Tag Archives: inequity

All the Things We Never Tell Them

With the start of a new semester, I have a new group of students and I’m teaching seniors for the first time in what feels like a decade, but is probably closer to five years. I’m struck by a few things that I’ve been turning around in my mind since meeting them:

  • Students who write amazing poetry, for whom I scrawl a question on the top of their paper: Have you ever considered submitting your writing to the Lit Mag? Can I hold on to this as a student exemplar? They respond: “No one’s ever told me I should do that” or “You think my work is that good?” [full disclosure, our literary magazine is only a couple of years old, but I think you know what I mean when I’m asking if they’ve ever thought of sharing their work with a broader audience]
  • Students who are from all different African countries, who look at me with disbelief when I insist that yes, there are authors from Ethiopia (in this particular case), and she only believes me when I pull out a few books from different Ethiopian authors
  • Students who have bought into the belief that they need to attend a four-year college, yet their skills are so low that they are going to have to take developmental classes in college, which will count for nothing, and thereby increase the odds that they will not complete any sort of degree, yet they assume the fault for this is all their own (maybe I was only half-kidding when I said they should ask for a return on their investment of education given these probabilities)
  • Students who are nice, congenial kids, who I’m sure that, in our tracked classes, have been the ones who dutifully complete their assignments without question, who were most likely never recommended to take an upper level class, where I suspect they would have done just fine

I am trying to be hopeful and trying to work as hard as I can in our time that remains, but I find myself with so many more questions than answers, and so much anger about a system that has simply set these kids up for what? When we gather every day, and they are hopeful, and they are reading, and they are owning their part of everything (for not completing all of their work, or not understanding something, or not writing something down when I’m sure that, in my haste to get to the next thing I’ve probably not explained it as best as I could), I silently panic that we are going to run out of time. Seriously, it’s like we are at the mile 2 of a 26.2 marathon that they have to run tomorrow. 

Thus, my lessons are all about practical knowledge: learning how to read for understanding with dense texts, how to structure an argument, awareness of audience, how to write a business letter, a thank you note, a resume, and envelope, even and sprinkling that with literature of various types. They are not all going to a two- or four-year college; it’s best that I make sure all have skills that they will need.

With about three months remaining, I’m going to throw everything I have at this situation in hopes of at least giving them a chance to make their way in the world. I won’t tell them that I can work miracles, because I cannot, but I will tell them, as I told them yesterday, if they give me a good faith effort, they will be better when they finish than when they started.

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Filed under Equity, Literacy, Student Interactions

De-Tracking: Harder, So Much Harder Than It Looks

The first semester is about over and, after being entirely consumed with getting this class to run, I have a moment to catch my breath. Here’s what I’m thinking at the moment:

The goal was to create a class–Honors Prep–that took a small group of students that had some desire to enter Honors English 10 classes and prepared them through learning and mastering parallel skills. Thus, that meant that essentially everything I teach in my Honors class, they do in their prep class–the only difference is that sometimes I took more time to scaffold the skills, I used a lot more encouragement and tough love, eked out a bit more patience, and did a whole lot of wraparound stuff. In the process, I tried to document as much as I could so I could think about writing it up for others who might want to try such an initiative in his/her own classroom.

Lessons learned:

  • You have to build an intentional literacy community: you have to help kids see themselves differently. I did that, first, through some growth mindset and resilience work (this video by Will Smith is awesome) and having students write their own resilience narratives about a time when something was hard but they kept going. Also, you have to help them build their reading skills explicitly. That meant I had to go back to my strategies of what good readers do and TEACH THEM that it’s not about reading Spark Notes but about actually making meaning of the text on the page. And then we had to read a lot of books, so we did: Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Purple Hibiscus, Merchant of Venice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Additionally, they read and wrote about a weekly news article (Article of the Week, adapted from Kelly Gallagher), did some study of rhetorical appeals and read some articles from The Atlantic by Ta-Nahesi Coates, and read daily in-class for 25 mins. (that’s for all classes, Honors and Prep).
  • Take the time to teach them how to write an argument: they hate writing. Still do, after a semester. But, they have a better idea about what makes a solid thesis statement and how to structure an argument. We wrote and revised papers, talked about writing, I modeled my own writing…that’s a work in progress, but they’re coming to see writing as just another part of what intellectuals in school do, and, since they are intellectuals, they can write papers, too.
  • Reveal the ghost in the machine: The Prep-Stars (my nickname for them) have all kind of misconceptions about what happens in Honors classes. I had a plan to have them conduct some observations to disabuse themselves of those notions but time got away from me. Instead, I was explicit about explaining what the HN kids do, and that’s usually being really good at “doing school.” That means, they act interested even when they’re not, they tend to do their homework consistently, they read the books (or not, usually Spark Notes), that they, essentially, play the game. They’re a bunch of fakers, actually. The Prep kid were kind of shocked by those revelations, but I think it helped them to realize that the only thing separating them from those kids was quite surface.
  • Give them a chance to shine: Look, I’m tough. I know it. I don’t offer empty praise and I tend to only celebrate excellence. But, I had to remember, if they don’t KNOW what excellence looks like, then I had to celebrate the steps they achieved to reach excellence. Thus, when they mastered explicit skills (look at the analysis in this paper–that’s Honors work right there, I might say), we’d clap it up, or made some amazing comment, we’d take a moment to relish in the moment. I baked cupcakes for the team that put together the best director’s playbook for Merchant. I called their parents to share praise. We went to Yogurt Land on the day before holiday break to celebrate kids who were doing well. I have been reminded how much, too, relationships matter with them.
  • Reflection counts: When the class began, I had them write weekly reflections about how they were doing, what they noticed about themselves as developing scholars, what they needed to do differently or keep doing. They were always serious and thoughtful, and from those reflections, I could help to keep them accountable and to help them stay on track. I would also be reminded that things were actually going better than I tended to think. Phew.
  • This is a one-shot deal: Look. This semester has been exhausting. For the most part, the majority of the kids should do well in Honors when they move into that class in a week or so. I’ll move into a support role, meeting with them, conferencing with them, staying in touch with their parents about how to keep them moving forward (my student teacher, who has been co-teaching with me in the first part of the course will take over full-time for the second part of the course). I’m not going to do this class again, though. Nope. Because it’s about changing the broader systems. I’ve always known that, when I set my mind to something, I can usually get it done. But I’m just one teacher in one classroom. On the fifth floor. Around me is a system that relentlessly tracks kids into Honors or CP. As we all know, most of the kids in CP are kids of color and other underserved kids. I wanted to do something that would make me not so complicit in what was happening, but I have realized that I can’t. This is one group of kids that had this pilot experience. Unless the broader school system changes, unless people actually OWN UP to the process being racist and classist, then I am just one person standing on the shore attempting to sweep the ocean back with a broom. And I’m simply not interested in being that person anymore.

Score: The system-1, Me-0

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Filed under Lab Classroom, Student Interactions, Writing About Race

Night School (or, crying at my desk)…

It’s a rookie move to sit crying at your desk WHILE THE KIDS ARE WORKING AWAY, isn’t it? I’m supposed to excuse myself to run to the bathroom, or step outside and slump down in a ball of messiness, but…today, it all happened too fast. My students are at work independently doing some standardized testing preparation for next week’s high-stakes affair, and I—diligent multi-tasker that I am—use that time to check my school email.

There’s a reply from a student who’s asked me to write a recommendation for her for a summer program that has a strong social justice component. This student, who is that one amazing kid we are fortunate to teach at least once in a lifetime, knows this proposed program is quite similar to the one she did last year. Might you do something more academic, I ask? You know, build out your resume and learn some new academic stuff. I’ve no doubt you’d be even more amazing in those summer programs.

Her reply is that she knows she should do something more academic, but she pays for everything in school (afterschool activities add up) and…this is the part that got me…maybe she could take a night school class.

Night school? You are 15 years old, can address issues of privilege and power better than most adults, write a dream piece of analysis, have a voice that is poetic and brilliant and memorable…and you know you should do something like go to night school because there’s no way to think about programs otherwise.

Tears. Leaking. I’m looking away from them—or trying to look but I keep looking at the email and it’s blurred because I feel so incredibly helpless at that moment–staring away from the kids who are diligently writing because they take everything so seriously, and I am crying. At 10:30 a.m., after we return from a fire drill and are re-starting after our disruption, I’m catching up on housekeeping, and I’m crying.

Because WHEN, for the love of all we do as educators, do the good kids get to win?! I’ve been thinking about this article from Slate for a few days now.

She’s one of those kids. She’s White, low-income, over-involved in school, but can’t dare to think of an opportunity that’s offered by the local colleges and universities, or others across the country, because she needs the money. I hate it when I am reminded that young people have to deal with grown-up problems. I hate that in this friggin’ school district that spends nearly 30K per child (!) that we can’t give her enough—or her peers who are equally well-deserving and eager and will change the world, I’m quite certain, if we JUST LET THEM—can’t think creatively enough to consider allocating funds for stipends, or making other things free. I hate that they have to make decisions that will mean something, ultimately, and will impact them, unfortunately, and so much of these decisions are predicated on factors they cannot control, cannot change, cannot surmount.

That is, until they do…surmount them, that is. I remind myself that I was one of those kids, smart and poor, who benefitted from reading the Fiske Guide to Colleges, dog-earing some pages about schools I couldn’t necessarily place on a map with any good accuracy, and who said yes when others suggested I leave my hometown, major in English and American Studies, hire me back for summer after summer and not mind while I read my way through the days. Make no mistake. It’s been incredibly hard and I’ve wanted to quit, but I didn’t. But I also didn’t understand—until now, when I am faced with students who are trying to essentially make a way the best they can—that one little decision can change everything, and how precarious the path is that we ask them to traverse, largely unaided and uninformed.

Everything.

Usually, I am overcome by moments of intense emotion—teaching does that to you—before I get myself together and think of what I am able to do with these moments, and I cannot anticipate when or where they will occur. That’s what happened today, as the students worked and as I slowly (but silently—maybe I’m not so much of a rookie after all) fell apart and put myself back together again. I’m reminded that the local college has an extension school that is taught by the best professors and that high school students from here can go free. She’s going to come chat next week, I hope, and we can think about that as an option. I’m sure we’ll consider other options, as well, as we sit down, research, talk, hope, do…

And I won’t cry, but I’ll hope really hard, put my head back down, and get to work to think of how we can make decisions—or pressure those in the power to make the bigger decisions—to envision how to create equity for these brilliant, brilliant children that are going to change the world.

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