What Doesn’t Kill You

The Monday after the mass murder at Pulse in Orlando, FL was also the last day of classes before end-of-year testing began. Attendance was low & classes were loosely structured – test prep, last minute grade savers, can I please just read my book? I had thought about the shooting all weekend, but I had no words yet. 
I teach students who are newcomers to the US, who have immigrated from countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America. Many of my students practice Islam. Many look like the Latinx clubgoers who were attacked at Pulse. Many come from places where governments are corrupt, violence is public & frequent, where homosexuality is considered a capital offense, where gay people are proclaimed subhuman. 

I only spoke to one of my students about the shooting. L brought it up to me, asking if I’d heard about it. I braced myself for a conversation about homophobia & respect; L is the kind of student whose anger & desire for attention manifest in making deliberately hateful comments for their shock value. I was raw & stinging underneath my skin, angry beyond coherent words, & I wasn’t sure I could be calm enough to handle what he might throw at me. 

I told him: Yes. I heard about it. It made me so angry, & scared. 

L was quiet for a moment, looking at me thoughtfully. Then he said, This stuff isn’t supposed to happen here. 
A friend of mine, another high school English teacher, confers with her students after their daily freewrites by asking them what they have written about & jotting quick notes in her log. On Monday, one of her 9th graders told her, I wrote a list of reasons why people who don’t know me might try to kill me. 

How am I supposed to write that down for my conference notes? she asked me. How do I even begin to say something that matters to that student? 

& she told me, she shared that story with a few friends, some teachers & some not. One of the fellow teachers said, Oh, 9th graders are so dramatic. 

I have made the same list. More than once. 
Who I teach & what I teach, & who I am, brings me often to the intersection of politics of language, identity, religion, culture, feminism, & more. I’ve heard a lot of frustrations that adults feel about “politically correct” thinking & language – that words will not change feelings & ideas, that these are band aids on broken bones, that oversensitivity is going to raise our children to be weak & useless. I have heard teachers use justify their refusal to bring issues of race, gender, & sexuality into their classrooms. To them, I say that I don’t think it’s about us, necessarily; it’s about the younger generation we have a hand in raising. Maybe the words I use & those I choose not to use will do nothing about my own cynicism, my apathy, my held biases. But 10 years of teaching has shown me the power of words & how they influence mindset, openness, & thought. When I ask myself what I want my students to learn & take away from my classroom, it is never my lack of faith in humanity. If we want them to do & think & live better, then we have to teach them how. 

Some people like that. Many do not. But it’s not about us. 
Right now, teachers are being discouraged from talking about the massacres & murders of their students’ time. Sometimes, it is test pressure. Often, it’s that teachers aren’t trained or prepared to have these conversations. Sometimes, there are direct orders from administrators, or protests from parents who do not want teachers pushing political agendas on their children. 

Passing a test cannot be more important than becoming the kind of adult who has agency & knows how to maintain it, who both wants & can plan how to improve their world. 

We need to accept that educators need to be trained – really taught & practiced at – teaching through trauma, even more than they need a scripted & leveled curriculum. 

& maybe part of our problem is that people consider teaching students that everyone is human, everyone deserves recognition of their humanity, is a political agenda. 

I don’t have any answers, any profundities to share about the victims of this massacre, or of any other. I am not adept at teaching this way or bringing the real world into student discussions, with getting over or going through my own fear. I have only the dread I carry deep in my belly, dread that my students navigate a world that sees them as less & less than what they are, that reduces them to slivers of their identities & judges them. That dread, that fear that I will walk into my classroom to find another of my students has been murdered or attacked because of their ethnicity, their clothes, their sexuality, their neighborhood. That, the certainty that we can & must do better, & an aching raw wound for a heart. It still works, though. 
A prospective teacher in my friend’s graduate class once confessed to me that she was just not comfortable putting any LGBT-themed books in her future classroom library. “I’ll just set some aside for a student who is dealing with…that issue,” she said, flustered. 

“What if you don’t know?” I asked. 

She looked confused, like maybe I was not as smart as she had thought, like, how would she not be able to know? 

“I mean, what if you have students who are hiding themselves & too scared or feeling too alienated to express themselves, or students who are even in denial themselves? How can you know what they need if they’re hiding it from you & everyone?”

She shook her head. “Um…”

“& what about your other students?”

“What do you mean?”

“Shouldn’t they learn that gay people are normal, that they’re teenagers who do all sorts of teenager-y things, like have favorite music & fights with siblings & best friends & crushes & everything?” Shouldnt they all learn that being a different kind of person doesn’t make anyone less of a person?
It’s not about us. It’s about our students, their futures, & doing right by them. If it’s about anything else, then isn’t it part of the problem? 

4 Ways to Manage Student Choice in Argument

I can’t believe that my last post here was within this school year! As you can imagine, given the months of absence, it has been an eventful year. I’ve found myself talking about argument units a lot lately, sharing the triumphs & the pitfalls of new approaches to teaching structured debate. From state standards to mandated assessments to curricular demands, argument units are becoming larger pieces of elementary through secondary classrooms.

Most teachers I know are always thinking about how to engage their students in any writing or thinking they bring to the classroom, & argument offers a unique challenge: teachers want students to have choice, but structure often gets in the way. In talking to many educators of different grade levels, here are 4 suggestions for keeping student choice alive & well in your argument units.

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Happy

Two Writing Teachers: Tuesday Slice of Life

In 10 years of teaching, not one high school student has ever told me he or she wanted to teach English.

Some students have mentioned that they would like to be teachers. “But not English,” they’ve always been quick to add. Serious eyes, emphatic headshake. Not English, the horror.

I’ve seen lots of emphatic headshaking in the past 10 years. Most of my students can’t seem to understand why anyone would be a teacher. “I don’t have the patience,” they’ve told me, usually following with the certainty that they would end up smacking somebody. I just smile, because they think that’s where I spend all my patience. They don’t know what I really need all this zen for.

So the other day, when W asked me if he could talk to me after class for a few minutes, I wasn’t expecting we would be discussing career aspirations. I suppressed a flicker of annoyance, mostly because I knew it was anxiety-driven – the period following W’s class is our professional period and our conduct during that time has been under scrutiny lately. But I like talking with W, who presents as generally too cool, strolling on the edge of wayward, but is clever and funny and kind of a sweet dork. So I smiled and said, “Of course,” desperately hoping he wouldn’t ask about his grade. My stack of waiting-to-be-marked assignments, growing by the day, sighed wearily from my desk.

Instead, W told me that he’s thinking of becoming an English teacher. I couldn’t measure my smile, but it was wide enough to have W bowing his head in embarrassment, giving us both a moment to get our cool back. He actually managed to do so; I was just giddy.

He told me that he had been thinking about his future lately, but also his past. He came to the US a few years ago, knowing no English, but he worked hard to learn. His accent is enough Bronx that I had assumed, when I first met him, that he had lived in New York since his childhood. English isn’t easy, he told me. Now, he likes helping people learn, but he especially likes helping them with English. When he thinks about his future, he told me, he feels like helping other people in a similar situation to his would be a good thing to do with his life.

“I think I’d be happy,” he said.

I told you, kind of a sweet dork, right?

My face was still cracked open, so my initial reaction to all this was a firm YAY!!! But I gave myself a pause. Because this was not just a notice. W wanted advice. He wanted to know, apart from the “economic issues,” as he put it, if teaching is a good job. He wanted to know if it makes me happy. And I wanted to be honest.

I told him that teaching engages my whole brain, my heart and my breath, everything. I told him that I see the world as a teacher, that every article or vine or movie or meme I come across makes me think, if only for a second, about how I could bring this to my students. I told him that this job does not stay where you leave it, that even with the boundaries I have set around how late I will stay after school and what physically comes home with me, I can never just clock out or shut down. There is no off switch for the teaching part of my brain, I said, because it’s pretty much all of my brain. Every year, I told him, I meet these fascinating people, and I get to know them, I share with them, and we become something of a family.

All of that, I assured him, is as demanding as it is rewarding. Sometimes – some months – some years – the giving outweighs the getting. This job makes me happy, I said, because learning is amazing. It is amazing to learn and it is amazing to witness the learning of others, and as a teacher I get both. I don’t know how many other jobs can give you that, because when I found this one, I knew that I was home. So, yes, this job makes me happy. But it also makes me angry, and sad, and tired. I told him that this job is hard; that even though – depending on the state he lives in and the lifestyle he wants – he can do ok, he can live, those well-deserved holiday breaks and that hard-earned summer vacation will not lessen the demands this job will make. “That’s just life, though, isn’t it?” I asked him. “Nothing is just one way all the time.”

When W told me he wanted to be an English teacher, Nancie Atwell’s warning to prospective teachers flashed in my mind. I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that teaching grants you this pure, noble career, that the rewards of student achievement can counterbalance, let alone compensate for, the demands, demoralization, and abuse of education reform. It is easy to miss out on the joy of teaching in this current climate; it is hard to grow. For a moment, I imagine my life as a New York City dog-walker and I consider telling W, “Run.” Or at least advising him to do something in finance.

But I wanted to be honest. And honestly, even with the anxiety, the daily madness of working with 100 teenagers (and their 1,000 hormones each, and their completely normal adolescent ridiculousness multiplied by the trauma and anger and abandonment issues that frequent this population), the insult of being told by official after official, none of whom know anything about teaching this subject or this population, that I cannot be trusted with my own professional growth, even with the knowledge that I could be a very happy dog-walker, this job makes me happy. That might not be enough, I know, but it’s what I’ve got for now.

W thanked me for staying to talk to him. I smiled again, and told him, “Anytime.” The stack of unmarked marking cleared its throat, but I ignored it (I’m really good at that). As he left, I asked him how long he had been thinking about this, being an English teacher. He paused at the door, considering his answer over the muffled shrieks of exuberant 9th graders. “Since this year, I guess,” he said. “You’re a good teacher, Miss.” He left and I laid my head down on the desk, pillowed on my arm, thinking that in this job, when it rains, it absolutely pours.

Rewriting History, Repeating the Future

College Board Caves To Conservative Pressure, Changes AP U.S. History Curriculum

I woke up to this headline on a friend’s Facebook and shared the story right away. I knew my friends who are teachers and readers would want to see it, too. Another friend of mine commented with disbelief. “Is this satire?” she wrote, followed by a few WTFs. That’s a reasonable reaction to the discovery that the RNC and other influential conservative politicians have effectively replaced AP US History with the teaching of the theory of American exceptionalism. That statement may seem dramatic, but I don’t think it so when the same ideologies have led to this: “Texas also recently changed its state academic guidelines, which means its new textbooks won’t mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow laws.” When I first heard about that decision in Texas, I expressed my alarm, and many of my fellow New Yorkers just shook their heads in that “what are ya gonna do?” way. One quipped, “Well, I hear you don’t mess with Texas.” The general attitude was that this was crazy, but it was an isolated, small crazy. However, as ThinkProgress points out in this article, “Texas is a very influential textbook market, and publishers tend to look to Texas when deciding content for the textbooks they publish.” The impact of these decisions has a far wider reach than we like to acknowledge. These aren’t bizarre revisions to our nation’s past that affect remote communities. High schools across the country offer AP courses, and the presence of these classes is often seen as a marker for a school’s prestige and quality. In other words:

…stunting students with warped, sugar-coated notions of social and political history will only foster more divisiveness. Affluent, whiter schools tend to have a wider array of AP coursework than others. Indoctrinating these students with inaccurate portrayals of a historiographically flawless United States will cement an already extant unwillingness to understand or identify with groups that are still dealing with the reverberations of systemic disenfranchisement today. (Flanigan, “All the Ways the New AP US History Standards Gloss Over the Country’s Racist Past”)

When I wrote this post about my experiences with Facing History following the death of Michael Brown, I gave voice to a long-standing, ever-present tension within me about my responsibility and role as a teacher. Teaching history is not merely a job; it’s a responsibility. Even when that history is hard to look at, or unflattering, or painful, we are responsible for teaching it honestly to those who did not live it. We can’t be afraid to do that. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly where these policies come from: fear.

I was talking to a friend recently about how differently the US teaches its history from Germany. Germany has some dark history, but everything I’ve read about it shows a consistent effort to confront that past with students so that things change. It’s looking fear in the face, turning on the lights and revealing the monster instead of running from it and letting it grow huge. Back in 1995, Alan Cowell, for the New York Times, wrote about a history class in Germany. Cowell observes: “They are taught that the Nazis came to power on the wings of economic collapse and humiliation at Germany’s defeat in the First World War. They are taught about Hitler’s race laws. They are taught that their forebears killed six million Jews. But they also learn that this was history, with a European and a German context, not personal guilt.” This approach to teaching history does not shame or harm students, but instead puts them in positions of power; in this setting, students can see that their choices matter, and that their perspective gives them an advantage over their forebears. History through this lens is authentic and vital, the key to changing the world and making a difference.

Critics of the changes to the AP US History curriculum guidelines do not seem to hold these values: empowering students, improving American society, truth. ThinkProgress reports: “Some of the main criticisms of the guidelines, conservatives voiced, were less emphasis on the founding fathers and more emphasis on slavery. The guidelines also included earlier American history that included violence against Native Americans and mentioned the growing influence of social conservatives.“ To protest the inclusion of these realities indicates a clear political agenda, and in disguising it as patriotism they pervert patriotism; they send the message that we can only be proud of our nation by hiding its true past and lying to our children.

This insistence on fragility and the demands that history be blurred and revised to protect the feelings of students is both misguided and deeply harmful. It’s pervasive, though, and effective, because it feeds directly into the culture of fear. “In September of last year, Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who is now running for president, said ‘most people’ who take the course would be ‘ready to sign up for ISIS.’” Confronting our past and giving voice to those whose stories have historically been silenced is not about finger-wagging, shaming, or demanding apology. It’s about examining how and why genocide, slavery, and institutionalized racism happened in our country, because only doing this will empower young people to make choices that break the persistent patterns surrounding them. It’s about making sure we understand that what we have to be ashamed of is that 40,000 people think that their discomfort gives them the right to erase history, rather than a reason to write a better future.

About a year ago, a Reddit user asked German-educated members of the online community to share what it was like to learn about World War Two in their country. The anecdotes shared are interesting and inspiring, but I was particularly struck by one user’s takeaway.

It’s not the past that should define us, but how we deal with it. Most countries brush their past aside. Deny their mistakes. Their crimes. They ignore it. Place blame on the others. Refuse to learn from it. Germans don’t do that. And that should make us proud. Patriotism should always have its limits. You can be a patriot without denying your [country’s] past and its crimes.

I can’t say it better than that.

My People: Sustaining a Teaching Life by Staying Connected With My Tribe

With a nudge from Donna JT Smith, I’m jumping back into Two Writing Teachers’ Slice-of-Life Challenge!

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We’re in the last week of the NYC Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute. I can’t believe we’ve gotten here so quickly.

This is my 6th year involved with the NYCWP & my 2nd year co-facilitating the ISI. Every summer is a gift. Every summer I say, “This is the best group we’ve had!” I can’t help it; every summer, it’s the truth.

These past few weeks, many of our Fellows have thanked me, for workshops, for the opportunity to be here, for my contributions to potlucks. One of our participants got me right in the feels when he thanked me for helping him connect with other teachers like him, his people.

I’ve been turning that over in my head since then, because this past school year was one of those years. I came to the end so ragged & drained that even the thought of the magical, restorative, wondrous ISI seemed daunting. But after a few hours with this summer’s amazing group of teachers, I realized that I’d forgotten one of the most important things I’ve learned about teaching when times get tough: I need my people.

When that Fellow thanked me for helping him find his people, I told him that we can get through a lot by knowing there are people like us, with us, along the way. That was a reminder for myself, a truth I need to carry with me & hold dear as I ride waves of school reform that threatens my students, as I clench my jaw through meetings with close-minded colleagues. You have people, I can remind myself. They’ve got your back.

Every summer with the NYCWP ISI is a gift. This summer has reminded me of my people, & reconnected me with who they are.

My people believe in stories, their power, the privilege of hearing & sharing them, their wisdom, their pricelessness.

My people know they are never done, and they remind me of the joy in that never. My people know that never comes with always, & never done means always learning, always open to the wonders ahead.

My people hold their brilliance in their hands, ready to share & exchange & collect.

My people heal with humor & open ears, with emphatic nods & exuberant faces. My people know that listening is active & their whole bodies attune.

My people are teachers & writers & readers, storytellers & sharers. They are thought-provokers, who challenge assumptions not to antagonize but to agitate the mind, because an active mind is a mind ready to learn. They are welcoming & warm & full of wonder. They know when to advise & when to just let the tension hang in the air while they hmmm. They know it’s not about having al the answers, but asking all the questions. They delve into the mess & honor its value. They treasure, they collect, they celebrate. These are my people, & just knowing that they are out there keeps me going.

Free-falling/Free-writing

Free-writing with students terrifies me. 

 Every time! I always think at some point the fear of the first free-write will subside, and instead of inwardly panicking while my students gape at me in horror – You’re asking us to write? By ourselves? Are you crazy? – I’ll remember that I’ve done this before and no one died. But no, I can’t convince myself of that on Day One; even as I reassure my students that they can do this, my inner freakout perfectly mirrors their outer. What am I going to write about?! they cry, and I smile serenely while a voice in my head shrieks WHAT ARE THEY GOING TO WRITE ABOUT?! 

 There’s a lot to be said for faith. Often, I forge ahead with what I know will benefit my students even when the risk of failure threatens, and I’m only able to do so because I’ve done it before. It’s a small comfort, but it’s real and when I clutch it in my nervous hand, I find I have enough in me to keep smiling, encouraging, nudging. 

 “Miss, I don’t know where to start,” G. said on Day One. The class around us was completely ignoring the independent volume I’d requested (aka shhhh) as they traded topics across tables. 

 “Me either. Actually, that’s how I started,” I replied, tapping my pen against my mostly blank page. 

 G. narrowed his eyes a little, which is sort of his pre-smile, and jutted his chin at my notebook. “You’re writing, too?” Suspicious, slightly smirking. 

 I nodded and glanced down as I read him my first line, “‘I don’t know where to start.’ Yep.” 

 “Let me see.” G. wasn’t even trying to hide his doubt this time.

I could’t help smiling as I folded the notebook over and flipped it around, pointing at the scant 3 lines of writing. 

“I’m a little stuck, but I got some words on the page.” 

 G. raised his eyebrows and nodded, stoic teenage boy for, “Ok, cool.” His pen touched down and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. Words on the page.

That’s what I’d told them: Just get some words on the page. You can do it.

Most of them didn’t believe me. I could tell by looking. 

And by them telling me, “I don’t believe you.” 

 Some didn’t get a word on the page. “It happens,” I told them. “Sometimes, the words aren’t ready to come out of our brains yet. It’s ok.” And then I repeated that to myself all day.  It’s ok, it’s ok. Reminding myself that this practice is important, vital, in developing writing voice, that this is how we become independent and thoughtful writers – we write.

This constant justification is a big part of my teaching life now. Where I used to feel confident in my choices because I had seen their effects, I feel uncertain even in the most tried and true routines, under the ever-more looming shadow of evaluation. Frankly, I feel like a marked woman; my days in this job feel numbered as I approach the inevitable Ineffective. But even though I’ve made up my mind to teach the best I can for as long as I can, I’m not immune to a freak out here and there.

But one of the greatest things about this job is that, while I’m often playing the long game and not seeing the results of some moves for years to come, there’s some amount of instant gratification. It comes in the form of students who press their notebooks into my hands at the end of class and say, “Please read.” And students who say across the table to the classmate with the blank page before them, “I’m writing about this, you should try it. Don’t worry. You can do it.” And looking around the classroom to see almost every pen moving, and students thanking me for giving them this space and time, and just one of my most troubled and disruptive students telling me that writing really helps, and he feels ready now. And when I ask, ready for what, he tells me, ready to learn. And when I say, I think you’re learning right now, he laughs and says I’m right.

One of my colleagues, before he retired after 35 years in NYC public schools, once told me that teaching was never easy, but recognizing good teaching was very easy.  He said good teachers figure out what their students need, and they figure out how to help them get it. And that’s the best answer to the why, to the what if, to the should we. They need this, and my job is to help them get it. 

Beyond the T-Chart

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“I’m going to give you a little dude,” I announced, holding up a handful of paper rectangles. On each is the empty outline of a cartoonish body.

“Now, be kind to this little dude. Don’t draw on his face, or crumple him up, or poke him with your pencil.” In every class, this gets a chuckle.

“This little dude is Junior. He’s going to live in your notebook.”

Handing out everyone’s little dudes there were a few jokes – fake rips, little dude fights between tablemates – but all of my students were taking care of their outlines. They placed them in the center of their notebook pages, quickly taking the two pieces of tape I tore off before moving on to the next student. Some students adjusted the orientation a few times, looking for the best spot before committing to the tape.

“Does everyone’s Junior have a home?” I asked. Most of each class chorused, “Yes,” with some notebooks flipped to show me their secured little dudes. Some students were still labeling him; “Junior,” they wrote, then waited, not drawing on his face.

“What are we focusing on today? Remind me?”

“Internalexternalconflict!” someone called out, every class.

Junior’s internal conflicts – his personal struggles, the problems he carries around inside him throughout this novel – we wrote inside of the outline. External conflicts we arranged around him, drawing arrows that press into him from all sides. Students offered conflicts and suggested where they belong, then defended their positions. There were great (multi-lingual) arguments happening, more like negotiations:

“Poverty is internal because it makes him feel so bad about himself.”

“But I think it’s external, because he was born into this poor family and this culture, so it comes from outside of him.”

“Yeah, so his low self-esteem is internal, but poverty is external.”

“Can we put them next to each other?”

In most classes, I did little more than write. I placed my “marker” on the SmartBoard and said, “Ok, here? What am I writing here? Do we all agree? Where else could it go?” My most energetic class had me dragging chunks of text around the figure on the board, pulling out his insides and swapping them around until we created a Junior they could recognize.

I had them 2nd period, usually their most zombie-like time slot, and their raised hands punched the air with enthusiasm that made me nervous for possible concussions.

My coworker’s son is in 3rd grade. He just made a mobile for his book report. My coworker smiled when he recounted his son’s excitement over making the mobile. Just a coat-hanger, some paper, some string and tape, he told me. So much better than a book report.

What we really had to do on Little Dude Day was review. For a lot of reasons, we didn’t end where I had hoped we would before the winter break, and we were coming back in the beginning of the middle of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Before we jumped back in, we needed to recap. I’ve been trying to decompartmentalize literary elements with my students, who come to me with the idea that plot goes here and characterization here and never the twain shall meet. I want to help them see the connectedness of all those pieces, the overlap and interdependence.

They showed me some beginning understanding of that as we wrote in and around our Juniors – “This conflict is why he is like the way he is,” one student said, after the poverty and low self-esteem connection was established.

“Tell me more about that,” I responded, because it is my mission to make everyone roll his or her eyes at me.

Eye-roll, sigh. “He draws the cartoons and says really crazy stuff because he’s not really happy, right?” I will spare you my torturous replies, though this student was not so lucky.

My number one advice for teaching high school English has become, “Be corny.” Sometimes, I say I don’t know what it is about corny, but I do know; corny is fun. So much of high school is not fun, increasingly so these days. I have seen many teachers do a similar lesson on internal and external conflict, using a T-chart. T-charts are the wrong kind of corny. It should go without saying that fun is effective, even in small doses. It is more memorable, more meaningful. And it is easy. It added about 6 minutes to my prep to print out enough little dudes for my four classes. (I had a student cut the pages in half. In my more efficient classes, they managed the tape without me.) The room was alive, as tired as we all felt coming off a week-plus vacation. Their noise was productive and sparkling, their silences thoughtful.

In one class, a student said the bullying Junior faces (external, they decided) makes him feel very lonely.
“Is lonely a conflict for him? Where should it go?”

They paused, some waiting, some thinking. One of my students was looking down at her little Junior, frowning. She mouthed, “Lonely,” and put her hand over her chest before looking up to tell me, “Internal. Inside.”

“Yeah, inside,” said the student next to her, touching her own sternum. “Right there.”