What do I do with these books?

I’m reading 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. It’s phenomenal. Both teachers have decades of experience and succinctly walk the reader through a year teaching reading and writing. Reading this book inspires me to do engaging and scaffolded work with my students. However, the book keeps referring to texts by Sherman Alexie.

Sherman Alexie was my favorite author. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was my favorite YA novel. The book masterfully presents the life of a Native American teenage boy living on a reservation. As a reader, I was able to connect with the protagonist’s experiences and recall my own adolescent years.

The reason this book and author were my favorite is Alexie “traded on his literary celebrity to lure [women] into uncomfortable sexual situations.” I cannot separate the author from their work and I feel like promoting his writing in my class makes it seem like what he did was okay.

This isn’t a complaint against Gallagher and Kittle. They used the texts in their class prior to women coming forward about Alexie’s predatory behavior. However, every time I read how they’ve used the text I feel conflicted–and then ashamed of that feeling. Alexie is a good writer and the work he has produced is powerful. Even though I know I’ll never teach his material again, I wonder what to do about the 24 copies of Part-Time Indian sitting on my shelf. What about Maze Runner and 13 Reasons Why? The authors of both of those books have also harassed women. What about Ender’s Game? Orson Scott Card is “monstrously homophobic.”

In a capitalist society, we condone people and ideas through consumption of their work. At the same time, is it a realistic expectation that unless I know otherwise, I can assume a writer is a good person? Should I only promote books where I know the author is a vocal social justice advocate? (That actually wouldn’t be that hard)

I’m struggling with how to balance what I know about authors and my students’ ability to choose books for themselves. For now, the books will stay on the shelf until I figure out what I want to do with them. They might end up in a bin called “These Authors Are Assholes.”

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Talking About My Job

Whenever people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m a teacher. When they ask me what grade and I say middle school, they all say a variation of the same thing:

“Oh my, you’re a saint! I could never do that job. You must be a truly special person.”

This is strange to me, because when I told people what I did for a living at my last job, it was usually a conversation ender.

“Where do you work?”
“At a domestic violence shelter.”
*blank stare, changes subject*

It got to the point where I would alter the specifics of my job depending on who I was talking to. My job was mainly to teach children about sexual abuse and bullying. It was always safer just to say I gave bullying presentations. Even though I was comfortable talking in-depth about my job, I knew not everyone wanted to participate in a “taboo” conversation.

Today, I feel very comfortable saying what I do for a living, but less comfortable talking about the specifics of my job. I don’t know how to talk about my students in a way I feel other people will understand. I don’t want to reduce my students’ complex life experiences into stereotypes or generalizations. I’m not going to lie – my job is insanely difficult. I am fortunate enough to have a lot of support from administration and staff, but even with these supports in place, I leave school physically and emotionally exhausted every day.

A lot of times I find we focus on where our students struggle and what their deficits are. However, I’m frequently impressed by how quickly my students can adapt and outsmart teachers. I’ve had a rough week, and need to take some time to think about the things my kids do really well.

Although it seems like my scholars lack organizational skills because they’re constantly losing papers, they were able to strategize ways to simultaneously leave different classes at the same time to meet up in other parts of the building. They did this for weeks before we caught on.

My students have a seasoned understanding of human behavior and can immediately read a person’s intentions. There are often unfortunate reasons they’ve developed this talent, but can you imagine a more useful ability?

My kids are generous with one another. They have an intense willingness to share with no expectation of anything in return. When one student has a bag of hot cheetos, everyone has orange fingers.

My scholars are shockingly honest, but like any teenager will lie if cornered. I always know how my students feel about me and the work I’m giving them. If I ask them about their progress on an assignment, they have the integrity to tell me what they’ve actually accomplished.

My students hold each other accountable because they’re not passive aggressive. They hold me accountable if there is something I said I would do.

My kids are affectionate and warm towards the people they trust. They will stop horsing around if I get anywhere near them because they don’t want me to get hurt.

There are days where I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. I question the financial investment I made to get an MA (and current investment to get an EdD) when it’s led to me being disrespected by teenagers every day. It takes constant reminders that my students are reacting to something bigger than me and I’m the target at a moment when they are not able to be their best selves. My students forgive me when I’m not at my best (and they let me know when I’m not at my best) so of course I forgive them.

So, yeah, random people who tell me I’m awesome for being a middle school teacher, my job isn’t something everyone can do. I’ll take all the gratitude I can get.

Dear Student

Dear Student,

I don’t know what to say to you. I spent all day talking to your classmates about their writing. Dozens of times I reminded them to add sensory details and to show me what was happening instead of telling me. I asked probing questions and pushed them to do more than they thought they were capable of.

One of your classmates wrote about being in a deep depression because her mom was dying, only to find out her cousin was killed. Another student wrote about hanging out with his brother when he ended up in the middle of a shootout – bullets whizzing by his body. Yet another cried as she drafted a story about her brother being on the run from the law.

I want you to grow as a writer. I appreciate you feel vulnerable enough to tell me your story. But how do I respond when you tell me you found your mother dead before school one morning? In what world can I encourage you to “fix your grammar” and “add more detail” when you already told me there was blood underneath her head on the floor?

I don’t know what to tell you. There’s nothing I can give you. I don’t know how to walk the line between the academic parts of your writing and the emotional intensity of your story. I expended all of that mental energy already.

And yet, when you come into my class in pain, I expect you to perform. I want you to put aside that feeling. I want you to sit down and stop bothering your neighbor without really knowing what’s going on in your head.

Have patience with me. I’m trying my best – just like we all are. I want you to have the brightest future and I believe being a good writer can help you achieve it. I just don’t know if I’m capable of giving you what you need.

With love,

Mrs. B

Embracing Discomfort

I created a beautiful, color-coded, curriculum map. I planned out all 26 weeks of the school year by topic. I even went through each week and added the standards we would meet. I made detailed lesson plans for the first week of school. I outlined our daily activities from the first day of school until the end of the second quarter (August 21st – January 12th). I did all of this because I will be attending graduate school and wanted to be able to enter my classroom fully prepared so all I had to worry about was teaching and adjusting as the schedule and student needs changed.

Last week, I had to scrap everything and start over.

When I first visited the school, I received several rubrics outlining the way certain subjects are taught, how classrooms are set up, and how staff interact with students. Even though I had this information, my plan was still to make the rubric fit what I already had in mind for teaching middle school.

I’ve been (im)patiently waiting to start my new job since April. Before then, I was (im)patiently waiting to get a teaching job because I felt called back into the classroom. This last year has been a test in letting life unfold to get to the place I wanted to be. It’s been difficult, but I kept hoping and telling myself, “this, too, shall pass” until it passed.

An additional way I got through this time was planning. It filled me with a lot of hope to imagine what I was going to teach. I figured it would also be a future timesaver. I created bell ringers and grammar exercises. I spent hours developing assignments, selecting vocabulary words, and creating a class website.

I like to think I embrace change really well. I got a sense of superiority when I read Disrupting Thinking because a lot of the book’s arguments support my reading teaching philosophy. Then I got to the chapter about teaching a whole class novel. A whole month of my 26-week plan to morph 8th graders into lifelong readers was to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as a class. I had already downloaded chapters from YouTube for students at a lower reading level so they could listen instead of read the chapters independently. Beers and Probst had the audacity to challenge my plans! They advised teachers should not teach whole class novels, and if they do, it should not be for longer than a week.

So I planned to read one novel in a week and then have my class to literature circles. There! I adapted.

Last week was my first day of work. After a training on the school’s approach to literacy and speaking with the other ELA teacher, I realized my ideas were not going to work. My rigid goals to focus on certain genres and concepts did not align with the literacy initiative at the school. I was grumpy. I wanted to place an emphasis on digital and visual literacy, and there is no time to do this.

I’ve been working on reframing my thinking. Is it beneficial to focus on utilizing technology if kids can’t even read at grade level? Even if I did spend all of this time planning, is that time worth more than what works best for my students?

I did some more reading. Probst and Beers had planted a seed that maybe I don’t know it all. I just finished The Book Whisperer and the author makes many excellent points about giving students choice and emphasized that the best way to improve reading is to give students time to read. I’m currently reading Attachment-Based Teaching and it’s forcing me out of my comfort zone for establishing classroom routines. The author encourages teachers to relinquish a lot power and decision-making to students.

Everything I will end up doing in my classroom aligns with my desire to be a critical pedagogue. I didn’t have all of the tools I needed to implement a more student-centered approach to learning. Yeah, I’ve heard about differentiation, but I was never really taught how to do it effectively. All-in-all, I’ve learned I might have some control issues and I’m more resistant to change than I thought. I also recognize I need to accept the unanticipated challenges I will face because they are unavoidable. All I can do is roll with it and do what is best for my kids – not what is easiest for me.

Changing My Approach

I haven’t posted anything on this blog in over three years.

The idea for this blog came to me during my first year of grad school in 2013. My plan was to re-enter the middle or high school English/Language Arts (ELA) classroom once I graduated in 2014. I felt a lot of the issues which forced me out of teaching in the first place were still a problem – the teaching profession wasn’t respected, education was legislated by individuals with no idea what works best for children, and the pay was terrible. I wanted to create a space where people could see what real teachers went through to create understanding.

I did not get a teaching job when I graduated and it was 100% my fault. I dragged my feet getting my license. I dragged my feet getting letters of recommendation. I dragged my feet looking and applying for jobs. Suddenly it was August and school was starting.

How can I write about teaching when I’m not a teacher? What can I possibly add to the conversation when I have no credibility? And why would people even want to read what I have to say anyway? Do I even remember how to write? People are going to notice all of my misplaced commas and incorrect tenses and think I’m an idiot.

I knew I needed to start writing again because I have a lot of things I need to write about for me. I shifted my thinking about this blog. I realized I do not need to write for an audience and try to convince them to feel a certain way about education. I learned it doesn’t matter what other people think, and their critical thoughts are usually a reflection of themselves anyway. I need to write this blog to explore my own struggles as I enter my own middle school ELA classroom for the first time in six years while earning my doctorate.

I need to write about how the current political climate is affecting me as an individual and how I’m going to bring that into the classroom. I need to write about the drastic change in my worldview after three years of working at a non-profit for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, homelessness, and human trafficking. I need to write about the devastation I felt when one of my former students died. I need to do all of these things for me. And I already have this platform so I’m going to use it.

So, if you want to read my largely unedited thoughts as I work to figure things out for myself – thanks. I hope in my narratives you can find something you identify with. And if this sort of navel gazing/soul searching isn’t your jam, that’s cool too. I’ll still be here writing for me.

Grade Grubbing – Or Why I Won’t Change Your Grade

At the beginning of the school year, I tell students their grades are a reflection of their performance. As a teacher, when it comes to grades I am simply a scorekeeper who tracks the quality of their work through points. Wherever the points fall at the end of the semester is their grade. I remind students it is not a matter of how much I like them, I simply enter the calculated grade. This does not mean throughout the semester students can’t appeal an assignment grade they find unfair. If a student completes an assignment and truly feels there was a mistake in my grading, I am more than happy to look at it again. However, it is unacceptable to receive a request for a higher grade at the end of the semester. 

This was my last semester teaching Oral Communication at a state university, and I received two requests to change grades. When I responded to one student explaining I would not change her/his grade, s/he responded again to make a claim for an increased score. I’m not sure why students feel they are entitled to request a higher grade. Although a student feels s/he deserves a grade, it definitely does not mean s/he earned it. Taking preventative measures can lead to a decrease in these requests.

Dr. Ryan McGeough created a document he includes in his syllabus to decrease “grade grubbing” at the end of the semester. With his permission, I am sharing it with you to adjust as you see fit to handle “grade grubbers” in the future.

Professionalism Inside & Outside of the Classroom, and Why “Grade-Grubbing” is a Very Bad Thing to Do
Dr. Ryan McGeough

Despite the fact that I think this information should not have to be included in my syllabi, previous experience indicates that it does, thus I apologize to those of you who do not regularly engage in the end of the semester rituals of “grade-grubbing.” I am unsure where you as students got the notion that grades are a “starting point” as though you are purchasing a car or something, for it is both highly unprofessional and unacceptable to negotiate grades with your professors. After submitting final grades at the end of the semester, I am typically inundated with emails regarding grades, and wanting them changed to reflect what you “think” they should be, and not what they actually are. This practice of “grade-grubbing” is unfortunately increasing across college campuses nationwide, and I am astonished to have students questioning both my fairness and my ethics regarding their grades, and I find this completely unacceptable. This may be part of the student culture at LSU or in other academic institutions that you have been enrolled in, but I will not participate in it. Please do not contact me with the expectation of me changing your grades. I do not negotiate grades. I spend a great deal of time grading student work, and find it extremely disrespectful when students question my fairness, ethics, and accuracy. Essentially, what you are doing when asking to have a grade changed, is for me to be unfair—if I granted this request to someone other than you, you would be outraged, but if I granted your request, you would most likely see it as fair. To me, it is entirely unfair to treat one student differently (better or worse) than any other student.

And, here is something for you to think about…consider how this “grade-grubbing” appears to your professors, whom you may later need to write you a letter of reference or recommendation for a job, internship, or graduate school. What image do you want to leave with your professors? I know that I have students from 6 and 7 years ago still contacting me for recommendations, and for those that have “grade grubbed” I am hesitant to recommend to a potential employer or graduate school, for I know of the limited range of their professional behavior. Thus, I typically refuse to write letters of recommendation for grade grubbing students, despite their requests. In sum, consider carefully how your actions may impact your present and future, as well as your overall professional image. I apologize to those of you who do not engage in regular “grade-grubbing” rituals to even have to read this, but I feel this information is necessary for all students to stop the unprofessional practices of grade negotiations, which can only harm your careers here at LSU, as well as your future careers.

On Building Community in the Classroom

To me, the first job I have when I start a new school year or new semester is to make a comfortable learning environment for my students. There are a variety of approaches for establishing a classroom culture, and all of them start with the teacher on the first few minutes in the classroom. When I started my student teaching orientation, one of my mentor teachers explained they had done studies and students established their opinion of you within seconds. From my mentor teachers’ standpoint, this was your chance to establish you were in control. Control, in this sense, meant having a set of rules which you enforced to manage an orderly classroom.
This is one approach, and I definitely tried it. I was able to be “fair, firm, and then friendly” for the first few weeks of school. But, this just doesn’t match my personality. In order to have a harmonious classroom where I was happy, I found I needed to establish an environment where students felt safe. As you may know, when students feel this safe, they often break the rules you set initially and this undermines those standards you carefully crafted and enforced at the beginning of the semester.

I know this approach isn’t for everyone, but to me, community in the classroom is more important than content. Content is easier to deliver when students respect you and genuinely like you. Students are also more willing to trust you when you try a crazy activity and humor you when you want to do something new.

I’ve used many tactics to create a safe learning environment. Below, I explain three of them. I talk about how I implement it and how it has created opportunities for students to get to know each other.

1) Respect Circle
I had a particularly difficult section of seventh graders my first year teaching. When I started the school year, there was a pre-existing social order. Several students disliked each other over events from elementary school. Their troubled relationships got worse when they bullied each other over social media and then confronted each other in school the next day.

During the first week of school, I tried different activities to help students get to know each other. This was great for me because through these activities I learned a lot about my students. However, these kids were already incredibly familiar with one another. They just didn’t get along. Community building wasn’t going to emerge with games where they had to self disclose. I was talking to my principal about the class, and she said, “You might just have to push those tables back and sit in a circle and talk to each other.” When she said this, my first thought was, “But I have so much material to get through!”

One day while I was teaching, I was exasperated. Students were talking over each other. I could not get anyone to focus. It was probably a Friday. I stopped what I was doing and told them to help me move the desks and to sit in a circle. I grabbed my wooden frog and sat among them. On the fly, I said, “Okay. We’re going to talk about what is going on in class. If you have the frog, you are allowed to talk. You may not talk unless you have the frog. You cannot interrupt each other. Who would like to start?”

Something changed during that conversation. Old issues were brought up. In this circle, we were all equal. They told me things I was doing that they wanted me to change. I changed those things. They confronted each other and settled arguments. Several of them cried. It was cathartic. After this initial conversation, things were much better. Did I still have issues with this class? Absolutely. But now I had a strategy to get them talking constructively.

2) Counting Game

You know those corny team building activities they make you do at retreats? I really hate them at first. I don’t know why, but I hate being told that I have to get to know someone. I’m guessing my students feel the same way. However, the reason you are forced to do human knots over and over is because it builds community. When you have a shared task and are forced to work together, you come away knowing that person. Together, you overcame a challenge.

The counting game is like that. It is a theater game I learned from Dr. Karen Mitchell. You break students into groups of three. Your first instruction to them is to count from one through four. Each student says a number and they keep counting until you stop them. At this point, you explain the number one should be replaced with a sound and a movement. (One of my favorites was a birdcall accompanied by flapping arms). As the number changes from student to student, they will all have an opportunity to do the sound and movement. After giving students time to do this, have them assign a sound and movement to number two. Rinse and repeat until students are no longer counting, but are instead doing a series of sounds and movements.

I then tell students to practice because they will be presenting their sounds/movements to the class. After a few minutes, each group comes to the front of the room. We laugh together. A lot. This combination of laughter and finishing a task is one tool to creating belonging in the classroom.

3) Sculpting Activity

This is another theater game, and it can be adapted for many content areas. For me it is really important to have opportunities to learn through the body. I love this sculpting activity because it is versatile. I use it to teach stereotypes, but it could be changed for any concept or can just be a warm-up to introduce something new. You will need a lot of room. Below are the instructions as I used them from on a lesson plan by Dr. Danielle Dick McGeough.

Have students find a partner. Have them decide who is Partner A and who is Partner B. Clear plenty of space in the classroom. Have the class form two circles, an inside circle and an outside circle. The inside of the circle should be Partner A facing the outer circle composed of Partner B. Partner A is “the clay.” Partner B is the “sculptor or the artist.”

Explain that this is an activity done WITHOUT talking. You will give the class a prompt (i.e. sculpt me an image of happiness) and the sculptor will sculpt the body of the clay into a still image. There are two ways to sculpt. The sculptor can physically move the clays body or can demonstrate to the clay the image s/he wants the clay to hold. I always show the class an example. Do a practice round. (i.e. sculpt an image of how you feel about having to give a speech in front of others).

After students have formed images, have Partner B (the sculptors) tour the art gallery—having students move around the circle counterclockwise. Ask the sculptors to notice similarities/differences between the images. Are the images looking up? Down? What is their posture like? Do they look powerful? Happy? Ask the clay to pay attention to what it feels like to hold the image. Where are there tensions? Was the image easy or difficult to hold? Did it feel powerful? Why or why not?

Let students play both the role of the sculptor and the clay. Some example images to sculpt: jock, cheerleader, thug, homeless person, politician, hipster, nerd, etc.

From this activity, students have said some really astute things about the way they evaluated people based on stereotypes. This is another chance to laugh together.

Will all of these activities work for everyone? No. In classrooms with too many students and not enough room, these may not be viable options. However, these are a few things you can try to help your students feel more at home with you as their teacher.