Tag Archives: teaching and learning

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

Teaching At This Moment: Already Missing the Time I Don’t Have

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Random House Annual Educators’ Event in New York City, where, I started by saying that I refuse to be freaked out by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I then was able to explain how I’m anticipating being able to be creative, to think broadly about texts, to help my students engage in complex, higher-order tasks around literature and literacy.

At the moment–and still–I believe that. 

However, the problem is that the more I read about the CCSS–the vast amounts of money that are driving the initiatives, the stakes that are going to impact educators and students–I realize that staying true to the desire not to be freaked out, to hold on to those beliefs, is going to be more difficult than I anticipated.

I’ll explain:

  • Complex writing tasks mean more people are going to need to be expert writing teachers. There are simply not enough of us in the field who feel confident teaching writing. Thus, we see lots of reductions of writing to acronyms, to numbers (paragraphs, sentences, words, whatever), and we move further away from what we know to be true about how to turn kids into powerful writers.
  • Appendix B is a suggestion, not a mandate. I am excited about using it as a suggestion and building some unbelievable text sets that encourages intertextuality, synthesis, real writing. However, there will still be schools and departments that use those texts only. How can we expand our understanding of literature and literacy (as evidenced by my current reading of this fantastic book that I highly recommend) if we only use Appendix B?
  • I have become interested, of late, in text-dependent questions (TDQ) because, as I’ve stated before, I’m a much stronger writing teacher than I am a lit teacher, so I’m constantly thinking about ways to improve my craft. TDQ drive students back into the text, which makes sense, right? What makes you think that? Where in the text can you find evidence to either support or refute those ideas? But, there are formulas for these things, too (related to generating questions. This site made my head spin).  I worry that in our quest to make everything systematic, or “accessible” or whatever that we make it too uniform. Why not have kids create their own TDQ? In all of this desire to get kids “college and career ready,” I don’t see a lot about how teachers can systematically teach kids to take control of their own learning in the classroom. I usually teach them how to ask questions, we spend time (most of the term) generating, critiquing, revising questions for ones that do what we need them to do. I don’t know…I am not optimistic that that independence is quick to come for kids. 
  • Time, the need for so much time to understand what is coming. And time is the one thing we simply do not have. Currently, I’m fretting about systems, how to create peer review that works, how to reduce the amount of direct instruction to allow for more time for kids to master the content through hands-on work, but most of all, I’m worried that since my principal lifted the caps for class sizes, next year, I could very well have three sections a semester of 30 kids in a class. How will I be an effective teacher with classes that are this large? What kind of teacher will I be if I don’t have time to read papers, give feedback, conference, etc.? Will we have time for those moments–those in-between moments–where the learning happens? 

While the above concerns are all relevant, I think the last one is the most perplexing for me. I have never taught classes of this size, though I have many colleagues who do. I worry that these adjustments, of the class size, will force me to change my practice in ways that concern me. 

As I said, though, I refuse to be freaked out, and I’m pretty good at finding end runs around potential road blocks. 

And, it is summer, after all. 

Thus, I’m thinking about systems. I’m pretty sure I can get kids to work in groups for writing feedback and I just need to get better about rotations of due dates, what I will grade, what counts as indicators of learning. I’m also going back through what I need to teach and making myself justify what’s important (not interesting; sometimes, I get caught up in what’s interesting and shiny, pretty, things) and only do that. Only do that. That’s kind of fun for me and my neuroses. It’s also the only way I can contend with being able to be in control of the situation rather than the situation controlling me. 

 

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