Teachers, Remember What It’s Like to Be 17

It’s Labor Day, and I’m on my back porch catching up on school work. Cup of coffee in hand, cats at my feet, I open Google Classroom and the first student assignment I read is Kailie’s analysis.

I do not actually know if the 1985 hit song “Sussudio” by English musician Phil Collins is a “good” or “bad” song. I am forever blinded by the light of emotional attachment, with this track being one my dad played for me from a very young age. Which is odd in itself– my father, who cringes at the sound of Wham! and spent his 1980s buried in Van Halen cassettes, is a fervent appreciator of “Sussudio.”

In one raw, unfiltered moment of memory, my senior year comes rushing back to me. My life-long friend Leslie and I are in her living room, MTV on full blast, and we are Molly Ringwald-jump-dancing and scream-singing, “I feel so good if I just say the word, su-su-sussudio.”

Leslie and I thought ourselves some edgy sorts because we loved Duran Duran, The Clash, and Flock of Seagulls. So ardent was our identification with these reckless, poppy 80s Brits, that if Sting had been our English teacher, we would have been wet-bus-stop-waiting every day.

But there’s something more than just the memory of a song. I remember the joy and sorrow that marked so much of high school. I remember being free and being scared. Wanting to grow up and wanting to stay small.

Leslie and I had lost one parent each- my father to leukemia in ’82 and her mother to breast cancer in ’83. As Cold War babies, we knew the world was an uncertain place. We were sick of high school with all its petty rules, but scared to death about what came next.

Even though every adult in our life was telling us to think about the future, we wisely knew The Moment was to be savored. So there we were, just for the moment, delirious, sweaty, out of breath, and that song – we never had any idea about who or what Sussido was – told us if we’d just say the word, we would feel so good. Such fizzy pink pop. Such mindlessness. It didn’t matter. It felt good to be young and alive.

I tell every first-year teacher this: Teaching high school is a non-stop memory of your own adolescent pain.  Which is why, principals, when you’re hiring new teachers, instead of asking what John Maxwell quote best exemplifies their classroom management style, ask this question: do you remember what it’s like to be 17?

Do you remember how everyone told you to just be yourself, but you didn’t have any idea who or what that was? How every inspirational speaker they drug us into the gym to listen to told us to be unique and different when all we wanted to do was to blend in enough to not get singled out for anything?

Do you remember what it was like not to understand polynomials but everyone else seemed to be getting it, so why raise your hand?  Do you remember avoiding the loud girls in the hall because they might single you out, to make fun of your hair, your shoes, your teeth?

Do you remember what it was like to have every adult telling you the decisions you made in the next two years would determine the rest of your life? That if you didn’t make the right decision, you’d be screwed. If you didn’t go to college, you couldn’t get a good job. If you didn’t get a good job, you wouldn’t have a family. If you didn’t have a family, you’d end up hustling aluminum cans at the scrap yard.

Do you remember what it was like to no longer be a child, but not yet an adult? How one moment you wanted to crawl back into your bedroom and play with action figures and the next moment you were taking the ACT and filling out college applications? Leaving your parents? Leaving your childhood?

I’m reminded again that teaching is dependent on our ability to remember the answers to these questions. So, thank you, Kailie, for taking me back and helping me remember what it’s like to be standing on the edge of the rest of your life, thinking every decision is life or death. I wish I could go back and tell my 17-year-old self that everything’s going to be okay, but I can do the next best thing: I can extend that grace to my students. I can make my classroom a safe place to feel free and to feel scared. I can make writing an exercise of self-discovery and solace. I can act with wisdom when my students act like five-year-olds one minute and thirty-year-olds the next.

That we recognize ourselves in our students is invaluable. When they remind us of who we once were and who we are now, we can reach out again, through joy and pain, and help each other along the path. We must allow them to see us, not as authorities on life, but fellow travelers on this journey. Treat them with the same kindnesses with which we wish some wise teacher would have treated us. Strive every day to remember what it’s like to sit in that cramped school desk.

 

 

Working Our C.O.R.E

At the beginning of each school year, I spend one full class period explaining how my classroom works. Logistics like bathroom passes, cell phone use, make-up work, Chromebook usage, and so on. However, after I lay down the operational parameters of Room 303, I want them to wrangle with some group norms that will really make this class sing.

A word about what I teach:  my writing classes operate like writing studios populated by working writers. Because my students are working both independently and interdependently in this class, establishing group norms is important. Writers can be very focused on their own work to the exclusion of anyone else, but in a cooperative learning environment, such as a writing community, setting base line expectations and boundaries is critical.

Each year the class comes up with a list of expectations that every member of the class, including me, should strive to emulate. This year, after listing all the brainstormed behaviors, expectations, and descriptors on the board, it was time to boil the list down to a few essentials.  After a lot of discussion and deliberation, the class circled around four adjectives:  open minded, empathetic, respectful, and considerate.  As the class negotiated to fit the rest of their descriptions under one of these four umbrella terms, one student looked up and said, “Hey, it spells CORE. That’s our acronym.”

Indeed, it was.

C.O.R.E. has become our group norm for this academic year, and I’d like to discuss what each of these looks like in our writing class.

Considerate: Being considerate means being thoughtful, concerned, and mindful of others. This behavior is particularly important in a writing workshop, where we are working with sensitive, often personal, subjects written by young writers. Under this term, my students listed “be kind,” “be nice,” “be a good friend,” and “help others.” Other students suggested no gossiping, no name calling, no back stabbing could go under this category. While being considerate includes compassion towards others, it also means to practice self-consideration or self-compassion. So many young writers tend to preface their work with apologies, i.e., this is awful, I’m stupid, I’m a horrible writer, this is trash. This behavior is the same as name calling, only directed at yourself. Being considerate of one’s self and others contributes to the “we are all in this together” connection that is the cornerstone of all functional, thriving communities.

Open-minded:  This was a dark horse norm I didn’t see coming, but students listed things like, “check your bias” and “seek to understand other’s viewpoints.”  Several students listed behaviors important to writers: “listen to other’s ideas,” “be open to new ideas” and “be approachable during workshop.” Of course, the real test of this norm will be when a student is asked to give feedback on, for example, an essay that argues for a position he doesn’t agree with. He must learn to respond to the writing itself and not to his opposition of the ideas expressed. In a writing workshop, it’s imperative that students are open-minded enough to consider an argument they don’t agree with and still be able to give the writer good feedback on her technique, craft, and form. I also want the student who is on the receiving end of feedback to be open minded, weighing and considering all the feedback even though she’s the final arbiter of her work.

Respectful:  In the last ten years of using group norms, I can’t remember a single class that didn’t include this word.  It is absolutely vital in any classroom.  Under this word, students listed behaviors such as “If you listen to music, wear headphones,” “If you want to conference with another student, go out into the hall,” and “Don’t disturb other people.” But they also listed things like “turn your drafts in on time,” as well as cleaning up after themselves as a way of showing respect to each other. Another angle of respect that made it on the big list was “what’s written in Room 303, stays in Room 303,” and “if it’s not your story, don’t tell it.” Confidentiality is an essential part of respecting one another enough to maintain a vault of safety around the stories we tell each other. Self-respect is also a necessary part of this norm; each student must respect her contribution to the group and recognize that by not participating she’s essentially disrespecting the group by withholding her own unique gifts and viewpoints.

Empathetic: We had a fairly robust conversation about including empathetic after we already had respectful and considerate on the list, but ultimately we decided these descriptors were indeed different things. The ability to feel other people’s emotions and to imagine what someone else might be feeling is especially important as you want each member of the community to feel connected emotionally to one another. Empathy is also important in order to imagine what another person is thinking in order to give them feedback on a creative project. To give helpful feedback, you want to attempt to understand what the author or poet was attempting to do. You want to strive to see what the writer sees in order to give him feedback he can use to improve the original vision he had for the piece of writing.

C.O.R.E. may not work for your class, but the activity of students arriving at norms that set social and emotional boundaries for the whole group creates investment and community when you need it during those uncomfortable and sometimes awkward first days of school.