Bouncing Back – writing in front of them, take 2: Slice of Life 3/31 #SOL20

Last Tuesday, I posted about trying to write in front of my class and failing. On Wednesday, our class used a New York Times mentor text to think about how we can use details to show rather than tell. The text is from an essay called “The Iguana in the Bathtub” by Anne Doten. Here’s how it opens:

When the temperature dipped below 40, iguanas started falling from the trees. Small, sleek green iguanas; big iguanas as long as four feet from snout to tail, scales cresting gloriously from their heads; orange-and-green iguanas, their muscled, goose-pimpled arms resolving into sharp claws. Iguanas were everywhere: in the bushy areas surrounding canals, on sidewalks, in backyards, lying helpless among the fallen, rotting fruit of mango and orange trees.

I encouraged the students to try their hand at opening a scene in this way – exuberant, over the top description. We played around with this for a while, and then everyone got back to work on their own scenes. I didn’t write in front of them on Wednesday, but that evening, as I prepared for the next day’s class, I dove back into my own failed attempt and used the model I’d given the students. Imitating Doten’s opening freed something in me, and the words came more easily. Suddenly, I was able to write the story I’d failed at the day before. On Thursday, I showed my students my progress, and they were suitably impressed – whether with my story or my persistence, I am not sure.

We’ve also looked at dialogue in class, and I don’t have any in here yet, so I’m going to ask for suggestions today. My students are of good ideas. Until then, here’s my revised piece:

When Mrs. Barkman announced the mythology test, all of our eyes widened. We had heard about this test from the upperclassmen: impossible, beyond the feats of human memory, designed exclusively to weed out those of us who didn’t really belong in Honors English, created merely to squash all of our dreams. To hear my best friend’s older brother tell it, every year students ran weeping from the classroom, tearing their hair, blood seeping from their eyes, fingers permanently disfigured from the cramping caused by all the writing. We were scared.

After class, my friends and I huddled in the hallway and murmured worriedly. What would happen if we failed? None of us had ever failed. It was unthinkable.

Somehow, someone appointed me to talk to Mrs. Barkman about the test. I say “somehow” but, looking back, I’m not shocked it was me. I have long been too willing to stand up to authority, especially in the role of defender. I was, simultaneously, intensely studious and intensely willing to speak up. I didn’t yet know if I was a rule-follower or a rebel. I didn’t yet know that I could be both. I was 13. One day I wore blue eyeshadow, “midnight” mascara, and blush applied so heavily that I looked permanently sunburned. The next day I came to school fresh-faced wearing turquoise pants and a Disney t-shirt.

In my mind, I approach Mrs. Barkman as a 13-year-old with pigtails. I tell her that we are not ready for the test tomorrow and that we need more time. In my mind, she looms over me, nose like a hatchet, eyes like a hawk. In my mind, her sharp voice cuts through my tremulous one as she denies me – us – any leeway.

But I might have been wearing mascara so thick that it flaked onto my cheekbones and a shirt designed to show my nearly nonexistent cleavage. It’s possible that I was shrill and demanding. There’s a chance I was more cocky than courageous.

Both scenarios are equally possible. Either way, she refused to move the test.

I worried so much about the test and my encounter with my terrifying teacher that I made myself sick. My mother kept me home from school the next day. Mrs. Barkman gave my peers a ridiculously easy matching test and, when I returned, I took the hard test – alone. 

I aced it, but it was months before Mrs. Barkman stopped thinking I had skipped on purpose. I aced it, but I still didn’t know if I was a nerd or a rebel or a social justice warrior. I think I might have just been 13.

 

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I Can Hear You Now: Slice of Life 2/31 #SOL20

I am sitting absolutely straight in a hard-backed chair in the middle of a dimly lit sound-proofed room. Wires stick out of both sides of my head. To my right the thick hazy glass of the small window only vaguely allows me to see out.

I strain my ears. Is that a sound? There! At the far outside edges of my senses, I detect something. I press the button on the black metal contraption I hold in my hands. After all, before she left, she told me that it might seem almost imaginary, but if I heard anything I should press.

I’m having my hearing tested. The audiologist went through a whole series of questions before we began. The long and the short of it was, “Why are you here?” I’m too young, really, and don’t work in an especially loud environment. I don’t regularly attend loud concerts and no one in my family is complaining that I don’t respond when they speak.

Still, here I sit, furrowing my brow and tensing my body in concentration. Do I hear that? Is that a noise? I press the button.

Last semester, I finally gave up. I couldn’t hear about half of my students when they spoke. “Speak up!” I’d say. “Can you repeat that?” Most of them just trailed off and whatever thought they’d had was gone. I know that my classes are full of kids who have mastered the art of hiding from their teachers, but this was too much. I really wanted to hear what they were saying.

The room I was teaching in is, frankly, terrible for sound. It’s right by the water fountain, the boys bathroom and a t-intersection with another hallway. It’s just a few doors down from the music room. And, worst of all, someone designed the building so that the air vent blows directly into the front of the room, right where a teacher might stand. Honestly, it was a miracle I could hear anyone at all.

When I mentioned my frustrating inability to hear my students to my doctor at a checkup, she said,”I’ll refer you.”  And here I am. Oh! My thoughts have drifted. Did I just miss a really low tone? I press the button again.

Finally, the test ends. Back in the regular office, I face the audiologist with trepidation. She grins, “Your students need to speak up. Your hearing is nearly bionic in some areas and fine in all areas.”

Whew.

Alright, kiddos, I’ve got science on my side: I can hear you now. It’s time to raise your voices and tell the world – or at least me – what you know.

 

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Writing in front of them

It’s not like I hadn’t planned my lesson. I had. 15 minutes of reading – while I conferenced quietly with students – followed by a quickwrite about memories from school. Then I would “write in front of them” to show them how to start crafting a scene. I’d chosen Alexie’s “Indian Education” as a mentor text and brainstormed some memories the night before. I had a few in mind and was ready to go.

Only here I was, sitting in front of 25 Grade 12 students and my writing was terrible. I had modeled how to find a moment – I thought of early memories and jotted them down but rejected them as too vague – then landed on a high school memory of an encounter with my daunting freshman English teacher.

I’d known before the class that I would probably end up writing about her, so I had details in mind. But they didn’t come together. At all. I started a sentence and abandoned it, explaining why. I narrated as I re-thought my entry point and pushed through the lurching prose to at least get a full idea down. I talked about trying to add some detail, but every detail felt forced and flat. I paused and acknowledged my problem out loud: “So I’m stuck and this doesn’t feel good to me. I think I’ll back up and think about what I might be trying to show with this scene. Why am I writing this?”

And suddenly, I was mortified. Not only could I not get this scene on paper but I realized I was wrestling with my own understanding of who I was in high school. I felt naked in front of my students’ curious eyes: Was I the nerd who studied for hours? The kind of kid who got sick on the day of the test? Who spoke up to teachers? Who stood up for her friends? This stupid scene – this tiny thorn of a memory from over 30 years ago – was too small and too complex and too big and too flat to possibly write, and certainly not as people watched me.

Defeated, I stopped. “I can’t make it work,” I admitted. “I’m realizing that I don’t know what I’m trying to do in this scene. I don’t know who I was in that moment, and I feel like I’m revealing way more of myself to you than I meant to – I mean, was I really this nerdy and this outspoken and this dumb? It’s unsettling – I’m unsettled. Why don’t you start your scenes while I see what I can do here?”

As students opened their notebooks, I stared at my own work, distressed. So much for “writing in front of them.” So much for “teacher as model.” I heaved a sigh and looked up. One girl – front and center, whip smart and unabashedly vocal – looked back and smiled ruefully at me. Then she dove into her notebook, pen moving unwaveringly across the paper. 

And I went back to writing, too.

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Please join us! In March, many bloggers will accept the challenge of writing and posting a Slice of Life daily at https://twowritingteachers.org/. You can try it, too. We’d love to have you.

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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Come write with us on Tuesdays at https://twowritingteachers.org

Watching the Game

Image result for basketballThe last time I was in a gym watching a high school basketball game, I didn’t even own a cell phone. I’ve nearly forgotten how much I love high school basketball: the excitement, the daring three-pointers, the hard-won rebounds, the turnovers, the exhaustion. Walking towards this afternoon’s game, I wonder why it’s been so long since I’ve done this. (I know the answers: work, children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue.) Today, I arrive partway through the second quarter. I can hear the noise of the game long before I open the door: the squeal of shoes skidding to sudden stops; the pounding of feet in counterpoint to the relentless beating of the ball against the floor; the staccato whistle punctuating the game.

As I enter the gym, I’m overwhelmed by the powerful sweaty musk of teenage boys’ concentrated effort. The bright lights and echoing space make me feel simultaneously terribly visible and ridiculously small. This is their place, not mine, I realize. I perch uncomfortably on the bleachers and am immediately engrossed by the game. 

I want to tell you about the players, many of them young men who have shared and currently share my classroom. I want to tell you about their intensity, their focus, their grace. I want you to hear their voices raised loudly, unselfconsciously, in unison as they chant: “De-fense! De-fense!” I want you to see how easily they communicate, how confidently they move, how intensely they focus. But I don’t really need to. I know that what is particular to my experience of these boys in this game at this moment is also universal: if you have ever seen a high school game, if you have ever cared for a child playing in that game, then you know what I am seeing as I sit in this bright, echoing gym.

Still, it has been years since I’ve actually watched a game. Five minutes ago, I could have told you that many of my students are at their best when they are playing their sport, but here, now, I am experiencing this truth all over again. The basketball court is 200 steps and 2 million miles from the English classroom down the hall. I need to come here more often, but now I need to go home. Children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue… I miss the end of the game as I drive home in the rain.
______

I kept thinking about the boys after the game, and as I rearranged the voice notes I’d created as I’d watched, I realized how engaged my senses had been. So, I started a poem about the game. Here it is – unfinished, but you’ll get the idea.

Their restless feet fly across the floor
pause
then propel their bodies upwards.
Released from their desks, their bodies
unfurl
stretching towards the orange circle above them.
Uncurled now
from the orange prisms of their pencils,
their fingers flex around the sphere
that is their body’s
focus.

Only as I wrote the poem did the parallels between my experience in their space and their experience in “my” space (though I do try to make the classroom “ours”) come into focus for me – unfamiliar smells, uncomfortable seating, unappealing lighting,  watching apparent experts do something I can’t do and which I have no urgent desire to practice or perfect. This realization, this deepening of my thinking about a situation, is why I write – and maybe why they play. For me, writing takes a tangle of  my thoughts and straightens them out. Basketball, though I enjoy it, provides me no solace, no direction. I suspect many of my students might feel that something close to the opposite is true for them. Maybe this is why I need to make sure to see more games. 

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll share this and see what they say. Maybe we’ll all write a slice of life; maybe they won’t all be written.

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Night shift

When I finally give in and open my eyes, the red numbers staring at me say 2:34. “Cool,” I think and immediately realize that I am irreversibly awake. 

I close my eyes again anyway, willing sleep to return, vainly hoping that my mental state and my physical state will align. They do not. Behind my closed eyes, I begin to mentally re-arrange our English continuum. I imagine a large chart on a chalkboard: one axis shows grades 9-12; the other our four strands: Oral, Reading & Literature, Writing, and Media. I populate each cell with skills we want our students to learn, arranging and rearranging information in the grid in my brain. I can envision the smooth continuum of oral skills: asking good questions, then speaking in groups, followed by recognizing and using rhetorical speech, ending with speaking persuasively with evidence. Satisfied, I start to create this again for other strands.

I know this chart well; I am familiar with the gaps and jumps, the places where we hiccup. The grid dances, taunting, behind my closed eyes as I try to mentally fill the holes, try to create a flow of uninterrupted growth across all the various facets, as if somehow at… I check again, 2:47… I can find the answer that will mean authenticity and growth for each individual student, some magic formula that each teacher can apply and…

I try not to sigh loudly when I realize that I need to get up. Andre is deep asleep next to me. He had a long day and needs this rest. My nocturnal concerns need not wake him. I grab a blanket, wrap it around me, and head to the living room. There, I find my journal and start to write.

One of my colleagues often consoles us when we report middle-of-the-night restlessness. “Normal,” she reassures. “Used to be that everyone woke up in the middle of the night.” She’s right. Psychology Today says, “The historical evidence indicates that people in the Middle Ages were up for an hour or more in the middle of the night and thought of sleep as occurring in two segments: first sleep and second sleep. In many ways, this makes sense because being awake during the night has certain advantages. At that time, one could stoke the fire, check the defenses, have sex, and tell tall tales.” I’ve reminded myself of this more than once.

That “sex” is the only hyper-linked word in that paragraph makes me laugh – I remember it even without the computer. No link to fire? Defenses? TALL TALES? Because stories tell us who we are, don’t they? Surely that is what links us. My mind calls up people gathered around a fire in their small home, warming themselves as someone tells a story in the middle of the night. I can almost see the shadows dance against the orange light while the children snuggle in, drowsy but awake. No one is worried about their 3am wakefulness; sleep will return soon enough, now is the time for parents to weave tonight’s tale out of yesterday’s happenings. The room warms.

What story would I tell, here, wrapped cozily in the folds of my blanket, were my own family to gather round? What if my children were to wander sleepily out? Would I dream up a story like Matthew and the Midnight Turkeys ? Would we giggle? Maybe I would tell something more fantastical, more magical? Oh, the mid-night stories we could tell.

And now, as I slip into storytelling, my own eyes begin to close. My pen slows. Tonight’s second sleep is calling. The curriculum will wait: stories don’t need a continuum to work their magic.

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(For all you non-Canadians out there, Allen Morgan’s Matthew and the Midnight Turkeys  is a riot for small kids (and me). You are also missing out on Phoebe Gilman’s Jillian Jiggs.)