The Humanity

I didn’t say this because I wasn’t sure I should. I’m a teacher, and I’m also a human being.  I know, I know, it’s hard to believe.  First I don’t sleep in my classroom… then this.

People from the National Writing Project don’t ask me to be ashamed of spending time writing.  They softened my attitude toward writing, and myself.  They suggested that the more I wrote, the better I would be able to teach writing to others.  In the world of public education, this is heretical.  Teachers should be grading papers all weekend– not practicing what they preach, right?

I took writing courses in college. The first one usually sent me back to my dorm for a good cry.  The other one bored me to tears.

I still wrote on my own.  Journals, fiction, poems.  I couldn’t stop myself.  But I felt awkward sharing my work, and the process of submitting to journals and magazines was discouraging.

When I started teaching writing to high school students, all I really knew how to do was give assignments and grade them.  Nothing in my education classes covered writing instruction.  During my first Writing Project class, they didn’t tell us how to teach writing.  Instead, we wrote.  We met in an old house that had been converted to a meeting space.  The first time I was asked to read my piece, I wanted to run upstairs and hide in the claw foot bathtub.  I thought I might die.  I didn’t.

With practice, sharing what I wrote was not the same as taking off my clothes.  I realized that I hadn’t charmed anyone with writing since elementary school.  In 3rd grade, I wrote little storybooks for my classmates about the Stuff family.  The Stuffs were little blobs whose chapeau looked suspiciously like those of  the Berenstain Bear family.  I churned out volume after volume for my classmates.  My audience was authentic and receptive.  It made all the difference.

Because my Writing Project colleagues were so open and supportive, I began to think that maybe I could find an authentic receptive audience for my adult writing, too.  They liked my ode to macaroni and cheese, and my serious pieces on teaching.  Maybe I could get things published.  Maybe people could give me helpful suggestions.  Maybe I wasn’t a great writer or a bad one.  Maybe, like most people, I was somewhere in between.  I observed myself as a writer, noticed what I did and what helped me.  I listened to other teachers discuss their writing and how it evolved.  I did my own research about methods of teaching writing.  I was learning to teach writing, not just assign it.

How could I teach my students those things if I didn’t really believe them myself? How could I encourage them to open up when I was so shut down myself?  You can’t teach what you don’t know.

People aren’t multiple choice, and they’re not matching.  Writing addresses their unique human needs, providing the opportunity to reflect and explore and connect. National Writing Project colleagues treated me like a human being.  They empowered me to be more human with my students, and make writing a more authentic and productive part of my classroom.

The National Writing Project has recently been defunded at the federal level, and many of us who have benefitted from their efforts are disheartened.  Taxpayer dollars have been very well spent by this organization, as research has proven, and it deserves continued support.

For more information, see: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3507

Mob Mentality

Last weekend’s local teenage mob and police action was the subject of some discussion at my school.  A few of the kids were there, and everybody wanted to know what went down.  So we had this awkward conversation before we could return to the glorious banality of Week 20 vocabulary….

Them:  There was just a big crowd of us, and there wasn’t anyone fighting, we were just hanging out, so why did they have to use pepper spray?

Me:  What were all those people doing down there?  Were people about to fight?  Did it look like they might?

Them: Well, yeah.

Me: And didn’t some people fight later, in the parking lot?

Them: Well, yeah.

They need to know to pay attention to situations that become dangerous and get the hell away.  A lot of them already know this, which is why they’re sitting in a college prep school, rather than locked up.

But my first thought when I saw the story was, where on earth do you want them to go?  Basic discipline mistake: tell a kid not to do something, but don’t give any suggestion for what the kid should do instead.  That is not discipline.  Discipline includes teaching.  There is no suggestion for these kids.  We will handle them with curfews and banishments.  What they are learning is that they are not worth teaching.  We grown-ups already know how to act right, and we don’t care if you kids ever learn.

Well, everyone complains, their parents should know where they are and set curfews.  What parent would forbid a teenager to go to the Plaza?  My parents didn’t.  And I had a curfew, but it wasn’t nine o’clock.  Then people complain, parents should be with them and teach them to act right.  Ah, of course.  No teenager would ever do anything to displease or embarass a parent!

We keep limiting the geography and activities for teenagers, and then wondering why they’re all wandering, congregating, bored, and unruly in the few places left open to them.  Banning them from entertainment districts.  From movies.  The trouble is, if you keep them away until they turn 18 or 21,  they will have no idea how to eat in a restaurant or have a drink in a bar or see a movie.  They’re probably going to act like rabid squirrels whatever age we choose to integrate them into adult nightttime activities.  We’ll just have to work with them and sometimes we’ll have to put up with a little noise and obnoxiousness.

They have to be able to move around the city and explore. They have to get away from their parents and try some things out.  They have to learn to spend time in pubic being social.  They have to find and experiment with romantic relationships.  They need the whole city working with them to help them grow up.

They need smiles and politeness to show appreciation for good civic behavior.  And, as necessary: dirty looks, shushing in movies, demanding a tip, kicking them out, calling the cops.  Absolutely you will be confronted by the cops if you’re acting crazy, or looking like you might get crazy.  You probably won’t like what happens.  Lesson learned: don’t mess with cops.  Carrot and stick are teaching tools.  But not banishment.

I also wanted to tell my students, the strangling force of urban crime doesn’t disappear when you turn 21.  I often avoid going out Friday and Saturday in good weather.  There are too many people out drinking who lack basic drinking skills and etiquette.  Sometimes people get shot.  Even adult freedom is limited– by balancing benefits and risks.  They need to practice finding that balance before they are handed full adult freedoms.  The truth is, we will pay for their education into adulthood, one way or another.

Link to news story:

http://www.kansascity.com/2010/04/12/1873511/kc-police-brace-for-return-of.html

The Hours

If you are no longer in high school (lucky you), hear some harp arpeggios and send yourself back there…. The hour of the day that you had a class makes all the difference.  You got your most hated class right after lunch?  Great time for a nap.  Your best class first?  Bummer: you’re still half asleep.  Here’s how I would break down my teacher persona, hour by hour.

1st hour: No matter how memorable you are, it will take me at least twice as long to figure out who you are.  Especially if you look similar to someone else in class, or you have a similar name.  This year, it took me a whole quarter to quickly distinguish my three broad-shouldered, five-foot-ten guys.  Every day, I’ll be slightly spaced out, and the lesson will be the shakiest of the day.  The examples will be hit or miss.  The agenda will sometimes expand or contract awkwardly, as I realize that there are too many examples or I have set a goal that is unrealistic.  Don’t even think about showing up without your dress down money.  Kiss of death.  Bottom line: it doesn’t matter how much coffee I drink.  And it’s not personal.

2: I’m going now.  Things are swinging along.  Waking up.  Coming up with some better examples.  Explanations less rusty.  I know who you are.  I may even be a little bit funny.  Caffeine hitting the system.  Patience kicking in along with caffeine.  The bottom line: this isn’t a bad group.  You could do worse.

3: This is often the best lesson of the day.  Kinks worked out.  I’m pretty much awake, but not tired yet.  I will attempt to be funny, although you may not find me funny.  I can even have personal conversations with you that are carefully planned and deftly executed.  It’s almost time for lunch!  Generally, I like you, and you like me.  Bottom line: optimal time period.  Thank your lucky stars.

6: I wasn’t exactly psyched about ending my lunch/planning/break time to come back to class.  This is elective hour, though, so I get to mix it up, and you get to mix it up.  I’m getting a little worn out.  I’m unlikely to lose it on you, though.  It’s just an elective.  I only have to live with you for a semester.  Let’s relax a little.  Bottom line: go with the flow, and you’ll be fine.

7: We’re almost done.  On the other hand, this is the best hour to take a nap.  Afternoon sun.  Brain almost full anyway.  If I have settled into the day, I’ll be all loose, knowing what I’m doing.  If it’s a rough day, there’s no patience for your shenanigans, young lady.  Out.  Out.  Bottom line: if we can get our second wind, we’re golden.  Otherwise, it’s a tough haul.

8: The last hour of the day!  There’s no reason to work now!  Way too tired, pent up.  Brain overstuffed.  Sick of the whole thing.  We all feel that way.  I will find my serious, angry voice about 80% faster than any other hour.  You will complete half as much as everyone else, and learn it half as well.  I will try to squeeze every last drop of energy out of us both.  If we get the whole lesson done in a way that is halfway reasonable, I’ll be thrilled.  Bottom line: it isn’t pretty.  No matter how smart or well-behaved your fellow students are, they are now at their worst.  If we find our groove, it’s a miracle.