Tag Archives: students

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They said:”We repealed our skit in order to move forward”…”We took a risk when we started designing our prototype.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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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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Conversations with Student Writers

When my students submit a draft, I ask them to give me some areas of particular growth that they’d like my feedback on. Here, a couple of my comments in response to a student:

After reading her draft: I would like to see your writing become more sophisticated. I think one place to start is with sentence variety and sentence length. You have lots of choppy sentences that are just…boring. From this draft, I can tell you can write. Now, you have to push your limits. Go.

She asked, “Can you detect my voice in my essay?” [Side note: what a brilliant, BRILLIANT question from such a young writer. My heart, my smile…VOICE?! Remind me to write about what Keith Gilyard said about voice that made everything crystal clear-ish to me about that].

Me: It’s there, hidden underneath some dry language. You actually have a voice that is quite poetic. You’ll develop it this term. It will be fun.

Indeed, it will be–and is–fun. I needed a reminder of the joy I have working with my students. March attempts to wring it from me as it marches forth (ha), but there is such joy in this work…

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Everybody Deserves a Party: Holiday Break

One of the pleasures of teaching in my current city is that I have students of parents who are visiting academics at the local university. I had one such student this semester. Since his dad’s fellowship ended this week, today was our last day with this student, who was headed back to Georgia.

The students organized a party, down to a homemade chocolate multi-layer cake and other homemade joys, and we said farewell to a young man who quickly established himself as one who was honest, quirky, insightful and a part of our classroom community.

When the cake was unveiled, he was overcome by emotion. We all waited for him to take a moment and then he said “No one has ever had a party for me.”

Such a simple explanation for his joy.

Doesn’t every child deserve a party? It’s those little jolts that occur during classroom interactions that I’m reminded of the things that matter: kids need their teachers to have parties for them.

I try to have parties frequently: when a student that caused me to pull out my nearly non-existent hair because I was running out of ways to explain to her how to connect analysis to quotes rather than summarize them turned in a paper in which she was ANALYZING the quote, was DOING the thing I worried we’d run out of time before she mastered, I had a party for her. I called her over, read her the paragraph, explained WHY I was pleased and told her that we’d turned the corner. She had a smile as wide as [insert apt simile here]. And it came at a moment when we were both down on each other: I was sucking as a teacher and she was worried she was doomed as a writer. Then…there it was.

Yeah, have a party.

I’ve had other smaller parties throughout the year: when silent kids speak up and have said something profound that sets us all back on our heels; when others make some comment or connection that drags us from the literary time period we inhabit into the present; when typically self-absorbed young people open up a classroom to create real community, one in which everyone matters, one in which when a young man cries, we don’t bat an eyelash but hug him even harder because we want him to take our love with him…yeah, I have a party for them.

I hope to have many more parties for my students–small and large–but we will party down in as many ways as I can find and they can create to celebrate learning when it happens.

The pleasures and necessities of joyful learning…happy holidays.

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The Kids They Want to Be Rather Than the Kids We Need Them To Be

I saw another group of former students last week. After a few stops and starts, we finally managed to coordinate our schedules and met at a Tasty Burger in the city. I’d taught these students during their senior year, a year that was illustrative of most of my experiences teaching students: it began with adversity and ended in some sort of respectful relationship between us…eventually. The kids would probably tell you that they balked because I put the screws to them: largely, I said–blatantly–that because they were behind academically, we needed to cover seven years of education in as many months. In retrospect, if I was them and I heard my teacher say that to me, in the fall of my senior year in high school, I’d have pushed back, too. But, I always like to know what I’m up against, and why I have to work hard, so I don’t tend to treat kids any differently, in that respect. I (and my awesome co-teacher) also assured them that if they stuck with me, I was going to work as hard as I could to make sure that they would make it through their freshman year in college.

We actually modeled our class after a freshman comp class. Yup, we rigored and vigored that year UP!

Of the kids that I met the other night, three are in college (and about to start their junior year–WOW), one is working and the other is a full-time mother. At this moment, I think they are all exactly where they want to be. Not where I, as their teacher and as someone invested in their future, need them to be, but where they, as young people making their way in the world, need to be.

This is a difficult position for me to admit. I wanted them all to be collegiate stars, wanted them all to have experiences that prepared them to make good choices, to think critically and deeply, to do something with themselves. Again, they’re all in the process of doing that. And sure, one of them is a Gates Scholar, a couple of them went on study abroad trips, another of them decided to be brave and transfer schools…and a couple others decided to try school and then do something else, maybe return, while another had a kid and is doing all she can to be the best mom she can be.

Success on varying levels, right?

What impressed me, too, was how savvy they are to understand the divergence between what adults want for them and what they want for themselves. They spoke quite candidly–and somewhat bitterly–about the high school they’d attended, about how they knew they were the “trained seals” for the school, trotted out to brag about where they attended school. But they said they didn’t feel prepared for college, that they felt the school had failed them in many respects.

If we, as school personnel who laud their achievements, revel in their successes, I contend it’s just as important to acknowledge the feedback and the kids who live up to our expectations, or challenge our expectations, or make us rethink our expectations entirely. If these kids are the stars, then shouldn’t we listen carefully to the messages they’re sending? For every Gates Scholar, there’s an entire class of students that didn’t even make it through the 4+ years required to graduate.

No big shocker: the kids know the odds, know the stakes, know the reality of the situation. They don’t buy the smoke and mirrors, that if you work hard, you can be successful, because, for some, that success isn’t what they need at that moment. I still think that a college education is an important investment, but we cannot devalue the kids who choose different paths, who get there on their own timelines. They count for something.

Don’t they?

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Community Serving

Image

My view out the window of the Boston Athenaeum

Yesterday, I cut an afternoon of enjoying cupcakes with my former colleagues short to have a sort of intervention with a former student. Those cupcakes (from Georgetown Cupcake) were quite delightful, as was the company once we got through the details of my leaving.

My former student graduated from high school in 2011 and has been working at the Gap and the movie theatre since then. When I had her as a sophomore, she was one of the most difficult students I might have ever taught: loud, pushy, challenging…and hilarious. It’s often tough to discipline a student when they have a comeback to something you’ve said that is so witty and/or ingenious that you just have to give them credit. She was that student.  She was also gifted; seriously. She had a way of writing that was quite compelling, loved words, and was a voracious reader (of primarily urban lit). The same qualities that I came to covet, however, were her eventual downfall at that school. She decided to withdraw from that small pilot school before her senior year started out of worry that she wouldn’t be able to restart anywhere if she was expelled. Thus, she ended her senior year at one of the large, failing public high schools a few blocks away, where she says she didn’t work particularly hard.

She tells me that she knows she didn’t work hard, that she usually doesn’t work hard, and that she hasn’t been pushed to do hard work since my class, her sophomore year.

Look, I’m a good teacher, but I wouldn’t call myself an amazing teacher. Transformative in moments, but transformative is up for grabs, particularly depending on the context and the student. With this young woman, though, I figured out early on that she was quite smart and that she acted up in her other classes because she was bored and wasn’t challenged. Her coping mechanism was to draw attention to herself, stop the instruction that was happening, and perhaps learn something that she didn’t already know. Unfortunately, it was too easy to send her to the office, suspend her, kick her out of class, take other punitive measures that deprived her from learning.

I can’t quite remember what it was, exactly, that clued me in to her brilliance, but I bet it happened in unstructured time: either coming or going from class, or in the hallway, or something I overheard. Long story short: once I figured her out, I pushed her, demanded more, kept delivering the same message that she was too smart to make dumb choices and that, in the words of Research for Better Teaching, I wasn’t going to give up on her, even if she gave up on herself.

She’ll tell you that she is one of my favorites. Maybe she’s right. But she earned that status. And I probably never worked as hard as I had to that point to figure out what students who already “get it” need in a classroom of their peers, many of whom are struggling to even get to grade level. For me, I learned to praise the good, to add more advanced tasks, to put her in a leadership role. She never disappointed me.

No big shocker that when she called (after standing me up twice previously), I said I’d meet her, even if that meant curtailing my socializing.

In our hour conversation, seated at a picnic table, she told me that she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but that she wanted to “be ill.” She’s obsessed with being comfortable, or a level above comfortable, as she explained. I was more concerned with the practical: an undergraduate degree, a career, a retirement plan, but it was hard to make much headway with her. Finally, after coming at the question of what she wanted to do from different avenues, she finally admitted that she doesn’t want to be her mother or her grandmother, who are constantly struggling, having to ask for money from other family members, hating their jobs. That led to some brainstorming about people with jobs she admired (short list: agent, music producer, guidance counselor–can you guess which one I picked?!), which segued into thinking about skills she needed to have and where to get them. Then, we talked about the power to change our lives: that even though she wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to do now (and I had to keep trying to disabuse her of that notion: that you’re really not supposed to know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life when you’re only 19), she could change her mind. And then, finally, that if all signs were telling her that she should work with children, then she should, in some capacity. Teacher salaries were fairly decent, particularly in Boston.

She would be a phenomenal teacher or guidance counselor because, as a tough kid, I think she’d bring an understanding to how to reach tough kids. We ended with an action plan: she was going to make a list of schools with programs she might apply to and I was going to track down some former students who were working in the fields in which she indicated interest. She’s supposed to report back on Sunday.

Then, she asked me to spell “minutiae” for her. I used that word a lot when I was her teacher, reminding students that they were getting too caught up in that and not nearly enough in the bigger picture (i.e., they’d go ballistic about my requirement to format ALL papers in 12-point, Times New Roman but wouldn’t bat an eye about being asked to write an analytical argument about a text they’d read). Maybe that was a reminder not to get caught up in my own minutiae this year…?

I left urban teaching a few years ago because I was exhausted: I think being a Black teacher exacts its own glories and sacrifices. I loved the kids–at the same time, I was also the person they often turned to…so while one student doing that might be okay, multiply that number by 10, or 20. I’m ready to return to urban schools after my sabbatical, though, and I’m trying to do a better job about connecting my former students to each other: surely they can draw on their experiences to help each other. That’s what I told my student yesterday: we have a responsibility to help the community. Otherwise, what is this work for?!

Now, as I begin to turn the corner and approach another school year, I decided to begin my fellowship at the Boston Athenaeum today. I sit at a table in the fifth floor, designated for quiet, as I pull out my notes, my hopes, and my beliefs for an excellent school year. The picture above is my view from my table.

And my hope springs, yet, anew.

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“But What I’m Writing Isn’t True…”

I tend to have the best conversations with students in the margins (read: the time and space before class starts, or the moments when it ends and they’ve gathered their belongings and linger to talk about something of interest to them, risking being late to their next class ’cause there’s something on their mind). Today, I was running late to class after HAVING to order an iced coffee from the T station and ran into one of my students. She wanted to discuss her writing and explained to me that she felt that she wasn’t going to get a good grade on her narrative essay because during our Friday workshop share (I’ll write another post about that), two of her peers wrote about places where “significant” events occurred: one an act of violence and another an act of gender discrimination. She said that overall, she hasn’t had anything horrible happen to her, and she tends not to pay attention in ways they do. But, was simply being observant about a place that was interesting, but where nothing momentous happened, from her perspective, enough for this assignment?

One of the things I love about this summer program is that I get to know kids as writers. I also think teaching for a while now has created a pretty good BS-meter. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But, I think I’d not thought deeply enough about what it means for kids to mine the ordinary in their writing. When she told me her feelings, I quickly wondered if I’d set up some expectation that their narratives be heart-wrenching and traumatic, so I disabused her of that notion and told her, essentially, that what mattered most and what I was interested in seeing was showing rather than telling. Most importantly, I told her that if she had to make it up, it would come through and that if it didn’t feel right to her, in her gut, then it wouldn’t read well on the page.

She was relieved. And I was reminded that just because they are living in urban environments doesn’t mean that their lives suck. I’m looking forward to reading her essay about the ordinary. I’m certain that, since she’s writing from her gut, it stands to be quite extraordinary.

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer