Tag Archives: Things Fall Apart

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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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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