James* bursts into my classroom late, singing at the top of his lungs. “WHAT ARE WE DOING?” he shouts to no one in particular. I point to the SMART board where the warm-up instructions are posted. He stomps to the middle of the room, stops singing, and starts dancing. “WHAT ARE WE DOING?” he shouts again while gyrating. And again I catch his eyes, point to the warm-up instructions (read independently for ten minutes), and pantomime opening up a book. “WHAT DID WE DO IN SCIENCE CLASS?” James yells out to no one in particular. Most of the class continues to read. I bring over 3-4 books I think James might like. “I HATE READING” he shouts at me. I continue to breathe deeply and slowly, paying special attention to keep the muscles in my shoulders, face, and hands relaxed. James picks up one of the books and then puts it back down.
“HEY WHAT ARE WE DOING IN SCIENCE CLASS?”
This moment has played out in some form or another since September. Sometimes James has in-school suspension. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I breathe a little easier on those days. Without James I can spread my energy around to other kids in the class. Kelly for instance has awe inspiring impulse control issues. With James gone I can park myself next to Kelly. It’s the only way I’ve found to decrease her ceaseless flow of colorful commentary.
I’ve met with James, his parents, other teachers, and the counselor in a variety of configurations. His grades are in the tank and he floats in and out of various detentions and suspensions. It’s obvious that James needs a lot of support. The meetings always end the same. We tell James to go to homework club. We tell his parents James can get make-up work from his teachers and have extra time to complete it. But a couple of weeks later everyone is back where they started.
I have a lot of kids who struggle like this. They might not be as disruptive to the classroom, but they’re floundering the same. These are the kids teachers and schools often pathologize as “lazy” or “undisciplined.” Schools and teachers are much better equipped to deal with a “lazy” student than they are a traumatized one. Kids who aren’t doing their work can go to homework clubs. They can get help before, during, or after school. They can get make-up work from teachers. Their progress can then be monitored by parents and counselors via online gradebooks.
In a way, the availability of these resources can make it harder to respond to a child with compassion. You can have a million different hammers, but you’re still out of luck if you have to do anything other than push in a nail. And with students like James and Kelly, it’s obvious there’s more there than a kid simply choosing to ignore their studies.
Social Psychologist Devon Price recommends we respond to a person’s behavior with curiosity instead of judgement. I know how hard this can be. We’ve explained the directions, had a student repeat them, projected them on the wall, and yet some students remain absolutely clueless about what they’re supposed to be doing. The meritocracy that permeates our air often speaks through us. If only these kids would try harder. Concentrate. Behave. Follow directions. The problem is that these demands might outpace the student’s ability to self-regulate.
Executive functioning, the umbrella term for cognitive mechanisms related to self-regulation, can take a big hit when someone experiences trauma. And we know from various studies that a large percentage of children experience some sort of trauma. Trauma can keep the body’s nervous system in a perpetual state of fight or flight. The effects of constantly elevated stress hormones can lead to memory and attention problems.
So how can we reorient ourselves, our pedagogies, and our schools to better help students who have experienced trauma? Alex Shevrin Venet suggests starting by sweating the small stuff. Build our capacity to live in the moment and offer individual therapeutic moments to our students. Express kindness and unalloyed compassion. Look beyond the behavior to try and figure out what’s really going on.
There is no quick fix. Schools are filled with hurt and traumatized children. And so many of us teachers were those children. We can refuse to take part in a culture of academic shaming and begin to construct communities of healing that understand and honor the connections between mind and body. Get curious, not furious.
* James and any other student mentioned in this post are not real kids, but a composite of multiple students I’ve had at multiple schools across multiple years. This is to preserve anonymity while keeping the spirit of the events true.
Last week was Black Lives Matter at School week. All across the country, teachers delivered instruction based on the movement. On Friday I talked with kids about affirming queer and trans Black lives, two of the movement’s 13 guiding principles. While I’d spoken about trans and queer lives before, the subject matter was always secondary to whatever content area skill we were focusing on. This lesson put the subject front and center.
We watched a short video of people talking about their experiences being both Black and queer. We read the horrific statistics behind transphobic and anti-Black bullying and made connections to what we experienced in our own school.
In every class period a handful of students explained that their religion and/or home cultures looked down on being gay, trans, etc. I told them emphatically that while that’s their business, there was nothing wrong with being gay, trans, etc. They made faces, protested, and told me I was wrong. I repeated myself and reminded them that our classroom was no place for any hate, prejudice, or bigotry. I tried to push our conversation away from individuals and towards the social structures that reinforced certain beliefs, but it was tough.
I was pulled aside a few days later to have a conversation about what I had said in class that day. Specifically that I needed to be more careful about letting my own beliefs influence the things I said and the ways I reacted to students. The conversation wasn’t threatening, but it wasn’t ambiguous, either.
I was making value statements about what some students heard, felt, thought, and said. I was explicitly stating that some of the things my students heard at home, in their churches, and in their communities had no place in our classroom. But if basic dignity was truly axiomatic, I wouldn’t need to assert these ideas. I wouldn’t receive push back against absolute bare-minimum messages of equality. And I wouldn’t have felt a minor shudder of cognitive discomfort when I said it.
The conversation reminded me just how insidious and pervasive white supremacy and heteronormativity is. There is nothing revolutionary about asserting someone’s basic dignity. Yet doing so was enough to alert the systems that continuously reinforce and reinscribe ideologies of discrimination and hate.
This is why it’s essential to assert and proclaim that Black, queer, and or/trans lives matter. To speak these truths into existence bluntly and without equivocation. And for teachers like me to use our privilege to break white male solidarity. Lesson by lesson we can work with students to carve out the spaces that everyone deserves.
“This classroom is not a place where I’m able to learn because of the noise levels.”
“A group of students make it hard to work because of giggling and talking.”
“I do not feel respected by my classmates because of how some people act.”
These statements greeted my sixth period students as they entered the room two weeks ago. After everyone was seated, I asked them to reflect on what they saw. Did these statements accurately reflect what was going on in the room? After a brief discussion, I told students that I would make sure that they always knew what the expectation was. If an activity called for them to be silent, we would take ten seconds to practice what that looked like and sounded like. Students who struggled to meet the expectations would meet with me to talk through strategies and work on self-awareness. Not as a punishment, but as a chance to figure out what’s going on and how to work towards improvement.
The talk (and a couple of reminders since then) has led to a drastic improvement in the classroom environment. And it’s all thanks to the feedback of three anonymous students.
As teachers we’re inundated with feedback. Most of it comes through bureaucratic channels such as checklists, official forms, Likert scales, missives, spreadsheets, and percentages. This sort of feedback can be hit or miss. It’s often tied to faceless initiatives and whatever mandate is big in the edu-sphere at the moment. The feedback that matters most, the kind at the top of this post, can be the hardest to find. What do my students think about what’s going on in our class? Does my instructional style work for them? This type of feedback is built on trust and reciprocity between teacher and student.
There’s different ways to collect this kind of data, and each method provides a slightly different take. Meeting with a core group of students over a period of time, a la Chris Emdin’s cogenerative dialogues, helps you tap into how students experience your class on a day to day basis. What lessons worked? What discussions fell flat? Writing back and forth with students and their families in a notebook can provide a comprehensive portrait of how everyone is doing inside and outside of the room. Unfortunately it requires a dizzying amount of labor to pull off on a consistent basis. Luckily there will always be some kids who will just tell you when the lesson sucked. Like most teachers I rely on a combination of these methods.
I also like to do a simple “State of the Class” survey. I prefer to use an anonymous Google Form. Here’s a past example if you’re curious. It gives me a snapshot of how kids feel about me, my instruction, and our class. Some of the questions have to do with classroom environment (Do you enjoy English class? Is English class a place where you can focus on learning?) while others focus on instruction (Which of the following activities helped you improve as a writer?) My favorite answers come from the open response questions about how Mr. Anderson can improve. The answers mirror the period. I must admit, I put a couple more questions about classroom environment on my last survey because of sixth period specifically. In this case the feedback confirmed my own perceptions.
Going through the survey responses, I often get the feeling that I’m working too hard. That the time I spend massaging fonts and presentation slide syntax probably isn’t worth it. Do I want every unit to be a panoply of epiphanic activities and brilliantly sequenced lessons? Of course! But for a lot of kids, it’s just class. And that’s okay. I’m not going to lie and act like I don’t go home and agonize over every survey that reveals a kid doesn’t absolutely love my class. But it’s a necessary reminder. I also enjoy sharing the data with students. That way if anyone groans about reading, I can remind them that 73% of students asked for more independent reading time.
Whether you give a survey, write back and forth, or meet with kids during lunch or after school, the feedback you receive is invaluable. Do kids like your class? Do they feel respected? Do they feel like they’re learning? This sort of feedback cuts through the noise and hierarchies and gets at some of the most important questions to any teacher.
Teaching students how to write is really hard. Students need direct instruction, engaging “real world” models, time to write and revise, an audience they care about, and assignments that appeal to them. Even on the best of days when we’ve somehow managed to tick off all of these boxes, we still have to wrangle with the morass of hormones and developmentally appropriate inattention that is the hallmark of a middle schooler.
Like most teachers, I’m constantly swapping out new (and old) writing pedagogies in search of anything that will get my students excited about their writing. But no matter what instructional methods I’m trying out, one tool remains consistent: writing alongside my students. I don’t mean cobbling something together to offer as a finished product to emulate, but actually getting down into the trenches sweating it out word for word with them on every assignment.
This does a few things. It helps me treat writing seriously and unseriously. Both perspectives are necessary for a writer. It’s also a quick way to find out whether or not an assignment sucks. Working on a piece of writing alongside my students helps me see the nuts and bolts of the assignment. The more I do it, the better I become at predicting where the sticking points will be. Which areas I can gloss over and which skills will require a deep dive. It gives me a chance to demystify the writing process and show students just show much work goes into crafting something even semi-coherent.
When I write with my students, I send the message that what we’re doing in the classroom is worthy of serious time and effort. And that we’re in it together. The feedback goes both ways.
The call for teachers to write with their students is nothing new. A debate about the efficacy of writing alongside students raged across the pages of NCTE’s English Journal in the nineties when high school teacher Karen Jost argued that the time it takes for teachers to write is better spent conferring with students. Teachers already have too much to do, she explained. The demand that teachers of writing now themselves should be writing smacked as yet another example of teachers being told what to do by supposed thought leaders who hadn’t stepped foot in an average classroom in years.
In many ways Jost wasn’t wrong. There is no time. It’s impossible for me to do everything I’m supposed to do. Every day is a series of cost/benefit decisions. I get one 45 minute planning period unmolested by meetings a day. Do I spend it in an IEP meeting that will surely go into my lunch break? Or do I use that time to provide written feedback on student writing? But if I do either of those, I won’t be able to finally meet with that student who has been writing about how bad his depression has gotten. I also need to check in with the counselor about a student’s math placement and think ahead to tomorrow’s lesson. Few of my options deal directly with classroom instruction and the Herculean task of growing readers and writers. So I understand why asking teachers to begin writing with their students seems like just another task.
But that the decision to write alongside our students isn’t a binary choice. It’s more of a stance we take towards curriculum, instruction, and our place inbetween. A teacher as writer stance connects us with the art and science of writing in a way that no rubric or exemplar ever could. It’s the best way to learn that a piece of writing’s center of gravity changes multiple times throughout the writing process. Or that no matter how hard an author wrestles with a piece, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
To get started, consider one place you can write with your students. A brainstorming session for an upcoming essay or poem, for instance. The good thing about students not being used to their teachers writing is that they won’t call you out if you don’t follow through on it.
Writing alongside your students will fundamentally alter your relationship with what you teach, how you teach it, and how you relate to students. And as this relationship begins to shift, so will your relationship to the writing instruction that’s going on around you. You will (re)connect with the transformative potential of literacy and the power of words to bind us together. It’s a way to come home to a profession that seems so bent on throwing up hurdles between what we do and why we do it.
My back to school night dread begins in August. The ecstatic joy that is the first few days of the school year is always tempered by the dismal knowledge that in a few weeks I’ll be staying at work until well past my octogenarian approved bedtime.
Rationally I know back to school night isn’t a big deal. It just comes at such a rotten time. It’s always crammed into the third week of school when teacher morale is in the dumpster. The euphoric mixture of adrenaline and dopamine characterizing the first ten days of school has been replaced by the sobering realities of overstuffed classrooms, soul crushing bureaucratic demands, and germs. So many germs. Luckily September’s cocktail of choice, a noxious mixture of convenience store coffee and generic Dayquil, keeps me wired enough to get through the gauntlet that hits the third thursday of every September.
The actual night itself is a blast. I love talking to families. Old students come by and stalk the halls like they own the place. Every now and then a student who I haven’t seen in years will pop their near unrecognizable head (the changes from puberty are no joke) into my room and chat for a few minutes. This year’s pop-in was especially memorable.
Many years ago, I taught a student who was fascinated with drawing, thinking about, and talking about animals. They would stop by to show off their most recent artistic creations. A hippo with the head of a capybara. Some multisyllabic dinosaur combined with the spots of a giraffe. And accompanying each image, of which there were many, would be an intensely detailed description of the animal’s biome, mutations, and evolutionary stages.
I was never particularly interested in animal science. It was the kid’s joy that kept me engaged. They were just so infatuated with this stuff that I couldn’t help but grin and follow along with every obscure detail. I don’t think it mattered too much what I said or did, just that I was there. They would plop down at a desk, open up their notebook, and let it rip.
And then they were gone. They graduated and that was it. Until last week when they stopped by to visit me before back to school night began.
It was a joyous reunion. Nothing had changed. We had barely finished shaking hands before they brandished their latest notebook and guided me through their most recent illustrations. They’d even brought some of their original drawings to show me how their artistry had evolved. They told me about a blog they’d been keeping where they chronicled many of their creations. And about the friends they’d made who shared their interests.
They could only stay for a few minutes, but that’s all we needed. The muscles in my cheeks ached from smiling. Every cell in my body was grinning. Theirs were too, I think. It was the perfect way to begin an evening of confronting the high stakes privilege that is teaching language arts to the hearts and minds of young people.
A few moments families began flowing into the room, jostling each other to find space in a room built to accommodate the physical proportions of 7th graders. I did my best to reveal who I was as a teacher. What I hoped to accomplish with their children and how I was going to do my best to help them grow.
The next morning, as I sipped my coffee and chugged my Dayquil, an email from that student appeared in my inbox asking if I could read and provide feedback for something they had written. It’s a story about a group of humans who hunt dragons with futuristic technology on a harsh planet. I can’t wait.
Jorge jiggled his knee as I read over his story, his anxiety palpable. “It’s just… I mean… I know there’s a lot,” he said as he raked his hand through his spiky hair for the third time in as many minutes. He was right. By the end of the first page I counted at least eight characters and four drastically different settings. For feedback, I told him two things. First, that as a reader I was having a hard time figuring out who to focus on. Then I told him to listen as I read his story back to him. Which part of his story excited him the most? He zeroed in on a character (Tommy and his magical Book of the Dead) and left the conference with a more manageable scope to his story.
The rest of last week’s story conferences proceeded along similar routes. Sometimes the feedback was easy: insert a piece of dialogue that foreshadows the character’s conflict. Other times, it wasn’t. Helping writers nurture their strengths is a complex constellation of skills that I will probably never master. Anytime I felt stymied, I reached for Angela Stockman‘s fantastic Talking with Writers 2018. Talking with Writers devotes a section to responding to common problems in student writing. The strategy I used with Jorge came from Stockman’s work.
The ease with which I was able to apply this type of “See X? Try Y!” logic to student writing took me by surprise. As a committed member of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, I’ve always advocated for the power of writing alongside my students. And, following the work of Paul Thomas, I’ve also labored to try and become a scholar of writing. I’ve pursued composition pedagogy and history, written blog posts, and lead in-service trainings about the importance of knowing your theory.
However it wasn’t my understanding of composition or my status as a writer that helped me help my students. At least, I don’t think it was. Framed by schooling’s twin ideologies of efficiency and outcomes, every conference was compact and results oriented. Here’s what I see; here’s where you need to go; here’s a strategy to get you there. Does being a teacher of writing who writes provide any sort of advantage in this situation? Is this even the question to ask?
Normally, if my students are writing, so am I. It’s become an important part of my practice. It reminds me that writing exists outside of high-stakes accountability and the testing trap. It shows me that writing cannot be contained by formulaic essay constructions or meaningless assignments. But this method of instruction takes time, a teacher’s most valued currency. Every minute I spend writing alongside students is a minute I don’t have to confer with them.
During this last realistic fiction unit I chose not to write with them. I went with the more common alternative: work on something at home and bring it in as an example. I had more time to meet with my students, but I also felt disconnected, like a detached head floating above my students.
The debate over how best to spend class time isn’t new. In 1990, Karen Jost set off a firestorm within the secondary Language Arts community by arguing that the cost of writing with students outweigh the benefits. Students are best served by a teacher who meets with them and provides feedback, not by a teacher who labors over their own manuscripts. Jost lists the dizzying array of duties administrators and families expect of secondary teachers. With this list in mind, it is hard to imagine how teachers can confer with students, give daily instruction, provide written feedback, attend school functions, etc. and still find the time to sit down and write.
Ideally, we would do both. We would workshop their pieces with our students, in the process modelling authentic purposes, purposeful revision, and the writing life. As we did this, we would confer with students and do our best to guide them through the infinite complexity of composition. But there is not enough time to do both.
There is no answer. Or if there is, I don’t know it. But I do know that what we do shows what we value. The pedagogies we enact are inextricably linked to who we are as teachers, writers, and professionals. We make sure to share our reading lives with students. We give book talks, do read alouds, and converse with our kids about the books that matter to us. Can we say the same about our lives as writers?
The skittering hi-hat from Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow slunk through the classroom. Students bobbed their heads as they composed poems and personal narratives about their names. Period 1’s Class DJ surveyed the class with a smile and returned to his seat, leaving his phone plugged into the class speakers for the duration of independent writing time.
Before this year, classroom jobs remained off of my radar. They never interested me. For one, I struggle to delegate work and I have a severe perfectionist streak. I also assumed middle school students would turn up their noses at the quotidian ins and outs of daily classroom life.
I was wrong. The more I’m leaning back, the more they’re leaning in.
So this year, kids in my classroom will be:
- Griots: Taking pictures of what we do in class and posting them on our class social media accounts
- DJs: Creating playlists of instrumental versions of popular songs that they’ll play during independent work
- Teacher’s Assistants (TAs): Running any errands, distributing and collecting materials, and dismissing groups based on cleanliness when the bell rings
- Book-Keepers: Keeping our classroom library organized, helping suggest books, picking books for book talks
- Time-Keepers: Watching the clock every time we have timed tasks (which for the most part happens multiple times per class)
- Class Advisory Board members: Meeting with me every Wednesday during lunch to give me feedback on my teaching. What lessons are working, what aren’t, and how I can improve.
The first step involved asking the students to figure out what skills each job needed and how each job would benefit the class. I created a one-page description for each job, placed the sheet on a large sheet of butcher paper, and then hung the butcher paper around the room. In groups of 3, students rotated through each job station, spending two minutes jotting down answers on the charts. The idea was to help students think through the ramifications of each class job before applying. Here are the one-pagers I created. Forgive me the old memes.
Afterwards, interested students completed a simple Google Form application. They chose the jobs they were interested in and explained why they would be a good fit. At the end of the day I went through and selected students of color who expressed interest. The next day I wrote out “acceptance” letters in fancy font, printed them out on quality cardstock, and signed them with a flourish. In every class I revealed the acceptance letters with as much fanfare as possible.
It’s been a week since I passed out the letters. Certain jobs like the book-keepers and TAs were able to start immediately. The griots and DJs, however, have required slightly more attention. Class DJs had to figure out how they would pick songs, if they wanted to take requests, how often they would change their playlists, etc. Griots had to create social media accounts, figure out how to advertise them, determine what they would take pictures of and, as one student kept reminding the group, “find the right aesthetic.” As a result, these two jobs have yet to begin.
The decision to go all in with classroom jobs stemmed from Christopher Emdin’s essential For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood. Emdin devotes an entire chapter to discussing the intersections of student responsibility, classroom culture, and equity. He describes classroom jobs as a way to create “…a space where each student is a full citizen responsible for how well the class meets the collective academic, social, and emotional goals” (107). For Emdin, jobs are part of an approach to pedagogy centered on “fostering socioemotional connections in the classroom with the goal of building students’ sense of responsibility to each other and to the learning environment” (105).
In a few weeks, I’ll gather together every student with a job so we can reflect. What needs to be changed? What jobs should be added/removed?
I’m beginning to see how successfully implementing classroom jobs can shift the culture of a classroom. It’s not easy, and I’m finding that I need to spend more time helping students understand that their jobs are about sharing responsibility, not lording power over one another. I’m confident that as the year progresses, and as I become more skilled at working with students in this new way, we can shift the balance of power and co-construct the community we need.
Image credit: rawpixel.com