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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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From Cocoons to Butterflies: Teaching for a Decade (or, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I actually learned something)

Look, I was the last person to ever think that I wanted to be a teacher, despite prescient adults who told me repeatedly as a younger person “you’d make a good teacher.” As far as I knew, teachers were always broke and they worked with insolent young adults.

Fast forward a few years and here I am, wrapping up year 10…10 years!!!

For the first time EVER in my life, I’m not ready to poke a pencil in my eye and berate myself for all the little problems that manage to suck the joy out of teaching, or at least the joy of remembering that, in the broader scheme of things, I am not such an awful teacher (admission: I am often filled with doubts, though I’ve learned many of the teachers I admire are; but, because another teacher I admire said something, to treat teaching like a baseball season: never let your highs get too high or your lows get too low, I’ve become more gentle and forgiving with myself).

My first year teaching Honors and I accomplished some of the goals I set out to achieve: the kids improved their writing; I figured out how to do better close reading and textual analysis (not my strongest points; I will always be a better writing teacher), and the kids confirmed their learning in their final papers of the year, wherein they get to reflect on what they’ve learned and offer me some constructive criticism (they are absolutely gleeful at this part of the assignment; I told them that they can be brutally honest, as long as they remember to be nice; for the most part, they always comply). Their criticism is usually spot-on and I generally use it to make revisions.

Here, excerpts from some gems:

  • This class will definitely affect the way in which I will approach future classes and challenging circumstances, instead of having the mindset of “oh my god I can’t do this” I now have the mindset of, “okay, this is hard, but eventually I will be able to do it.”
  • I have never been more tired in my life. But I am a satisfying kind of tired. I have never had a teacher expect me to do more work before, but because you held us to such high standards, I have truly become a much better reader, writer, analyzer, re-reader, re-writer, and multi-perspectival analyzer [insert my thoughts here: say word?!]…And the student continues: My favorite aspect of the class was the amount of respect you showed us, which revealed itself in the ambitious level of reading and writing assignments. [Me: this same kid suggested I slow down the pace of the class because she often had a “book hangover” and wanted to continue our discussions. Love!!!]
  • This is the first honors english class I have ever taken. At the beginning of the year I was timorous [insert my thoughts here: LOOK at the use of one of our vocab words!!!] He continues: As the class went on you got a connection with each and every student and you were not going to fail them. You do everything in your power to have a productive class everyday of the week.
  • Part of the reason I think she [me] was so successful was because I felt as though the majority of the time, we as a class were learning together, not individually. I never felt as though I was being spoon fed information on a subject but rather that the classroom was an open pool for free thinking and discussion amongst ourselves.
  • I will always remember that going above and beyond helps. Teachers like to see effort, so when a student takes a simple project and makes it spectacular, that’s a plus.  [Me: This from one of my students who I had to push every single day–and who pushed me back every single day–about why she just couldn’t be great. Eventually, she came around to seeing what I saw in her the moment I met her.]
  • [On the Macbeth movie project] It helped me branch out more from my cocoon of quietness into a butterfly of loudness. Being put up on the screen, wearing a fairy outfit and reciting lines from Shakespeare, in front of your classmates really changes a person.
  • My most favorite unit was actually the rhetorical analysis unit because I found it much to my liking. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I actually learned something that I can use later in life. Now thanks to you I know how to convince my mom to give me things I want and spend more money on me.
  • Most importantly I learned that teachers are never here to hurt you, they’re here to help you. I never thought that going to your teachers for help with your situation would help. Since you helped me bring my grade up and gave me helpful tips to make my work better I tell my friends “Go talk to your teacher, they’re there to help.”
  • What I really liked about this class is the stress of intellectual learning…I felt that I was finally connected to the world of intellectuals. Your class was one of the first times I felt like an intellectual in school…I always wanted to be an intellectual, so your little tips like reading The New York Times helped my wish become more of a reality.
  • Now I think of essays in terms of content and complexity of the prompt, not the length…I no longer dread essays and I have learned to just do it.
  • My experience in this class has taught me that writing is a process, that independence in a learning environment is a privilege that should be handled wisely, and that working with classmates is a huge contributor to learning.
  • The way I saw your class was like this: Everyone starts from the bottom and they slowly work their way up the ladder to an A. Climbing that ladder to me has been one of the hardest yet most liberating experiences I’ve had thus far in my writing career and you are the reason for that. [Disclaimer: not everyone earns an A; but few, if any students fail, and most end up fine in the end]
  • I know now that writing isn’t focused on how you start out, it is more focused on how the author finishes their craft.
  • I would also note that the literary citizens of the world events have reminded me how I should be interacting with the world around me even if it isn’t a requirement.
  • [Future English classes should know] This class will go beyond the surface of what “English class” entails. There will be presentations, discussions, that will pertain to a sort of question of the ages and call for higher order thinking and questioning. It is impossible not to learn in this English class.

I take this assignment seriously, and they do, too, much because I think that the students who took the course in the fall directly impacted the changes that this current group of students experienced. Thus, hopefully they know that I value their opinions, and that I, too, am continually figuring out how to be the best teacher I can be, every day, but I need their help to get there.

And, of course, the suggestions they offered are ones that I will think about and turn over as the summer winds on, but I will no longer let them eat me up as they did before. The amount of learning that students own and can write about matters, and the revisions to the course I make as a result are constructive and offer the opportunity for even more students (and their teacher) to do this work–joyfully, on most days.

After 10 years of doing this, I am more joyful and more satisfied than I have ever been as an educator.

As soon as I got on the train to go home–feeling a bit bewildered that a school year ends much more with a whisper than a shout–I opened my book, Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng [note: you should just read this book right now] and fell right into it. That’s a sure sign that summer’s here: time and freedom to read my own books, time to slow down, time to savor, time to catch up, time to dream…

Welcome, summer.

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PLCs of Care & Concern

I teach in a community where something awful has happened. While I don’t think any of us ever expect such terrible events, the ones that occurred over the last week and that continue to play out have set us off kilter in ways that we are only beginning to acknowledge: the starts at sirens, the feelings of helplessness as we sit awash in the incessant news, the difficulty concentrating…

On Monday, a colleague I don’t know very well was sitting on the wall outside the school. We greeted each other and she hugged me. And I didn’t pull away, significant for me because I tend to shy away from physical contact–I’m just prickly that way. A few minutes later, I think someone grabbed my hand or my shoulder, another colleague, sort of as an acknowledgement that we were both…present, maybe? Here? Together? Yes. The day went like that: people pausing, to say hello, to make eye contact, to linger in spaces where others were making copies, buying coffee, gathering their mail. 

Creating spaces to be together. And oftentimes there wasn’t even any discussion of those events; rather, they were more about check-ins and confirmations that we were all here, breathing, being, moving forward, or even standing still, but we were here, there…together.

Many of us are in professional learning communities that are tasked with improving our practice, a goal that is admirable and necessary. This week, though, I think my PLC grew much bigger and took on an additional task for which I’m grateful: my PLC expanded to include many more faculty members I know in passing, have wanted to know but time limited those interactions, have sprinted by their floors but not really stopped.

Until the week when everything stopped for us and we’ve had to think about how to put it together again. 

And the spring is terrible, too, because by this point one realizes that the end of the year is coming much faster than imagined and one has to make some difficult decisions about curriculum. I tend to get so caught up in those matters that I lose contact with the colleagues that I don’t see every day, and I’m often distracted while interacting with the ones I do see on the daily. 

Not this week. I’ve heard from my former colleagues over email, text, phone, whose first questions are about how I’m doing, what I’m doing to be okay, that they’re thinking about me, that they’re sorry for what happened, that they’re here. I feel their virtual hugs and support, and I lean in to them, understanding that another reason why we teach is that we join a community of others that encourage us, rely on us, need us as much as we need them, and that in times of joy and difficulty, we need to turn to that community for support. 

I’m just so grateful, in this moment, for the support.

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Are We Tackling Race, Or is Race Tackling Me?

In the last three days, I forked over nearly $20 for chips and salsa at the overpriced market across the street from school without batting an eye, consumed half of that purchase before giving my dogs a half-a#@ed walk and throwing myself into bed, nearly the rest of the other half of the chips and salsa and a Grasshopper Sundae (size small, but that makes no difference at all) the following day, kept a 6:30 pm bedtime, and prayed to whoever runs the universe that tomorrow is a snow day.

My poor eating habits and sudden onset exhaustion are directly correlated to introducing issues of race in the classroom this week. Such an endeavor utterly wears me out–like so much so I will probably sleep all weekend to recover a bit of myself–and now, today, I realize why people just choose to avoid teaching race.

Cause to really do it, to go all in, particularly as a Black woman teaching mostly white kids, means I have to steel myself for the ignorance–because they really DO NOT know–while reminding myself not to react too viscerally (particularly hard today when one innocently remarked that he didn’t know why Black folks had problems with one picture of a lawn jockey that smacked of racist tropes) and to occupy the stance and the mantra: raise awareness, but don’t preach, as English educator Bruce Penniman suggested in his book.

Real talk. To even raise awareness is incredibly challenging, largely because if one is perpetually in the position of Colonizer, why should that person even care about the Colonized?!?

Therein comes the theory. Oh post colonial theory, you are both a conduit and a curse because when you give kids a different way to read a text and they start to think about what voices have been left out of the conversation and what that means?!? Get ready for the mishegas that follows. You can’t prepare yourself for it, actually. You will be bowled over (silently, of course, as you bite your lip to keep from reacting) at their comments about skin tone (and why and how people of color can be so many different…colors?!?), as they repeat the stereotypes as they try to present their views, as they make their classmates of color attempt to make the floor open up beneath their seats so they can stop having this conversation. You will step into the conversation gingerly, but confidently, as you give them the language to talk about what they’ve internalized for years and what they believe to be true. 

There’s a moment, sorta like in the Matrix, where I hear a bunch of students’ voices transposed over my own, another that’s not my own yelling you better right this ship, KP, and I step out of the room to gulp some air that feels incredibly stale and repeat 100 times, as fast as I can, itsworthititsworhtititsworthit.

I thank the universe again for a White male student teacher who isn’t afraid to speak truth and own his privilege and who spells me while I have a minor meltdown because this is so hard and why do I have to do this, all I wanted to do was give them a different lens for reading a text. I didn’t think THIS was going to open up so many doors that I knew were going to open but…all…on the same day?!

I’ve become increasingly more agile at talking about issues of power, race, privilege, equity with non-POC students, while positioning myself as a person who cares about my students and one who also considers it critically important that they understand–or at least wake up for a moment–why we live in a world that isn’t fair for everyone because others have particular rights and privileges that are unearned, closely protected, and unwilling to relinquish.

But all those thoughts go through my mind, as I stand in the hallway gulping (or am I gasping?) air, sipping water, getting myself together, reminding myself not to take it personally. Of course, I’m lying. I can’t help but take it personally. They are my students. On my watch. I have complete confidence that some of them might just run the world some day. I need to make sure they’re paying attention and actually doing some good in the world. 

This work with postcolonial lit theory is merely a crack in the door as we confront these big ideas and issues, and debate Okonkwo’s inflexibility, and question if Dolce and Gabbana bears any responsibility for sending their racist earrings down the spring 2012 runway. But I do know that they’re becoming more aware–and again, it’s incremental progress, but, in issues such as this, it’s best to take progress where one can find it–and questioning what single story/master narrative it is that they’ve been consuming for years and why we need counternarratives. 

I did sit at my desk for a good thirty minutes after my last writing conference today:  immobilized because it takes so much out of me mentally to talk about these issues. I do know that if more of us were talking about this stuff, then I could share the load and not feel so wrung out at the sheer amount of work required simply to raise awareness. I cannot even begin to fathom, at this moment, the next necessary steps that will help them continue making connections between these ideas and texts and what’s to come.

There it is. I used to be so skeptical–disbelieving is probably a better word–when people would tell me that they didn’t really “teach race” in their classrooms, thinking that they didn’t do it because they didn’t want to do it. I think, now, that there’s some truth in that. How do you initiate these conversations knowing that they will require far more of you as a teacher than drafting an essay assignment? That you’re going to probably feel wiped out as a result of those conversations for at least the next week? That you’re going to replay myriad comments and interactions for weeks to come? 

It can wear you out. It’s certainly worn me out.

 

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Yes, and?

I’m at the point in February where I have to make peace with my plans for the weeklong recess: my to-do list is unbalanced with too many have-to dos and not enough get-to dos. The upshot is that I get to deal with my list while in the sticks of North Carolina, where I’ll have spotty Internet access and can begin to wean myself off Facebook. I schedule this break intentionally every year and I realize I’m usually so frazzled for the first couple of days that I tend to miss the beauty of being somewhere else.

Not this year. Yes, I have stuff to do. I’m goal-oriented, so there’s no doubt I’ll get those tasks accomplished, but I’m going to remind myself that I will NEVER be in the world of done and that I need to slow it down. I’ll go into the nearby small towns, do some leisurely reading at the book store, pick up some gifts for my niece and nephews, some new yarn for yet another project I probably won’t finish…I will enjoy my time.

Oh, and I have to grade the latest set of papers from my students. Rookie move, assigning a paper that was due the day before break. But, they needed the practice…

Crazily (?) enough, I’m most looking forward to embracing a way of responding to student writing that I learned about after attending an NCTE presentation by Katherine Bomer in November. She suggested that rather than entering into a conversation with a piece of student writing by seeing what’s wrong, that instead we start saying yes, and? Yes, you’re making this point…and what else might you add to help the reader understand why it matters, for example.

I tend to be relatively encouraging with young writers, but, there are times when I know I’m too brusque, or too vague (imagine that), or too caught up in my own writing that I can potentially shut out a writer. And working with adolescent writers is difficult, particularly if they think they aren’t great writers in the first place. 

Yes, and? allows me to check myself. So, when I’m writing a comment in the margin via Google docs (the way I respond to most drafts now), I’m more likely to write yes, and? rather than something less inviting. Yes, and? is an invitation, as it were, to say more, to expand on ideas, to illuminate relevance. To keep writing. That’s the ultimate goal, actually. 

Thus, I like this way of interacting with their writing, a way of responding that is both validating and encouraging for students, and  a reminder for me to keep the doors open for the writing improvement that inevitably happens if you just keep working on improvement…yes, I’m interested in what you have to say and the myriad ways you might say it. 

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The Bitter End

I hate when a semester ends. It’s really the day of reckoning: you realize you didn’t get some (many, all, whatevs) of the stuff you wanted to teach done and you reach the point where the kids you have come to love over the course of the semester are getting on your nerves asking about extra credit and other ways to boost their grades. I also think I tend to get annoyed because it’s easier than being sad.

In two weeks, I say goodbye to about 70 kids and say hello to about 60ish new ones. Yup, I teach the exact same class all over again. A blessing and a curse, that one, as I’ve worked out many of the kinks with this crop of kids. I tell them that they’ve paid it forward and that the spring sophomores will thank them for it. That comment merely elicited some eye rolls. I don’t think you want to be a martyr when you’re fifteen…

do think there’s something to be said about reaching the point with students that–as their teacher and fellow learner–you know them relatively well and they need to move on, and you know that they’re NOT coming up to the fifth floor to see you if they don’t have to, and that those conversations in the margins, the ones about books and about literary puns and about the kid who writes poetry about a summer spent with his brother, and the hashtag they use to tweet about your class (#dparkz) and I get…sad. 

I hate the end, even if I’ll be so delirious grading exams and prepping for the next term that I can’t even breathe. I hate the end, as bitter as it is. I hate the end.

 

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Self-Reflection: For Them, For Me, to Learn Shakespeare

Self-reflection is one of the most powerful aspects of teaching, both for myself and for students as learners. There’s something profound about having to determine what you learned, how (and if) you learned it, and one’s personal responsibility in that process.

One of my favorite parts of teaching Shakespeare–a part that I’m only reminded of once it’s over, usually, because it’s so hectic in the flow of it–is this project I do called the Shakespeare Festival. I have adapted it from a unit I found from a fantastic teacher in Utah. Essentially, kids select a scene (this time from Macbeth) and perform it. But that’s probably too much of a simplification of what they do. They also must select their groups, write a justification of their scene, memorize(ish) their lines, create a storyboard, create a mock-up or model of their setting and costumes, make a film of their scene and then write a self-evaluation in which they tell me what they’ve learned and also evaluate their group mates.

It’s a LOT. And it takes a lot of time; however, it is the most tangible way that kids learn to own Shakespeare. 

I’m in the process of grading their projects now (and re-watching their excellent videos, if I must say so myself) and am reading their self-reflections. Repeatedly, they say how they had to understand subtext from reading their scenes over and over again, how they actually understood themes and motifs because they had to become the characters, how they worked with others to accomplish a task…

And what I also love is that kids that I would have thought would not have been major contributors STEPPED UP to do amazing work: from costume designs, to settings, to justifications…I never would have known had their peers not have explained what went into the final projects. I want to find a way to make sure they know how much their peers thought of them. Shouldn’t they know these great things?! 

Again, I’m humbled by my kids, by their work, by how fortunate I am to teach and learn with them each day. 

Here’s what one of my students concluded (his group made a scene as a film noir):

I cannot think of anything else that you should know, except I would like to recognize [one of his peers in the group]. He was the only one in the group who actually knew a considerable amount about film production. He was really the brains behind each shot and contributed his knowledge of film to help us create a powerful film noir version of Act V Scene viii. After all, he did do essentially all of the editing alone, which we greatly thank him for. Also, I will stress the fact that we all wanted very much to succeed in making a great movie. We all really worked our hearts out in creating the film, and above all, we really enjoyed it. I will leave you with that [all emphases are student’s own].

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New School Chronicles: What Poverty Smells Like

After growing up poor, you have a particular type of respect for your parents’ ability to keep that vital bit of information from you. I grew up dirt poor; seriously, I think at one point our household income might have been less than $18,000. Raised by my grandparents, I remember that they often didn’t have to file taxes because they didn’t make enough. But there was always money for essentials and some extras. True, I envied what my more affluent peers had, but my grandmother always told me that I could do whatever I set my mind to.

Years later, I guess that one of the things I set my mind to was getting the hell out of poverty. I had an unbelievable network of folks (Black and White, mostly White, actually), that had an unwavering support in my potential. More, they helped me reach that potential in myriad ways: small gifts, jobs, connections.

When I taught in the city, I always made a conscious decision to live in the neighborhood where I taught. That’s meant living within a mile of one of the poorest areas of Boston. Recently, I moved to another part of the city. Before, though I lived in that poor area, I lived on particular street that was middle class (some parts even upper middle class). So, I could straddle two worlds: walk to my school and then turn the corner on the way home and think I was in the suburbs. Now, though, I live in an area where I don’t have that escape. I live in a food desert (well, there is a Save-A-Lot), where liquor stores outnumber any other stores, high immigrant population, significant areas of crime (because I obsess about crime stats)…and my street is quiet and tree-lined, but this time, it’s not enough.

Where I live reminds me, too uncomfortably, about being poor. I don’t like such reminders.

And now I have this interesting moment wherein I’m always quick to acknowledge someone else’s privilege, but I best acknowledge my own. See, I’m moving out. After one month, I’m moving BACK to my old, middle class neighborhood because I want to live around people with similar “middle class values.” I do not like the way my apartment smells–a blend of despair, mold, diminishing dreams–the litter that’s everywhere, the sadness that lingers as I walk to the bus stop.

I am privileged. I have savings. I can move. I have friends who are willing to put me up while I’m in between places. I have a choice. I am Black and middle class and I have privilege.

I’ve run into a number of former students (ALWAYS) in my new location. They are all surprised that I live over here, some even ask me if I am “okay” for making such a choice. But THEY live here. This neighborhood is their daily reality, this neighborhood is the place where they grew up, where their families still reside.

They do not necessarily see it as hopeless, and I shouldn’t, either. Some do, but some don’t. Every kid’s experience is different.

But with privilege comes responsibility. I have a choice, after all: I could move back to the old neighborhood, think of this one-month stint as an “adventure” and keep living my relatively comfortable life. Or, I could act on this new information and use it to have a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be Black and Brown and poor as a young person today. I could start being much more responsible for advocating for initiatives that directly benefit these kids. I could understand–I mean, REALLY understand— that just because you’re Black and Brown and poor does not mean you are stupid or have no potential.

I could…

In the last week, I’ve been able to articulate why I have been so uncomfortable in my present situation. I do not want to be reminded of being poor. That is my privilege. Yes, I’m a Black woman, but I’m highly educated and I have the options to choose my life. As someone with that privilege, it’s my responsibility to use that privilege to make the lives of the kids I teach who don’t have that privilege better.

It just is.

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