Wednesday, October 03, 2007

can I vent?

WARNING: This post is long and self-indulgent.

Rebecca and I are piloting a new set of materials in her class right now based on our reflections on how book clubs went in her class last spring. We’ve both taught long enough to know that the utopian classroom doesn’t exist, but it still feels to me like we’re searching for that sweet spot right now, the perfect synergy of kids and materials and sunshiny afternoon that will let us knock one out of the park. So every semester, we tweak materials and develop new ones, and that’s what we are doing right now.

True confession: I love developing curriculum. I’ve spent many a happy hour searching for stories and resources and developing materials and strategies to help kids engage with them. So this summer when Rebecca and I decided that the kids could benefit from more easing in to tough talk and the reading/response strategies we’d ask them to use with their tough texts, I was very excited. Still am.

To scaffold their transition into book clubs, we’ve spent this week putting them in “No-Book Book Clubs,” as Rebecca calls them. Allowing the kids to discuss short stories and a long narrative poem in these “practice” BCs has also given Rebecca a chance to observe the social dynamics of different groups of kids before she makes final decisions about who should work with whom when they’re actually reading books. This has been our sequence this week:

DAY ONE: Introduce the project and the concept of civil discourse; ask kids to discuss some “What would you do” scenarios from past BCs we’ve seen when discussion fell apart; ask them to develop book club norms based on this discussion; introduce the sticky notes bookmark and ask them to use it to help with annotating the every-so-freaky short story “The Son” by Horacio Quiroga

DAY TWO: discuss “The Son” in no-book book clubs; follow with a class discussion where each group shares a big idea/big question; explain Dailies (a four-column graphic organizer that allows them—and us—to trace the development of their responses before, during, and after book clubs); assign Julius Lester’s edgy short story “Spear” that deals with an interracial relationship

DAY THREE: Wrap up discussion on “The Son;” discuss “Spear” in BCs; assign the long poem “The White Rose: Sophie Scholl” and provide historical background on the poem via a Keynote presentation (the Mac version of Powerpoint)

DAY FOUR: Whole-class follow-up discussion on “Spear;” BCs create and share visual interpretations of assigned sections of “The White Rose”

DAY FIVE-SIX: booktalks on BC books; kids state top 3 choices; Rebecca places kids in real BCs and they set norms; begin reading books using sticky notes bookmark and Dailies
So today was Day 3. Did I mention how much I love creating materials? Did I mention how invested I get in these materials in the process? What about how I envision kids putting them to use with at least as much enthusiasm I felt as I created them? (Seriously, in my mind, they are so excited that they are eating this stuff up like CANDY. They are BRAGGING TO THEIR FRIENDS that they get to read and write in THIS classroom.)

Did I mention that these kids are fifteen years old?

Okay, so I have a fifteen-year-old daughter at my house who actually loves to read and write, and she has a fabulous writing project teacher for her pre-AP World Lit. class (the same class that Rebecca teaches, except at another school). Every day when I ask my daughter how her day went, she doesn’t even mention English, not even once (unless you count the time that she made eye contact with the boy she likes as she was leaving the classroom. Oh…my...god!). Perhaps if I had reflected a bit more on this reality as well as my 11 years of teaching h.s. English, I would’ve been more prepared for how Rebecca’s class went today.

This morning, I put the final touches on the Keynote presentation. I couldn’t wait to see how riveted the kids would be by the film clip, the old photos, and the scanned images of historical artifacts that I’d figured out how to include in it. Right before class, I re-read “Spear” and loved it just as much the tenth time. “As would they,” said the Kelsey Grammar voice inside my head, “As would they.”

So while I was hooking up the LCD projector in Rebecca’s class and the kids were moving into book clubs, the first thing I overheard was a girl saying, “Yeah, so I didn’t really like this story?” And the first thing I saw when I turned around was all five members of another book club sitting silently, studying the obviously fascinating tops of their respective desks. I glanced over at another group and saw the unmistakable look on the kids’ faces that says “another day, another worksheet” while they filled out their Dailies. (It’s possible that at least one of them was yawning.) Although other groups were talking as I glanced around the room, I was too far away to hear how it was going. So the short story didn’t fly like I thought it would. I busied myself with the projector and put all my hopes in the Keynote.

We allowed ten minutes at the end of class for the Keynote presentation, but the kids had to move their desks back into rows, and I spent too long setting it up, and, and, and…once we finally got started, I talked as fast as I could but the bell still rang before the final big-finish slide, the pow that was supposed to hit it out of the park and send the kids running toward home plate eager to read this poem.

But the bell did *not* ring before their eyes had time enough to glaze over or to fasten resolutely on the second hand of the clock hanging over the door. (Now looking back, I realize that my own daughter would’ve been thinking at that moment, “So what’s the deal with all the historical background? Doesn’t this babbling professor remember that we’re in English for godsake? And doesn’t she know the bell’s going to ring any minute? And doesn’t she understand that if I don’t get out of this class immediately, I won’t get to make eye contact again with the boy I like?”)

So we did not hit it out of the park today. And I walked out to the parking lot remembering what it felt like to be fifteen again while at the same time bemoaning the fact that there may not be a lot that we as teachers can do to compete with that. Tomorrow, I’ll probably be ready to think more about what I wrote in my fieldnotes on Monday: “On any given day in the classroom, what we expect to happen rarely happens, but *something* always happens that we can learn from.”

Right now, though, I think I’ll go plan some more curriculum.


Rebecca said...

“On any given day in the classroom, what we expect to happen rarely happens, but *something* always happens that we can learn from.”

This is my new mantra. I'm going to have t-shirts made; one for me and then one for every frustrated teacher I speak with on a daily basis. I'll be sure to cite you on the shirt. :)

I don't know why I have not been applying this to my classroom when I have learned this in my "life" years ago. I'm sure some of it is the control freak in me. As you said this afternoon, "Are we trying to prove something or learn something?" Maybe after doing so many cycles of book clubs I'd started to feel like I needed to prove that they are a practice that can easily be applied to any group.

This response on your blog is mainly about me. Yikes! Maybe I live in a box of mirrors too...:)

Thanks for the great reminder about our purpose!

Natalie said...

Cindy - wow did you hit the nail on the head! I got excited myself reading about the grand plan. Totally engrossed and couldn't wait to hear how it went, except that your opening alerted me to the knowledge that all was not perfect.

Can I reflect back to you what has been posted recently on my blog (the one where I talked about the knife in the heart myself). The impact we have on students isn't always the one we see. Perhaps the students sitting silently were pushed into silence by the first student's comment. Maybe one or two of them actually liked the story but now felt awkward sharing with others. I know enough from experience with my own sons that kids do manage to filter quite a lot through the hormonal haze that is their conscious life. There is not a doubt in my mind that the grand plan knocked a hole in someone's perception. You've edged your way in somewhere - you're just at a disadvantage because you don't know WHERE.

So go ahead - keep developing that curriculum, because I firmly believe that even if you help ONE student "get" it it will have been worth it.

The process of teaching is so like the old story of the man walking on the beach throwing sand dollars back into the ocean so they won't die in the sun. A second man points out that this effort is fruitless because it won't matter to the tens of thousands of sand dollars left on the beach. But as the first leans over, picks up another sand dollar and lobs it back into the lifegiving water he comments "but it makes a difference to this one."

Although I've clearly (and I'm sure in no uncertain terms) established that not only do I LOVE to vent and am a die-hard cynic, I DO believe in the power of one - even if all your work makes a difference to JUST ONE student, it MAKES A DIFFERENCE.

It's also ever so reassuring to know that bumps in the road happen to us all.