Reflections on Coming Back to the Classroom

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I didn’t teach in a high school classroom for two years, and the year before that, my sole class was a group of seniors I had known for years in a “zero” period class that was designed to support their college applications and readiness, so not the most challenging class.  This year, I’m back in the classroom for one period, teaching 9th grade English Learners who inspire and motivate me every day, who show great resilience and character, but who also face numerous struggles.  I find myself, with two years of graduate school in Education intervening, a slightly different teacher than I was when I last left the classroom.

Certain characteristics remain the same: I talk too much, I’m better in front of students than on the back-end organization, I primarily try to “discipline” through engaging instruction that confronts power, language, and students’ cultures.  But I also find myself matured in a few aspects.  Here are three:

1. Self-Advocacy and Self-Monitoring.  I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this change, but I’ve become much more conscious than the teacher I was five years ago that I’m not only trying to inspire students and connect with them in my own class, but I’m trying to facilitate the growth of those self-monitoring and self-advocacy tools that they need in all areas of life.  I think this results partly from a combination of re-reading John Dewey and other pragmatist philosophers and from being exposed to the brain research that helps us understand the importance of executive function.  But even more important an influence is the thinking I’ve done (thanks to being a researcher) about how youth are positioned by their social world into particular roles and expectations, how having some say over those roles and expectations requires youth to be able to grab hold of who they are and to manage themselves, and how intensely interested adolescents are in that management of perceptions.

In concrete terms, rather than pull students aside and vent my frustrations or try to win a moral victory over them, as I was more likely to do in the past, I now resort more often to the reflective sidebar where I ask students what they are achieving, how they perceive themselves and their situation, what they would like to become, and what they should attend to in order to get there.  I talk a lot about who they think they are acting out, whether that’s true to who they want to act out, and what kinds of signals or tools they can appropriate to project the person they want to project.  I leave the decision-making much more to the student.

When students have difficulty, I’m more likely to put them in a meta-cognitive position of evaluating their social and interactional situations and considering what choices they may not know they’re making.  And I’m learning the long-term payoffs of this; students know I’m indeed on their side, invested in their development, not trying to antagonize them but to help them grow in their understanding, perception, decision-making, autonomy.

2. Language in Use.  I had the same tendency in the past that many classroom teachers had of expecting the classroom teaching and classroom assessment become the telos, the end or final product, while the rest of the world abstractly existed out there as “do well in school ->do well in the world one day in the future.”  I find myself much more conscious of the molding and shaping effect of the outside context interacting with the classroom context.  My previous tendency was to think, “before we read this text, I have to build background knowledge and activate prior schema about this thing we’re reading.”

Now, especially in my writing instruction, I’m more prone to recognize that reading and writing for real life audiences, as part of actual social interaction with stakes, makes those tasks more meaningful to students.  In the past, I used to do a project or a unit that involved writing some kind of text or piece that others would see, usually something about community or social change.  Now I realize that both those tasks and the aesthetic and cultural ones, the ones engaging about literature or arts, as well as the ones that weigh in on complex social issues that don’t lead to immediate action but do involve real deliberative dialogue, ought all be part of the students’ writing portfolio and purview.  In other words, everything should be written for real-life audiences.

Those real-life audiences who we hear from and speak to are the ones who shape, normatively, what language looks like, what’s acceptable, what’s powerful and persuasive.  This does include using more model texts and mentor texts, but it also includes underscoring the social messages, meanings, groups, and gathering places that give life to those texts.  Students see a text with “researchers at Brown University”– I have to show a picture, talk about what they think researchers are like and what they do to gather information and draw conclusions.

These are the people they are writing to and in dialogue with.  That perception needs to start early for them, so they grow up believing and habituated into the idea that they have the voice and power to interact with the broader community, where their voices have impact, and where they must therefore fine tune their spelling, syntax, and stances to be heard.

3. The Long Arc.  In my last stint of teaching before going to grad school, I got to stay with a group of students for several years, some of them for all four years of high school.  When I first started teaching, the push to get more of these students along the same path that I went on, SATs, Honors classes, four year universities, helped me to maintain high expectations and ambitions for students who others might have written off, and I think that was important.  But this time back in the classroom, part of the seasoning of years of experience is recognizing the longer arc that exists for students, the multitude of possibilities and pathways, and the actual constituent elements of lifetime positive change.  I am less gung-ho about college, more concerned about students’ reconciliations with their own communities and families, the broader academic and professional world, the potential varieties of schooling and the implications of social class and civic participation.  In other words, I’m less college-driven, more attentive to a broader range of social and human imperatives, all of which can matter, none of which is meant to crowd out any other.

With this year’s freshmen, I realize that I have to continue to instill a vision of college, but having sold previous generations of students that bill of goods without having equipped them with what they need right now to get there or succeed there, I recognize more clearly the steps in-between we need to build: the support structure, the socioemotional development, the sense of mastery over youth’s own current environs and immediate futures as roads to who they are becoming.

All this alongside a more mature concern over not just what individual students are becoming, but what we are becoming as a community, including the school, our families, and our collective generation.  Although I have always talked about returning to your community, serving your community, making an impact in your community, I think that notion always felt more ideal and abstract than it does to me today.  As Gustavo Gutierrez challenged, (paraphrase here), if you claim you care about the poor, then tell me their names.  I am differently aware of the struggles and challenges of my students’ families and communities, especially as they become and resemble more and more my own.

All this makes me more interested in the long arc of what students are becoming than the urgent, short-term payoffs of having this many students enrolled in this or that many who make it past that bar.  Those ambitions are often healthy, but can become self-serving.

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