Tag Archives: English

Hey! Teacher! Leave Them Kids Alone! Confessions of a Wanna Be…

For years I’ve thought of myself as a master teacher (that right there is what we call foreshadowing, and it usually portends some bad juju). I’m always going around dispensing teaching advice and solving the world’s education problems in two hour conversations over coffee or five hour conversations with roommates on UIL trips or in blog posts here or all over the Internet on twitter and Facebook and the Diane Ravitch blog…

So when my principal and assistant principal asked if I would be willing to take over our new AD’s 7th period senior English class with nine weeks left of school I said, “Yeah! It’ll be fun!!!!” (No really, all those !!! belong there. No, really, I said fun. With a bubbly smile and perky personality. And all the hubris of a 20-year veteran teacher–with all the answers–who’s had a blast the last 15 years teaching classrooms filled with kids who apply to take her class for the most part.)

The last time I taught English I was in my 20s. I could wear high heels and did, often…weird, weird, weird. My daughter was in early elementary school. Obviously, I’d forgotten the realities of teaching a required core subject. I longed for the days of literature circles and vocab tests and essays over real life issues.

And that hubris…well, it came back to bite me in the backside big time.

Those kids…

The worst class I ever taught was my first year. I taught all juniors except one group of freshmen. There were around 30 kids in last period, six girls, the rest boys. I had no freaking idea what I was doing and discipline was just not even on my radar. But I was also 25. And by the end of the first semester I loved that class and most of them liked me and we had a lot of fun. I’m even Facebook friends with some of those kids, so if you’re reading this, “HEY!”

The second worse class I taught was a couple years later. I’d volunteered to take on the juniors in “regular” classes. Classes that were supposed to be smaller for more individual time with students who struggled. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Those classes were huge. And their real purpose was because Honors English was too tough and they wanted a second tier option so kids wouldn’t be held back by the others or bothered by discipline issues. That quickly became apparent. My friends saw my roll sheets before school started and said they’d pray for me.

I LOVED those kids (for the most part) from day one. We had fun. I was still in my 20s and discipline still wasn’t all that great. Once I sat on the floor with a poster that said I AM CRAZY on it and held it in front of me until they shut up and let me talk. One boy said, “Miss, why you got that poster?” And another answered, “Because she wants us to know she might go nuts in here.”

Actually, what I wanted was for them to think I might just throw someone out the window. Not really, but maybe if they thought it was a possibility….

A fellow teacher and I had a stalker from one of those classes that year. One of the kids ate pages from my personal copy of The Last Picture Show.

And I still had fun. I’m even Facebook friends with some of those kids (not the stalker or the book eater), so if you’re reading this, “HEY!”

Fun kind of drives my education car. If you were in the MSU education department in the early 90s, you understand that. If not, well, just accept it as a fact.

Flash forward to two weeks ago and that hubris I mentioned earlier.

Day one was awesome. I was a rockstar. (Again with the foreshadowing and bad juju)

Day two was a disaster. But they were still along for the ride.

Day three was OHMYGODYOU’VEGOTTOBEKIDDINGMEWHOARETHESEPEOPLE(SPAWNSOFSATAN)ANDWHYAMIHERESOMEONECALLWALMARTINEEDANEWJOB.

I. Cried. In. Front. Of. The. Class.

Oh, teacher with all the answers….ha! ha! ha!

Day four I looked in the mirror and told myself to get over my whiny self. Fun was not driving my car. And I was done going to them. They came to my class.

Day five one of the kids who’s in an earlier media class with me said, “Yesterday was good.” He was talking about English. I was a little surprised. And I almost got a little cocky about my awesomeness. But then day five happened. I didn’t cry, but yeah….There’s probably a youtube video out there. If there is, please don’t tell me. It won’t be the first time, though. The first time was when one of my students (one of my now Facebook friends) and his cohort in crime decided to do their project on how to get D-Hall in 60 seconds or less. It worked.

When I got home last Friday I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry and maybe eat some ice cream. And Cake. And Peeps…because, you know, they have all those new flavors.

I couldn’t have a margarita or 10 because I have a no drinking when you’re super stressed policy. Those kids were not only keeping me from fun and my dream of awesome English teaching and my self-actualized reality of awesomeness, they were keeping me from tequila. This was not okay.

Monday of this week something in me changed. When they walked into my room, I greeted every student the way Spanish teacher Lisa Williams taught us at inservice once. And as the kids walked in my room I saw them as people–who were stripped of a teacher they liked because he got an awesome promotion–getting ready to face the realities of a world that kind of sucks on a regular basis these days. I mean we’re on the brink of a new Cold War and there’s all this hate and it costs a freaking fortune to go to school and we’re 36+ inches behind on rain and the wealth gap is growing at astronomical rates. But these kids…they’re excited and probably a little afraid and it doesn’t really matter if they get satire or not but it does matter that they know they matter and who cares if fun drives my car and I thought teaching English would be fun?

Tuesday of this week was ok. Sort of.

Wednesday of this week was ok.

Today was ok.

Tomorrow’s going to be ok.

Will it be awesome, amazing, wonderful, terrific? Probably not. They’re seniors in their last six weeks of school with a new teacher they didn’t want.

Is that okay?

Yeah.

Will I show up in that classroom ready to teach to the very best of my ability?

Yeah.

Have I learned a bajillion and twelve lessons in the last nine days?

Oh yeah.

And all those answers….it’s easy to have them when you live in a glass house.

The newsroom is a glass house in a lot of ways. I mean we have deadlines, but we also have people who WANT TO BE THERE and usually love us.

Confession: for years my friends have said, “You have no idea,” and I’ve said “I know,” but on the inside I’ve smugly thought they were wrong. I totally knew.

Well, I didn’t know. I still don’t know.

And the truth is I will never really know and that’s okay because the not knowing is what makes us seek answers and seeking answers is what really makes us grow as teachers and for years I thought I knew, which means in a lot of ways I was stagnant, and that’s a scary bad place to be as a teacher. Whatever else happens, I’m no longer stagnant. And that’s something I can’t thank these kids for enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was a racist, but she didn’t know it

 “Do you think he can read?”
She asked the question in all seriousness as she stood outside the door to my friend’s classroom.
The he in question was a star athlete.
She knew that.
She also knew what he looked like on the outside.
Black.
And in her mind, that meant uneducated.

This wasn’t the 1860s or even the 1960s.
It was the early 1990s and I’d started my teaching career in a district in the midst of political turmoil. I didn’t know it then, but within a handful of years we’d be facing a desegregation order courtesy of a federal judge.
It’s not that we were segregated, per se. Not Remember the Titans segregated, anyway. But my school was 90% white, and that was way off of the city’s demographics.
Welcome controlled choice. A process where students were able to choose the high school they attended, however, there were racial quotas.
The woman was visiting our school before choice went into effect, and her question was serious.
She didn’t understand why we were offended.

A handful of years later, I wrote Honor and Lies.

The woman stayed in my mind with every word I wrote.
As did some of the other conversations from my classroom.

“But, Miss, I’ve heard the stories. Lots of people were nice to their slaves. It wasn’t always a bad thing.”

Back then I was fearless in the classroom. I think I didn’t know any better. Instead of telling the kids how wrong they were, I’d ask questions and make them draw their own conclusions. I made them defend their statements. I made them debate with each other.

These kids were 16 and 17, and they were tackling huge, controversial issues, and I was encouraging them.

Often my kids explained the above sentiment this way:
“Slavery with a nice family was like being a teenager all the time. Your parents love you, and they take care of you. And you do your chores, and things work out okay.”

I don’t think my kids really believed this, but they wanted to make slavery okay. They didn’t want to face the ugliness of what slavery was. That slaves were owned. That freedom was impossible. Slaves could be, and often were, raped, sold or killed. They had no rights. They weren’t even considered whole people. It didn’t matter if owners were nice. They were owners.

By the end of class, the students realized this. They learned by reading Frederick Douglass and Mary Chesnut’s Civil War and other American Lit. stories from the time. And we talked about racism and hate and hate crime and stereotypes and tolerance and ignorance and stupidity. And when I told them about the lady asking if the student could read, they were as outraged as my friends and I were the day it happened.

Today, I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to teach English with such an in your face style. My classroom is filled with kids I know and kids who know me. Kids I spend YEARS with, not 180 days. Debating controversial subjects in the newsroom isn’t brave. It’s normal.

Honor and Lies wouldn’t have been possible without those early days. I wrote the novel when I was still that young teacher, still teaching English, angry that people in my community thought black meant you couldn’t read. Sissy and Savannah are products of that classroom. I hope you enjoy.

Honor and Lies coupon:  50% off for one month: coupon code is LH94Z; find the book here.

Who Was She?

LA
Rink side seats.
Gretzky on the ice.
Life was good.
I don’t know who she was. A player’s grandmother maybe.
She sat beside us with her crochet on her lap, her needles working away, creating while the puck sliced by.
Rink side seats are different than others. You hear the ice, the players, the game. You see sweat dripping and tired eyes from a long road trip.
Rink side seats are amazing.
I certainly wouldn’t spend my time in them crocheting. But then this was a first for me. I get the feeling she held season tickets.
She interested me. I’m not sure why. Maybe because she was so different from everyone else. During fights, she calmly placed her crochet to the side, stood and yelled
“Kill Him, kill him, kill him,” like a warrior of old.
Fight rink side are different too. You hear their brutality, and the crowd noise makes you feel like you’re part of the battle.
The first fight I didn’t catch her movements, just heard the little old lady voice turn into that of a dragon slayer. But she intrigued me, and I couldn’t help but watch as the next fight broke out, and then the next, and then the next.
And always, calm, place, screaming banshee.
Back then I wasn’t writing. I was busy reading 25 novels a semester for the multiple upper level English courses I was taking. The only writing I did consisted of 10+-pg papers about Kurt Vonnegut, 100 Years of Solitude and Howl to name a few. I didn’t even remember the old dream of writing fiction. But it was there, lurking, as I watched people and wondered about their stories.
Who was she, that woman sitting rink side?
I don’t know. But I sure hope I get to use her one day in a book.

She's not the woman from the LA hockey game, but my Grandma is certainly a Dragon Slayer!