Text that Worked!

  • * context: I am in the middle of teaching a unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to eighth grade students at a local middle school. *

Hello CA!

I asked my students to do something relatively complex this week – and it worked! I still have much to learn about structuring and facilitating discussions, but slowly and surely the kids are getting better at articulating ideas and responding to each other meaningfully. It feels like it’s going to be worth all the leg work by the time we get to the big conversations near the trial.

This week moved through a section I did NOT really plan earlier this spring (I think one of these lessons may have been one about which you wrote “I’m not sure what they’re talking about?” because all I did was outline a procedure…!). However, as a result, I was able to take some underdeveloped ideas and flesh them out.

We’ve begun focusing on the unit’s second set of essential questions – how does role influence identity? – and we’ve honed in specifically on gender. After spending a day talking briefly about what it means to be a Southern gentleman and the expectations for Jem versus Scout, and reading the text through that lens (including, you guessed it, a graphic organizer!), I presented students with an editorial from the January 2017 issue of National Geographic, which focused on gender roles and shifting expectations in our culture and those around the world. I annotated it (surprise surprise!), and the students used specific non-fiction reading strategies they’d learned earlier in the year to approach the text. I also explicitly asked them to read to find connections to TKAM; the annotations and a tie-in quote provided additional guidance. Then, I had them select a quote from the article that connected to TKAM, and a quote from the book that supported their article quote, and then compose a short “why” statement. Depending on the class, students then shared their quotes and “why” in a full-class conversation or adapted save the last word. After each quote was shared, each student had to respond (thoughtfully!) to at least one other person – and each student had a peer coach tracking their statement and response.

I collected the written preparation, as well as some comments they had about what surprised them or what they wished they knew more about or what stick with them. I’ve been pretty blown away by their quote selection, connections drawn, and the general thoughtfulness of their responses. There is a very small handful of kids (I can think of 3-5 out of 153) who chose not to write, but they are all students who have submitted almost no work all year – despite the fact that they will read anything and everything put in front of them. How to reach them remains a puzzle. They did, however, participate in the conversations and underline things on the article. Baby steps, I suppose, and I’m choosing to be excited that almost everyone was able to make connections between a classic work of literature and a recent non-fiction text. So cool to watch!!!! (And even better to reflect on afterward; in the midst it was hard to know if it was working!)

I debated for a while before selecting the article, because I wanted to be absolutely sure I had a VERY clear reason for involving it in the unit, and that it would not feel arbitrary or unrelated. The work students were able to do, and the thoughts they have shared, tell me that it was worthwhile. Whew!

On another note, I was humbled to be in the auditorium with the entire eighth grade earlier this week and realize that every single one of those humans was working their way through something I had designed. It’s been interesting to watch the other teacher implement it, mostly because she has been busy with her boards and leadership activities – including organizing testing – during the last few weeks and hasn’t been reading the lessons or book very far ahead, and sends some kids over to me with questions. It’s good for me to realize just how clear I need to be, how different the same lesson/unit can look in another classroom, and also to see the ways in which she adapts some of the routines to match her own style. WOW.

Now that it’s almost 6:30pm on Friday, I’m going to go input a few grades from this week and decide what to take home with me for the weekend – now planning for feedback meetings and student check-ins and parent emails!

Take care,
Virginia

P. S. This week, the classroom is starting to feel more like mine – despite the fact that it’s still definitely someone else’s space into which I am fitting. There is also a long-term assignment formatting pattern that bugs me and doesn’t feel effective, but that’s something I’ve had to borrow to match expectations. Definitely something to consider for the future. I’m also going to spend some time this weekend creating a sample of the new projects I designed so that students know what they are supposed to look like…wish me luck in channeling my inner eighth-grade writing voice!

 

Enmeshed.

Dear AE,

For reasons I can’t name, you’ve been on my mind this morning.

I don’t know if I’ve ever talked to you about dance. I suppose it’s been present in our conversations in some way always, because to know me is to know my history with that art – spoken audibly or not, it’s evident in my every movement and action. I’ve been wrestling with my relationship with it for longer than I’ve consciously admitted. I was ready to give up my entire life, devote my entire existence to the service of an unforgiving beauty. Or, at least I thought so.

Instead, I found myself at twenty-five spirit-broken and scared…the people to whom I looked up were not who I wanted to become, the work to promote myself not the work I should have been doing. It felt wild and brave, but not wise or true.

And yet, I was terrified of leaving the physicality – would I know myself sans daily dance? Would I continue to be whole? I think it was C who asked me the first time I mentioned dance “how was it to leave something so physical to come back to school?” I didn’t have a conversational answer for her – a relationship wrought of weeping joy, laughing fear, humble wonder, and fleeting pride in which my whole self was enmeshed is not easily conveyed. I moved the conversation elsewhere.

It has now been over a year since I set foot in a ballet class, and six months since I last entered a dance studio. This weekend will mark the second birthday on which I have not danced in any formal way. Both of these numbers mark the longest period of time without either since I was five years old – twenty-two years ago. Am I still a dancer?

Yes.

Not in the sense most conventional definitions require. Everything I do is part of a dance I am weaving forever – one that is enmeshed in my sense of self, instead of the other way around; as my friend A put it, “art” instead of “ART.” And I am still a mover – I still speak physically and am happiest when I can do so – on my own terms. I am deliciously sore from a ten-mile run and two-hour ultimate frisbee game yesterday; this coming weekend will mark the second birthday in a row where I have treated myself to a long, challenging trail race. I still wrestle with how different this looks, and with considering myself an everyday athlete and not a professional.

But the women by whom I find myself surrounded in this new iteration of my life – yourself included – are inhabitants of a life that I can feel myself enveloping, instead of being enveloped by a single facet of my existence and in its service only. There is, though hard to find in any work of passion, some balance there. It feels wise, brave, wild…and true.

And I’ll dance my way through it.

Soft Edges and Scars – May 2014

The ways we meet each other, the ways our essences interact, is deeply informed by experiences of hurt or their absence.

Pain forms a wound. We cover it up, first, smooth it over, hide it with make-up, a hard, plastic cast to make it look like it never happened. When we’re in this stage, we bounce off of others; they can get close, but the band-aid like bubble-wrap casing keeps them away, even the softest uninjured ones.

Underneath this casing, we form a scar. Scars are inherently imperfect, a wonderful manifestation of the body’s memory – we, like our bodies, will never forget or lose the things that caused us pain. Once our scars form, we are faced with a choice: share them, or continue to hide them. Either way, their uneven surfaces will catch the essences of others, latch into their scars, pull threads out of the sleeves of their coats: draw strangers eyes from the floor to our own.

This can happen, too, when we are first wounded, though it is more painful and takes more courage: only the softest of the uninjured can touch open wounds: they are like cotton, catching the edge of the hurt, dabbing gently to still the bleeding and ease the harshness, the aloneness. They listen.

Sometimes, this is because they have their own hurts that have become part of their essence, a ripple just beneath the surface that is neither scar nor imperfection, just a part of who they are, something that shaped them and was absorbed on all facets. They are whole.

And then there are the ones who never take the plastic off of their perfection or refuse to look at their wounds at all. These are all smooth edges, round and hard and even beautiful, marbles and polished stone, and plastic and glass with smoke beneath the surface: we can not see through their defenses, and without edges to snag, they can not drag us out of our pain into theirs by accident or intent.

Soft edges and scars- these are the fabric whose stitches are what form us. Otherwise, we are just round things floating around the universe, forever bouncing off and never flowing in.

People, not Grades

Dear A E,

I hope all is well in your corner of the world – in all senses!

I’m borrowing a moment of your time after my first full week with my students to remind myself that it’s my first time designing and teaching a unit – and that I should celebrate the small victories – and that I’m not (probably now or ever) going to know exactly how to reach every student, though I can try. One day and one interaction at a time. These humans I’m teaching – all 156 of them whose names I know and stories I know only a part – they are each important and worthy of care. I think the hardest thing will be for me to have to give them a grade while still letting them know that it is not their value as a person, just as in a discussion we talk about “ideas not people.” It’s so exciting to hear my students’ voices in a classroom where they were previously expected to be almost exclusively silent. In our first quarter of classes, we were warned that we might end up in a classroom for student teaching where we would have to change the culture – and yet to meet that challenge in reality is another thing entirely, an enormous but worthy task I don’t think I could avoid if I wanted to do so: the kids are too important.

I’m reminded of something I wrote almost three years ago now, a sort of theory of human interaction that I’ve till now only applied to other adults. I wonder what aspects of it are relevant to my kids – and to their interactions and perceptions of me, and all those other humans who ask and expect of them each and every day.

More to come as this process unfolds – and a brief version of the “theory” is here, if you’re curious.