Category Archives: Student Interactions

Othering, Adrienne Rich and Truth

My class is hard. I’m not going to lie. I ask kids to do a lot of reading, writing and thinking, and they complain but they generally do their work. That fact–that they always do their work–has taken some adjusting, as I tend to get about 80-95% of a return on my assignments in general if I’m lucky. Now, I’m probably always going to get 100%.

What I’ve found is that the kids of color and the low income kids are struggling mightily. I’m starting to (warmly) demand that they schedule conferences to talk about their work, checking in with them more frequently, encouraging them to stick with it. I need them to realize, through my words, my actions and my beliefs, that they can do this work. It’s gonna be hard as all get out, but they can do the work.

It’s discouraging when I give out grades and one student’s score has moved incrementally. I want to rage with her, at me (are you really doing right by these kids? I often goad myself). But then, just when I’m at the point when I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into and if my approach is wrong, the literature gives me an answer.

In this case, there were a few minutes last week before all my writing conferences began, and three of the kids were hanging out (I think one had intentionally “confused” his conference time and wanted to chat sooner rather than later; I obliged). I asked them some questions about their lack of participation, and one brave soul admitted that she felt intimidated by the vocabulary her peers were using. I told her that half the time, they weren’t even using the words correctly; rather, what mattered was that they were trying. That’s how you learn, I said. You got to get the words into your mouth, turn them around, so that they begin to feel like your own. Most of this work we’re doing, I continued, is about a willingness to try, and to know that yes, in the beginning we might all feel like we’re clueless, but at least we keep trying.

We’d just talked about post-colonialism and Othering and the Other, and I said something to the extent of, “You’re letting them Other you. You can’t let that happen. In a way, too, you’re Othering yourself because you think you can’t do it. Don’t let your fear win.”

Silence.

But that’s what it was, othering, on multiple levels: their silence building, their fear of not knowing preventing them from even trying to speak at all. After that conversation, I became even more aware of interactions and discussions and creating spaces for kids to enter into the talk of a classroom. (Funny how I forget my own hesitancies and reluctance when I’m talking to kids. I know exactly what it feels like to sit in a group and sweat and worry about how to interject, how to disagree, how to offer something new to the conversation. That’s why I’m trying to figure out how to get them involved.)

This week, we’re about to celebrate the National Day of Writing and a student’s father, who’s a poet, is coming in tomorrow to do some reading with us. He’s asked kids to read an Adrienne Rich essay, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Writing,” as well as having them read several versions of a poem. I asked him to show them his process, of how a draft moves from an idea, through revision to a momentary final poem. He’s agreed, and I’m so stoked to see this all play out tomorrow.

I gave the essay out yesterday (Wed.) with the instruction to read it in preparation for Friday. One student, of the three that stayed behind last week, came into homeroom and said she was up all night reading Adrienne Rich.

Um, stop. Rewind. HOLD UP. She showed me her thoroughly annotated essay, pointing out places where she agreed with Rich, bold paragraphs marked to indicate where she was moved and inspired.

“I have lots to say,” she said. “I’m going to speak up. I can’t wait.”

And I still need to unpack everything that happened in that moment and I’m sure after tomorrow, when they blow my head open with their talk I’ll have to unpack even another suitcase, but here we were, a teacher who was quickly running out of strategies and a student who sincerely doubts herself, and there’s Adrienne Rich, offering us a way through.

Much of teaching is about trust: can you work with students, create a community that encourages them to take risks, to listen to each other, to try new ways to write, to read to think. I’ve also found that it’s about just telling them when you make a mistake (sorry, that timeline I proposed was entirely unrealistic. My class is not the only class you’re taking; let’s rethink); that you’re off your game (yup, I was up grading so I’m not going to get that other thing back to you today); that you don’t know (seriously, I’m going to have to look up this punctuation rule; I just don’t remember it).

This truth is incredibly freeing, and the start of something meaningful.

Rich: Yet, if we can risk it, the something born of that nothing is the beginning of our truth.

Maybe this is the beginning of their truth, too.

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October 18, 2012 · 11:13 pm

Reading Junot Diaz (with Marvin in the Margins)

Drown always comes up as a book people often use in their classrooms. Kids love it, they say. That refrain, of kids loving it, is usually enough to garner at least one copy of said title in my classroom free reading collection, but I let Drown allude me. Two years ago, while combing through my department head’s binder, I found some stories from Drown with her meticulous notes and queries to push kids into and through the text, and thought that I’d use those stories in my Modern American Short Story unit.

So late to the party, I was.

The kids loved Junot. Rather, they loved the humor, the honesty, the heartbreak of the characters. When we read the New Yorker short story “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” we had an intense discussion about Oscar: fool or hero? Wasn’t dying for love admirable? (Many thought not. Oscar, they reasoned, was just a pitiful loser).

When I knew Diaz was releasing a new collection of short stories, I was more receptive (finally). I often half-listen to adults, but when young people talk, they generally have my full attention.

After being completely floored that my young Dominican students (particularly the boys) had NO IDEA who Junot Diaz was, and after I made several grandish claims (see earlier blog posts), I photocopied his short story “Ms. Lora” from another New Yorker where it ran that summer.

I was so anxious to finally read This is How You Lose Her that I ordered it on Amazon, was promptly struck with book buyer’s amnesia (it’s happened before), and purchased another copy in a local bookstore. (And maybe I was attempting to correct my book buying karma by keeping it local–sort of).

Then, I intentionally took the subway from one end to another, purposely scheduled a meeting and arrived an hour early so I could read and not be interrupted, so I could have the experience that kids have been having all along.

This experience of reading TIHYLH has been infuriating, comforting, endearing…makes me want to reread every page real slow because I don’t have something to read next that’s going to be as good.

I vacillate between wanting to punch Yunior in the face for being so callous with women to hoping to offer him a soft place to land for losing his brother to cancer. I want to shake the women who bide their time with men who see them when their “main women” are otherwise occupied. I want to take others by the hand and tell them to just hold on. It gets better.

I read so many pieces of text in my life that I think I lose my edge of actually feeling…thus, when I read something and it sucker punches me, I’m disoriented, gotta tell everyone about it, intentionally schedule reading time into classes so kids can read (but really so I can read, too).

What am I going to do with that extra copy? Well, I emailed that student who I had in class this summer and told him I’ve ended up with an extra copy of the book. Does he want it? Wait. First, I emailed him to ask if he knew the book was out and he said “Ha, way ahead of you Kim. This Is How You Lose Her, planning on getting it this week. Also, the short story Ms. Lora, was phenomenal. The Dominican culture in it is very similar to my own. I never knew I would ever find such things as the plastic covers on sofas being written about in a book! Hope all is well.”

I’ll make sure that extra copy gets delivered this weekend and follow up in a few weeks. I will listen more than I speak, simply content that a book and an author can create a text that we care about and will talk about for months to come.

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This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz

Then, he’ll return the favor. “I’ll have a book for you by the summer comes,” he writes.

And he will.

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Filed under Student Interactions, Teaching Writing in the Summer

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

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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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Filed under Equity, Student Interactions