Tag Archives: reflection

Rereading My High School Classics: Killing Mr. Griffin

I received this amazing grant from Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation, allowing me to stock my classroom library with an awe-inspiring number of books my kids will actually enjoy reading. While perusing the catalogue, I noticed that Lois Duncan’s Killing Mr. Griffin was among the options. KMG is one of those books that evokes an instant reaction for me: flashback to early high school (or maybe late middle school). I was a binge reader, so I probably was in the process of reading every book Duncan had ever written by that point. I was most likely splayed out on my bed while my grandmother was most likely telling me to do something (most likely to wash the dishes or pour the food up after dinner) and I was unable to tear myself away from the book. I passed much of my youth like that.

During this particular time of year, when life threatens to speed up and have its way with me, I start to read for comfort as a way to reorient

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Killing Mr. Griffin: Nearly As Good Now as It Was Then

myself. This type of reading is my self-care, I reckon. I might reread a book or two that I’ve enjoyed (cue Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed), a lot of young adult literature, some poetry…I don’t want to veer too far outside of the familiar because I need a place to stand (or read, if you will), that is comforting. That’s why I wanted to reread KMG. Would time stand still the same way? Would I feel those little creepy thrills at the mystery? Would I be as enmeshed with a text in the ways I was when I was a teenager?

Essentially, yes. The quick premise of the book: Mr. Griffin is a high school English teacher who pushes his students to be excellent. He doesn’t take late work, doesn’t accept mediocrity, insists that students think critically. Wait. Am I Mr. Griffin?! I hope not, because four particular students decide to play a prank on him and scare Mr. Griffin into becoming a nicer teacher. Of course, given that Duncan wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, this intention was going to go awry, and it did. The kids kill Mr. Griffin.

I’m relatively sure that when I read it as a teenager, I would have been all caught up in the social structure of the killer kids: they lure in a nerdy junior (the majority of them are seniors), they make her feel that she belongs, they complain about the teacher being too demanding. I would have totally gotten behind their cause (well, up to a point), allowing myself to get caught up with the momentum of the story. I would not have paid any attention to Duncan’s attempts at Mr. Griffin’s backstory, choosing instead to consume myself with how Murder Inc. was going to either hold or fold as more people began to find out what they’d done. I did feel some anxiety at moments around the actions of the one kid at the center who orchestrated everything. But, yeah. I would have spent all night reading it, going back to wherever I got that book the next day (be that the public library if it were a Saturday or the Thrifty Bookworm if I could get a ride there to trade it in) to keep reading something along those lines.

Fast forward to nearly 25 years later. Here’s what I noticed reading KMG this time:

  • Lois Duncan had some great lines of prose, particularly when it came to description. A line I wrote down to use as a mentor sentence: Susan turned to see David Ruggles running toward her, the slightness and delicacy of his bone structure giving him the framework of a kite with his blue Windbreaker billowing out beneath his arms, the wind seeming to lift and carry him (3).
  • All I could think about this time was how similar my teaching philosophy was to Mr. Griffin and how, IRL, if you’re a tough teacher, you’re often not considered a “good” teacher by students until years down the road. I also thought it was so sad that he truly loved his students and working with them and all they were concerned about was their grades. So, they killed him. Yipes. And he and his wife were expecting a baby?! NOPE.
  • I was less forgiving of plot holes. Characters came and went, then reappeared (or didn’t) with little rhyme or reason. Again, I notice this now but then? Such discrepancies wouldn’t have bothered me much. I was also not satisfied with the (relatively) tidy ending.
  • There are some fantastic allusions to Macbeth (the Murder Inc. kids make a reference to the line about the old man “having so much blood in him”) and there are several to Hamlet. The English teacher in me cheered.

In sum: Grade then: A; Grade now: B+

Reading one of my classics was a delightful experience. While I’m sad about how things ended for Mr. Griffin, I do think the experience of reading the book was as positive now as it was then. I also have had a series of great conversations with colleagues about rereading the books that mattered to them as young people and if they held up to our grown up eyes. Wouldn’t that be a wonder to share with our students? But, oh, it was simply joyful to sit in a restaurant this afternoon and read, and read, and read and not care what time it was, or who needed me. For those moments, it was me and my book. And that was all that mattered.

 

 

 

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Update on Taking the Diverse Books Pledge: Harder to Reach 100 Than I Thought (sigh)

I pledged to read at least 100 books written by diverse authors this year. I make my kids keep a chart where they list the number of books read (goal: 40 by year’s end). In keeping with do as I say and also what I do, I thought I should check in to note my progress and make some final plans as the year ends.

I keep too many lists in too many different places. Plus, I read a variety of texts, to my bio kid, with my other kids (students) and a bunch in between. Some recent favorites for the boypie:

For my students:

For Me:

Some In-Progress Reflections: There are not many books that feature kids of color just being kids of color, doing normal kid things. The closest I can find are the John Steptoe, Angela Johnson and Spike Lee board books. In the Johnson books, Joshua goes to the ocean, walks in the rain and looks at birds. There’s nothing didactic about them, and, I’m realizing, those are the books I want to read with my son. I don’t want to always feel like there’s a lesson beyond: hey, it’s fun to wear rain boots and splash in the puddles. Why does it always need to be deeper than that? We need more of THOSE stories! Thus, I’ve found us reading more books about other topics of interest: trucks, Wolfie the Bunny, Find it books because they are FUN, essentially. What is disappointing there, though, is that when these books feature actual people, few, if any, are people of color. UGH.

I do not like when my reading time is compromised. I rarely read at school because I’m (hopefully) having reading conferences with students. I had been reading on our morning commutes, but my toddler now wants to use that time to read together, and I love that special time. That means, though, that I have to carve out time to read, which is fine, but that time is inconsistent of late. I am most settled and happy when I know I’m going to read for a particular amount of time every single day. Since I seem to have insomnia of late, I have been reading for about a half hour or so in the early hours of the morning. I totally get what my students say when they complain about finding time to read. Thing is, though, once you have the time as habit, then it’s much harder to give it up.

I set out to read only diverse books, but my interests take me everywhere. I read a bunch of parenting books. Okay, actually I read only one that made sense to me, so I stopped there (Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid) because I knew that if I didn’t watch out, I was going to parent as I was parented and I didn’t really like that, and others on Family Traditions and another one on Failure. All are ones I highly recommend, but none are written by diverse authors.

I’m going to ball park my current progress and say I’m at about 50 books, give or take a picture book here or there. With one month to go and midterms, a national conference (woot!), and teacher-related stuff, who knows if I’ll make it to 100, but I’m going to try my hardest. I’ll also share my progress with my students tomorrow as a way of modeling the need to reflect and re-evaluate and, as having a growth mindset suggests, continuing with deliberate practice to meet my goal.

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What Happened When We Asked Students to Think: Conclusions

Reading student reflections is always my favorite part of anything I plan. There, if we’ve done it at all well, they will reveal what they really think, what they learned (or didn’t), and offer any suggestions for future instruction. This process of asking for feedback and reflection is amazingly useful and quite humbling. It’s also thrilling. Thus, when I sat down to read through the student reflections of what they’d learned through the messy process of growth mindset (part one is described here and part two is described here) and design thinking, here are some snippets of what they said:

Question: Why do you think this assignment asked you to think of a problem and design a solution?

They said: “Maybe because people want to know what kind of ideas we might have.” “To tell people nothing is impossible, there’s a solution for every problem.” “…there are always problems in this world and to design a solution can help us learn to think of a problem then solve it.” “…because Dr. Parker wanted to know/see what we’re capable of.” “Because we as students might want a change in the high school.”

Question: What risks did you take to move your project forward? What did you try that you weren’t certain about at first? What were the results?

They said:”We repealed our skit in order to move forward”…”We took a risk when we started designing our prototype. We weren’t certain about the drawing of the brain. The result of the drawing turned out to be good.” “The biggest risk was changing of topics because if we did that we’d have to start back at square one again with the very little time we had left. But it turned out all right in the end.” “I wasn’t sure that this idea will work because it seems a bit too far fetched. Like not many teachers and staff in the school may agree with the idea of naptime.” “We tried to use a soft poster, like a thin one and it got destroyed and it resulted to us having a really good poster board.” [Note: ALL students remarked that their results were satisfactory because they made changes. That’s a big deal!]

Question: What did you learn about yourself through this activity?

They said: “I learned that I need to have a positive growth mindset at all time and not everything that’s impossible unless you actually try.” “I can be creative if I want to be and I want to be able to use my creativity through everything I do.” “I like solving problems.” “I can have a lot of potential if I focus more.” “I learned how to manage my time.”

As I look at these responses a few months after the project, I’m gently reminded that, while I felt this project was disorganized and I was one step ahead of my students, they learned a tremendous amount. Specifically, they learned how to collaborate, how to think of something that mattered to them and try to change it, how to take pride in their work, how to present their ideas to an authentic audience.

Since that project, we’ve moved on to other pursuits, but we keep the throughlines of the growth mindset work with us. [Note: it’s important, too, to consider what Carol Dweck has said about how the growth mindset understandings can be used incorrectly with young people. She’s right. We are all combinations of growth and fixed mindsets. It’s situation-dependent. We are all works in progress, and that is not a bad thing.] Students will occasionally challenge each other to “GROW!” which I find hilarious, especially as those words come when we are doing something hard. Kids want more of this type of work, work that matters, work that is real, work that encourages them to push against their own boundaries and, indeed, to grow. 

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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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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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Thinking About…

This stretch between Thanksgiving and the winter break might just turn me inside out if I allow myself to get “overwhelmed” with everything that’s to be accomplished. We have about five weeks remaining in the semester. In that time, we’ve got to sprint through Frankenstein, I’d like to have kids do some independent work by posing their own questions, pursuing their own lenses as they read and some other ideas I’d like to try…

But we’re also finishing up Macbeth. At one point in time, kids had simultaneous projects going on and I was feeling unsettled. I knew that because while they were working on something, I was reading recipes on food blogs. That’s usually what I do to find a moment of clarity: read recipes. There’s something so soothing about measures and baking and temperatures.

On Wednesday, I had kids watch Thinking About You from Brave New Voices and write a response about what they were thinking about at that moment. I told them, honestly, that I was thinking about what mattered most and what was most important.

I told them I wanted them to create excellent Macbeth final projects. That I was thinking about my concern that I was asking them to do to much at one time, that I worried we were going to compromise quality. I had to remind myself that the time we have remaining still matters. Above all, I was thinking about excellence–honest excellence–and making sure all kids had a chance to shine.

I tend to have moments where I have to stop myself and check in. That’s what I did on Wednesday. I told the kids where my head was at and then I adjusted the timeline to allow for an additional day for them to make any necessary changes/adjustments/whatever last-minute things they needed to do in preparation for today: The Shakespeare Festival.

They’ve uploaded their films onto our Macbeth You Tube channel. I couldn’t help myself: at 4 a.m. this morning, I watched bits and pieces of all of their films and they are–as I’d hoped and expected–brilliant in all kinds of different ways. And later today, we’ll eat some food, watch the films and debrief the experience. We’ll enjoy the time we have, knowing that–because I created more time for them–they, yet again, return the favor with excellent demonstrations of what they’ve learned.

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Teaching Up

One of the last writing assignments I ask students to do is called The Last Word Is Yours (not my original assignment; I have taken it from some brilliant teacher somewhere who offered it up). In it, students are encouraged to evaluate the year, subjects they liked, ones that they didn’t think worked so well, and provide some overall advice about the class for future years. They tend to be honest, thoughtful and quite helpful.

About three years ago, one of my students told me–nicely, I have to note–that I should teach honors classes because he felt like that would be the group of students that would fit me best. I didn’t think much of it. I’ve always taught kids who struggle. I have never had a desire to teach kids who were on or above level; honestly, the challenge for me is to get the kids who are below up and past grade level. I’ve tended, also, to be relatively successful in those endeavors.

My niche was/is(?) kids who struggle.

Then, this year, through some over-enrollment problem (maybe?), I ended up with three sections of honors sophomore English.

Three. That’s teaching the same class back-to-back-to-back, which means that the first time is shaky, the second time the lesson is usually entirely revamped, and the third time, I teach it like I intended to teach it. I thought I’d initially be bored with the same thing, but it’s amazing how reflection helps to immediately change what didn’t work into what works better. (Side note: I should do a separate post about the power of reflection. It’s perhaps the most useful habit I’ve ever cultivated that I can directly tie to improved practice)

So maybe that student from the past is laughing now that I’m teaching honors, but I‘ve also gotten a much better understanding of what it means to teach for equity. Because in honors classes, the expectations are simply…higher. Read 30 pages and be prepared to discuss character motivations, motifs, themes, whatever. They do it. Write a 2-3 page response about something that interested you about this article, making intertextual connections that demonstrates your understanding of the essential questions. Done. Attend this event because, as a literary citizen of the world (what I call them), that’s what smart people do. Done.

This is similar to my realization that kids in the suburbs write more papers than ones in the city. Honors kids have entirely different expectations for what they’re expected to do. As we all know, though, kids rise (or fall) to our level of expectation. What would happen if we simply (ha, simply is such an understatement, but go with it) expected kids in the track below honors to do the same thing? Sure, we’d have to work like hell to make that happen–I mean, we’d have to counter years of low expectations and bad habits, but it’s been done before by numerous excellent educators–but what’s stopping us?

My immediate future goal is to create an intentional community in which the students in the track below honors spend a year with me and leave prepared to be successful in an honors class the following year. This means that I’m going to have to think about all the “stuff” that goes into creating an environment in which an honors student is successful, but geez–I spend my time immersed in data. Isn’t this another chance to look at the data in a way that actually privileges kids who need it most? I’m moving beyond deficits.  I already have some hunches, so I’ll spend the next few months creating this space and then, hopefully, the next school year making it happen.

Working Title of this endeavor: Project Lab Classroom 2013. I told a former colleague that this might just be the hardest thing I will have ever done in my life, but it could be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can live with that.

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Filed under Equity, Lab Classroom