Monthly Archives: July 2012

Black and Brown in Public Spaces: Meeting Marcus Samuelsson

Dr. KP & Marcus S.

I love it when they’re as nice in person as you hoped. Yay, Marcus!

I prefer a porous classroom: one that, when, say a famous celebrity chef comes to town, you can decide to read an excerpt from Yes, Chef and go meet Marcus Samuelsson at a Whole Foods that’s only a short walk away.

That was class today. Through some nice asking, following up on a contact from a conference, and some planning, students were able to spend a few moments taking pictures, getting slips of paper signed and asking Marcus questions about his life and career. He was quite pleasant: posed for pictures, talked about Ethiopia to kids of Ethiopian descent, told them he was more nervous talking to THEM than when he was on Top Chef: Masters. The kids conducted themselves professionally, as expected: they were giggly, attentive, a bit awestruck.

We thought he was going to do a cooking demo, but it was entirely a meet and greet: signing books, shaking hands, taking pictures. I had hoped he’d read a bit from his book, but I think that’s the difference when readings are done in supermarkets and not bookstores: you’re there to meet the person, not necessarily to get the entire ambiance of intimacy that I so love about book signings.

Still, though, it meant something to the kids.

To the Whole Foods clientele, though? Different story. I don’t think they knew quite what to do with a large crowd of Black and Brown adolescents. Usually, I’d wager, many of them are trying to avoid them.

Yet, here they were: eager, full of anticipation, leaning in to meet the Black chef with the compelling story. He could as easily been one of them. The story he wrote is theirs, in many respects. Getting outside and meeting him perhaps made that clearer to them, perhaps made them more willing to write what is inside them, beyond formulas and cliches…

I am looking forward to being able to have the run of the city again, in that respect: to peruse the newspapers and map out readings, signings, art gallery openings, exhibitions…to expose students to all the city has to offer. All OUR city has to offer. To be Black and Brown in public spaces, and to confirm to those who don’t know, while reaffirming to the students, that learning happens all around us, and it’s ours if we merely walk outside.

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer, Writing About Race

Friday Workshop Share: Negotiating Constructive Criticism

Another idea I’ve adapted over the years is one I found in Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom. She describes how to get students to share their work. Essentially, students read their work and students have to respond with compliments for the writer. The writer runs the feedback session, and feedback is directed to the writer rather than to the teacher.

Every Friday, 3-4 students share their work in Friday share. It’s usually whatever paper we’ve been working on during that week. When I first started doing this three years ago, we just did compliments. Over the last year or so, though, students have asked for compliments and Areas of Growth. I took the middle ground: a writer could determine the kind of feedback he/she needed: thus, if he/she only wanted compliments, then that was fine. If the writer also wanted areas of growth, then what happens is that the writer tells us before he/she begins reading his/her draft aloud (i.e., can you see if my paper flows, if it makes sense, if you see any grammatical errors, etc.?) and we comment specifically on those areas.

As the teacher, I respond as a person hearing and reading the work. I have no additional authority in the situation. I often don’t even talk, just write notes that get passed down to the writer with all the others.

A quick look at Workshop Share in motion: A student makes enough copies of their paper for everyone in the class (usually 19, including myself and the TAs). Prior to distributing the paper, students have small scraps of paper they use to write notes for the writer. The writer tells us what they want from the workshop (compliments, areas of growth, a combination of both) and exactly what they want feedback on, and then begins reading his/her draft aloud to us. We follow along, marking up the copy. Once the writer is finished, we clap and then spend a few minutes jotting down compliments on one side of the scrap paper and, if requested, areas of growth on the other side. The writer then calls on classmates for their thoughts.

Here’s what I know: Kids find it very easy to be harsh, exceedingly so. I have no problem butting in and asking students to rephrase their comments. I always tell them that the goal of these sessions, beyond sharing our work, is to help the writer improve. Thus, blanket criticism has no place. Lead with the good, I say (and MODEL), and then, when giving areas of growth, end with a suggestion that the writer might incorporate to improve his/her revision. I noticed yesterday that some students were being a bit ruthless in their criticism. Not okay. So I told them about my own experiences with writing, that the first time my advisor sent my dissertation back (and I had mistakenly fallen in love, or at least strong like with my draft), she had written so much criticism on the first chapter that I was paralyzed and couldn’t write for at least a year (maybe it wasn’t quite a year, but it was long enough to be significant). I also reminded them that it is difficult to share our work and that we needed to thank people for being brave. If you can’t find any nice way to deliver constructive criticism, I finally said, stick to compliments. We are all on our own writing journeys, and I expressly forbid any of them to derail someone else’s journey.

Funny thing is, the kids who tend to be the harshest are the weakest writers. Amazing, or perhaps not. We tend to critique what we most dislike in ourselves, perhaps?

I don’t anticipate having to give this speech again, and I won’t let it diminish the overall effectiveness of the workshop. Students have said this is one of the most useful parts of the class, largely because they get to hear what their peers are writing, get new ideas, and generally feel part of a community of writers. And while I guess I probably couldn’t articulate those explicit goals of the workshop when I first adopted it, the kids, as usual, say it perfectly.

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer

Take A Teacher to Lunch

At first glance, you’d think he’s not that interested in class. He is often trying to find his paper, but once he does, he’s at-the-ready, jotting down ideas, notes from the board, ideas for later. He sticks to meetings that you set up; I know, rare for a sophomore. Today, when I was in line in the dining hall, he came up to me and asked a question about his poetry analysis paper. He was worried about his thesis. I told him that I wasn’t having lunch with anyone, and that if he wanted to stop by and chat about it a bit, I was down.

I make that offer sometimes, and every now and then, students take me up on it. It was my lucky day today!

Talking about him abstractly is getting on my nerves, so let me attach a pseudonym to him: I’ll call him Michael. Today, Michael reads me the poem he’s selected, one by Cornelius Eady, “I’m a Fool to Love You,” a sad dirge about a Black woman who accepts her circumstances, decides that the lesser of the two evils is an abusive man who fathers her child. Deep. And Michael proceeds to lead me through an excellent close reading. He’s captivated by the repetition of “blues,” wants to follow it throughout the poem. He needs help articulating the why; can I help him make his thesis get the so what to what he’s trying to say?

This poem is so rich that I can’t help but ask him questions about it. Why the blues (“because it seems to take on different meanings for the mother, makes her seem to finally reach acceptance”) which leads to a bigger discussion of the meaning the blues hold for folks, particularly for, but not limited to, Blacks. Then we somehow get on a conversation about parents and he tells me his father was deported when he was five, but that his mother didn’t tell him the truth until he was nine. That his mother, herself, is undocumented and speaks no English, and sometimes he feels tired having to do all the translation. He wishes his sister wasn’t so shy so she could assume some of that burden, but she can’t even be brave enough to order a pizza. He wishes there was a poem for that, about how he feels about his sister (write one, I suggest).

“I want to be remembered for something,” he tells me. Then do something good for the world is my reply. He says he’s going to. He just doesn’t know what it is yet. We go back to the poem and pause to discuss why the speaker’s mother chooses the father, even though he’s no prize. “He’s the best of the worst,” Michael summarizes, and we go back to the poem, mine it a little deeper for specific words that capture her resignation. He reads them to me, and I savor them. And we point to lines in the poem and we read and reread them.

I cannot WAIT to read your analysis, I say. We talk more about his thesis and I ask him if he’s happy with what he has. No, he says, because we just talked about a whole lot more.

What do I do?

I explain that the beauty of a working thesis is that it can change. And given that it seems that there are now even more layers of the poem, opening the door to new layers of analysis, maybe it makes sense to revise the thesis. He seems incredulous that one can do that. Of course, I say. Working means you can change it!

We try out several different statements and eventually he decides to add a part to the end that speaks to the resignation of the speaker of the poem.

I tell Michael that I heard he applied 15 times to one charter school, the one he currently attends. Actually, I say 14 times and he corrects me with 15. I ask him why and he says he had researched the school, and all of its graduates went on to college. 100 percent. He said that’s his only goal: to get to college.

I told him he should have a different goal: getting there probably isn’t going to be a problem given what I already know about him, but he should train his mind and heart to think about getting THROUGH college and what comes after. That was even more important. He shrugged. Short-term goals are as important as the long term ones, I reckon.

What I found surprising, though, was that, given that he goes to a small school, was that he rarely talks to his teachers other than for extra help. “Teachers are busy,” he concluded.

Unacceptable. Why have small schools if you can’t have lunch with this dynamo?

There’s more to this story, mostly about how this conversation with Michael reminded me about what it means to teach students who are multilingual, who do much of–if not all of–the interpretation for their families, who are imbued with all of their parents’ hopes for the future, who are still, ultimately, young people who need to be kids, too.

Oh, and Junot Diaz. He makes a brilliant appearance to cap off why we read literature. Later, though.

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Filed under Equity, Teaching Writing in the Summer


I think I thought I knew what rigor meant when I taught exclusively in urban schools. It meant holding kids to high expectations, of writing a lot, of reading a lot, of showing kids how to mine the text, to analyze, to synthesize.

Then, I went to the suburbs and I realized how much I didn’t know. My writing instruction, which was strong, got stronger because I am now much clearer about what is required to help kids become powerful writers. I’ve always believed that to become a good writer, you have to write.

But, only this week, while teaching in my summer program, did I understand the difference between what the city does and what the suburbs do, and the difference is, conceivably, why urban kids are perpetually behind.

I asked one of my sophomores how many papers she writes in a year. She goes to an exam school in the city: highly competitive, motivated, does her work, all of that. She told me five, usually following after reading a whole-class text.


In the ‘burbs, kids are required to write four papers PER TERM. Add that up and you get a total of 16 papers per year. That’s 11 more papers than kids in the city write–and let’s be clear, this is one of the exam schools, so no telling what kids are writing at schools that are non-exam.

That’s the problem right there.

If kids aren’t writing enough, then they’re not improving, not revising…and they’re always behind. You become a better writer through practice. Not rocket science to know that if you don’t get enough practice, you’re not going to become proficient.

Sure, there are all kinds of distinctions between city and suburbs, but facts are facts, I’d argue. There is a disparity in what we are asking kids to write.

I like data. I like knowing what I’m up against. Over the next school year, we’re going to be writing like our lives depend on it.

They actually DO depend on it.

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Filed under Equity, Teaching Writing in the Summer

“I Wish We Had a Template”

I like to take time for mid-course reflections as a way of assessing how kids are doing. I’ve found they tend to be more honest at this point in the course after having a few papers assigned and returned and after being around me (and realizing that while some of the rumors about me being tough are entirely accurate, other rumors are probably not). Today, I asked them what they aspects of their writing they felt positively about, what they wished we could spend more time doing and a suggestion about how to improve the remaining classes (about 2.5 weeks worth).

One student wished we could use a template more for writing assignments. These kids are relatively skilled with formulas as they prepare to enter their junior year. They know, generally, that if they can plug an analysis into five paragraphs, do some integration of quotes and have a decent thesis, they’ll typically receive a good grade. As another student noted, “The writing criteria and expectations here [are] totally different from my school so it kind of threw me off when I would write something.”

I don’t eschew formulaic writing. In fact, I learned how to do it and can draw on that knowledge when I work with younger writers because they have some general understanding of it. But, what happens when kids can’t move past the formula? I ask them to stretch their writing. I am demanding (but a warm demander): I want more analysis beyond a summary or a pat so what. I want nuance. I want counterarguments. I want to be moved. And I tell them all of this and we write and revise and revise until we approach or exceed those expectations, but it’s often not a linear movement. Instead, I often look at something they’ve written and rework it with students because (usually) I didn’t explain it correctly or clearly, or I’ve noticed something else about their writing that needs attention.

I don’t provide a template. Don’t get me wrong: I used to provide templates and the kitchen sink. I was doing waaay too much for the kids and they didn’t really have to put that much work into their writing. I was young and didn’t have a full handle on real writing.

This entry isn’t complete. I’m still turning over what it means to take away the template and to teach writing to kids in ways that matter, ways that don’t conform to five paragraphs, and ways that are about something.

This summer course always is the place that these ideas begin, get turned around, reformulated…yet another reason why I love the summer.

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer

I find this an important way to continue the conversation about Trayvon Martin (or even to begin it if it’s not yet started, though I wonder how can one NOT start it).

Link to Christensen’s Rethinking Schools Article

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July 24, 2012 · 1:39 am

Single Stories

Another secret about my summer program: I love it because I have an uninterrupted 45 minutes each morning to read whatever I want on the train. Since I recently finished Gone, Girl by Gillian Flynn and don’t want to commit to another book just yet, I’ve been reading magazines. Up today: Rethinking Schools and an article about narrative and who controls the narrative by Linda Christensen. “The Danger of a Single Story” is quite compelling and totally fired me up to teach it this fall. She draws on Brent Staples “Walk on By” about Black men in public spaces, Chimimanda Adichie (Half a Yellow Sun and other fantastic works) and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to help students use their voice to address systems of inequality.

Christensen writes: As I listened to their stories, I thought about the Daniel Beaty poem that laments the “lost brilliance of the black men who crowd prison cells,” and I thought about my moral obligation to tap into this injustice, this birthplace of anger and rage, to expose it and validate students’ experiences. But if I unleashed this rage and pain, I knew I had the parallel moral obligation to teach students how to navigate a society that discriminates against them and to teach them how others have dealt with these injustices. So I designed curriculum to address the needs of these black youth, and also the needs of all my students who feel singled out because of a defining feature that turns them into a target.

Again, another reminder that when we encourage students to “let it all out,” we best be ready for what that means, and we better be ready to help them do something with that “righteous rage” that can threaten to destroy them without some meaningful direction.

I’m excited to make this lesson my own. I’m excited to hear students write about self in ways that are critical and in ways that do something to make some change. Also, for those of us who are integrating the Common Core into everything we do, this is an excellent way to get critical, complex texts that kids will WANT to read into our classrooms. Brilliant!

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer, Writing About Race

“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

Ending My Sabbatical in the Suburbs

I resigned from my suburban job last week. Not a completely shocking decision given folks who wondered why I was going there in the first place, but enough of an unexpected rumble that it makes me sad. I worked with phenomenal colleagues who were willing to share their practice, to help me figure it out, and to remind myself that even in the suburbs, someone has to speak up for the kids of color. In the ‘burbs, too, I realized that speaking up for other kids matters, too, the ones who are a bit quirky, a lot uncertain, and majorly unhappy. It always comes down to missing the same things, ultimately: my colleagues and the kids. However, I read this great quote (accidentally, but perhaps not, as I’ve an affinity for lovely quotes): Saying goodbye doesn’t mean anything. It’s the time we spent together that matters, not how we left it. Trey Parker–of South Park and the Book of Mormon, maybe?–said that. I was moved by the quote and taken aback that Parker said it–maybe I shouldn’t have been, but that’s just the way it is.

While it’s the kids and the classroom triumphs and challenges that stay with me, it was also a deeper desire to work with kids of color again that compelled me to leave the suburbs. I realized the differences, though, between the city and the suburbs, and it’s lit a fire under me to do more. It matters. And I think MY work matters more in the city than in the ‘burbs. For now, at least.

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After lots of writing and rewriting blog posts in my mind, I’m finally doing something about it. Welcome to this space, one in which I turn over what it means to teach English, to be a part-time academic with aspirations, to work with hesitant students as they explore the craft of writing. Mostly, I’m blogging here because I need to remember–always–what it’s like to write beside them.

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