joy: you made it, this is not the end, your life is set to start, go be great! And be sure you take a book, and read it. Guess that is typical me.

(Note: And I loved high school. Yup. I did. But I loved it for my friends, and the extracurriculars, and a teacher or two. But my life really started after high school, truthfully; I still love the memories and the friends, though. Forever.)

They don’t stay gone. They return, and once they’ve gotten some distance and lived a bit, it’s quite wonderful to see how they walk in the world, what decisions they make. A former student who is back after his first year of college texted me yesterday and asked if I wanted to meet for coffee, while I ran into another who is working on her nursing degree and we chatted about the exorbitant price of day care. I need to remember, too, that the trajectory is long and these snapshots of kids change quite dramatically (as I flashed back to how they were when I taught them and how mature they are now). That I was there to bear witness to some miniscule part of it is the wonder, indeed.

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The Day When the Kids Ran the Show: Student-Generated Rubrics

There’s the school of thought that encourages teachers to turn over creation of a classroom rubric to students. I’ve known about that school, but have always regarded it as entirely too time-consuming: brainstorming? Discussion? Consensus? Couldn’t I just do that with other assignments? Better still, couldn’t I just use my trusty rubric and move around some of the categories if I was doing something different?

Chalk this one up to always learning (me as teacher as much as them as students).

We have about two weeks left in school and my students have been writing a series of processing papers (called Inquiry Papers) guided by their own questions as they read Frankenstein. I generally don’t grade them until the end; rather, I just look over the questions, give them completion credit, and make broad comments about themes I see across the papers. Now, though, it’s time to grade their best work. Thus, it also seemed an appropriate time to try out something new (I’ve been working on not rolling out too many new ideas, but instead being thoughtful about what the kids need at the time, what I need and ultimately by what is most important for them and what we’ve set out to do): student-generated rubrics!

I began by asking them to do a brain dump of the qualities for an Inquiry Paper that meets expectations. From there, they brainstormed all the skills one would need to be able to write such a paper, which then became criteria that was then grouped into categories. My directions to students were broad: after they’d done the brainstorm, they then had to figure out what it made sense to be evaluated on and they had to reach consensus. Thus, I was going to observe their process to make sure everyone was involved–no one could sit and watch. Then I pretended to busy myself doing something else, but I could hear them and make covert observations.

What did I see? First, the discussion of everything we’ve been working on skill wise: “the question has to be a HOTS-one” (from Bloom’s taxonomy); “I think the quality of the question is really important”; “yeah, but you better analyze it”; “no hit and run quotes”; “the analysis has to be thorough”; “I don’t think you should put a formula in there [re: number of paragraphs]; she doesn’t care about how many paragraphs you have, she cares more about what you have to say and how you say it” (I almost collapsed with joy on that one, btw), and on and on they went.

A student from each class volunteered to type up the rubric and we looked it over the next day for any revisions (there were few). Now, students have a few days to evaluate their papers against the rubric, pick their very best inquiry paper, make any necessary revisions, and submit that paper for a grade.

I know those papers will be of the best they’ll write all year. I just know it.

Next year, I’m going to start the year with this exercise: students will have a few analytical papers that we’ll read (and practice our close reading skills, for sure), then we’ll do the same process. Thus, they’ll know what is expected from the beginning, and what it looks like, in their own language, but we’ll also constantly revise the rubric (well, they will and I’ll use what we come up with) as they develop more mastery with the content and  become more sophisticated writers (I have to give credit to my co-worker who made this suggestion about how to extend this process).

The theory met the practice when they created the rubrics, and the result was, as usual, fantastic.

You just have to let them be great, and you just have to go along for the ride.

Here you go if you want to see for yourself English Rubric 4th block

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#lcotw: Literary Citizens of the World

I have amazing abilities. Being in two places simultaneously, however, is not one. With the start of my graduate summer class, I found myself having to choose (or, as it were, having it decided for me): the big kids won out.

That meant that after talking up Chimimanda Adichie’s visit to Harvard Square as our next big event, my younger kids would have to go on their own. She’s become something of our own celebrity: we watch her Ted Talk about the danger of a single story and use it as a guiding question throughout the year as we interrogate single stories about colonialism, and that then trickles into everything else as we check ourselves and our own single stories (when kids dip into stereotypes, someone will suggest they stop buying into the single story…it’s awesome).

I managed to make it to the reading early into the Q & A. The place was jammed, so I stood in the back, way past being able to see or hear anything, but there’s something comforting and powerful about spaces where we are all gathered to hear, read and think about books.

Because I am a compulsive reader, too, it was only because I was looking over the selection of new books that I saw one of my students, propped up between the bookshelves, watching the reading via remote screen. When I made my way over to her, she smiled, said she’d been there for the whole thing, that she was having a hard time hearing the reading given her location, but she was happy she’d come.

As the reading ended and people began streaming out, I heard several students joyfully calling to me: they’d arrived early and were front row (!), were a bit breathless about being in the same room with Adichie (who was lovely combinations of funny, thoughtful, brilliant), and as many waited to meet her, we had an informal confab, there in the aisles of the bookstore and talked about the experience, about asking her questions about Half a Yellow Sun, about being out late on a school night to attend a reading.

This is what it means to be a Literary Citizen of the World.

When I taught in the city, I would take kids with me everywhere: readings, plays, events that helped them broaden their understanding of what it means to be a person who thinks and reads broadly in this world. Often the events were free, and other times I managed to get us comp tickets, but those adventures around this city were some of the more memorable ones for how it helped kids think of themselves and the spaces where they could be in, while helping me love them even more.

During my sabbatical, though, it was simply too hard to devote any time other than to learning what was up, so the LCOTW was temporarily disbanded.

I resurrected it this year because I’m in the city again, and I have kids who like showing up for stuff: they’ve attended documentary screenings, conferences, plays, readings and other performances, and now they talk about those events with a confidence and nonchalance that is admirable: as a person who is in the world, you just go to stuff that is interesting and you open yourself up to learning something new, and you almost always do leave with some new perspective. I incentivize the program by requiring a thought letter (a reflection about one big idea they were left thinking about after attending the event), which is always a delight to read because they’re reflecting on what they’ve learned or are still thinking about. I tend to savor those letters because those are moments where, if they’re written well (and most usually are), I can hear their voices, their delights, their joys.

I don’t go to half the things I tell them about, but that’s okay. The movement just needs to be started and they take it from there. Once it is up and running, kids start submitting events for approval and go on their own with their friends. Every now and then, if my schedule permits and if it’s not past my bedtime, I might join them. Or, if I can even make an event for the last few minutes of time, just to be able to chat with them about moments when an author says something so profound that you write it down and carry it with you and want to tell others about it?! Yeah, in those moments, I’m just happy to be in the same space with them so we can all say were there when literacy really mattered (of course they won’t say it like that, because they are children and they’re not so meta, but this moment will be important for them, though, in ways big and small).

As two other students waved goodbye on their way to get ice cream (because one should get ice cream after such events, yes? I completely agreed), they said they were coming back next week for another reading, some author that I didn’t know, but they said it sounded interesting. Literary Citizens of the World now has a life of its own, which is my hope whenever I roll it out: students will understand that all of this wonderfulness is for all of us, and they can go, too.

As the year rushes to its end and I have to make peace with what is done and undone, I’ll carry this time, of the night we went to see Chimimanda Adichie give a reading of her new book and then we went looking for Frankenstein (a different story, but a great one, nonetheless), and we loved reading and all the commensurate delights opened to us.

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Taking Them As They Are…

Once the first semester ended in mid-January, I had exactly a weekend to turn around and start teaching the same couse to a new group of sophomores.

After reminding myself about the need to just keep breathing, I also had to remind myself that the new kids who entered my classroom, filled with a mixture of excitement, anxiety and dread (thanks to their predecessors who told everyone they knew about how hard the class was, how much they learned but mostly, too, how glad they were that the class, for them, was OVER), were just that: new kids.

That’s why summers are so great when we teach: we end the year more than exhausted, but we have the summer to forget how difficult it is to break in a new crop of students. We forget that we have to teach them procedures, that there are days when it feels like we’re caught so deep in the muck that a thesis statement is as foreign to them as learning…I don’t know…insert something that’s difficult; that there were plenty of days when discord tiptoed around the edges of the classroom, threatening to overtake whatever it was that was supposed to be happening at any given moment.

Instead, as we laze (ha!) through summer, we instead replace those real memories with fond ones of kids who hung around and wanted to share their poetry (that was actually good), the reflections wherein students waxed about how much they learned, the thank you notes that parents and students were nice enough to write.

Revisionism is a beautiful thing, particularly when related to teaching. And it’s not, necessarily, a horrible thing, because it enables us to hold dear to the various meanings of success we see in our classrooms over the course of a term. And it probably enables us to muster the courage to come back in the fall.

Let me repeat that, though: over the course of a term. It does not happen overnight.

And so, this George Washington quote–this fantastic quote that Jim Burke uses to begin a chapter in his incredibly useful book What’s the Big Idea–resonates with me now more than ever, particularly as I begin to grade the first papers from new kids in a new term.

“Well, we must take them as they are and make them into the soldiers we need them to be.” 

Thank goodness for an unexpected snow day, that allows me to read through the papers with more leisure than I am usually permitted. I had to remind myself, again and again, that these were new students, that they had not been privy to the writing workshops, the practice, the expectations that we are all writers, with important things to say and that good writing takes time. Thus, their theses statements would not be as well developed, their language not as sophisticated, their analysis not as through and interesting, their voices still clanking along in essay voice.

Yet.

And that’s okay.

For now.

More than anything, I think I’ve finally reached the point where, after giving fond farewells to the old kids, I can open the door to the new students and be excited about who they will become, the powerful readers and writers I know they can be.

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On This Incredible Day

I returned to class to find that one of my students had taken some liberties with a poster hanging on the door. He/she had taped a picture of Sweet Brown, a Black woman made infamous for her reaction to a fire. She essentially became a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons.

Anyhow, her particular response, “I ain’t got time for dat” was what was posted. While I wasn’t shocked when I saw the meme, I was…disappointed, I guess. That’s the beauty about insensitivity and all that’s wrapped up with it (racism, classism, sexism)–when it hits you in the face, you have to deal with it. I mean, I could have simply ignored it, took the poster off the wall, tossed it in the recycling bin, made a comment under my breath about “these kids” and kept it moving.

I didn’t, though. I told the kids that I was bothered by the poster for several reasons, the greatest among them being that it traded in stereotypes. That it made fun of someone who was Black, poor, from a region of the country that was different from ours. And I’m sure I fumbled around for some other words, but I tried to raise awareness, but I also intentionally made a point not to preach. Preaching gets you nowhere. You’re better than this, I said, simply, finishing with something like I need you to be the people that ask questions about what we see, that make things right, that don’t do what’s easy because it’s funny.

On the fly, when grappling with issues like these, I can either be dynamite or dismal. I think I was probably somewhere in the middle: I was tired, I was annoyed and I was, as I said, disappointed. I mean, we’d had some breakthroughs already in class, addressing issues of oppression and inequality, so when this incident reminded me of how much further we all must go…yeah, I was fumbling and stumbling for my words.

I gave the same speech to all the classes. I will probably never know who did it, but at least the message was consistent: you’re better than that. We don’t trade in stereotypes in this classroom. Ask critical questions and make some change in the world.

That night, while checking my email, I found that one of my students had sent me a link to an article about ironic racism, Antoine Dodson and Sweet Brown. He asked if I could send it out on the class Twitter, thought it germane for the conversation earlier that day.

OMG. They GET IT! At least one of them does. All it takes is one, right?!

I can’t quite describe that moment: me sitting at the desk, with some cynicism attempting to dampen my spirits, and there’s this kid’s email…

Next day, I read the article to the group and explain that said student gave me the language I needed to express my frustration: ironic racism. We had some brief discussion and I posted the article, both on Twitter and on the FYI wall (the announcements section of the room).

I am so grateful to him first for being an ally (because I have few kids of color in my classes this year), for being able to speak truth to power, for giving ME the language to use…for taking responsibility for helping us all understand why we need to wake up and pay attention.

Yup. It happened. On that one incredible day.

And I can quickly summarize that in the days after, I ended up having some moving conversations with kids about awareness, about their own anger that people weren’t more outraged, about being invited to bring my fourth period to an assembly for LGBTQ awareness…all small steps to moving us in a positive direction.

I also realized that I, too, have a choice. I can be disappointed in the kids, or I can be heartened that–together–we can string together more incredible days, where events such as this happen.

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This is DEFINITELY on the test…

One of the tasks we oversee in my school is administering the PSAT. I have to proctor it to my homeroom kids, the majority of whom I don’t teach. Instead, we see each other daily for about 20 minutes of awkwardness: I tell them all the things the school says they need to know (upcoming events, educational tidbits, which of late concern the election, distribute lunch detentions that the deans give me to pass along to particular students). They half-listen, some annoyed, others amused at my seeming ineptitude for idle chatter and paperwork. It’s funny, too, because they all know each other from the year before and have existing relationships. I’m the new kid to that homeroom party. For the most part, though, we get through it, and are finding our balance.

This is the group that I was responsible for for the PSAT. Every sophomore at this school takes the test, whether they want to or not. Whether they have any idea what the purpose is the test is for, or not.

What I realized–during that period where you tell kids to write their address, fill in bubbles, sign their name–is that there are particular bubbles on the form that stand to either advantage or disadvantage kids of color. One bubble asks for them to identify their race. Another asks if they want to be identified for awards based on their race, while a third asked for their email address if they wanted to be contacted by colleges (and the latter is not just about kids of color). When I was walking around, making sure kids were filling out their forms correctly, I noticed a number of kids of color (not just Black kids), not filling out those questions.

I asked one of them why and she shrugged, said she didn’t want to.

Warm demander alert!

I suggested she fill out ALL of those forms. Why count yourself out before the game even starts?! Rinse and repeat same suggestion for the other handful of kids who were uncertain about filling out those questions.

As they proceeded to take the test and I proceeded to proctor, of course I began to think about whether other kids around the school had folks who checked to see if those boxes were filled out. Look, I love young folks, but when left to their own devices, they’re gonna skip things, but when they’re skipping measures on standardized tests that might actually benefit them in the long run (and I’ll loosely define benefit for these purposes), I worry.

So many measures are uneven and biased that if they can get some small foothold that positively influences their future, we have to make sure they’re taking it. Even if they don’t want to fill in the bubble.

We gotta pay attention. All the time.

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