Tag Archives: writing

New School Chronicles: My Albatross

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Papers, there are always papers to be graded (or at least schlepped around until I feel guilty enough to grade them)…

If you look closely at the picture that accompanies this post, you’ll see a couple of things: first, you’ll see a pumpkin that a friend brought me as a housewarming gift. You’ll see my red teacher bag, most likely filled with stuff that I can’t quite ever clean out, and you’ll see that blue reusable bag teeming with student papers to be graded.

Two things remain constant in that picture: first, my teacher bag seems to always have the same contents: a couple of folders that catch stray papers, handouts I want to amend, something left on the copier I forgot to file away, a half-finished book of some genre. The blue bag is similar in its consistency as well: it always has some handful of papers from students that I’m in-the-progress of grading. ALWAYS.

Here’s what happens: I assign a paper for the week or two-week period, we write hard and, because the kids are honors kids, they all turn in their papers. On time. Maximum length. That’s probably about 25 papers on average, per class. I have equal parts exhilaration and dread when it’s paper turn-in day. I’m stoked that I’m going to get some relatively decently written papers and I’m reticent because I then have about 1 1/2 weeks to turn them around. I binder clip the papers by class, then put them into the blue bag to bring home with me. When I get home, though, the bag goes on the chair, my sweater usually atop that, and then I start doing other things (like, I don’t know, LIVING). The next morning, as I’m rushing to get out of the door, I look at the bag again, sitting in the exact place where I left it, taunting me. As I sit on the subway, I always have a brief, intense conversation with myself about whether I should just start grading, but then, I get selfish and remind myself that I’ve promised that, for the 40ish minutes that I’m on the train, I will read whatever I want to, because that is my right as a reader and that is what I need in my life.

The papers don’t get graded. Repeat this cycle for about a week, of carrying the papers to and from school, of not removing said papers from the bag, of dodging student comments about when those papers will be returned.

Mind you, I’ve become an even more efficient grader over the last three years. A former colleague taught me how to notice themes and write these brilliant writing notes that address issues, but, in order to craft those writing notes, you first have to…wait for it…read the papers.

Finally I reach a point–usually after I am made to feel guilty by a student who never asks any questions but, on this particular day was “just wondering” when we were going to get our papers back because they wanted to work on improving their writing and something about feedback (good one; they know that if they ever couch their requests in such a way as writers improving their craft, I’ll attempt to move heaven and earth to make it happen), I cave.

I stay at school, pull out the papers and grade, and grade, and grade. Or at least read them, make notes, and occasionally get blown away by kids who are coming into their own by learning to write a compelling argument. I lay the albatross down momentarily, at least for another week, when the cycle begins anew.

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The Wrap-Up: Reflecting on Learning–Theirs & Mine

The deadline to submit my grades and the supplementary narratives that students receive for my summer program is Monday. For the first year of this program, I’m up against it. I might be writing my way through the weekend. What happens is that I’m a bit of a sentimentalist, so rather than just writing, I find myself going back and rereading past reflections so I can get myself into the groove of writing the current ones.

This one that follows gets me every time. I wrote it for a kid that I hoped would make it through the program, but he ended up leaving us. I miss him. I hope he knew this reflection was serious and honest and true. Absolutely true.

An excerpt from my narrative to him:

You were so brave to share your truths with me. I know this was difficult and brought up some memories you had hoped to suppress, but in the process, you wrote a piece that was deeply moving and personal. Thank you for trusting me. I admire your honesty and humor, too, which always made the class a space of joyful learning (even when you tried hard not to make it seem that that was your intention).

In your self-reflection, you said that this course confirmed that you are not good at writing narratives. I disagree. While writing narratives are difficult–probably because they are so personal–your voice is quite strong, clear, and convincing. As is your habit, you second guess yourself too much and seem to forget that everything takes practice; if you want to be the writers you admire, then you have to write. A lot. And yes, some of that writing will be absolutely awful, while much more of it will probably be something worth saving, but you’ll never know what to save unless you try, R. Stop being so self-deprecating (look it up). Your greatest disadvantage is that you refuse to acknowledge how great of a scholar you could be. I knew you were capable of excellence from the moment I met you. I realize seeing greatness in oneself is harder because we tend to downplay our own intelligence—sometimes, though, the first step at embracing what it takes to be a scholar is having someone tell you that, based on the work you’ve done, that you can be great. Thus, after reading your essays and interacting with you throughout the summer, you can do great work, and you can write well. Okay, off you go now to do it. I wish you the best for the school year. It has been a pleasure writing with you.

These kids never leave us…

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Undoing

My summer program ended yesterday and I’ve begun to read reflections about the class, the final assignment students write. These reflections reaffirm many of the things I know to be true about myself: that I’m initially imposing, that I’m relatively harsh, that I love what I do, that I love my students.

Eventually, we reach a place of peace, but the 4-5 weeks that are required to get there are usually fraught with under-the-breath swears (and I’m sure they’re quite colorful, as adolescents have lovely vocabularies in that regard) and worries about passing the course.

For the most part, they all do pass. I tell them I’m not necessarily concerned with how they start, but how they finish. It’s not rocket science, I continue. If you buy into the class, if you commit to being excellent, then we’ll work together to be excellent. And you might just become a great writer, or at least start down the path to being a great writer.

In this course, excellence requires revision: lots of it. It’s a near constant process. Thing is, once the kids begin revising and pass the paper, some ask what they can do to achieve an exceeds. Those conversations are some of the best, because then they are about word choice, about sentence variety, about punctuation…those conversations are about what real writers do.

But I don’t have those conversations with everyone; for the most part, they are generally worried about meeting expectations, which, I’ve suspected for a couple of years but now confirmed, is difficult because I’m undoing.

Undoing, in this respect, means breaking them outside of what they are accustomed to. No formulas, no minute details about what goes where in what paragraph. I didn’t realize how much that freaked them out until so many of them wrote about it in their reflections. They said that initially they were concerned by so much freedom (WTH? As a writer–even an academic writer–I relish freedom), that that freedom caused them so much panic that it led to inertia (seriously, they couldn’t get started)…

But once they began to just write, they surprised themselves. Most importantly, they found themselves. Here’s a snippet from one kid who knows the formulas for essays in his sleep. He didn’t know what to do with me because I challenged him to find himself in his writing, to leave those formulas in the past. He wrote about, essentially, wearing a mask as a writer, that allowed him to detach and write perfectly functional but emotionally devoid essays:

A poker face that said nothing, had nothing to say, and could not say anything on his own. Why? I remember you telling me that I should try personalizing my essay, try to change from  using the traditional formulas for essays. And now I see why, because I can remember the times in eighth grade when I felt proud of everything I wrote. It was not just the satisfaction of finishing my essays, but also the joy of writing my own essay. An essay that was all from me, no one else’s. Originality, they call it.

[My reflection] and the Literature Appreciation Essay are great examples of the improvement I have made. I tried to refresh my style in papers that give me the opportunity to do so. I think that it would be the ideal way for me to change, step after step, like a turtle. Although I have made changes such as using the dictionary and thesaurus more, changing my sentence structure, using punctuation marks and separating or combining sentences, I think that the poker face now sitting somewhere else than my own face is a more significant change. It just makes me happy to know that I can now, after all, write things that I can be proud of writing, that I can be happy writing.

I might be a sentimentalist, and I might just be overwhelmed with packing up my apartment for my impending move and endings in general, but this reflection gets at what I work really hard to undo, or, actually, what I’m realizing is a process of undoing.

If we teach kids to write so well in these formulas, how do they ever know how to break them? How do they ever know what their voice is? How will they ever know how writing can work for different purposes? I’m not such a fool to believe that kids will love writing, but at least I would like for them to know in their bones that they can do it, in whatever form, and be good at it.

I have been so complicit in promoting the formulas when I first began teaching 10 years ago. What changed was that I had to write a lot in graduate school and I became much more aware of my own processes and desire to write for an audience that mattered. If I was bored, then my audience was sure to be bored, too (another gem I tell the kids: don’t bore me).

Don’t kids deserve that chance, too?

I know this summer class is just that, a summer class for high achieving students, many of color, some not, all low-income and all of promise. And if these kids are writing like this, then that does not bode well for the ones who are not here.

But I end knowing that we have to change the writing instruction we do with students. We have to teach them that what they have to say matters, and what they have to say doesn’t fit within a structure. Sure, structure is important and certain tasks demand a particular response, but if that response is all we train kids to do, we are committing a tremendous disservice: to them, but also to ourselves. I simply cannot stomach that.

In that move towards helping and convincing students, really, that their voices matter, they get it.

One final piece from another reflection: Kim’s class was not the regular class that I expected. It did not teach us how to write based on lectures and long talks. We learned from our own writing and mistakes, both inside and outside of class. She taught us that we can learn from ourselves.

I feel like I don’t even know what regular means at this point in my career. I know what teaching writing looks like in this context, and I know what helping kids find their voices and produce excellent pieces of writing looks like. I simply wish more teachers (and I know they’re out there) could do the same.

There’s more to writing than formulas. Now, at least, some kids know that. And while they’re writing in their classes over the next year, they’ll know what else they could be doing and how they could be doing it, and perhaps they’ll take some risks, break the formula, and be commended for writing themselves into their papers.

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Give It Away

Whether it’s a by-product of working in under-resourced schools for much of my teaching career or just being selfish, I was unwilling to share. My refusal to share a pack of Sharpies with my now-dear-friend, then-frenemy Ain, is legendary. I squirreled away everything: paper, markers, books, ideas, for myself and really no one else. I wasn’t necessarily even moved to change by people who were generous with their resources and knowledge.

I just kept taking.

Until finally, I reached the point where I wanted to change my hoarding ways. That change was largely precipitated by an amazing student teacher (who wasn’t really a student; he’d had two years of teaching in New Orleans under his belt by the time we met) who kept asking. And, because I’m a sucker for flattery, and because he was genuine in his desire to be an excellent teacher, and because he improved daily with just a simple suggestion or reflection, I started giving. I gave ideas, I gave feedback, I gave of my knowledge.

Damned if I didn’t begin to realize how much I was growing because of my generosity. Funny, that.

I reached a place, eventually (it didn’t happen overnight), where I was willing to make a photocopy of a short story that moved me, a poem that puzzled me, a blog post or link I stumbled upon that was so well written I had to share it with someone.

Another confession: I’m riddled by my own insecurities, but I realized that people accept these small offerings because we ALL can help each other, ALL need different ways of looking at something…heck, we ALL need sub plans (even if I was at a school for the last two years that didn’t have subs)!

In that spirit, as I sat on the subway crossing the Charles River this morning, reading “Ms. Lora,” a new short story from Junot Diaz that was in a recent New Yorker, I thought of one of my students (always, thinking about teaching, right?! I don’t know any good teacher that can completely keep the two separate; instead, we always think about how everything we read might be good for some or all of our students). He’s Dominican but didn’t know Junot Diaz (don’t even get me started). And that day when we were walking across Harvard Yard, I told him a bit about Diaz, and about Drown, and Oscar Wao, and how Diaz teaches in Cambridge and you never know, you might see him around…writers have to drink coffee, you know. That conversation was also about reading literature by people who look like us (and I’m not Dominican, but I’m Black and a woman, and that means something). It just changes things, I think I said. Lets you know someone KNOWS you (and even lets you know what they don’t know about you). The next day in class, I made a quick list of Dominican authors on the board (chalk…my fave). Many of the kids wrote down the titles, said they were going to look them up, try to find them.

That one particular kid will follow up. I just know it. As we wrapped up that class, I noticed him looking up an app to read The Economist online. He told me that he’d won a contest in the eighth grade that gave him a subscription but that, two years later, he’d still not received it.

I quickly fired off an email to the school’s founder. That’s one of the small perks: I worked at that school years ago. The founder responded a day later, said he’s purchase the subscription himself.

Another instance of giving away: using some small advantage to help this kid. If you’re reading The Economist heading into the tenth grade, who are ANY of us to stop you?

And so, as I read this short story and get excited about Diaz’ forthcoming book, I finish it and have a moment of indecision: do I keep this story to myself, mention it in passing to the kids and hope that they’ll read it? Or do I give it away, allow them to experience Diaz for themselves, make them their own copies?

No question. Make the copies. Give it away. Share so that we might all know. I’m learning.

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I Used to Be Afraid to Be Great

I had an early morning writing conference with a student this morning. Like, super early, so early that when I ducked into the dining hall, they weren’t even open at 7 a.m. I didn’t complain, though; that was an additional 20ish minutes I had to be consumed in this new book that probably doesn’t have much literary merit but that captivates me in ways that I love (the new Emily Giffin: LOVE HER!). And that reminds me, when one of the kids I had last year runs into me, precariously balancing a tray of breakfast options, she admits that she’s been reading. What?! She smiles, embarrassed. (I’m all kinds of astonished at that moment. This kid is so serious; I’m just stoked she seems to be taking things less so). She goes on to tell me that her teacher at school told her she should always analyze what she’s reading.

I told her that I disagreed with her teacher. I might have even said that her teacher was wrong. I read for pleasure all the time, and I only analyze something when I want to. Reading works on different levels, and if you’re going into the Hunger Games with the primary goal of analyzing, then you’re doomed. Hopefully, she keeps reading and finds enjoyment out of it. Why tell kids that if we ever want them to ENJOY anything?

Ugh.

Move backwards in time to the writing conference that commences promptly at 7:30. I’m approaching overcaffeinated, so I have to remind myself to focus only on what matters for this student. He has fantastic ideas, just needs some practice honing his focus, refining his thesis, making sure his topic sentences and body paragraphs are all working together. He LOVES this poem, Knock, Knock by Daniel Beatty. I tend to agree. It’s a fantastic poem to teach with students (again, another tip from Christensen).

First, I ask him what, exactly, he wants to say about this poem that he’s been tasked to analyze (remind me to rethink this assignment for sophomores next year; I think it’s too tough. Last year, I did it with juniors and that seems a more appropriate match). He tells me he’s interested in the speaker’s perseverance, and he’s interested in repetition, and word choice and imagery. Right? He’s got the makings of a fantastic paper. So, I do some dictation while he works through what he wants to say and eventually present him with a map, that works into a thesis, that allows us to move to the rest of the paper.

And what I realize, after some talking through the paper, is that he has buried the topic sentences within this body paragraphs. Eventually, I tell him so and make him identify the topic sentences. This kid’s got a way with words: he loves them, wants to use all kinds of them, even if they’re not the right ones. Even when simple, concise ones will do. I tell him as much (and even write “Practice an economy of words” on his paper and tell him what it means), and his face falls momentarily before I reassure him that there’s a time and place for a beautiful word, and that, as a writer, he’ll come to decide when it’s appropriate.

For now, though, I tell him, it doesn’t matter how lovely the word is if I can’t understand what it is you’re trying to tell me.

I want to get better, he admits. But I’m worried that time is running out (for the program). Will I pass?

You need to revise these papers, I reply. But sure. If you do the planning we did today, of first writing your thesis, then making sure your topic sentences are supporting your thesis, then yes, you can pass.

I wish I had more time in your class, he says. My writing is just starting to improve.

I tell him we are all works in progress as writers, so he can keep moving ahead, building on what he’s learned here. You’re gonna be even better next summer. Watch. The school year seems to work all kinds of magic on kids, I reassure him.

And then, because all the kids from the program tend to cluster in one area of the dining hall, and because I’m holding court in that corner, I stop another student who has been dodging me and is in danger of failing, too. I ask him where his revision is and he responds vaguely that he is going to get it to me. When I ask for an exact date, and if there’s anything confusing about what he needs to do, he mumbles something that I perceive as a yes.

I then go off on what might be one of my most effective rants about greatness and achievement and fear that I’ve mustered up in quite a while (it really was a beauty), I ask him several times if he’s afraid to be great. Silence. I wait. About a minute or so later, he says that yes, he is afraid to be great. That the only one preventing him from being great is him. I tell him that I had that same fear, but that I got over it when I was five (a lie; I still suffer from it–that fear of being great–but sometimes, you have to lie to the kids). Then, that student opens his computer and shows me his points of confusion. Turns out, it’s around analysis, so I open up one of our textbooks for the course, They Say, I Say by Graff and give him some references. We work through his narrative and I make suggestions about line breaks and spacing. I feel him growing more confident. By the end of that drive-by conference, he tells me I’m going to have both revisions by day’s end.

Being a warm demander has its perks.

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Friday Workshop Share: Negotiating Constructive Criticism

Another idea I’ve adapted over the years is one I found in Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom. She describes how to get students to share their work. Essentially, students read their work and students have to respond with compliments for the writer. The writer runs the feedback session, and feedback is directed to the writer rather than to the teacher.

Every Friday, 3-4 students share their work in Friday share. It’s usually whatever paper we’ve been working on during that week. When I first started doing this three years ago, we just did compliments. Over the last year or so, though, students have asked for compliments and Areas of Growth. I took the middle ground: a writer could determine the kind of feedback he/she needed: thus, if he/she only wanted compliments, then that was fine. If the writer also wanted areas of growth, then what happens is that the writer tells us before he/she begins reading his/her draft aloud (i.e., can you see if my paper flows, if it makes sense, if you see any grammatical errors, etc.?) and we comment specifically on those areas.

As the teacher, I respond as a person hearing and reading the work. I have no additional authority in the situation. I often don’t even talk, just write notes that get passed down to the writer with all the others.

A quick look at Workshop Share in motion: A student makes enough copies of their paper for everyone in the class (usually 19, including myself and the TAs). Prior to distributing the paper, students have small scraps of paper they use to write notes for the writer. The writer tells us what they want from the workshop (compliments, areas of growth, a combination of both) and exactly what they want feedback on, and then begins reading his/her draft aloud to us. We follow along, marking up the copy. Once the writer is finished, we clap and then spend a few minutes jotting down compliments on one side of the scrap paper and, if requested, areas of growth on the other side. The writer then calls on classmates for their thoughts.

Here’s what I know: Kids find it very easy to be harsh, exceedingly so. I have no problem butting in and asking students to rephrase their comments. I always tell them that the goal of these sessions, beyond sharing our work, is to help the writer improve. Thus, blanket criticism has no place. Lead with the good, I say (and MODEL), and then, when giving areas of growth, end with a suggestion that the writer might incorporate to improve his/her revision. I noticed yesterday that some students were being a bit ruthless in their criticism. Not okay. So I told them about my own experiences with writing, that the first time my advisor sent my dissertation back (and I had mistakenly fallen in love, or at least strong like with my draft), she had written so much criticism on the first chapter that I was paralyzed and couldn’t write for at least a year (maybe it wasn’t quite a year, but it was long enough to be significant). I also reminded them that it is difficult to share our work and that we needed to thank people for being brave. If you can’t find any nice way to deliver constructive criticism, I finally said, stick to compliments. We are all on our own writing journeys, and I expressly forbid any of them to derail someone else’s journey.

Funny thing is, the kids who tend to be the harshest are the weakest writers. Amazing, or perhaps not. We tend to critique what we most dislike in ourselves, perhaps?

I don’t anticipate having to give this speech again, and I won’t let it diminish the overall effectiveness of the workshop. Students have said this is one of the most useful parts of the class, largely because they get to hear what their peers are writing, get new ideas, and generally feel part of a community of writers. And while I guess I probably couldn’t articulate those explicit goals of the workshop when I first adopted it, the kids, as usual, say it perfectly.

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Take A Teacher to Lunch

At first glance, you’d think he’s not that interested in class. He is often trying to find his paper, but once he does, he’s at-the-ready, jotting down ideas, notes from the board, ideas for later. He sticks to meetings that you set up; I know, rare for a sophomore. Today, when I was in line in the dining hall, he came up to me and asked a question about his poetry analysis paper. He was worried about his thesis. I told him that I wasn’t having lunch with anyone, and that if he wanted to stop by and chat about it a bit, I was down.

I make that offer sometimes, and every now and then, students take me up on it. It was my lucky day today!

Talking about him abstractly is getting on my nerves, so let me attach a pseudonym to him: I’ll call him Michael. Today, Michael reads me the poem he’s selected, one by Cornelius Eady, “I’m a Fool to Love You,” a sad dirge about a Black woman who accepts her circumstances, decides that the lesser of the two evils is an abusive man who fathers her child. Deep. And Michael proceeds to lead me through an excellent close reading. He’s captivated by the repetition of “blues,” wants to follow it throughout the poem. He needs help articulating the why; can I help him make his thesis get the so what to what he’s trying to say?

This poem is so rich that I can’t help but ask him questions about it. Why the blues (“because it seems to take on different meanings for the mother, makes her seem to finally reach acceptance”) which leads to a bigger discussion of the meaning the blues hold for folks, particularly for, but not limited to, Blacks. Then we somehow get on a conversation about parents and he tells me his father was deported when he was five, but that his mother didn’t tell him the truth until he was nine. That his mother, herself, is undocumented and speaks no English, and sometimes he feels tired having to do all the translation. He wishes his sister wasn’t so shy so she could assume some of that burden, but she can’t even be brave enough to order a pizza. He wishes there was a poem for that, about how he feels about his sister (write one, I suggest).

“I want to be remembered for something,” he tells me. Then do something good for the world is my reply. He says he’s going to. He just doesn’t know what it is yet. We go back to the poem and pause to discuss why the speaker’s mother chooses the father, even though he’s no prize. “He’s the best of the worst,” Michael summarizes, and we go back to the poem, mine it a little deeper for specific words that capture her resignation. He reads them to me, and I savor them. And we point to lines in the poem and we read and reread them.

I cannot WAIT to read your analysis, I say. We talk more about his thesis and I ask him if he’s happy with what he has. No, he says, because we just talked about a whole lot more.

What do I do?

I explain that the beauty of a working thesis is that it can change. And given that it seems that there are now even more layers of the poem, opening the door to new layers of analysis, maybe it makes sense to revise the thesis. He seems incredulous that one can do that. Of course, I say. Working means you can change it!

We try out several different statements and eventually he decides to add a part to the end that speaks to the resignation of the speaker of the poem.

I tell Michael that I heard he applied 15 times to one charter school, the one he currently attends. Actually, I say 14 times and he corrects me with 15. I ask him why and he says he had researched the school, and all of its graduates went on to college. 100 percent. He said that’s his only goal: to get to college.

I told him he should have a different goal: getting there probably isn’t going to be a problem given what I already know about him, but he should train his mind and heart to think about getting THROUGH college and what comes after. That was even more important. He shrugged. Short-term goals are as important as the long term ones, I reckon.

What I found surprising, though, was that, given that he goes to a small school, was that he rarely talks to his teachers other than for extra help. “Teachers are busy,” he concluded.

Unacceptable. Why have small schools if you can’t have lunch with this dynamo?

There’s more to this story, mostly about how this conversation with Michael reminded me about what it means to teach students who are multilingual, who do much of–if not all of–the interpretation for their families, who are imbued with all of their parents’ hopes for the future, who are still, ultimately, young people who need to be kids, too.

Oh, and Junot Diaz. He makes a brilliant appearance to cap off why we read literature. Later, though.

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