One Year Teaching in Desperation

Originally published 17 May 2016

I’m sure we all have moments where we collapse at the end of the day, feeling like we’ve been run over in a stampede. I question myself — did that make even the slightest difference today? Are they learning anything?

That was me almost every day this year. Now that we’re reaching the end of the year, I feel like I’m emerging from the wreckage and can mostly see things through the smoke, although I don’t know if it will ever be totally clear. In the spirit of confidence, adventure, (and perhaps some well-appointed stereotypically millennial sense of difference-making or idealism), this year I accepted a job to teach reading intervention classes at a middle school that is incredibly diverse and–often heartbreakingly–disadvantaged in many ways. I’ve learned how to listen to students, understand why they act the way they do, develop personal relationships with them, and see what wonderful, resilient people they can be.  The faculty and staff here is full of amazing people, whose dedication shines through in their optimism and hard work–something that I’m grateful for because I know that not all schools with a population like ours have this.

Teaching here has been the biggest professional challenge of my life so far, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it has also been one of the more significant personal and intellectual challenges also. I’ve worked desperately to make even the smallest difference–in their reading skills, in their lives. Also, I thought I was bringing my classroom management A-game before, but this experience makes me think otherwise. I have stretched and grown in so many ways. And such growing pains!

Wilderness survival specialists have a short list of things that help them make it through, right? Here are mine:
-Remembering that personal relationships make a huge difference, especially with the key players in any particular class.
-Being clear and consistent with rules and escalation of consequences.
-Routines can save you
-Attempts to engage and appeal to students and their culture and interests are often rewarded. (Diverse books are a must! Week in Rap, etc.)

Since working with these students I’ve been thinking a lot more about education and the current role it plays in a lot of students’ lives compared with the role it should be playing. I’ve become a little obsessed with this topic–particularly as it applies to the many millions of our students here in America that are not getting what they need from school–the kids in the lower percentages, the portion that is steadily and scarily growing. I often think (especially on tough days) about how students are affected the most by their home life, how they bring what happens at home to school and it has a great impact on their learning. I’ve read several articles that have offered interesting perspectives and sometimes understanding on the subject: How Can High-Poverty Schools Connect with Students? from Edutopia (read the whole series!), this Op-Ed from the NY Times, and The Terror from Junot Diaz & the NY Times.

I can’t really talk about my experience in the classroom this year without also talking about books that have allowed me to commiserate or that have cast further light into my or my student’s situation.
The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School by Ed Boland was so realistic, sometimes I couldn’t handle the double dose of teaching and reading this book in one day. He has some incredible insights, in addition to just telling it like it is.
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam was another critical text for me. This book gives voice to thoughts and questions that, as a teacher and a person, I’ve had for a while. Why does the past and its abundance of opportunity seem so golden compared with now? And why does it seem so hard to overcome some of these obstacles that I see students and others face? Identifying some of the factors and causes of these things was insightful for me as a teacher, but also in recognizing what opportunities I’ve had and what others around me are likely to have, and subsequently, how much we can help in turn. A few thoughts I liked: “…schools, though not a big part of the problem, might be a big part of the solution”, and that the “advantaged” have a greater political voice and such greater power that it “undermines political equality and thus democratic legitimacy.” This made me think of a quote from Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, “We in ancient countries have our past–we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.” I felt such conflict over the fact that the American dream, and the role of education in it, seemed so unclear for my students.
Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby is a good reminder and discussion that, albeit with a much more select sample and less diverse student population than mine, it is possible for many if not all teachers to help students to read and make meaning from literature–and that it still holds a critical place in our curriculum. I loved the examples of the passionate teachers in this book– passionate about literature and about teaching.

These are some of the resources that have deepened my understanding of literacy instruction, for students anywhere on the range of levels–from barely below grade level to significantly below grade level:
The research base from Columbia’s Teachers College’s Reading and Writing Project (this is a great support–although maybe I’m a little biased since I’m at TC for my Masters); The Importance of Real Reading for Resistant Readers from Education Week; How I Turned My Kid into A Reader from Dinner: A Love Story; What Reading Does for The Mind from Cunningham & Stanovich, Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy from Scientific American; my school district used LETRS literacy training this year, and I really got a lot from it (professional development win)!
While my students desperately need phonics and comprehension strategies, the reading workshop is also a critical part of literacy curriculum, IMHO. And, Building Relationships with Students Through Books from Cult of Pedagogy.

Only a few more weeks until summer break! We got this.

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