Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Speaking of Patience, John, Ten Months Later

In an earlier blog, I described a student I had in class who said he didn’t want to read our text (The Color of Water) because he couldn’t relate to it and thus he didn’t know what to write about in his literary letters to me or to peers. Though I tried to show him, I was unable to get him to internalize the issues that James McBride or his mother dealt with. John wrote no literary letters and eventually had to repeat this developmental writing course. He had come a long way in learning how to expand on a piece of writing but he had, perhaps stubbornly, decided that there were some things he wasn’t going to tackle. I was as stubborn and John received a D in the course, not allowing him to move on to Freshman Composition. He would have to repeat the course and, “Oh, no,” I thought, “with me!”

Though I explained to him at the end of the term how I didn’t consider him a loser but that he needed to master more things before moving on to the next level and we had parted amicably, I still anticipated that John would come to class the next time with a chip on his shoulder. I thought he might harbor a desire to cut corners this time by using many of the things from the previous course.

John didn’t do any of that. This time our class started at 11:00 instead of 9:00 and you could set your watch at his arrival to class. By 10:25, John would enter the room, pulling his backpack-on-wheels behind him. He would arrive 35 minutes early to receive response on his latest piece of writing and to get started on his work. He found a very conscientious beginning student named Jon and the two of them began exchanging poignant, well-developed literary letters. When John gave in the first of two letters written to me, I was floored at the length and depth that he was reaching in his comments. He was learning to trust me in the things he included in the letter and I responded with personal comments meant for only him. He began to search for connections he could make to the text. His responses grew longer as he explained how incidents in the text corresponded to his own life. I was amazed at how great a student John had become. I told him this often, both in writing and in person. He always beamed, this 29 year old student who had had nothing short of a miserable elementary school experience until two teachers in a “last resort” school touched his life in different ways. Still, he was never a good student in the years that followed. Thus he was placed in my developmental writing class.

As John continued to shine, I began to refer to his work more in class and he worked even harder. He actually began to inspire me to work even harder, to anticipate his needs, to be prepared for him. I told him several times how he was inspiring me. He is not very good at showing his emotion but he told me that he had been telling his mother how he was inspiring me and how pleased his mother was with his progress. He confided that he had used several of the poems that students had written as “gift poems” and had given them to his parents. His final portfolio was stunning. He received a perfect score for his work during those fifteen weeks.

Last week, I saw John in the hallway and asked him if he would come in to my new class and speak to them about what to expect, “giving them the straight truth” on the course and me. He beamed when I asked him and he showed up at my door 30 minutes later, ready to give his talk. The students sat listening to him with rapt attention and had questions for him at the end. John left feeling very good about himself.

I learned once again that things don’t happen over night. It takes persistence and patience. If you speak the truth, have faith in students, continue to praise them for the things they can do, most of the times they will work hard to meet your dreams for them. Patience doesn’t come easily. That’s why it’s called a virtue. May I have it more often.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

It Takes Patience

I’ve been doing this blog thing since last January and have created about 8 blogs over that period of time. For the most part, I’ve been discouraged over the lack of response, though I’ve come to realize that it isn’t always easy to sign on to this site or to post a response. I have to exit my aol account and go to Explorer to log on. It certainly is not as easy as replying to an email. Many don’t even realize that I’ve made a post, though it is possible through Feedblitz to sign up for an email announcing any positing. It takes about 24 hours to get this email so patience is necessary. I even found the most recent notice in my spam folder this morning. Yikes!

Anyway, every so often, I look to see if anyone has commented on the latest blog and usually no one has. I stop checking soon. My only hope is that even though the responses are very few, perhaps they have struck a chord with some silent readers, propelling them into some action.

This morning, as I procrastinated with some papers and watched outside for the promised rain to bring life to my parched flowers, I reviewed past comments and I found that long ago posts have received some thoughtful responses that I hadn’t seen before. Louann had written a prompt response to the leadership issue in January but then Vincent responded in July, telling the story of his growth and subsequent work as a literacy leader. I liked the way he admitted that his initial vision of what a literacy leader would do at the high school level was very vague but, with the help of his principal, he persisted. Often we don’t know exactly where the road will take us but we go ahead, as Tom Romano says about writing, with faith and fearlessness.” Leaders need to be bold, even when they don’t have all of the answers. Often we figure things out as we go.

The first blog on the topic of complaints of teachers being paid well for “part time work” had five comments and most of them came early. I have remembered Louann’s quote of Jeff Golub who said, “Teaching is a twelve month job squeezed into nine months.” Nellie in hartland, Corey Joyce, and Joan had good stories of “comebacks” for Emil’s statement.

Nobody responded (yet) to the blog on personal response to literature (probably too broad a topic and the answers are obvious) but four responded to the blog on tipping points. Dave Arbogast, you touched me with the passion and empathy you showed about not getting responses to your work and still being understanding of the problems teachers face with all they have to do. It’s good to hear that you are willing to persist. I’m wondering now if I should have responded immediately. I can’t get straight if a blog is a column, an email, or a chat session…or something else. Marby, two weeks later, sympathized with Dave about how teachers are overwhelmed and Michele, two months later, agreed with Marby but suggested encouraging others to participate so that a critical mass can be created. Anonymous two weeks later suggested looking for positive places to establish tipping points, rather than dwell on the negatives.

There were two poignant responses by anonymous writers on school lockdowns. The first looked at the term and suggested that if we treat students like prisoners, we shouldn’t be surprised that they behave like prisoners. The other recalls being startled by the sight of a sawed off shot gun carried by a small boy in an elementary school. The question is, Where did we go wrong to allow this environment to exist?

The most recent post has no responses and maybe never will. I was feeling a little angry or something as I wrote this and I don’t know if it has a point so much as it seems to be complaining, or whining, really. We’ll see.

What I have discovered is that I never know who is listening in and what kind of response might follow, even months later. I’ve learned in a small way to be patient. In the meantime, thanks to all of you who have responded. It is at least for the ten or so respondents that I plug away…and have patience.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Becoming a Bard

“The training to become a bard or file (an Irish poet-seer) was long and arduous: it could involve lying in a dark hut for hours, or sitting in cold water to force inspiration to come. But a poet had to have natural talent before he could be trained. There are many tales of the favoured one receiving his gift from a woman of the Otherworld, as in the Scottish border ballad of Thomas the Rhymer:

Then they came to a garden green,
And she pulled an apple from a tree:
“Take this for your wages, true Thomas;
It will give you the tongue that can never lie.” *

Can we be a bard and still be a teacher? Can we speak the truth as a bard, showing the mysteries of literature, and, in the very next move, pass out a test on the text or switch to a worksheet on reading comprehension skills? We are not honest with our students if we just go along with a curriculum set before us with no real concern for students but only for content. Submissive students file into classrooms, plop into seats arranged in rows like assembly lines, many willing to have content poured into their vessels, convinced that they are learning. Teachers follow guidelines set forth by district office personnel and turn learning opportunities into testing procedures. There is no real investigation of an issue, discussion often consisting of a question answer session with three or four students as the rest of the class hangs their heads, sleep, sneak peaks at their cell phones. The thing one student remembers most about school was the clock. It never moved.

How can we go through training and forget about or ignore how students can find their voices in authentic writing, not repetitious literature essays? Have we forgotten our own voices and no longer write anything, not even literature essays? We ask them to do it but we don’t do it ourselves. Are we hypocrites, lying to our students about what is good for them? Have we found passion in our own voice, our own writing? Have we told them, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader?” Is their writing voiceless because ours is voiceless? When was the last time our blood boiled as we wrote something or we cried at the memory of a lost love, or at the slippage of time and our fear that we haven’t done enough?

We are free to choose our own books but are our students? Are we afraid that they will read trash and won’t be exposed to the rigors of the great works? When was the last time we decided to read Othello or Twelfth Night on our own for our own enjoyment and not as preparation for a lesson? How about the works of Thoreau or Emerson? If we read, do we reveal the truths of our reading lives to our students? Do we even know if they have reading lives or whether they would know how to find a good book if given the chance. Do they have favorite authors and genres? Can they learn this in our class or do they have to do that “on their own time?” We say reading is important but do we truly honor that by setting up our classrooms to foster reading or do we lie there too?

Until we return to being bards and being honest with students about their reading and writing, providing genuine opportunities for time in class to read and write, ownership of books and topics, and in-depth responses from us as well as from their peers, we are living out the lie of education in the 21st century. Have we become slaves to NCLB, simply giving in and then giving up, collecting our pay checks, taking our summers off “to detach and oil our prosthetic psyches,” going through the motions, following the curriculum?

I vote for the life of the bard.

* Lyn Webster Wilde writes in Celtic Inspirations—Essential Meditations and Tests, (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 2004)