Recycling

The two untouched photocopies in the recycling bin make me sigh out loud. I handed them out to my grade 12 class last period and asked the students to glue them into their notebook then annotate the text. Rather than circulate, I had worked alongside them: using a document camera to model “reading like a writer”, marking up the text with my observations, questions and notes. I really thought the students were doing this, too.

I’ll admit it: this class isn’t starting like many other English classes they’ve taken. Heck, it’s not even starting like the other English classes I’ve taught. I’ve reconsidered my reading instruction over the past few years, and now most of our reading is independent, choice reading. Every class starts with 15 minutes of reading. Every student reads a minimum of five books in a semester (though I’ll negotiate for really thick or complicated books). Since I started this, my students’ reading volume has increased dramatically; many read far more than five books, and they are better prepared to approach the complex texts that we work on as a class. 

But… it still feels weird. I mean, doesn’t every high school English teacher start with short stories while the class list gets finalized? Shouldn’t I be telling them how to think about literature? Isn’t that my job? It’s unsettling to use new methods.

To make class even more odd, this semester I’ve committed to having students write daily. After all, I say, “You can’t get better at something you don’t practice.” I’ve only had this group for a week, and I suspect they are already sick of hearing me say this.

So, you know, we read, then we write, we study a short text. We move around and share. We edit our own work… it’s workshop-y.  And, ahem, I haven’t graded a thing. Not. One. Thing. I haven’t even given feedback yet – shh! There is method to my madness: I really really want these soon-to-be graduates to remember that reading and writing are things that we do because they make us whole. These are things we do for our lives, not just for a teacher. “When was the last time you read for fun?” I ask. Some of them can’t remember. “When did you last write something that wasn’t for school?” Some of them say never.

But those papers in the recycle bin make me think I’m not doing a very good job with my new-fangled methods. I worry that my goal-oriented students feel adrift, that they are waiting for me to tell them how many paragraphs they must write and how many pages they must read. Or maybe the students don’t take me seriously; maybe they think the class is too easy and that they can just coast. 

I close my eyes for a second and try to visualize the class: the students seemed engaged. When I looked up from my annotations, they were (mostly) writing away. When they stood up to share, they looked like they were reading from their notebooks. 

Those untouched papers laugh at me: this isn’t working.

I fish them out and flatten them, putting them into my own notebook to give to….oh wait!… to give to THE TWO STUDENTS WHO WERE ABSENT TODAY!

Oh my. Papers firmly in hand, I sit back down at my desk to map out the writing and craft moves I want to accompany Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book This is the Rope tomorrow. At least with a picture book there will be no copies for anyone to recycle.
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Payoff

Last semester was a tough one for me. I’ve been doing lots of thinking and writing about it, but so far there’s nothing I’m willing to share. Still, when the new semester started Monday I was excited and nervous in a way I haven’t been for a while. I laid my clothes out the night before and still forgot my lunch in the flurry of leaving.

Moment one: I am teaching a grade 12 English class for the first time in a few years. I love teaching grade 12 and my mind is awash in possibilities, especially since I have completely revamped my reading and writing instruction since I last taught this level. Also, years of teaching students who benefit from explicit and concrete beginnings have changed my understanding of learning. I’ve got a whole new bag of tricks.

I get these senior students up on their feet and have them move about the room as they consider and acknowledge their own attitudes towards English, reading, writing, group work, presentations and more. They can see that they are not alone in their experiences and views. When I ask them how many books they read last semester, over half the class clusters into the corner for “exactly what was assigned.” I squint my eyes at them, start to laugh and ask how many are lying – because research tells me that a lot of them fake read those books. They are relaxed enough that several of them grin and move themselves over to zero. “No worries,” I tell them, “we’ll find you something.” Our class is off to a great start.

Then comes the moment that blows me away. I ask them to write about their interests. THEY ALL HAVE PENS OR PENCILS. Every. Single. One. They pull out paper and write. Just like that, like it’s no big deal. I don’t know how long it has been since I taught a class where everyone is actually ready to learn. When the bell rings and they leave, chatting and laughing, I am bubbling with excitement. What might we accomplish this semester if we all have pencils? The possibilities are endless.

Moment two: My grade 10s come into the classroom with significantly less enthusiasm. This class is half the size of the other, but reading and writing are a much bigger challenge for these students. They have all made it to class on time, though, and we celebrate our successes in here. We do the same activities as the grade 12 class, and things are pretty low-key until we get to that question about how many books students read last semester.

Here’s where I should mention that five of these students had me for grade 9 English last semester. They are trying to catch up to where the system says they are “supposed” to be, so they’re with me again. They know my ways, and when I ask students to move to a corner to show how many books they have read, my former/current students move proudly to the areas that are well beyond “exactly what was assigned.” I don’t say much – these kids don’t always want to stand out academically – but I watch their peers notice that these students have been reading.

Then, magic occurs. After a few book talks, I gesture towards my classroom library. It’s a complete jumble because I had to switch rooms this morning: books are everywhere and in no discernible order. “Go ahead and explore the books to find something that might be of interest to you. Take your time; have a look.” And my five, my students who know me, find books, sit down and start to read. Just like that.

As they settle in, their peers follow suit. Before I know it, I have 12 reluctant readers sitting with books and reading quietly on day one of the semester. As far as I can tell, only one is fake reading. I’m heading over to chat with him, using this time to get to know him, when an EA comes in and shakes his head with astonishment. I shrug back, my eyes wide. I didn’t ask them to read: enough of them had books that they were actually interested in that they just did it. Because independent reading matters. Because time matters. Because routine matters.

Now, all we have to do is this, 90ish more times. Semester 2, here we come!

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Pause

My favourite parking spaces are occupied, so I drop the boys off and start round two of the hunt. All the usual spots are inexplicably taken. It’s snowing a little, but the temperature hovers obstinately above freezing and the streets are deep in slushy puddles. The going is tough. The city is behind on snow removal, parking spots are scarce, and plenty of cars are taking up an awful lot of the pavement. My mirror nearly touches theirs as I slowly slide my car down the streets.

img_1970I sigh and turn down another side street. Grr! The red and white no parking signs that indicate snow removal is imminent taunt me from atop the snow banks. No wonder I can’t find a space. I do a quick check of my rear view mirror, touch my brakes and pause. Deep breath. Snow removal is good, I remind myself. Yes, I will likely spend a lot of time trying to find parking tonight, but tomorrow and the days that follow will be much easier. 

10 long minutes later, I find a spot. It’s not ideal, but it’s good enough for tonight.

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I’m reading Gregor the Overlander out loud while my older son draws. He’s sketching another manga character, and he’s not happy with the result. As I turn a page he snarls, “I hate this! It’s terrible!” He’s about to crumple the drawing, but my hand catches his before his fingers close around the paper.

“Hey,” I say quietly, “give it a second. What’s wrong with your picture?”

“It looks awful.” He’s looking away from his picture, not at it.

“Mmm. Can you tell me about it?”

He hates it all. I suggest if it’s that bad then it would make a really great place to experiment – just try a few new things. On second thought, he hates a few particular parts. Then he just really hates… wait, maybe he could…

He goes back to drawing; I continue to read.

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The first week back to school after the winter break, I couldn’t bring myself to publish a blog post; I couldn’t find anything that rang true. Every word I wrote seemed to leave out another. I didn’t think it was awful, exactly, but I couldn’t find Hemingway’s one true sentence (even though, I’m just putting this out there, I really don’t like Hemingway). I wrote and deleted, wrote and threw away. I struggled, then I gave up in a huff.

The next week I paid attention and by Monday I had plenty of observations to choose from. To avoid writer’s block, I decided to write by hand first. I got as far as the date. 

I had to pause. I didn’t have much choice: I clearly wasn’t going to write a slice of life by beating myself up. 

Tonight, no parking spot magically appeared; my son’s drawing didn’t suddenly become excellent. Pausing didn’t solve things, but neither did it mean giving up.

So here I am, writing, pausing, and writing again.

 

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