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.”

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Book Review: On the Come Up

On the Come Up: A Novel, Based on a True Story, by Hannah Weyer, 320 pages, adult fiction, 4.5 stars, recommended for high school

In short… This wonderful coming-of-age novel, based on the life of actress Anna Simpson, takes readers through the life of a teenager growing up in the projects of Far Rockaway. Through the main character of AnnMarie, readers journey through the foster care system, the projects, teen pregnancy, public school in New York City, dysfunctional relationships of all sorts, the making of an independent film, young motherhood, and more. Hannah Weyer manages to take on the ever-complicated life of this character without appearing to juggle chainsaws, which is impressive in and of itself. Even better is the realism of this story; despite the hardships and trauma of AnnMarie’s life, despite the surprising break an indie film offers, the novel follows a character making a normal life after the flash in the pan has dimmed. Put this in your high school independent reading library, add it to a literature circle unit for students to discuss in groups, or add it to your units on coming-of-age. Paired with To Kill a Mockingbird: the comparisons students could draw between Scout and AnnMarie, the examination of gender in these two societies, the value and influence of setting, and so on! Click more for a detailed review!

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Afuera de la idioma: Thinking like an ELL

Boyfriend and I are in Oaxaca right now. It is our first ever time visiting Mexico, and we’ll be here for one week, then off to Mazatlán for another week. Life right now is a lot of sleeping until noon, wandering mercados, marveling at how rich we are in pesos, and eating everything (except the chapulines – I’m way too chicken for that). And of course, amid all this relaxation and the excitement of being somewhere new and different and really not at all like New York City, as we sit in the zócalo watching men shoot fireworks off of their heads, as I lounge in the courtyard of our gorgeous hotel under a tree that bears fruit like miniature mangoes, as I find myself so far from my regular life and contemplate walking down the road to get a manicura at the Todas de Uñas salon, I’m thinking about teaching.

In September, I’ll be teaching at an international school for the first time. In New York, international schools are schools that teach English Language Learners (ELLs), and while I will be working with 11th graders, almost all of my students will have started at the school with no more than four years of experience living and attending school in the US. The idea of teaching at this school and working with a population like this is ridiculously exciting – I have never worked with so large a group of ELLs and I cannot wait to learn from my students about language development and acquisition, about emergent bi- and multilingualism. The prospect is also terrifying. I am worried – and it is a constant undercurrent of anxiety – about not being a good enough teacher for this group. Colleagues and friends keep reassuring me that I’ll be great, because I am dedicated and thoughtful, because I’ve worked with struggling readers and writers, and because I bother to worry about whether or not I’ll be good enough. So I spent the lead-up to this long vacation planning and reading and making lists and searching the depressing Education shelves of NYC Barnes & Nobles for a trace of Danling Fu (to no avail).

From the US side of this trip, two weeks seemed like it would offer plenty of time to sneak in some reading and planning in order to prepare for September. But here, making our way through Oaxaca on only my mediocre Spanish and the (unending) kindness of strangers, this is the learning experience. This is the professional development.

I said to boyfriend – or I guess he should be novio here. I said to novio, that every teacher could benefit from the experience of being outside of one’s home language, of trying to communicate on only a handful of words. Schools (and policy and testing and the Daily News) expect miracles of students and teachers – jumping multiple math or reading levels in a year, passing arbitrary and artificial high-stakes tests that are kept secret, so that test prep cannot be relevant and useful. It’s worse for ELLs, who come to US public schools from very different systems. Many students have not had steady enrollment in their home countries, and, along with an interrupted education, a language barrier, a slew of new social norms and kid politics, they are expected to demonstrate proficiency and master English. I don’t think we appreciate how daunting a task we have set for these students. I don’t think many people can. And it is so easy, with the one million other things teachers are thinking and worrying about, to get frustrated that one’s ELL students are still mixing up these two words, or are nodding to say they understand when they clearly do not get it, or are always a step behind, whispering to a classmate during the lesson.

I can’t remember the past tense of most Spanish verbs. It’s driving me a little crazy, because I know it’s in there somewhere, hiding in my memory. But I can’t get at it. I’ve got past tense ir down, but dormir? Estar? Ver? Don’t worry, I’ve got Google. But I don’t break it out on the street when I’m approaching, or in the midst of, an interaction with a patient and friendly Oaxaqueño. Instead, as I frantically  plan my next sentence in my head and I realize that I can’t say “were” or “saw,” anxiety overwhelms me, and I find myself searching for some way out of this conversation. “Quick!” I think. “Before they know!”

Last night, I asked for a daiquiri sin sabor, and after smiling and nodding as the waitress talked, and agreeing to en las rocas, I ended up with a glass of rum and ice. It sat on the table for a few minutes while I worked out how to ask for a swap. And I haven’t yet worked up the courage to get that manicura.

It’s easier now, a few days in. Things are coming back to me, some things I’m just picking up. I’m not as concerned with seeming stupid, because everyone is really so nice. But our first few days here, the anxiety of not being able to communicate (correctly, proficiently) had me on edge. The idea of asking a question was terrifying, because I probably wouldn’t be able to understand a good portion of the answer. And what would people think of my baby talk – We go to Pochote Market? You know? And I’m on vacation. This is two weeks of my life, with the lowest stakes. What do I have to lose for trying? A nail color that clashes with my skin tone? A drink I didn’t order? Maybe I end up eating some grasshoppers. For my ELL students, this is every day, and it’s so much more – it’s the way people will regard them, and the way they will feel about themselves, and the pressure of being successful and making their families proud.

So as I think about next year, working with 100% ELLs, I think about how to share this story. I don’t know if we acknowledge how scary and overwhelming a new language can be. I know I haven’t made enough of a point of that in the past. I like to start the year with memoir, with writing about ourselves and our lives, and I think we will all have some interesting language stories to share. I’m collecting mine right now.