The Write Stuff: A Teacher Reflection

This summer, I attended a writing institute in Emporia, KS — a location for the National Writing Project. The experience was magical, to say the least (literally: I was dubbed “Most Capable of Turning Any Situation Into a Harry Potter Reference”). I learned a great deal about myself as a writer, gathered feedback from writing peers, and acquired a wealth of knowledge on the topic of writing instruction at the elementary and secondary level.

One core belief demanded attention in the weeks after I’d left: My students need to be writing daily. As an English major — writing, not literature or teaching — I had already established this belief; as a new teacher, though, I struggled to incorporate this principle in my daily labors. I wanted my students to write more, I knew they’d become stronger writers if they wrote more . . . but I couldn’t figure out the time thing. Where would I find all the time they needed to just . . . write?

After three years of teaching, one summer institute, and a few weeks of stubbornly (and metaphorically) ramming my head against the same brick wall time and time again, something finally clicked: I teach in a small, rural school with only one other teacher in the English “department” for grades 7-12, and my school doesn’t have a curriculum or scope and sequence. (That’s a new-teacher nightmare for another day, folks.) The one certainty I do have in this one-man-band I call my content area: time.

My students now write approximately 5-10 minutes daily in their Writers Notebooks. We’re in the midst of the fourth week of school, so it still takes some time to settle down and get in the writing “groove” — especially since they usually write at the beginning of class, and they’re still trying to transition from one subject to the next — but I allow them to plug in their headphones while they write, which minimizes the number of conversations that occur.

A few times each week, I use the projector to show my students an intriguing image (usually a foreign location or fantasy illustration) and ask my students to just create. I want them to have fun with words, to learn that writing doesn’t have to mean five-paragraph essays or the “right kind of creativity.”

And they love it.

I write alongside my students. I’ve noticed they’re more likely to hunker down and scribble away if they see me writing, too — in fact, when they see me whip out my pen and notebook, a hush falls over the room. I gaze around the room some as I write, partially to keep an eye on kids and gauge when to stop the writing; partially to let them know it’s okay to look around sometimes, as long as they return to paper at some point.

When we’ve reached a stopping point, I always ask who would like to share. Since we’re in the early stages of the school year, several of my students are still shy. Sharing writing is extremely intimate, even when the stories are make-believe; but I want my students to learn the joys of putting their work out there, of having their voices heard. I want them to learn that sharing writing is no different than putting their woods projects or art projects on display in the hallways or at the end-of-year student show.

So I share my writing, too.

The first time or two, a few kids joked that there was no way they could live up to the work I’d shared. (I promise I’m not doing this for the ego boost.) Despite their jokes, though, I noticed kids becoming enraptured with the stories I created. They’ve come to expect me to share my work. While it’s nice to have an audience (captive though they be), I didn’t start sharing my writing to impress or intimidate. I had an inkling that if I modeled the act of sharing personal writing aloud, my students might be less terrified of taking the author’s chair, themselves.

Here’s what I’ve noticed in just a few weeks:

Hands have begun to shoot up more quickly when I ask, “Who wants to share their writing?” Students have stopped groaning (as much) when I tell them to pull out their journals. Kids no longer snap their notebooks shut the moment I ask them to find a stopping place — they scribble a bit longer, some several minutes longer, and many wait with their notebooks open on their laps or tabletops: an invitation to be asked to read.

Sure, some still drag their feet and a handful can only manage to eke out a sentence or two in ten minutes; but I feel confident that with time, when writing becomes a habit, the words will come more easily.

Today, I shared this photo with my senior English classes. A handful of the more technical-minded boys wrote about how they would improve the structure, while a few penned stories of runaways seeking a place of solitude amid the waves of this lake (or river, or ocean). I shared last, as

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Borrowed from newslinq.com.

always: a fabricated tale of an unloved sea urchin whose shell grew at a rate proportionate to his loneliness.

After I finished reading, the class sat for a moment before one girl blurted out, “Whoa. Is that what happens when you read all the time? You get good at writing and creating stories?”

I laughed a bit, because their notions of “good” writing are a tad generous among high school students; but I was pleased nonetheless because her comment led to a conversation about the importance of reading. These kids are well aware I’m a book hoarder; there’s a whiteboard posted outside my classroom door with weekly updates about the books I’m currently reading. I also may or may not have taken things to an extreme-geek level when I revealed to them my giddy excitement at the arrival of my first Book of the Month Club box.

If I’m lucky, though, my students will begin making that connection between frequent reading a better writing and taking it more seriously; if for no other reason, to improve the works they bring to the collective table during our daily writing time.

 

WOI: An Ode to Frau

When I first started high school, a mysterious figure arrived at the front doors of Flinthills High.

She wore her dark hair in a boyish pixie cut, which struck us as odd since the only women we knew with hair that short were our moms. Her skin was pale, as though she was too busy reading novels to spend time outdoors. Her slim, athletic figure was often masked by chunky knit sweaters and loose-fitting polos that sometimes rose just high enough to tease us with the edge of a tattoo (we thought?); and her semi-angular face, framed with expressive and prominent brows, rarely displayed more than the slightest hint of artificial color.

Her effortless manner of existence was unlike any we’d seen before. She was so damn comfortable in her own ordinary skin, that she became anything but ordinary. Her very being suggested both careful consideration of her place in the world, and a quiet but firm refusal to adhere to societal expectations.

We came to know her as Frau.

Frau was our ninth and eleventh grade English teacher — and she was exotic, right down to her obviously-European sneakers. She spoke German fluently, we discovered, due to a year-ish stint in Karlsruhe — or was it Düsseldorf? (This life abroad, we came to understand, did not entail evangelizing or studying at a university or teaching young children to speak English; I seem to recall her admitting she spent much of her time washing dishes. I forget the specifics, now, but the puzzlement remains.) We were exhilarated by every mysterious layer of her being.

She kept miniature squares of Ritter Sport Schokolade tucked away in odd desk drawers: coveted rewards for particularly skillful writing or unusual participation in classroom discussions. She instigated heated debate sessions, forcing us to take a stance just so she could flip the tables and require us to defend the opposing point of view; all the while enabling us to understand the complexities of not-so-black-and-white issues, unbeknownst to us fumbling teenage idiots. She welcomed original student works, and suffered through many samples of my angsty teen poetry: some, she submitted to contests or anthologies; most, she returned, riddled with suggestions, scribbly stars, and questions.

One February afternoon when the grass lay buried and brown beneath mushy gray-sky snow, Frau read a poem to us: “Richard Cory,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. I have never forgotten how innocently the poem floated up from the silky pages of those Holt Literature books, right up to the last two lines: “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / went home and put a bullet through his head.”

After a brief moment of silence following the sound of the last period, my peers issued immediate exclamations: That was STUPID! Why’d he do it?! I hate this poem. But I was enamored. How remarkably odd, indeed, that Robinson could so nonchalantly introduce the man’s abrupt suicide. My heart ached with startling pity: Robinson’s words had touched me, at the very core of my being. I don’t remember a time before this in which an author’s work had such a moving effect on me.

While many of my peers likely forgot the poem and the record player upon which Frau shared the musical version by Simon & Garfunkel, I still think of this poem often, ten years later. I remain haunted by Richard Cory.

Frau set the wheels in motion: my literary awakening.

* * *

She’s a bit romanticized in my memory, I’ll admit. It’s quite possible that some of the details of this recollection are a bit skewed. But I suppose that is normal: those rose-colored glasses are some sort of due process for a person with whom one has formed such an intimate but distant personal relationship.

Frau claims ownership (or perhaps, contributing-editorship,) to a fair chunk of what I claim as my actual self. She planted a seed of hope in the palm of my teenage soul that has never stopped growing. Certainly, sometimes that seedling has shriveled a bit or needed some coaxing to emerge from a particularly crusty layer of neglect and doubt; but the seed remains. She showed me how to nourish that seedling with exceptional prose and tidbits of poetry.

She also cultivated my appreciation for literature and writing into something much greater, something much more fulfilling. Because Frau walked through the doors of USD 492 some twelve years ago, I learned how to accept criticism of my writing, though sometimes frustrating or nettling. And through her steady stream of feedback and encouragement, a foundation was built for a lifelong need to write.

In the meantime, she hurled book recommendations at me like literary bullets. I grew whole in the fibers of those pages, filled with competing desires to read my life rich and to please this woman I had grown to love in the manner of student admiration. Few things became more satisfying than the affirmation Frau bestowed upon me when I completed another noteworthy novel. My appreciation for this beloved teacher grew into something a bit like friendship, and a bit like worship.

* * *

I’m a teacher of high school English, now, and more often than not I have a little cry at my desk at the end of the day, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. My students can be belligerent and cruel, my colleagues are often sharp-tongued and more critical than helpful, and society as a whole seems to have few kind things to say about educators. On those days, I usually end up calling my mom, who sits patiently on the other end of the line as I weep loudly and feel pretty sorry for myself. I wonder aloud why I even bother, what is even the point of being a teacher.

When the gasping cries subside a bit, she always asks, “Are you done?” and I nod, as though she can see my head bob through the phone. “Good. Do you remember Frau Krehbiel?” she starts.

And that’s really all she has to say.

I’m taking it personally.

In first grade, a kid from Cassoday (accidentally) tripped me as I hustled (perhaps more quickly than I needed to) from my desk to the trash can, empty chocolate milk carton in hand.

I was clad in a white, fringed and embellished Western-style shirt — my favorite — because it was picture day. I was excited, for three quite understandable reasons: 1) we’d just finished snack time; 2) it was nearly 3:30; and 3) I’d smiled my biggest grin ever — showcasing my complete and utter lack of front teeth. I knew Mom and Dad would be super-mega-ultra proud of that grin, so naturally, I was in a hurry.

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My face connected with the desk like a magnet had drawn the object and I together, and in moments, blood was gushing down my chipmunk cheeks and onto that remarkably white V-neck. Naturally, my first reaction was: Holy shit! That’s a lot of blood! (sans the expletive; I was only seven, guys) and then — I caught sight of  Cassoday-kid.

You know those movie clips in which a major character narrows his/her eyes and looks at another character/object/animal and the camera zooms in on that dirty look, so nobody misses it? Yeah. That happened.

It suddenly became clear to me, as I glowered (and hyperventilated/cried upon a stool in the boys’ bathroom, which was [mortifyingly] closest for my bleeding-like-a-stuck-pig self): Cassoday-kid had tripped me on purpose, duh. Any fool in his right mind could have seen I was in a hurry to get to the trash can. His foot was obviously intentionally placed in my direct path.

That all went down about 20 years ago, and I’m still half-certain I was tripped purposely. Of course, being the reasonable adult that I clearly am, I’ll pretend to lean more toward certainty that it was all an accident, caused primarily by my own haphazard hurrying; but deep down…that’s another story, folks. I took it personally. I used my woman-brain to twist this relatively innocent experience into a grudge-worthy personal attack.

In fact, over the past two decades, I’ve taken personal offense to comments, sideways glances, Tweets, jokes made by siblings, memes, blog posts, gum on my shoe . . . You name it, I’ve taken personal offense to it, as if the person saying/doing any given thing said/did the thing as a direct criticism of myself. Do I realize this is a completely irrational line of thinking? Absolutely. Is it something I continue to do? Most def.

As a third year teacher, I struggle most with this particular aspect of myself, which doesn’t lend itself well to my career. I work with a horde of angst-y teenagers who — more often than not — blame anyone other than themselves for shortcomings. The ability to connect actions (or lack thereof) to consequences is not something they’ve mastered quite yet. Examples:

  • It’s my fault my students did poorly on a test, despite the fact that they didn’t complete the reading, or failed to do their practice homework, or talked over me during class, or refused to participate in class discussions.
  • I’m mean because I sent students out to the hallway — because they didn’t complete the chapter we would be discussing in class.
  • I’m unfair because I gave students homework over a holiday break — because they didn’t finish any of their reading homework assignments, so we had to read over break in order to finish the book before the end of the semester.

Get the picture?

Deep down, I know that my students enjoy me; at least, most of them do. But at the surface level? I’m an insecure 26-year-old, floundering about the halls of a high school in memories of my own horrific high school experience, berating myself for every little detail my students find to criticize me about. I sometimes want to shout, “Hey! I hear you! I’m taking it personally!”

I’m aware that students’ brains are still developing. I know that their hormones are raging, and their emotions . . . terrifying. I know that they’re trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be, the careers they want to obtain, the next color they’ll dye their hair, why their parents don’t come to school events, where their next meals will come from, why their best friends are no longer talking to them, how math and letters can possibly exist in the same world . . . and yet . . .

I’ve got feelings, too.

Homecoming, 5.0

I’m going to walk out on a metaphorical limb and make the assumption that any individual who has returned to the strange, wicked world of high school as a teacher has experienced feelings of deja vu and vertigo, of sorts. At times, I find myself in extreme flashback situations–moments that I cannot stop or control no matter how much I’d like to do so.

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Exhibit A: Homecoming week. This past week at school was a smorgasbord of quirky dress-up days, haywire attention spans, king and queen kiss speculations (because homecoming royalty has to kiss, duh), awkward tittering about who has just asked whom to the dance, and as a cherry on top: class and organization float decorating on Friday. As a class sponsor, I had the opportunity to supervise my group of rambunctious teens as they bickered their way through the decoration process. (Cue the personal high school flashback, now.)

Float decoration was a direct reflection of my own high school experiences with homecoming and other events that required class cooperation or participation: some kids worked diligently; some kids napped in corners; some kids disappeared to God knows where; and some kids sat around brooding, irritated that their plan wouldn’t be utilized. The end result of these experiences is always the same: When the project is finished, the collective unit gathers round to scrutinize, and those who have contributed nil start the barrage of negative criticism.

“This sucks. It looks terrible.”

“That line is crooked.”

“Who drew this? It’s awful!”

And so on, and so forth. Meanwhile, the handful of individuals who did contribute to the item in question begin to feel indignant, and backlash ensues. Typically, the terms lazyworthless, and jerk can be distinguished from the hasty emotional rebuttals of those injured few.

As a high school student, I was always part of the offended group; I worked tirelessly to ensure our class would “win” whatever competition my school had in place, and quickly became frustrated with classmates who only had negative comments to make. As a teacher, I now possess the “power” to shape this experience into a learning opportunity.

Here’s the lesson, kids: Life is like a homecoming float. You can either dive in headfirst, armed with glue and glitter and visions of Miley Cyrus on her wrecking ball; or you can sit on your haunches, suspicious or apathetic with no intentions other than being that wrecking ball, ready to take someone out with your negative words and “cool” attitude. The choice is entirely up to you.

However, be aware: The “you” that you choose to be in high school is not all that different from the “you” that you will be as an adult. Choose wisely, young grasshoppers. Choose wisely.