WHY Are You Here?

*Background; this semester, I’m teaching composition classes at Local U. and Not-Local Community College.  I’m also teaching a teacher intern seminar and fitness classes at two different places, so I’m effectively working five part-time jobs.  I’m so frazzled, I often have no idea how I make it to the end of the week.  That being said, I’m more than a little surprised by how well things are going in general, and I’m not sure what to make of that…**

So, this happened;

The other day, instead of reflecting on a quote, I had my Local U. composition students write me a brief note about how the writing of their first paper is going.  I asked them a bunch of questions to spark their thinking, ending with “is there anything specific – a grammar question or an issue with organization or comprehension of the source materials – that you’d like me to go over with you?”  That was the question upon which I based our post-writing discussion.

With the exception of a couple of kids who just finished an associate’s program within the University, every single one of my students in that class is a fresh-out-of-high-school freshman; that’s important to know.  The very first kid to volunteer to speak asked about MLA formatting and how much of it they were supposed to do for this paper.

None of it,” was my answer, and 22 pairs of eyebrows shot toward the ceiling.

“Look,” I said, “you’re working with two sources; MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and President Obama’s A More Perfect Union speech.  As long as you identify them in your introduction and are clear about which source you’re quoting from in your body paragraphs, you’re fine.  MLA citations in this rhetorical situation would be unnecessary and distracting.”

It was at this point that another girl chimed in with, “can I just say that you’re NOTHING like what my high school English teachers said you’d be like?”

If the preponderance of nodding heads is any indication, her answer to my query about what she was expecting was affirmed by nearly everyone in the class; they were pretty much universally told that they would have to hit the ground running with a full and competent knowledge of citation, structure and process, and academic vocabulary, and that anything less than skillful and consistent display of these qualities would have them shamed and ostracized in their classes.  From the sounds of it, fully half – maybe more – expected to fail out of college within the first few weeks.

It was at this point that I stopped them – literally held up my hands in the “whoa, Nellie!” position – and asked them what, exactly, they were doing here.  “WHY are you here, You Guys?  What is the POINT of your being in this class?”

Genius boy in the corner pipes up with a hesitant “to learn stuff?” (reminding me that I should probably show them Taylor Mali’s “Like, Um, You Know?” poem).

“YES!” I bellowed, making a couple of them literally jump in their seats.  “If the POINT of your being here is to LEARN STUFF, then why the HELL would I expect you to KNOW any of it ALREADY?!  What would be the POINT of this class if you already KNEW everything I came here to TEACH you?!  Can you IMAGINE how BORING that class would be?  Seriously; I’d want to gouge my own eyeballs out by the third class!  GAH!”

One of the things I’ve observed in my teaching practice over the last year or two has been the fact that students would rather sit in silence, confused – and frustrated by their confusion – than speak up and admit they don’t know something.  I can’t tell you how many times I read an article aloud to my classes and stopped after a particularly challenging concept or a $5 vocabulary word to check comprehension, only to have them assure me that they “get it” but not be able to explain it to me when I asked them to prove it.  At some point, the system the way we practice it beat out of these students the kind of curiosity that encourages questions.  It discouraged them from admitting that they don’t know something, which is devastatingly ironic given that the one place we should ALWAYS be able to admit we don’t know something is in a goddamned CLASSROOM.

So, now I’m on a mission.  I am crusading to get kids to start ‘fessing up when they don’t understand something, to ask for help if they need it, and to not let teachers get away with assuming that someone ELSE taught them what they need to know to do well in class.  I’m done with that shit.  I am a teacher; my job is to help people learn, not assume that they should already know everything.

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Quick Hit: Bumper Sticker

On my way home from lunch with my husband this afternoon, I was behind a car with a bumper sticker that said, “The voices are getting louder… it must be time to write.”

I liked it so much, I made this:

 

 

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I’m trying to write more than I’ve been for the past few months.  I think that part of my dis-ease lately is due to the fact that I have a lot to say, but feel that I’ve got no outlet.

 

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The Start of Another September…

… and I’m still not in a classroom, BUT I may have found an acceptable alternative.  In addition to teaching a couple of sections of composition in two different colleges, I’ve been hired by Local U. to supervise a group of teaching interns.

I’m excited about this job for a number of reasons.  First, I remember how important my own intern supervisor was to my internship experience (If you haven’t been with me long enough to recall what a wild ride that was, let’s just suffice to say that the first half of the year was a shit show that would have likely pitched me out of teaching altogether were it not for the calm competence of Sam and his encouragement that I find another placement for the January semester).  I’m looking forward to being that kind of support for my own students, though I dearly hope that none of them has to experience anything even close to what I did.

I’m also eager to work with classroom teachers.  A large part of my responsibility to my interns is to observe them in their classrooms and to work closely with their cooperating teachers to offer them encouragement and guidance.  I’m expecting that just being in the classrooms (the high school’s more than than the middle school’s, but still) will be a balm to my still-singed teacher soul.   School only began this week, though, so I want to give the interns and their teachers some time to get to know each other and settle in to something of a routine before I invade their spaces.

Finally, I’m excited to work with the interns themselves.  We had our first meeting yesterday, and I can already tell that we’re going to have a great class; the students are eager, but not starry-eyed, which tells me that they’re likely going to be able to navigate the first few tumultuous weeks with some aplomb.  I’ve got 5 students spanning 3 disciplines (English/language arts, Social Studies, and Art) – 2 in the high school, three in the middle school – which is going to make for a range of experiences and practices that will keep us in discussion fodder for the whole year.

I’ve encouraged the interns to keep journals of their experiences (much like I did during my own internship and, later, while I was teaching in a classroom).  I’ve been neglecting this space of late; I’m planning to change that as I do the homework I assign my students.  Look for more entries here in the coming weeks and months.

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Quick Hit : Haiku

Some of these are really, really good.  My favorite is

A crying student
Empty counselor’s office
Who will help him now?

—Heather Marcus

 

I was thinking about this on my way home from work this morning, and I came up with this

 

All my students know

their voices are important.

“Respect yourself first.”

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Quick Hit: Watch This

It’s long – nearly 45 minutes – and, as a white girl who was born and lived her whole life in New England, Reverend Barber’s delivery is foreign to me, but I watched this when it was live streamed and it brought tears to my eyes, so I wanted to share it with you.

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Checking Privilege

HI!  Remember me?  I haven’t been writing lately, but I think that’s about to change; there’s a lot rattling around in my head that wants to come out, and here’s the most insistent bit.

SO, back story; the other day, a student in my CRITICAL THINKING class (that’s important, remember it) said, out loud and without any hint of hesitation, compunction, or shame, that he could tell, just by listening to a woman’s voice, that she was – and I’m quoting here – a “heavyset black woman.”

Some days, it’s all I can do to maintain my composure.

The naked racism imbedded in that assumption is just stunning, and it was made all the more fantastic by the fact that he defended himself when I called him on it.  “I can just tell,” he insisted, and then, to make it even better, went on to make assumptions about this person’s upbringing, education, and socioeconomic status.

But wait… it gets better…

Yesterday, I walked in to the classroom to find this kid – let’s call him Sam – engaged in a conversation with another student – let’s call him Peter – about the idea of racial diversity in the workplace.  Since it’s a critical thinking class and because I’m a big advocate of letting students’ interests drive the discussions in my classroom, I hung back and listened to them.  It seems that Pete has some experience in management (from what I gathered, he worked as a manager at a video game store for a while) and recalled a story about corporate making a push for the hiring of more employees of color.  Pete was totally down with that, but his problem was that, living as we do in a VERY white part of the world (I think our minority population is somewhere in the 13% range, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the greatest percentage of that number resides in our only two big cities in the middle of the state, each about an hour from here), the problem wasn’t finding qualified potential employees of color, the problem was finding ANY  potential employees of color.

Sam was having none of it.  His stance, rock-solid and above scrutiny, is that hiring people of color just because they’re people of color is just flat-out racist.  Pete countered that yes, hiring someone simply based on the color of their skin IS racist, but what about the under-representation of people of color in the workforce, in teaching, in positions of power and influence?  Why are there so few people of color in jobs that don’t involve manual labor or drive-through windows?  Sam’s response?  “Well, those people (“THOSE people;” he actually said “THOSE PEOPLE”) don’t have the skills or the education to rise above those kinds of jobs.  If they worked harder and got a better education, then they’d be qualified to hold better positions.”

I’m just going to pause here so you can appreciate what it took for me not to launch myself across the table and throttle him in front of everyone……

I did my usual post-mortem download on my way home from class and came away with the idea that Sam just isn’t ready to examine his privilege.  He’s convinced himself (though, probably, through no fault of his own) that he’s gotten to where he is based solely on his own grit, tenacity, and wherewithal.  He grew up in tough circumstances, went straight into the military (ding, ding!), and is now continuing his bootstraps crusade by attending community college and “working hard.”  Telling him that he has an easier time accessing things like education and employment because he’s a young, white male insults his sense of self; no one’s GIVING him anything, and he’s absolutely convinced that the access he enjoys is available equally to everyone; unlike THOSE people, he’s smart/plucky/resourceful enough to take advantage of it.  He’s an opponent of minimum wage increases because he thinks that poor wages are incentives to push people into better jobs and more education, completely ignoring the fact that people get stuck in cycles of poverty that leave them focused solely on survival; there’s nothing left for “self improvement.”  He doesn’t think that young black boys need black male teachers as role models; I brought up the NPR story about the effort of Call Me Mister program to seek, educate, and place black men as teachers in schools that serve black boys specifically so those boys can see successful, educated people who look like they do and know that they can be successful, too.  He doesn’t see race as a barrier to anything; in his mind, if you’re smart and motivated (he didn’t use that word, though; he said “not lazy”), and persistent, you can have anything you want.

My frustration over his inability to see beyond himself led me to question my own position of privilege and power, particularly as it relates to the educational settings in which I participate.  As I mentioned, I live in a very white part of a very white state; while I am aware of educators of color who work in the English department of Local U., I can’t say with any certainty that there are any people of color working at the community college (and, to be fair, I can recall the faces of more people of color working at the dining halls than I can in the classroom).  While I try to be constantly aware of my privilege and the access that it gives me to resources and opportunities, I find myself feeling a little like Peter when he was expressing his frustration at wanting to hire people of color, but of there just not being any candidates to choose from.  What kind of responsibility do I bear, as an adjunct with little to no influence in any hiring decisions my college(s) make, to advocate for the inclusion – if not the aggressive courting and recruitment – of teachers of color?  What responsibility do I have as a parent of students who attend my town’s high school, or as a citizen of that town, regardless of whether I have kids in school?

I have no idea whether Sam’s going to come to any kind of realization or even glimmer of awareness in the short time I have left with him.  He may never see beyond his own experience, and that makes me sad.  While I have him, I will continue to push him to think past himself, though I suspect he will continue to dismiss my efforts as those of a bleeding heart liberal.  All I can do is try, and to continue to make as much noise as I can about how desperately important accurate, respectful, and equal representation really is, not just for our kids of color, but for our girl children and our queer kids, too.

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Quick Hit: The Tough Conversations

I’m all worked up about this.

First, go here and read this.  No, really; I’ll wait.

You’re back?  Okay; now, revisit this:

“The Morgan State comments were Holder’s most extensive on the subject of race since early 2009, when he gave a speech during Black History Month that generated controversy and reportedly infuriated President Obama’s chief of staff at the time, Rahm Emanuel. In that speech, Holder, the nation’s first African American attorney general, referred to the country as “essentially a nation of cowards,” (emphasis mine) arguing that Americans were not comfortable enough with one another to discuss the issue of race candidly.”

We ARE largely a nation of cowards; I think that Holder is spot-on with this.

Here’s the thing; I think that we ARE afraid to talk – especially to kids – about things that matter.  I posted a comment on someone’s facebok wall this morning (I forget whose now, but it’s not important).  The post was a lament of the general disinterest of a lot of young people in politics and voting.  You want to complain that young people are apathetic about voting? How about letting their teachers talk about current events and topics that most parents and administrators are afraid of because they’re “sensitive.” Give young people the environment and support they need to learn how to think critically about important things; race, poverty, sex and sexual identity, privilege. Unless and until we can have honest (and yes, sometimes difficult and uncomfortable) conversations about these things, we’re never going to progress beyond where we are, and where we are is not okay – not by a long shot.

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