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.

 

 

A Deer Killing Story: Moving from Experience to Narrative

Over two decades of teaching writing, I’ve discovered most student writers (and most adult writers) have trouble distinguishing what details matter and what details are extraneous during a first draft.  They may not know what details matter because they don’t even know why the story they’re telling matters.  Figuring out the significance of a memory is one of the initial steps in crafting a successful narrative about that memory.

Including everything they experienced without interpretation keeps the memory or story at the level of an anecdote.  It’s a yarn untouched by the powerful tools of narrative; it’s an un-interpreted experience.  How did this happen?  Yes, we need to know that, but “why did this happen?” is the most critical question a student can ask of herself. When students interpret their experience and recognize its significance and meaning, they begin to shape the narrative in a way that creates a greater degree of both personal and public use.

Here’s an example:  A boy decides to write a personal narrative about killing his first deer. So what? For the record, as a teacher in rural Kentucky for 15 years, I have read approximately 12,893 deer killing stories. Everybody has a “I shot a deer” story. But it’s the student who writes the “I shot a deer and here’s how it changed me, or here’s what I learned, or here’s why it was an important memory” that raises the experience to the level of a narrative through interpretation and witness.

When I worked as site coordinator for Rural Voices Radio, a National Public Radio program featuring students writing about place, I received hundreds of these hunting essays as we put together the program that would ultimately become, Sweet Home Kentucky.  The representative deer hunting story we chose for the recording was one that perfectly rose above the “then this happened, then this happened” story to become a beautiful narrative about loss.

In “POW!” by tenth grader Travis Dixon, he and his cousin, Jack, go deer hunting on a nearby farm. During the drive, Dixon says he is a “nervous wreck” and is glad when a Kid Rock song comes on the radio, so he can take his mind off of what he is about to do. They arrive at the farm and hunker down behind some hay bales to await their prey.  Unfortunately, they have no luck.  As it grows dark, they decide to go home.

As they drive away, however, Dixon spots a “big beautiful doe with a small fawn” standing in the creek below them.  Dixon commands Jack to stop the truck.  “My heart was racing with fear and guilt for what I was about to do.” He sticks his gun out the truck window (“illegal” he says) and shoots the doe, aiming high to avoid shooting the baby.  “You got her,” his cousin says. “Good shot.”  The deer runs about 500 yards and then drops in a briar patch.  The fawn, however, “just stood there in shock.”  Dixon and his cousin follow the blood trail and find the deer, “still alive and bleeding profusely from the bullet wound.”  Then Dixon comes to a critical point in his narrative. “My cousin did something that will stay in my mind forever. He cut her throat, and she died.  I just about cried for what I had done. I had taken this fawn’s mommy.”

It’s on this last sentence that the story turns. There’s no indication the speaker has made some revelation to put down his gun, become an animal rights activist and eat vegan for the rest of his life. In fact, if the essay had included those details, I would have been disappointed that this beautiful story had trivialized itself into a sermon.

No, actually, something more powerful happens. It’s evidence of a personal epiphany – that he recognizes the magnitude of what he has done and the emotional and personal weight of killing an animal. And with that last sentence, Dixon pulls together the narrative elements that move this story from being merely a retelling of chronological events and shapes it into a narrative.  By layering in the details of his fear, the long day of waiting for the prize, the illegal shot taken out the truck window, the quick and decisive moment of his cousin slicing the throat of the doe, and the vision of the baby fawn transfixed in fear, Dixon frames the story into a narrative that evokes the experience for the reader, moving us to feel the same loss and guilt. In fact, we experience the moment because Dixon sifted and selected the details guaranteed to move us to his inescapable purpose.

 

Generating Questions That Lead to Claims: 24 Hours with a Camera Crew

My students don’t remember an entertainment landscape that didn’t include around-the-clock reality shows.  More than 750 reality shows aired on cable television in 2015, 350 of which were brand new. From talent contests to quirky families to dating hopefuls, reality shows appear to be scripted, but in fact, they aren’t written until all the footage has been shot. During the editing process, the director and editors look for patterns, storylines, opportunities for tension and arcs as they create the narrative.  All scenes that don’t support the narrative end up being cut away, which is one way I often explain writing revision to students.

For the purpose of generating writing ideas, last week I asked students to pretend they had a camera crew following them around for 24 hours. Students recorded everything they did for the previous 24 hour days by jotting down a word, a clause or a phrase.  Instead of writing just “work” or “school” or “homework,” I asked that students write a short description of what they were actually doing as if a camera crew was shooting footage.  What was the scene? Who was in the scene? What were they doing?  

The key to this activity is to ask students to look at their own life as if it were a reality show, looking for questions, patterns, significant moments, and meaning.   Watching as an audience or an outside observer allowed students to create distance and objectivity. I also asked students to use a third person pronoun to refer to themselves instead of using “I” and always write “the subject, ” as in “the subject made a tuna fish sandwich.”  Once students compiled this list, we pretended to be producers looking at 24-hours of footage for a controlling question or a claim that could be proven or challenged by the reality of this footage. 

In the documentary film “Sherman’s March,” filmmaker Ross McElwee’s burning question at the beginning of his quest was:   how did Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s military approach during the final months of the Civil War effect the South today?  But right before McElwee embarked on a road trip to follow Sherman’s footsteps, his girlfriend dumped him, and the march took on a very different pursuit, namely as Vincent Canby’s 1986 New York Times review states:   “Is romantic love possible in an age of supermarkets, fast food, nuclear arms and the sort of lightweight camera and sound equipment that allows anybody to film his own life?”

In Elizabeth Barrett’s 2000 Appalshop documentary “Stranger with a Camera,” she states her controlling questions in a voice over throughout the story of Kentuckian Hobert Ison and filmmaker Hugh O’Connor: How is a camera like a gun? Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people they portray? What are the responsibilities of any of us who take images of other people and put them to our own uses? What is the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it?

After students recorded their 24-hour camera footage, I asked them to look over their scenes and extract a broad controlling question. This question could render a multitude of great starting points for informational and argumentative texts.  Wording their claim or counter claim in the form of a question helps students see the subject from various angles.  A question requires students to assume a pursuant stance in order to answer it. Documentary film makers often call this a controlling question.  It’s the question that clarifies and focuses the shooting, production, and arrangement of the film. Here are some of the questions my students extracted from their 24-hours of “footage.”

How does one’s differing forms of entertainment influence their completion of everyday tasks? Can reading and music have a positive effect on procrastination and completion of school work? Do certain daily activities affect the quality of sleep?
How sleep deprived are high school students? Does high school wear down students? Is there really a life outside school for students?
Can being antisocial be crippling?

 

How does one balance dreams and reality and what is the price of trying? Does engaging with passion breed discontent for other things?
Are teens not reading books anymore? Are teens depressed? Are students riddled with anxiety?
Does a church community benefit a student’s overall day? Does politics have to lack good humor across party lines? Are messy people good at anything?
Why do we sometimes avoid things that make us happy? Can someone be social, yet not? Why is fiction such a great escape?
When does obsessive become too obsessive?

 

Can a person have a relationship with God without being religious? Can someone talk like a prick and walk like a good friend?
Is sloth bad? How does participating in a sport affect a high schooler’s life? Are stereotypes about teenagers accurate?
How can you balance school with everything else you want to do? Can a busy high school student still be content and relaxed? How does one withstand the mind-numbing grind that is high school?
Are teens too attracted to technology and their phones? Are we expecting too much from students? Why do some try to replace human interactions with non-living things?

Notice there’s a disproportionate number of questions dealing with fatigue, expectations, procrastination, technology, introversion, and social anxiety, all topics that weigh heavily on teens today.  I did this activity on the first day back from Winter Break, so we were all dying a little inside which explains the dark undertones of these questions. However, these questions make great starting places for both argumentative and informational texts, writing that is pulled directly from their lives.

Training TAs: The Art of Empathetic Inquiry

This morning I met with a group of students and two teachers to launch a mobile writing lab at Lafayette High School.  This writing lab pilot is the brainchild of the Lafayette writing committee, chaired by our writing resource teacher, Holly.

We don’t have the physical space for the kind of writing center you might see on a university campus where students make appointments with a tutor to discuss writing assignments. We also don’t have the staff to supervise such a venture.   Also, a before-school or after-school writing center wouldn’t be able to serve students who have no reliable transportation.  

Many of our students need one-on-one or small group assistance with their writing. Our writing committee also wanted to support our large faculty, who assign writing tasks, but need help with the time-intensive process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing necessary for quality writing.

This program allows teachers to “check out” writing teaching assistants (TAs). Similar to reserving a computer lab or a tech cart of laptops, teachers can reserve one or two tutors through an online app. The TAs will email the reserving teacher an intake form which allows teachers to describe the writing aid they need. TAs will then attend the class and provide the requested assistance.

In November, the English department recommended students whose writing, speaking, listening, and leadership abilities positioned them as naturals for this role.  From these recommendations, Holly invited fifteen students to participate in the pilot and attend the training this morning.

After Holly discussed the nuts-and-bolts of reserving a TA (in a future blog, I will hyperlink examples of how we set up our teacher intake form, our teacher feedback form, and our running record of TA work) she asked students to introduce themselves and tell a story about a writing assignment that had been difficult for them.

Sharing writing war stories was a great place to start the conversation about writing tutoring.  One must come to the table with respect for the difficult task of writing, and empathy and understanding are the cornerstones of any good teaching foundation.

After we reviewed our writing TA manual (a Google folder full of brainstorming strategies, graphic organizers, research resources, plus a bell and lunch schedule and a list of our faculty, their rooms, and planning periods) I asked TAs to test their tutoring chops by role playing with one another, using anonymous student samples. One sample was an argumentative essay about the most important word in Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.

“What might you say to this student?” I asked.

“I might ask her if she thought she took a long time to get to her point,” Kris said.

“Okay. Pretend I’m the student who has written this essay. What might your opening question be?”

“Do you think you took too long to get to your point?” Kris said.

“No, I don’t.  I think it’s good,” I said in the role of the student and pushed the essay back across the table toward Kris, who laughed, immediately realizing he had backed himself into a tutoring corner by asking a yes or no question instead of an open-ended question.

“A student will give you a yes-or-no answer if you ask a yes-or-no question, and the conversation comes to a grinding halt, right?” I said.  The group shook their heads, yes.

“I would say to the student, in your introduction you make a lot of good points, but you need to get to the point sooner,”   Kenna said.

“So yes, that’s clearly what needs to happen in this introduction, but what kind of question can you ask this writer that will allow her to arrive at that same conclusion?” I said.

“Let me try,” Leslie said. “I would say, I like how you have a lot of good points, but where is the main point that you want to make? Can you underline your main point?  And what other points come before the main point?”

Leslie had it. She was leading the student to make an independent discovery about the writing instead of fixing it herself. She was using inquiry to move the student writer toward a solution. 

“Think of the adage, give a man a fish, he eats for the day; teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for life. You can fix a peer’s writing today, but that only helps him once.  Or you can show him how to think through his writing independently and become self sufficient. ”

As the training continued, I was so impressed with how empathetic our TAs were and how they were using inquiry to assess student needs. This on-the-spot diagnostic inquiry requires a TA to 1) access the student’s need, while 2) figuring out the best way to help the student meet that need, while 3) forming a question that will lead that student to discover the answer to his own problem.  This kind of formative assessment is a skill many actual teachers struggle with, but it’s the key to meeting students where they are.

So, our TAs have been trained and are ready to be checked out Monday morning. Holly and I are excited about tracking the data and feedback we get from students and teachers on the efficacy of this model.  Stay tuned to hear more about this process!

 

Why I Write

In 2004, I left Kentucky to pursue a graduate degree as a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin. I was recently divorced, a walking crisis of faith, and I entered a program primarily peopled with students who were much younger. They both wrote and partied hard. I was reeling from a life rent-in-twain, reexamining every truth I’d ever held sacred.  Getting out of bed every morning and walking to the coffee shop around the corner was a victory.

I graduated from that program and returned to Kentucky in 2007. I came back with a new understanding of myself, the world, and my place in it. I now look back on those three years with all the grace that a decade of distance can bring to wilderness moments.

Another Michener Fellow, Jesse Donaldson, has recently published a book of essays, an extended argument to convince his wife to move from Portland where they presently live to Kentucky where he grew up.  Each essay is titled as one of the 120 counties in Kentucky. On October 22, Donaldson launched an ambitious book tour to read his book in every county in the Commonwealth. Yesterday he came to my classroom to read a portion of his book and to talk to my students about writing. He brought with him another Michener Fellow, Greg Koehler, a Texas poet, who was along for a portion of the tour.  

I teach writing in a creative and performing arts program at a large urban high school.  Students who audition and are accepted into the program stay with me for four years, so I am exceptionally close to the juniors and seniors, who were the audience for Greg and Jesse’s reading.  

Tuesday morning: my classroom was dim, lit by festival lights strung across the room.  Fifteen juniors and seniors sat in a semi-circle. Jesse read from his book and talked about writing with such wisdom and generosity.  My students listened intently.  I was aware of how proud I was of them, so smart, that they understood what good stuff Jesse was dishing out and were honoring it with their attention, their interest.

After Jesse talked, Greg took over and read a poem called “Kentucky River Dirge,” a poem he had written during our time in Austin, based on many of the conversations he and I had had about my longing for home, my own nostalgia for the land of my birth, and our mutual love for soil and all the metaphorical power of the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. (Thank you, Wendell Berry.)

As he read the poem, I heard lines I had forgotten I uttered, emanating from a time and place I no longer visit, in a voice I no longer use.  In a moment, I was both 50 and 40 years old, both graduate student and high school teacher. Both the wrung-out, strung-out Austin Liz, and the contented, comfortable Kentucky Liz.

Of course, to my students, these lines were merely poetry. As if.

To me, they were sodden afternoons at the Crown and Anchor, so many cigarettes, so many Texas backyard midnight parties, so much reeling from the lost tethers of church and family, a reminder of my struggle to find footing by telling those stories of tobacco and smokehouses. Greg transported me, not only a decade back into my life, but to my childhood as I followed my father to the field, burning tobacco beds to receive the seeds, to my mother’s own stories of sleepwalking along the roof of the smokehouse.

And there I sat, in all my respectability, in my lanyard and my ring of keys, listening to an anthem of a person I once was, rolled out in language. Hanging in the air, among the lights, among my students. Actual words. Hung on lines of poetry, tied together in an activity we call writing. An activity that I ask my students to engage in daily.

I wanted to pitch myself headlong out of my chair and roll around on the floor. The revelation of this moment, the wrecking juxtaposition.  Worlds colliding. My precious students, my old friends, my memories, all occupying some metaphysical space in Room 303.

But even more profound was my wish to impress upon my charges that writing had the power to do all this, to transcend time and resurrect people we once were and allow us to live in both present time and at any time in the chronicled history or in history that has yet to exist.