it’s (not) only teenage wasteland

If you’ve participated in any kind of discussion concerning education in recent weeks, you’ve heard the jargon:  Common Core, student engagement, best practices.  Bloom and Marzano.  Formative assessment. Summative assessment.  Essential understandings. There are even catch-phrases that are repeated consistently to teachers throughout a day or two of Professional Development:  “80% of good teaching is good planning!”

When it comes to teaching high schoolers, I beg to differ (of course).

Is knowledge of these educational trends important?  Absolutely.  And the teacher-dork inside of me eats this stuff up.  Call me crazy, but I love Common Core.  The first time I saw a standards-based report card, I wanted to frame it and hang it on my wall.  Or at least ask the media specialist to laminate it for me.  But the truth is that until you establish a relationship with those teenagers, it doesn’t matter what the standards are because you won’t be able to teach them.  The students won’t let you.  And if you don’t try to get to know those kids early, you’ll have a really really long year ahead of you.

I am, by no means, an expert teacher.  It has taken me ten years to start feeling like, once in a while, I have some success when I teach.  (To my surprise, I did get them to read and even sort of take an interest in Chaucer this year.  They even wrote their own little prologues and tales.  Whoa.)   But there are a lot of days when I wish my little darlings came with some kind of handbook.  So here are my seven-best-practices-for-getting-ready-to-implement-those-other-best-practices:

Quit the power-trippin’. If you’re there to be “in charge,” they’re going to show you, quickly, that you’re not.  And in fact, they should be in charge of their own learning.  And you should encourage them to be.  You don’t know it all, and they know you don’t. So don’t fake it; if you don’t know something, say you don’t know it.  Be open to learning from them.  Because the truth is, there’s a lot they know, and a lot you don’t.

Hear them out.  Even if you don’t agree with them (and a lot of times, you won’t), let them speak.  Because, sometimes, that’s all they really want.  Sometimes they know you’re right, and they might even know they’re wrong, but they want to feel as though  you at least might listen to their side of things.

Laugh with them.  And at them.  And at yourself.  They are some of the funniest people I have met, I promise.  So let them be funny.  And, once in a while, make an attempt to be funny, even if you end up looking stupid.  (It’s only the first week of October and my sophomores are already used to my bad puns.)

Treat them like people.  The weird thing about adolescents is that they’re human; they are not animals, they are not aliens.  And what makes them even more complex is that they are not, technically-speaking, children or adults. If you force them to do childish things, they’re going to act childish.  If you make an attempt to treat them like adults (at least young ones), you have a better chance of getting them to, maybe, act like adults.

Busywork is insulting (to the students and to the profession, really). When it comes to assigning work, make sure that work has a point to it, and that you can explain that point.  If they don’t know why they’re doing something, they’re certainly less likely to do it (or get anything out of it).  We’re supposed to be teaching them how to use their brains, how to be independent thinkers.  Not regurgitators.

Be compassionate.  What they experience in high school is both very intense and very real.  Even though you know that, someday, they will look back and laugh at themselves for taking all of the drama so seriously, don’t tell them that.  Because right now, they are raw.  And while they are incredibly resilient, they are also easily wounded.  So even though you may know that, in the grand scheme of things, it won’t matter that she wasn’t picked for homecoming court, it matters right now.  It matters a lot right now.  She doesn’t need condescension.  She needs you to let her cry on  your classroom floor.  (And, if I’m being completely honest, I should say that a lot of my students have already been forced to live through things I haven’t yet experienced.  One has a substance-abuse problem that is rooted in anxiety.  Another has a restraining order against his own parent.  And yet another asked me today if his mother is still “Mrs.” even though his father died some months ago.  In many ways, they are wiser than I.)

If it’s broke, fix it.  Maybe it’s because I get bored easily, but I can’t teach the same thing the same way year after year. And with how quickly things change in this world, really, no one should.  But teaching is both demanding and exhausting, and so sometimes we turn to what is easier instead of what really works. Last week, I sat in a lunchroom full of teachers from all different counties who could not stand the idea of changing their curriculum to include the Common Core Standards.  They were resentful and aggressive.  And to be honest, it was both downright scary and embarrassing. Clearly, what the US has been doing to educate its children hasn’t been working, so we have to change it.  Will it be hard to adjust?  Probably.  Is it the right thing to do?  Absolutely.  So, my friends, you’re going to have to change. And you’re going to have to change often.  Sometimes, what works in one class doesn’t work in another. Change. Oh. My. Goodness. Otherwise, your classroom will become a teenage wasteland.  And that’s the worst kind.

Now, go plan a lesson in which your students are analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating.  And remember, they must be highly engaged.  All of them. Oh, and please incorporate a Smartboard. Or an iPad.  And ask them to turn everything in on Edmodo.  (Please make sure you remember to post it on Instruction Planner.)

See?  Sometimes teaching actually is rocket science.

me and chaucer down by the schoolyard

I hate British Literature.

Well, for the most part, anyway.  There are things I can tolerate, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, and very few things that I love, such as the Irish (Who doesn’t love the Irish?  They’re not really British, anyway, are they?), T.S. Eliot (and he’s really American), John Keats, (and his Grecian urns and nightingales) and Hamlet (just Hamlet, himself).

But I loathe Dickens (I mean, you want to talk about bleak).  And please don’t make me read anything by the Bronte gals (sorry, Jane).  I know, I know.  How can I call myself an English teacher?  It’s sacrilegious.

And here’s the rub:  I teach English IV, senior English.  Traditionally, English IV is British Literature.  And it’s no different at the school where I teach.  But for the last five years, I’ve taken some liberties.  (Okay, a lot of liberties.)  Let’s be honest.  It’s hard to get the kids interested in something if I’m not intereted in it (and with some of my struggling students, it’s hard to get them interested in anything).  I’ve covered Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon so that I can justify covering Yuself Komunyakaa and Brian Turner and Tim O’Brien.  And, really, I had no true justification for asking my darlings to read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (except that Dave Eggers speaks English) last year, but a lot of them actually read it.  One even came into the classroom the morning after he finished it and said, “This is the best book I’ve ever read.”  I swear.

This year, though, we are implementing the Common Core curriculum, and so I have decided, finally, to come to terms with the literary canon and embrace the Brits.

And what is my first unit?  The Canterbury Tales.  Awesome.  I hated it in high school (sorry, Mr. Baker) and have since avoided Chaucer like the . . . well, yes.  Like the plague. But I do remember being awestruck when I stood before his tomb in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.  And maybe I even felt a little guilty for it; if I had never appreciated him in the first place, then was my reverence some sort of writerly obligation, something I felt I was supposed to feel just because he was Chaucer?  Just because he was . . . old?

I can tell you right now that answer is not going to fly when my sixth period class starts asking, “Why are we reading this? It’s not even in English.”  They’re going to want an answer. A real answer.  And, as their teacher, I owe them one.

But these kids also know me well enough to expect some kind of honest explanation.  The students I have this year as seniors I also had as freshmen.  Two-thirds of them had me as their English teacher during their sophomore year, too.  We’re close.  Really close.  (There are about five or six of them that I eat lunch with every day in my classroom, or outside, if I have lunch duty.  We solve the world’s problems, share each other’s potato chips and rice krispie treats and veggie straws, and celebrate each other’s birthdays.)

This is both good and bad (but more good than bad, I think); it’s good in the sense that I know what I’ll be up against during sixth period every day.  They’re disliked (to put it mildly).  And it’s partially their fault (but only partially).  There will be around thirty of them,  including the one who sometimes forgets I’m not his mother and yells at me like I am (he’ll apologize later; he always does), and the one that I can count on to stand in front of the class and read The Wife of Bath’s Tale in a feminine and terrible British accent; there will be the one that tries to be a big man (though he’s no bigger than I am) and we’ll go nose-to-nose each day, but we’ll end up on the same side; there will be the one I look to for commiseration, and he’ll roll his eyes at his friends’ antics because he understands.  Completely.  And the girls, oh, what those poor girls will have to tolerate (all four of them).

It’s bad in the sense that I’m going to laugh a lot (when I’m not crying).  I always say that I’d be a much more effective teacher if I didn’t laugh so much.  But, God, teenagers are way too funny.

So I’ve given myself a relatively tall order for the start of the school year; not only do I need to put aside my own propensities and put forth the effort to find the true value (and I know it exists) of The Canterbury Tales, but I also need to attempt to convince a large group of twenty-first century adolescents of its worth, and maybe even more importantly, of its relevance.

The latter, of course, is a much more daunting task.  And to be completely honest, I have no idea, yet, how I’m going to tackle it.  But I know that it will have to involve performance.  Actors, costumes, and props.  A soundtrack, maybe (I’m banking on mostly rap and country).  The thing with teaching is that it’s all trial and error.  All of it.  And that’s not just for each unit or each lesson plan — it’s for each period, each day.  What worked yesterday might not work today.  What worked first period might not work third.  So you just have keep trying until you figure out what does work.  Even if that means you have to dress yourself as the Wife of Bath and project your own terrible British accent.

Whew.  I’m sweating already.  And it’s not even August.