Second Wind

January 16, 2010 at 2:03 pm 3 comments

I was all ready to write “Disillusionment: Part 2” just as soon as I had some time to get my concerns down on paper. Part Two was going to be where I spill my deepest, darkest teacher secret: I’m not sure that I believe in my curriculum. In my very first education classes, my professor told us all that every teacher should believe that his or her subject is the very most important subject – and that if you don’t, probably you shouldn’t be teaching (or at least, not teaching that subject). I’ve always been able to form a great intellectual argument supporting the idea that English (or rather, literature and composition) is the most important subject… but on a more practical level, I’ve never been completely certain. See, I took a detour. While most of my peers stayed in classrooms – their own, or the ones in which they took graduate classes – I took a couple years off and ended up working in a manufacturing plant. Your perspective on education gets a pretty good reality check in a machine shop. These men and women don’t need to know how to analyze a poem, read Shakespeare, or write an essay – they need to know how to do their jobs, and they need to know how the world around them works so that they can protect themselves and be “good citizens” if they choose.

I’m teaching, for the most part, students who are in the same boat.

So yeah, I was all ready to write about that. And don’t get me wrong – it’s still on my mind. But before I could get around to writing it, I read four things:

  • Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution by Derrick Jensen
  • another teacher’s thought that hit a little too close to home
  • an article about Teach for America and what makes a good teacher (blog entry forthcoming)
  • little books that my students made that listed some of their goals for the upcoming year (likewise)

I think I’ve caught my second wind.

There are a lot of thoughts flying around inside my  skull. I’m trying to teach my kids to write essays when they can’t even write sentences. Sure, they’re sophomores – they should have learned this stuff by now. But they haven’t. I’m trying to teach my kids to connect to the real world when they have no concept of the real world. I’m trying to teach them to analyze literature when, honestly, I’m not sure they know how to read.

I’m starting over.

Yesterday, after the kids went home and I’d done all of the grading I could stomach, I rearranged my classroom. Before, I had two blocks of rows facing a center aisle. I liked it. It worked pretty well. But I couldn’t get to everyone, physically, and eye contact was a problem with some kids who faced one another, and when we worked in groups there was too much resistance. I’ve rearranged the room into groups – eight groups of four (my largest class is, hypothetically, 32 kids) plus a two-desk group by my desk for kids who just can’t handle being near their peers.

(Can I just pause to celebrate the fact that one of the main students who would have lived in “naughty child land” is NOT on my class roster for next semester! I’m pleased as punch over that, I am.)

I’ve been inspired to revamp my tenth-grade English classroom by something going on in a fifth-grade math classroom in that magazine article. I’m going to use groups to motivate the students. The biggest issue going on – probably because, again, they’re twitterpated sophomores – is missing work. I’m going to give them group accountability. Rotating group leaders. Rewards for everyone doing their entry tasks – and they can help one another. Rewards for everyone having their homework. Decent prizes – “get out homework free” cards, or candy, or school supplies.

Recently, I became horrified at the lack of basic knowledge in my classes. In fact, after discovering that none of my sophomores knew how many feet were in a mile, and that at least one of them thought Iceland was a continent (and the place where you’d find a platypus, no less) I confess I kind of chewed them out. But it’s not their fault that they don’t know anything about their world. They’re fifteen – that’s only two years older than thirteen, and I didn’t expect my seventh graders to know anything about the world. What magical thing is supposed to happen between childhood and adolescence to make kids aware? Uhm: me.

So instead of being aghast that they’re ignorant, I’m going to fight the ignorance. The new opening routine starts with journals and an overhead. Students copy down a fact of the day – “need-to-know” information about our world. I’m thinking one day I’d like them to have to learn how to tie a tie. Then I’m going to move into grammar basics and sentence construction. Practical stuff: subject-verb agreement, comma splices – things that make you look dumb if you do it wrong in the real world. I don’t think most people need to understand transitive and intransitive verbs, but I think everyone ought to know that a car is quick but a car moves quickly.

We’ll do sentence corrections. Individual, small group, full class. My room feels more spacious now, and I can get to every single student to look over his/her shoulder and help with problems. No kid can hide now – they’ll all be in a group that’s paying attention.

I’m hopeful. I’m really, really hopeful. Not only that this will work, but that it will work for me. I don’t like feeling the way I’ve been feeling.



FAIL It Really is a New Semester

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mrs. Chili  |  January 16, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Oh, this is GORGEOUS! I particularly like this:

    What magical thing is supposed to happen between childhood and adolescence to make kids aware? Uhm: me.


    I AM going to disagree with your initial thoughts about the importance of your discipline, though. I’ve done a LOT of thinking about this, and I can honestly say that I really DO think that English (literature, language arts, whatever the hell you want to call it) really IS the most important subject, and here’s why: the workplace demands that we be able to assess problem – and them solve them. The workplace demands that we be able to understand one another, that we be able to work together, and that we be able to communicate effectively. The workplace demands that we be able to take knowledge previously learned and apply it to current situations to understand what’s happening in a way that lends not only breadth, but depth as well.

    Now, take “the workplace” and replace it with “the world.” NOW, take “the world,” and replace it with “English class.”

    See how nicely that works?

    My English classes are ALL ABOUT the critical thinking. I don’t really care that, next year, my students can tell me that the lead character’s name in To Kill a Mockingbird was Scout. What I care about is that they can tell me that the story was about equality and being aware of the social climate in which one lives, and that sometimes grown-ups don’t always act in very grown-up ways. I want my kids to be able to APPLY the stuff we learn in English class to their real lives…

    OH! Like yesterday! One of my kids is having his teenage rebellion by being very “if it doesn’t happen to me or someone I care about, then I don’t care.” He was complaining about the coverage that Haiti’s been getting in the news. When confronted about it, one of the reasons he gave for not caring about the tragedy unfolding on the island is that “the world is overpopulated, anyway.” Someone then piped up with “What are you, SCROOGE?! “If they’re gonna die, they might as well get on with it and decrease the surplus population”?!”

    THAT’S where it’s at, my friend – THAT’S the work we do, and it matters.

  • 2. Alycia  |  January 16, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Good luck with the room change. I know and resent straight up, that my subjects don’t ALLOW room changes… Rudeness!

  • 3. Stixen  |  January 19, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    My school district did that 5th grade math class – only, they did it to us (thank god) in HS. It was called College Preparatory Math, and it was the biggest pile of BS since (from what my folks told me) New Math.

    For example – in Algebra 1, they wanted freshmen to figure out, in groups, the Pythagorean theorem. Now, when we asked what the hell we were supposed to be doing, the teacher told us to “work it out” Needless to say, we all repeated Algebra 1 in summer school – in another district (which used books, instead of workbooks)

    It was a lazy way for our math teachers to “teach” us – and easy to turn the blame on students for failure (we had 17 people who were “valedictory optimates” in my graduating class – I was not one of them, but it meant being 34th in my graduating class was no small feat) and every student in that class came out feeling that they were 1 – totally supporting the entire group or 2 – never going to go to college, because clearly we were that dumb.

    BTW – CPM math? Doesn’t teach you to COUNT until you’re in the second grade. Our parents fought hard to get that shit tossed. And yeah, I’m still bitter about what we all went through with that.

    Anyways. It sounds like an idea that would work FAR better for an English class – but I would still hope that the kids get to “save” their grades through their own work, or extra credit, or something. Just in case they get stuck in a group with the next iteration of your problem child…


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The Bee’s Knees

This is the teaching journal of a student first-year second-year THIRD-YEAR (!!!) English teacher. I am writing this blog as a reflection for myself, a way to keep friends and family updated, and a sharing-ground between other educators online. I love comments!

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