Monday, December 26, 2011

Am I a Hack?

My apologies for the lack of blogging. The sprint to break, moving across town, and a friend's wedding really took it out of me Some time to reflect during break has me thinking about an issue that visited me often during the semester.

I'm guilty of talking up the hormonal teenager aspect of Romeo and Juliet, reading aloud the cursing in Of Mice and Men, and finding violent poems to share with my students. I'm not out to get their childhoods. Just their intrinsic motivation. And I keep coming back to one of the Big Questions I tell my kids to ask: Is this hack teaching? More importantly, is it good teaching?

I reject completely the view that we should treasure this young adults as little children and censor any texts that might make them angry or sad. But I am often reminded by how child-like they are as I was when one of my juniors told me that he looked forward to all the extra money he would have when he made $26,000 a year. These are people who need introducing into the adult world gradually.

Many of them already have at least one foot in that world. Most of my ninth graders could relate to a love so consuming it made you forget everything you held dear (including your previous love which also consumed you). The eleventh graders were not shocked by Steinbeck's use of language, but they were able to articulate that the language sounded like kids who had just discovered cursing and what that immature quality helped reveal about the men's characters. They were able to use a poem full of violent imagery about a young man who accidentally killed his younger brother on a hunting trip to discuss the complexities of our own hunting culture and practice their close reading skills.

But shouldn't I be able to get my students to hone these skills without sinking so low? How do we balance helping students find intrinsic motivation with respect for the waning years of their childhood? Will my hack teaching make students think that classes that don't dwell on the more lowbrow aspects of the material are boring? Perhaps this blog post should be longer, but I don't have any answers to these questions. I'd appreciate your insights!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Finding the Switch

Those of you who know me have heard me talk a lot about the light switch analogy when it comes to teaching kids who have been put in lower-level classes. Humans are born curious. Watch any baby try to stuff things in his or her mouth for an afternoon and you will see that we enter this world wanting to know all we can about it.

So, it broke my heart when one of my students asked at the beginning of the year, "What kid likes to learn?" She had so obviously been surrounded by other kids who felt like school wasn't for them, she had concluded that her classmate's feelings were the norm. Another teacher in my department and I started talking about curiosity switches. Everybody has a switch. When you get here, it's usually on. Something in your life--parents who don't read or read to you, a teacher who is mean, a friend who teaches you to de-value learning--can turn it off. The switch is firmly off for most of my last block class.

You might remember, careful blog reader, that we did a project exploring survival during a zombie attack in October. The switches were on then as students worked diligently in groups, problem-solved, and gave creative presentations on how they would stay safe. I've been searching for another project that would capture that same spirit ever since.

Yesterday, I had the students who had just received their writing test scores read this account of a successful school board member who nearly failed his state's standardized tests. We used this text to analyze author's purpose because we knew it would be on the reading test coming up in January. We also began a conversation about how we are smarter than the test makers. We know the scores matter in that they're required for high school graduation, but past that, we don't need those numbers to validate any one as a scholar or a person.

The students talked (mostly) one at a time. They asked each other questions. They never suggested my greatest fear--that because of this conversation, they wouldn't try to pass the next standardized test they have to take. I spoke very little. Accountability and testing aren't bad, my students concluded. The tests they're asked to take just aren't designed well.

"You know, you're the only teacher in this whole school who would let us talk like this," said the same girl who once told me no kids likes learning, "and it's really made me think."

(I don't think she's right about the other teachers. Most teachers seem to feel similarly about the tests. I'm just glad English gives me leeway to use conversations like this to sharpen our critical thinking skills.)

By her own admission, I made a student think critically. It was almost as good as the zombies.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Please De-Track Our School

I often wonder how different it is to teach "higher-level" kids. Do they write on task all the time? Are they less disruptive? Are they smarter? They are certainly still children. They still would rather be hanging out with their friends than be in class. I can't imagine that they are fundamentally different they my crop of "lower-level" students.

Rather, I think these students have been conditioned to be successful. They've never been put in a room they perceive to be "the stupid class." They are surrounding by other kids who have kept their curiosity and also conditioned to succeed.

I like the idea floating around the English department of doing away with tracks. Right now, they're talking about keeping the honors level and then mixing everyone else together. I don't think that's ideal. The kids who can be the best example will, for the most part, still be removed to a little island. There will still be arguments made against kids moving up to the honors level. According to some chatter overheard in guidance, a kid in the lowest level ninth grade English class could never make it up to the Advanced Placement English class offered in twelfth grade. With such a system, where kids are registered for their English class in the spring of eighth grade, we say to students that what you do at thirteen will define your academic career.

Going from three tracks, to two, however, is definitely a step in the right direction. I remain very grateful for an administration that is open to change and focused on outcomes for kids.