Tag Archives: expectations

And So It Begins: This HAS to Work

Summer officially ends on Monday, when I return to school for a grade-level PD meeting, followed by a few more days of all-school PD. The kids turn up after Labor Day.

I’ve been thinking about this new group of kids quite a bit as I prepare to launch a new initiative, now called Honors Prep. 21 students (with the potential of reaching 23 by the time we are rolling along) have made the commitment to take my class this fall with the goal that it will prepare them to enter–AND STAY–in Honors English classes for the rest of the time in high school. Thus, by the time they finish a semester of the prep class, they enter my Honors English class, prepared to be awesome.

My contention is that they simply need a bit more time: to learn the skills required to write well, to spend some more time sharpening their critical thinking, to improve their reading skills. They also need a bit more time developing their grit: what to do when things get difficult. Rather than quitting, they need to learn strategies for surviving and thriving. Traditionally, underserved kids (insert all of understanding of kids who aren’t in Honors classes: kids of color, kids who are from low SES, some boys, etc.) show up for their Honors class, get the first assignment or two and then drop the class. Nearly all of them do not take an Honors English class again in their high school experience.

Not acceptable.

They need to learn that they have the power to be intellectuals if they 1) believe they can and 2) learn the requisite skills.

So while I’m developing a new class, the only big differences will be in the content and in the amount of scaffolding they receive. I’ll still be my warm-demander self, but I anticipate loving them up a bit more as they get used to being pushed. It’s going to be uncomfortable for them at first, true, but I believe in them more than they will believe in themselves at first. It’s fine. I’ve been in this position before.

It’s a parallel skills class: they’ll learn to cite evidence, close read, write arguments, conduct rhetorical analysis, ask their own questions (it’s an inquiry-based class anyway), lead discussions, the same things the Honors classes do, but they’ll have a semester to “practice” and “master” those skills before being thrown into the deep end. Now, I’m not necessarily reducing the amount of text complexity, but I am starting a bit slower.

My Honors classes tend to study: The Odyssey, Things Fall Apart, Macbeth, Huck Finn and Frankenstein, with some particular attention to smaller units that deal with women, postcolonial lit theory, rhetorical analysis, etc. They also write a good amount as they tackle the argument (it’s own challenge because we struggle with disabusing them of writing with formulas…it’s fun and eventually we find peace, but it takes us nearly all semester).

The Prepsters (as I call them unofficially; I’m thinking we should get some t-shirts!) will be practicing the same skills that the Honors kids are working on, but will use different texts. Their texts include Purple Hibiscus, Merchant of Venice, Malcolm X and smaller units on the short story, tracking a columnist for rhetorical analysis and, yes, lots of writing.

Both groups will get some early work on growth mindset. All students will be part of a smaller writing/review group. Honors Prep kids will have the support of some graduate students who will be responsible for monitoring the progress of the writing groups.

I’m moving to the writing groups (and I think that they’ll have a broader function of supporting the students within them as they collaborate) because I’ve been thinking about a comment a parent made to me last year. He wondered why American students tended to be so isolated when they studied. He, as Argentinian, was much more accustomed to working with a group, of being part of a regular community that shared ideas, helped each other out, became stronger because of a shared experience.

He’s right: I do a LOT of community building in the early months of school, then move into community maintenance for the remainder of our time because my students tend to be ridiculously competitive. I have to teach them–intentionally–how to work together, how to collaborate (which, by the way is one of the skills lacking in young people, the ability to collaborate and one which employers wished students were more adept at doing). Thus, if I set my mind to doing it from the beginning, then it will be something I can give due diligence rather than treat it as an add-on.

I’m grateful that so many people are behind this idea for the prep class. I’ve just decided that it has to work because these kids–the ones who rarely make it in an Honors class because of lack of preparation, the kids, I would argue, that we NEED in Honors classes–deserve it. They deserve to be in an environment where they know they have a shot to make it, and they need to know that they are prepared to answer the difficult questions, take the tough risks, write the hard papers because they’ve been prepared.

And because I am an eternal optimist, my hope is that next year, I teach a few more of these classes, get a few more kids ready to move up into the Honors track, and those kids become part of a support network of the kids that came before, and they look back and pull others up. Then, in five years, I hope to not be teaching these classes at all because–while I don’t believe in panaceas–at least this class will have become enough of a model that other folks realize that if we simply buckle down and do the hard work of believing first that ALL kids deserve this preparation and that it should be happening up and down the grade levels, others take up the challenge and…I can’t quite even finish that thought because if that were to happen, we might have a revolution.

I’m down for that.

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Taking Them As They Are…

Once the first semester ended in mid-January, I had exactly a weekend to turn around and start teaching the same couse to a new group of sophomores.

After reminding myself about the need to just keep breathing, I also had to remind myself that the new kids who entered my classroom, filled with a mixture of excitement, anxiety and dread (thanks to their predecessors who told everyone they knew about how hard the class was, how much they learned but mostly, too, how glad they were that the class, for them, was OVER), were just that: new kids.

That’s why summers are so great when we teach: we end the year more than exhausted, but we have the summer to forget how difficult it is to break in a new crop of students. We forget that we have to teach them procedures, that there are days when it feels like we’re caught so deep in the muck that a thesis statement is as foreign to them as learning…I don’t know…insert something that’s difficult; that there were plenty of days when discord tiptoed around the edges of the classroom, threatening to overtake whatever it was that was supposed to be happening at any given moment.

Instead, as we laze (ha!) through summer, we instead replace those real memories with fond ones of kids who hung around and wanted to share their poetry (that was actually good), the reflections wherein students waxed about how much they learned, the thank you notes that parents and students were nice enough to write.

Revisionism is a beautiful thing, particularly when related to teaching. And it’s not, necessarily, a horrible thing, because it enables us to hold dear to the various meanings of success we see in our classrooms over the course of a term. And it probably enables us to muster the courage to come back in the fall.

Let me repeat that, though: over the course of a term. It does not happen overnight.

And so, this George Washington quote–this fantastic quote that Jim Burke uses to begin a chapter in his incredibly useful book What’s the Big Idea–resonates with me now more than ever, particularly as I begin to grade the first papers from new kids in a new term.

“Well, we must take them as they are and make them into the soldiers we need them to be.” 

Thank goodness for an unexpected snow day, that allows me to read through the papers with more leisure than I am usually permitted. I had to remind myself, again and again, that these were new students, that they had not been privy to the writing workshops, the practice, the expectations that we are all writers, with important things to say and that good writing takes time. Thus, their theses statements would not be as well developed, their language not as sophisticated, their analysis not as through and interesting, their voices still clanking along in essay voice.

Yet.

And that’s okay.

For now.

More than anything, I think I’ve finally reached the point where, after giving fond farewells to the old kids, I can open the door to the new students and be excited about who they will become, the powerful readers and writers I know they can be.

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Teaching Up

One of the last writing assignments I ask students to do is called The Last Word Is Yours (not my original assignment; I have taken it from some brilliant teacher somewhere who offered it up). In it, students are encouraged to evaluate the year, subjects they liked, ones that they didn’t think worked so well, and provide some overall advice about the class for future years. They tend to be honest, thoughtful and quite helpful.

About three years ago, one of my students told me–nicely, I have to note–that I should teach honors classes because he felt like that would be the group of students that would fit me best. I didn’t think much of it. I’ve always taught kids who struggle. I have never had a desire to teach kids who were on or above level; honestly, the challenge for me is to get the kids who are below up and past grade level. I’ve tended, also, to be relatively successful in those endeavors.

My niche was/is(?) kids who struggle.

Then, this year, through some over-enrollment problem (maybe?), I ended up with three sections of honors sophomore English.

Three. That’s teaching the same class back-to-back-to-back, which means that the first time is shaky, the second time the lesson is usually entirely revamped, and the third time, I teach it like I intended to teach it. I thought I’d initially be bored with the same thing, but it’s amazing how reflection helps to immediately change what didn’t work into what works better. (Side note: I should do a separate post about the power of reflection. It’s perhaps the most useful habit I’ve ever cultivated that I can directly tie to improved practice)

So maybe that student from the past is laughing now that I’m teaching honors, but I‘ve also gotten a much better understanding of what it means to teach for equity. Because in honors classes, the expectations are simply…higher. Read 30 pages and be prepared to discuss character motivations, motifs, themes, whatever. They do it. Write a 2-3 page response about something that interested you about this article, making intertextual connections that demonstrates your understanding of the essential questions. Done. Attend this event because, as a literary citizen of the world (what I call them), that’s what smart people do. Done.

This is similar to my realization that kids in the suburbs write more papers than ones in the city. Honors kids have entirely different expectations for what they’re expected to do. As we all know, though, kids rise (or fall) to our level of expectation. What would happen if we simply (ha, simply is such an understatement, but go with it) expected kids in the track below honors to do the same thing? Sure, we’d have to work like hell to make that happen–I mean, we’d have to counter years of low expectations and bad habits, but it’s been done before by numerous excellent educators–but what’s stopping us?

My immediate future goal is to create an intentional community in which the students in the track below honors spend a year with me and leave prepared to be successful in an honors class the following year. This means that I’m going to have to think about all the “stuff” that goes into creating an environment in which an honors student is successful, but geez–I spend my time immersed in data. Isn’t this another chance to look at the data in a way that actually privileges kids who need it most? I’m moving beyond deficits.  I already have some hunches, so I’ll spend the next few months creating this space and then, hopefully, the next school year making it happen.

Working Title of this endeavor: Project Lab Classroom 2013. I told a former colleague that this might just be the hardest thing I will have ever done in my life, but it could be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can live with that.

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Filed under Equity, Lab Classroom

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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Filed under Equity, Student Interactions