Category: Uncategorized

Confronting My Racism

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The park was packed. Babies giggled in their strollers as their caregivers guided them along the forest’s paths. Camp counselors roamed the perimeter of a playground, corralling loose children before it was time to go. Teenagers ran amok through the trees, roasting each other and enjoying the final weeks before school starts up again. I ambled through the park with Lola Bear, my yeti-like dog, enjoying the unseasonably temperate August weather.

All of a sudden, I flinched. Two Black teens had passed me on their bikes. My nervous system fired off a fight-or-flight response. The flash of fear receded immediately, but the aftershocks remained. 

I monitored my thoughts and feelings as I continued walking on the path. The two boys had abandoned their bikes and were now playing on a swing-set. Everywhere around me was human activity, but my eyes kept pulling me towards the swing-set. Regardless of where I placed my attention, my brain kept a mental note on where those two teenagers were. On average, I had the desire to “check on them” once every four to five seconds (I counted).

This happens just about anytime I see someone with a significant proportion of melanin pigment in their skin. Even at my school, a building where children of color make up the majority of the student body, I still freeze up for a microsecond whenever I see children of color in the hallways. Students I’ve taught and formed relationships with, students who have let me into their hearts and vice versa, still engender that split second hesitation.

By the time I’ve caught and named what’s going on inside my brain, it’s too late to stop it. Under White supremacy, my fear response makes sense. In Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Reparations, Joe Feagin writes that ideological racism includes positive images of Whites as well as strongly negative images of racial “others” (142). My brain is working off of thirty-five years of racist stereotypes and media representations. This is socialization in America. 

I am the beneficiary of white privilege and of a racist society. It doesn’t matter if I believe it. All that matters now is what I can do to interrupt it. Robin DiAngelo writes that Whites have two interwoven tasks:

“One is to work on our own internalized oppression – the ways in which we impose limitations on ourselves based on the societal messages we receive about the inferiority of the lower status groups we belong to. The other task is to face the internalized dominance that results from being socialized in a racist society – the ways in which we consciously or unconsciously believe that we are more intelligent, more valuable, and more deserving than people of color.” (p. 53).

As a cisgender heterosexual White male from an upper-middle class family, I have zero internalized limitations. The only marginalized social category I belong to involves neurodivergence; I have pretty intense ADHD. But I haven’t experienced oppression from it because I’m at the top of every other social category. My race, class, gender, etc. ensure that I suffer few penalties for my struggles to focus and filter information. I can make mistakes without worrying that my carelessness will be ascribed to my race or my gender or my ability.

DiAngelo’s second task, to examine my internalized dominance, is where this and my last two blog posts sit. I’m working to unearth the fear that gnaws at my nerves anytime race comes up. The defensiveness I feel when anyone puts me on the spot about my privilege. The existential unease that rockets through my body when I see Black males.

If you’re interested in starting this work but unsure of where to start, here’s what I’m doing for my first steps. I’m donating to organizations like Safety Pin Box. I’m reaching out to the people of color in my life and making moves to build and sustain relationships with them. I’m attending movies made by people of color. I’m compiling antiracist resources for my classroom. I’m speaking out on social media and engaging with White folks who seem confused and upset. I’m doing everything I can to educate myself. Every day provides a new opportunity to take some form of antiracist action. Stomach the discomfort, work through the confusion, and let’s do something. 

Image credit: Yuriy Khimanin

Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project

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The Writing Project rules. It has influenced every aspect of my pedagogy.  Every summer for the last four years I’ve been fortunate, lucky, and privileged to be able to spend time with my local affiliate’s Invitational Summer Institute. The ISI is a four week celebration of writing. Teachers spend time giving demonstration lessons, participating in writing groups, and learning the ins and outs of composition.

A colleague of mine recently asked about using This I Believe podcasts in class. Remembering that a teacher gave a demo lesson this last year, I shot him the link. I decided to collect some of the demo lesson write-ups on one page. Hopefully these resources might be of value to teachers!

How Do I Write? Examining Our Writing Process Pt. 1

Cheese and Chocolate – Descriptive Writing

ESOL Bootcamp – Writing with Language Learners

Encouraging and Supporting Writers through Technology

Line and Stanza Breaks in Free Verse Poetry

Progoff Journaling – Personal and Expressive Writing pt. 1

Progoff Journaling – Personal and Expressive Writing pt. 2

Teacher Writing and Publishing

Physicalizing and Brainstorming Strong Verbs

Teaching Persuasive Writing through Op-Ed Genre Study

Writing Extraordinary Profiles of Ordinary People through Profile Genre Study

Working Titles to a T

“If You Really Want to Hear About It: Holden Caulfield and Voice

Student Made Standards Based Rubrics

Integrating Multi-Genre Research Projects with Technology

Thinking Places: A Playful Activity for Personal Narratives

Multimodal Literacy and Poetry with English Language Learners

Writing Notebooks: Playgrounds for Writers

Multigenre Projects and Metacognitive Thinking

Using Primary Resources for Writing Instruction

Found Poems: A Generative Pathway to Meaningful Textual Interactions

Using Improv in the Class to Enhance Openness and Creativity

Using Maps to Tell A Story: Cartography, Visualization, and Research

Visual Literacy: Exploring Stories Within and Beyond the Frame

Writing in ESOL: A Journey

Stretch A Lot – Stretch A Little: Using Hyperbole to Enhance Memoir Writing

Using Writing Conferences to Implement the Writing Process

A Masterclass in Writing Fiction – Pt 1

A Masterclass in Writing Fiction – Pt 2

Beyond Socratic Seminars and Essential Questions: The Importance of Student Generated Questions

Using This I Believe Podcasts to Elevate Student Voice

Bonus! Want to Upgrade Your Theory Game? Check Out These Posts on Composition Pedagogy Theory

Expressivist Composition Pedagogy

Collaborative Writing Pedagogy

Critical Composition Pedagogy

Process Composition Pedagogy

Feminist Composition Pedagogy

Genre Composition Pedagogy

Literature and Composition Pedagogy 

 

 

 

 

Today I Called A Student Racist

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I called a kid racist today. Or, more specifically, I called a comment he made racist. My 7th grade class was making observations about an image I had projected onto the board. We were using similes and metaphors to describe images when he made the comment.

“Yea, whatever that stuff on the street is, it looks crusty. You know, like Imani’s weave.”[1]

My mind ground to a halt. Nineteen pairs of eyes swiveled towards me, fixing me to the spot. A space of panic opened up inside of me. It was the neural equivalent of a DDoS attack. My brain flooded itself with demands for information. What just happened? How should I react? Was the kid being racist? How close is he with Imani? How is Imani reacting? How is the class reacting? 

The classic “oohhHHHH!” that typically follows classroom roasting was conspicuously absent. Maybe kids sensed the existential unease their teacher was suddenly radiating. Maybe they recognized that the Rick had gone too far. Or, since it was the beginning of first period, maybe they were just too tired to get worked up. But whatever the reason for the silence, I was thankful. I needed those precious seconds of to try and work through my response. 

Earlier that month I had been reading about the various repugnant ways that white society critiqued and attempted to control Black female bodies. With that fresh in my mind, I made the decision to publicly censure the boy. I took a deep breath into my lungs and steeled my diaphragm in order to try and keep my voice steady.

“Rick, that comment was racist and disrespectful to Imani. There is a history of white men making disparaging and racist remarks about the appearance of Black females. Please apologize and do not do it again.”

Silence.

Within thirty seconds the class and I had moved on. During my first planning period I found my school’s diversity coordinator and told her what had happened. I knew I hadn’t handled the situation well and that I needed to debrief with the two students as soon as possible.

I contacted someone from the diversity office for advice on how to discuss what happened with Rick. She recommended speaking with Rick about how his comment was insensitive (instead of racist). She also told me that I didn’t need to go into any of the history about Black bodies and the white male gaze. “Tell Rick it’s insensitive to make fun of Black girls’ hair and that he needs to apologize,” she said.

Rick was already ahead of me. By the time I snagged him during lunch, he had already apologize to Imani over Snapchat, Instagram, and in person. When I asked him why he had made the comment, he told me that he was just trying to be funny. I told him it was insensitive and disrespectful to make fun of Black girls’ hair or appearance. His head bobbed up and down like a hyperactive jack in the box. Afterwards I spoke with Imani. She confirmed Rick’s multiple apologies and insisted that she was okay. “Eh, I’m used to it,” she said.

I knew I hadn’t handled the situation well. In my inadequacy to deal with microaggressions in the classroom, I had called a student out instead of calling him in. For anyone unfamiliar with the difference, this is a good place to start. I find myself consistently unprepared to discuss issues of race in the classroom. In Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education authors Robin DiAngelo and Özlem Sensoy address this. They write that

Because Whites choose to live primarily segregated lives within a White dominated society, we receive little or no authentic information about racism and are thus unprepared to think about it critically. (p. 110).

I’m currently battling through my own infantile understanding of racism, intersectionality, and the role of schooling in perpetuating inequality. My ignorance is thick, and the amount I have to learn is staggering, but this is no excuse for inaction.

As a white educator speaking to other white educators, calling students in is a non-negotiable part of our work. Schools are primary sites of socialization for children. And since schools draw from dominant ideologies in order to recreate existing inequalities, it makes sense that microaggressions seem to ooze out of the pores of many students and teachers.

While some students have learned to limit insensitive comments and exaggerated accents when adults are around, many haven’t. And for those who have learned to keep such comments to a minimum when authority figures are present, I would offer that the threat of being publicly shamed is a more powerful motivator than an understanding of oppression and prejudice.

At my school, labeling something or someone as racist has become just as common as kids facetiously calling each other bullies. I’ve contributed to this climate with my own inaction. I’m guilty of using proximity or “the look” or other non-verbals to silence students who make prejudiced and insensitive comments instead of calling them in to discuss the situation. I need to talk to them about why they said it, what their intentions were, and why such comments are harmful. Every single time.

Let me make it clear that this post isn’t about Rick. It’s about my own struggles to snap out of my privileged complacency in order to begin the work of becoming an antiracist educator. For my fellow white educators who battle with feelings of guilt or embarrassment or confusion, let it go. These feelings keep us from throwing ourselves into this work.


[1] I’ve changed the names and identifying details to preserve the privacy of those involved.

Image: CC0

The Dangers of Knowing A Little: Pseudo-Journalism and Education Discourse

I recently saw an article from The Atlantic making the rounds on my various social media feeds. After reading a handful of teachers respond positively to the article’s claims, I wanted to offer an alternative perspective. The article in question, “The Writing Revolution”, presents an informal case study of a high school’s writing program. Students at New Dorp High School were struggling to grow as writers and thinkers. Administration and teachers tried multiple strategies to rectify the deficit, but nothing seemed to work. It wasn’t until the school emphasized grammar and sentence construction that the quality of student writing skyrocketed.

Author Peg Tyre suggests that New Dorp’s problems are endemic to American education  (“But the truth is, the problems affecting New Dorp students are common to a large subset of students nationally.”). If only students were taught the basics of grammar and spelling, the article suggests, American students would be at the top of the international report cards.

In my eight years of teaching, I’ve learned how potent this argument is. I’m not entirely certain why, but the rhetoric of “Kids these days can’t write. If only they did X, then we wouldn’t be in such a mess” seems to appeal to a wide audience.

As far as I’m concerned, the article is demonstrative of how America’s media reports on education. First off, it’s written by someone who hasn’t spent time as a classroom teacher. According to her website, Tyre is the “influential” author of “widely praised books” on education such as The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve. Experience as a classroom teacher should be a prerequisite for anyone writing an article about the details of classroom instruction.

“The Writing Revolution” follows a structure recognizable to anyone familiar with the history of American school reform. It begins with an invocation of crisis (today’s children can’t write), relies on superficial statistics (“Other research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades four through 12 write poorly”) and promotes a conservative, back-to-basics program (“The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950”).

The article does contain some useful takeaways. Tyre notes how many teachers of writing are unfamiliar with composition pedagogy. And writing across the content areas receives a shout-out, as does the primacy of writing in the educational enterprise in general. Unfortunately, the positive aspects of the article are buried underneath paragraphs of garbage such as,

Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

I’ve never come across the idea that writing instruction went through some sort of shift 25 years ago. And the notion that teaching the general rules of spelling and sentence structure improves writing is unfounded by research. In fact, Constance Weaver provides compelling evidence that strict adherence to the superficial aspects of writing produces inferior writing. “Some kids mastered it, many did not.” What does that even mean?

Another paragraph states that,

‘At teachers college, you read a lot of theory, like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but don’t learn how to teach writing,’ said Fran Simmons. How could the staff backfill the absent foundational skills their students needed in order to learn to write?

Pedagogy is inherently political. One informs the other, whether you think so or not. Expressivism and process pedagogy, the methods of writing instruction mischaracterized throughout the article as some sort of liberal indulgence, are in reality complex bodies of knowledge, each with their own traditions, political contexts, and historical significances.

Grammar is not an either/or situation. Teachers haven’t forsaken grammar at the altar of student choice. Scholar-practitioners like George Hillocks and Jeff Anderson and Lisa Delpit and Peter Smagorinsky and Constance Weaver have long advocated for contextualized, rigorous, and meaningful grammar instruction. This is an incredibly complex challenge. Creating units of study that engage students in authentic grammar study, teach the concrete building blocks of language, introduce students to real-world genres and audiences, and instill a love of literacy is the highest form of teaching. I am nowhere near mastering it. Not even close. Providing instruction at such a high level can only come from intense reflection, deliberation, and intention.

Asking kids to start sentences with conjunctions is easy, making them care about it is not.

Yes, we want students to be better writers. Yes, we want teachers to be the best they can be. Only a fool would think otherwise. But that doesn’t mean the chicken-little histrionics on display throughout this article are valid. Instead of pointing the finger at incompetent teachers, it’s worth investigating why many of us feel uneasy with grammar and composition pedagogy. Perhaps it’s related to crushing accountability mandates, scripted curriculum, increasingly technocratic teacher preparation programs, market-based professional development, or the utopian demands placed on us.

Lastly, education is a combination of academics, politics, and economics. Any article or pundit promising school improvement without addressing all three factors is peddling snake oil. Teachers, we must make our voices heard. We will disagree, and that’s a good thing. Only good can come from the dialectic of conversation. But we cannot stand by while imposters tell our story.

 

 

 

 

My Mind is a Farm: On Reading and the Cultivation of a Pedagogy

One of my favorite bloggers/thinkers, Benjamin Doxdator, recently wrote a post about reading. On the topic of professional growth, Benjamin notes that “While we will find a strong push for teachers to take risks by blogging or tweeting more, we also need encouragement and support to read more widely.” In that spirit, I wrote this post to share the books that have informed my personal pedagogy. Who I am as a teacher is a direct reflection of what I read, and this post is a celebration of influences. It’s also a chance to flesh out an analogy about how my mind operates.

My evolution as an educator and my life as a reader have always been intertwined. When I worked at a charter school, I positioned myself as a technocrat. Steeped in the language of meritocracy, grit, and strategies, I limited myself to reading only test prep booklets and the works of Doug Lemov and Paul Tough. On the rare occasions I did allow myself to travel outside the literature of quantified pedagogy, I stuck to the books of my teacher training. These include the classic works of scholar-practitioners like Jim Burke, Nancy Atwell, and Lucy Calkins.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was functioning as a closed system. I could only teach as far as my knowledge would let me. This insular pattern didn’t change until the summer of 2015 when Amazon’s algorithm suggested I might be interested in reading Maja Wilson’s amazing book Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. On a lark I purchased it. The book was a revelation. Wilson’s blistering critique singlehandedly changed the way I think about education. Not only did it introduce me to many of the themes that would come to define my pedagogy, standardization, accountability, and composition, it was a blast to read. It was also the first time I emailed an author, a trend that continues to this day.

From that point forward I was hooked on books about education. I yearned to learn everything I could about what I was doing in the classroom, why I was doing it, and whether or not I should continue it. It’s difficult to believe that only two years have passed since I read Wilson’s book. I’ve come to rely on books as my primary vessel for evolution. I’ve come to know the issues that matter to me as an educator and as a human being.

The Mind as a Farm 

I’ve written about education analogies before. But I can’t seem to think of a fitting analogy for my reading process. The analogy of a farm is the closest I’ve come. The contents of my mind represent a gigantic field. The pliable soil seems to be accepting of all seeds. Seeds represent the various concepts, ideas, and facts that I try to cultivate. For every book I read, I toss a seed into the loamy mulch. The contents of the seed determine where I plant it, and every seed has its place. My garden has a plot devoted to education history, to critical pedagogy, to composition pedagogy, and so forth. If you looked at the garden of my mind from a helicopter, you would see small islands of vegetation amidst a sea of brown soil.

My hope is that, over time, as the roots of each plot grow rhizomatically, they become interconnected. The more I read, the farther the roots of that particular plot extend. Right now my garden contains very few connections. But this is starting to change. For instance, when I consider the 80s and the rise of standards and accountability, I also think about the conservative turn of the 1970s. Roots are comingling.

This requires continuous work. I can’t spend too much time tending to a single plot, or the others will become desiccated and perish. After I read a book on composition pedagogy, I scamper to the education history plot before hightailing it to the critical pedagogy plot on the other side of the field. Undergirding this analogy is fear. If I don’t stop moving and dividing my attention among multiple plots of land, parts of my farm will shrivel up and die.

The remainder of this post explores the crops currently growing on the farm of my brain.

The Core

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Regardless of what I’m writing, reading or speaking about, the above books are never far from my consciousness. The Teacher Wars introduced me to the rich field of education history. Through The Allure of Order, an in-depth analysis of the three major education reform movements of the modern era, I became obsessed with issues of rationalization, reform, and accountability. The Struggle for the American Curriculum and The One Best System opened me up to the wonders of curriculum studies and the interplay between culture and education.

The most influential book from The Core is De-testing and De-grading Schools. I have wonderful memories of the first time I read the essays in the collection. It was electric. I paced back and forth while reading them. I emailed most of the authors, eager to find out more. And, to my amazement, some of them even wrote back. It was like discovering the coolest club ever. I could subsist forever on these books alone. They inform everything I do.

Writing about Writing

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In the summer of 2015 I picked up a battered copy of Peter Elbow’s 1973 landmark text Writing Without Teachers. So enamored was I with Elbow’s notions of freewriting and peer response that I dedicated the 2015-16 school year to putting his ideas into practice. At the time, I didn’t realize that composition pedagogy was a distinct thing. People taught writing differently, but that was about as deep as I got. It wasn’t until a mentor of mine recommended A Guide to Composition Pedagogies that I began to understand the complexity of the field. I inhaled it slowly, but thoroughly. I comprehended few of the book’s references, but I figured you have to start somewhere.

Determined to build this new schema, I trolled through the book’s alluring bibliographies, hunting down cheap copies of anything that seemed interesting. I’ve only read about half of the books pictured above. Like I said in the introduction, I don’t like to spend too long on a single topic. I have some of the basics down (early universities and grammar schools focused more on speaking than writing; writing gained more emphasis during the 19th century as written standardized tests blossomed; the birth of The Writing Project and the process movement in the 70s and 80s pushed a more authentic approach; the 80s-2000s have been a variegated patchwork of back-to-basics instruction and choice-driven workshop models), but that’s about it. Luckily, I’m in no rush.

Critical Pedagogy and Theory

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The more I read about critical pedagogy, the more powerful it becomes. Critical pedagogy is another massive field, combining knowledge from philosophy, critical race theory, feminism, sociology, and economics. For me, critical pedagogy recognizes that education typically functions as a form of cultural domination. The idea that schools celebrate certain dispositions and knowledge bases blew my mind the first time I encountered it. Therefore, I’m hesitant to brand myself as a critical pedagogue. I’m just not there yet in terms of the required scholarship and dispositions.

In terms of theory, the Apple and Biesta books were exhilarating reads. But without the background knowledge of critical theory and philosophy to back them up, it’s tough for me to justify the cost/benefit ratio required of reading more of their books at the current time. So I’ve mainly been sticking to a newer crop of critical pedagogy books. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and Pose, Wobble, Flow combine radical pedagogy with the lived reality of teachers on the ground. They keep the heavy theory in the background, focusing instead on what we can do to dismantle systems of oppression while at the same time keeping our jobs.

Accountability Politics

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In the last couple months, accountability has become one of my favorite topics to read about. It encompasses everything I’m interested in: history, theory, assessment, standardization, and teacher power. Reading about accountability has helped me think about standardized testing beyond the typical opt out rhetoric.

By the time I entered the teaching field in 2008, testing had become entrenched in K-12 schooling. I blamed conservatives. Or, more specifically, I blamed George W. Bush. I naively assumed No Child Left Behind was a partisan creation, and that Republicans had a monopoly on standards-based reform and accountability politics. Now I know that’s just not true. For instance, the Clinton administration pushed Goals 2000, a set of national education goals focused on “high standards” and measurable improvement. I put scare quotes around high standards because my accountability readings have also helped me think through the complex process and history of education standards. There’s so much to learn, and trying to discuss accountability feels like a fish trying to describe the water.

 

What’s Next?

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When the 2016-17 school year started, I vowed to myself that I would only read young adult fiction. Since I teach middle school, it makes sense that I prioritize books that I can recommend to my students. This much-needed course correction has started to pay off in my daily interactions with students. I’m slowly growing my knowledge and getting to a place where I can say, “Liked that book? Then you’ll love this one!” In my mind, middle grades and young adult literature exist on their own farm, separate from everything else. I approach this reading in the same way. I consciously shift genres often, rarely reading sequels or books on similar themes back to back.

The books pictured above are my stockpile for summer, the next time I see myself reading non-fiction with any seriousness. I like to leaf through them in the minutes before I fall asleep at night, allowing myself a brief flirtation with the books to come.

My journal as a reader has altered who I am inside and outside of the classroom. I want to visit museums of education and take tours of old school houses. I feel a sense of connection to the educators who came before me, and a desire to do what’s right.

So, what are you reading? Any good recommendations?

 

Can You Host Our Club This Afternoon? A Slice of Life

As a general rule, I try to stay out of after-school clubs. This is mainly a self-management technique. My dizzying ADHD requires me to keep a pretty rigid schedule if I want to get anything done. For instance, here’s my M-F afternoon routine:

3:00 Arrive home
3:00-4:45 Write, look through books, eat lots of snacks, chew lots of gum, pet my dog
4:45-5:30 Do some form of exercise
5:30-7:00 Hang out with wife, make dinner, clean up, watch news
7:00-8:00 Mess around on the internet
8:00-9:00 Read
9:00-5:00 Zzzz

Pretty intense structure, right? Today I’m ignoring that schedule and helping out one of my colleagues by hosting the Anime Club he normally runs every Tuesday afternoon (his wife just had a kid, so he’s on leave). I figured this would be a good time to get a blog post in. Ever since I started working on a couple of longer projects, I’ve had trouble keeping up with my weekly schedule. Therefore, I decided to write a slice of life post (read more about what these are here). What follows was written off the cuff with minimal editing.

A swarm of seventh-graders just poured into my classroom. I teach nearly half of the kids in here, but I barely recognize some of them. Unshackled by the boundaries of school (adult-child power hierarchies, formal language and behavior guidelines, etc.), the kids seem to be in a near-constant state of excitement. This only lasts for a few minutes, though. It’s funny how quickly the students replicate what happens in a class.

The two leaders of the club are frantically screaming at everyone to put their devices away, to sit still, and to stop talking. The language is more coarse (I quickly gave up trying to count the number of times someone told someone else to ‘shut up’), but there’s a definite method to the madness. There is an objective (pick an anime and watch it), a lesson plan (vote for an anime on Google Classroom, set up the desks, and load up the video), and group norms (try to stay seated and keep side talk to a minimum). It’s just like school! Only louder and with way more libidinal energy.

In the time it took me to write the last two paragraphs, I heard the following words and phrases: semen, nerdgasm, hentai, digs for the booty (?), boobies, and that’s what she said.

While their cultural references are obviously influenced by the current milieux (Netflix, YouTube, the internet in general), they’re also engaging in a form of adolescent identity development that’s been around since at least the 1950s. They’re feeling each other out, comparing themselves, and practicing the complex art of suburban teenagerdom. They make eyes at one another, pick up on or ignore each other’s conversational bids, and perform complex social calculations. It’s all just so interestingI think I need a shower.

At 3:30 the late bus bell rings and the students immediately disappear from my room, scampering off to various forms of transportation.

I think I need a shower.

Write with Them: Narrative Scenes

Katie Kraushaar and I are currently collaborating on an article for hopeful publication in an upcoming issue of Voices from the Middle. The article is about the benefits of English teachers writing alongside their students. In the spirit of the article, I thought I would post my most recent piece of classroom writing. It’s a draft of a narrative scene (a short, self-contained scene of fiction/literary non-fiction with a beginning, middle, and end). We chose to focus on scene-setting, dialogue, participial phrases, and different types of leads. As a wannabe essayist, I’ve never spent much time with fiction. Posting this scene reminds me of the trepidation of viewership and disclosure that many of my students feel when I ask them to “share out.” 

“Attention all teachers. Due to the increased amount of substitutes in the building today, will any and all available teachers please report to the cafeteria to assist with lunch.”

Mr. Samuels ground the heels of his marker-stained palms into his eyes, an oddly pleasurable feeling considering the backs of his eyelids felt like sandpaper. Sighing, he turned his attention to the stacks of notebooks on top of his desk. The ones sitting right next to yesterday’s Lord of the Flies quizzes and behind a pile of random folders from last week’s evaluations. He was in no rush to complete the work. Now that he no longer had to pick up his wife after work, he had the entire afternoon and evening to get things done.

His mind wandered through his memories, stopping to examine the images of his wife he’d stored there. The two of them chatting about their day. Standing next to each other and chopping up vegetables for dinner. They’d walk the dog together, read together, and close their eyes together as they drifted off to sleep every night.

But that was before the heart attack. After his wife collapsed on the floor one night, she had to be rushed to the hospital. The doctors told Mr. Samuels that his wife had a previously unrecognized congenital heart condition and wouldn’t last long. After that, he’d enjoyed stopping by the hospital after work, surprising her with fresh roses and peanut M&Ms, her favorite candy. As the school year went on, however, it became harder for Mr. Samuels to get away. Meetings with administrators, sit-downs with parents, and endless paperwork kept him chained to his desk.

The day before her release, Mr. Samuels received a voicemail. “Mr. Samuels? Hi, yes, this is Dr. Aikan from First Baptist Hospital. Your wife has suffered another heart attack. Please come as soon as you can.” The worst part about all of this was that he didn’t get the voicemail until after her passing. He had been stuck in another meeting when it happened.

Ever since then, everything had changed. Mr. Samuels had started staying at school later and later, throwing himself into his work in order to keep away thoughts of his wife’s death. After a couple of months, he was spending every night in his classroom. Tonight, he realized surveying the paper explosion that was his desk, would be no different.

Later that evening, Mr. Samuels wrapped himself up in the sleeping bag his wife had purchased for him during their final Christmas together. In his dreams, he slowly drowned underneath an endless tide of notebooks, lessons, and a flatline.