The Most Important Teaching Tool You’ll Ever Need.

Leah's gift

On the last day of my internship in a high school English classroom, one of my students gave me a card and some chocolates. You might think ‘ok great nice gesture’ and then move on, but you’d be wrong because this ordinary act was actually a powerful demonstration of the power of caring. This is why:

This student, let’s call her Leah, is in the Gr.10 Applied English class that I have been student teaching in for 7 weeks (for those who don’t know, ‘Applied’ classes are for students who struggle with school and/or are focusing on going to community college rather than university). At the start of my internship, she wasn’t there and I didn’t meet her until about a week in because she had decided to skip class for a week or so.  This was her second high school which she moved to after being expelled from her previous one for violence.  I later found out she lived with her mother who had a DUI and required Leah to be her designated driver when she was drunk, which apparently happened quite frequently. The family had no father and very little money. Leah’s mark was at 30%-the lowest a teacher can give out, almost entirely due to her absences and just not handing anything in. However, after my associate teacher called home a few times and the end of the school year approached, Leah decided that she did want her English credit after all, if only so she didn’t have to come back next year. She started showing up a little more and occasionally handed something in.

After Leah actually started showing up to class, albeit always late, I got to know her a bit more. She was a sullen, angry girl who only ever talked about why people were irritating her and how she had been expelled from her previous school.  My associate teacher, the classroom’s educational assistant, and I all attempted cheerily to build relationship with her and encourage her to hand work in.

Every class I made sure to smile and ask her how she was, and always respond positively when she said something negative. This has generally been my tactic for all my classes when kids complain about something: don’t deny that the student in question is upset and is right to be upset (or irritated or peeved or whatever), instead focus on shifting it to the positive, demonstrating the power of a positive attitude rather than just telling the kid to suck it up buttercup.

Gradually, oh so gradually, Leah’s attitude started to change.  It was mostly subtle-at first she didn’t talk about being angry as much and didn’t snap at things the other students in the class said. Then she started handing in work regularly. And slowly, her mark went up.  She started smiling more and skipping less, and generally was acting more friendly. She even came to class while her friends skipped, and on time no less.

Then one day a couple weeks ago the class got an updated mark.  Leah marched up to me and proudly informed me her mark was at a 50% on the dot.  Out of all 70 of my students over the 3 classes, she was the most proud of her mark that was barely a passing grade.  And you know what? So was I! For the rest of the term she continued to hand in work and kept me updated of her rising mark (‘Miss, I have a 54%-that’s another 4 whole percent!’). We chatted and joked and talked about English and I told her how amazing her turn-around was and how proud I was of her work, continuing to encourage her to keep going.

So on that last day, when she sheepishly brought the card that spelled ‘To’ wrong and the chocolates wrapped in already used tissue paper to the front of the class, you can understand why my heart sang. She wrote in the card that it was from the whole class but signed her name after writing ‘I’ll miss you!’ at the bottom of the card.  I gave her a hug, told her I was proud of her, and wished her all the best, trying to hold it together and not cry.

With all of this, I’m not trying to say that Leah’s life was transformed. I’m not saying she’s going to get on the honour roll one day and become a doctor and save the world. What I am saying is that she changed, and that most of that change came from herself but maybe part of it came because her teachers cared about her and demonstrated that care. And I feel so privileged to have been able to be even the tiniest little bit a part of that.

 

Caring matters and it works and it helps people, regardless of your job or situation. Care for people and watch them grow. Trust me, it’s an amazing feeling.

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‘You’re Studying What?!’, or, How to Talk to Postsecondary Students About Their Futures

This week is my final week as a student teacher teaching English to 14 year olds at a local high school.  I’ve been there for 7 weeks, and it has been one of the best and most affirming experiences of my life. I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was 12 but this experience of actually teaching has confirmed that this is what I am meant to do. I loved every second of it, from the lesson planning to the marking to the answering questions at lunch to the attempts to get the class clown to finally shut up and listen. I love it I love it I love it.

I can deal with the ups and downs of teaching teenagers Shakespeare all day long. You skipped class and expect to hand it your work late? Let’s talk. I have to teach a poetry unit that features as diverse a group of poets as possible to a bunch of kids who don’t care? Let’s get googling. My marking pile is so high I have to stand up at my desk to talk to students who approach me with a question? Looks like I have a busy evening ahead.

I can handle these challenges and more because they are exactly what I signed up for when I applied to teacher’s college.  Every job has pros and cons and the day I decided to become a teacher I also decided to put up with whatever that means, good or bad.

The biggest challenge has nothing really to do with the education system at all. It’s everyone outside of it.  Specifically, the people who love to look on from the outside and ‘say it like it is’ (ie. ‘I’m going to be rude then laugh at the end of it so you can’t get mad’).

90% of the time when I tell someone I’m getting my teaching degree to teach high school English and History, I get some sort of variation on the reaction ‘Ohhh…good luck getting a job’, usually accompanied by a patronizing tone of voice or a stifled sneer.  Once a woman laughed out loud derisively directly in my face.

I live in Ontario, Canada, and right now there aren’t that many jobs in a large portion of the province.  Basically, ten or so years ago the government thought the Baby Boomer teachers were on the cusp of retirement so they offered them great retirement packages and opened wide the doors to teacher’s colleges.  BUT the Boomers never retired, so all those fresh new teachers came on the scene expecting jobs that hadn’t emptied and created a glut that is still getting sorted out. So yes, if I stay in Ontario it will be difficult for me to get a job right out of school. And yes, I’ll probably have to substitute teach for a few years.  And with the economy the way it is right now, a lot of people in every discipline and profession are experiencing a lot of the same struggles.

Because I’m in university, I have a lot of friends studying obscure and impractical things like Celtic Studies or 18th German Literature and we all joke together about our future unemployment. But you know what, at the end of the day we are all sacrificing A LOT  of time, money, and ourselves for the choices that we have made so that we can study what we are truly passionate about. And we know what the job market is like without every person over 30 who entered the job market easily at a time of growth reminding us sternly as if it’s somehow our fault. I believe that God has a plan for my life, and that he is my ultimate provider, which includes my future employment.  But I’m imperfect and not immune to fear, and I have so many friends who don’t share the hope we all desperately need that I cling to during difficult times.

 

The moral of this story is that if a young person comes up to you and tells you what they are studying or what they want to be there is never never never ever a reason or a need for you to criticize their choices unless you are their parent/guardian or are paying for it.  Trust me, we know what we are getting into. We’re the ones facing the mountains of debts and bills we have no idea how we will pay. Please don’t be the person who makes fun of me for pursuing my aspirations and my attempts to help make the world a better place. Choose to spread hope and support and positivity, because we know exactly what we’re facing out there and it’s scary. Don’t just remind us of the problem, help us find a solution.

My Summer Reading List

Every year since I started high school I’ve written myself a Summer Reading List.  For the first few years, these were almost all just pleasure reads or books I hadn’t gotten a chance to get into yet.  But after starting my English degree and making friends with a lot of English majors who are much more well read than I am, I decided to use my summer to read the books I felt I should read to be able to fully complete my English education.  I also found that a lot of my English classes were very specific (ex. ‘The Graphic Novel’ or ‘Shakespeare’) and there was a lot of amazing literature out there I’m missing out on.  Plus, the more I read, the more I can engage in the texts I read for class *whispers: which means I can sound smarter without working that hard!* But I never seem to make it through the whole list.

SO. This summer is the first summer in a long time when I won’t have to work and will have tons of free reading time! Which means no excuses, I’m reading my entire list by September! And each time I finish a book, I’ll write an informal review of what I thought about it.

Here is what I have so far (in no particular order).  I am allowing myself to add, but not take away, from the list below:

 

The Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Evelina by Frances Burney

Tales by Edgar Allen Poe

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

 

Suggestions are welcome!!

Why Questioning Your English Teacher is a Good Thing.

‘Miss, what about….?’ ‘Miss, I think that…’ ‘Miss, are you sure…’

As a high school English student-teacher, these are questions I get almost every class.  Kids who want me to explain myself more, need extra clarification on a certain point, or just downright disagree with what I just said.  And I love it all because every question asked means there was a thought behind it (except of course, the age old ‘Can I go to the bathroom’, which generally has a pressuring bladder behind it).

When I was in high school, I thrived in English class.  I had discovered a subject where I could pore over the stories I loved to read and then write about them and people would actually care what I said.  Being the 5th child out of 8, even in the loving and inclusive family I grew up in, I often longed for my voice to stand out and be heard by itself, rather than in the context of my large family.  And English class was, and still is, a place for me to do this.

However, throughout my 4 years of high school, never in a million billion years would I ever dream of questioning my teacher.  I was blessed with fantastic English teachers all through high school but even when I would occasionally disagree over something…and would always keep quiet about it. The teacher was my school-parent, and just like I would never talk back to my parents at risk of punishment, I would never challenge a teacher.

So when I began teaching as a student teacher myself now, I was surprised more than anything when a couple students each class would question what I said or provide their own stance on the issue.  But the more I thought about it, the more I loved that they felt comfortable enough with me to do so. And at the end of the day, isn’t questioning what English is all about?  How can I stand at the front of the class and talk for half an hour then give out an assignment that basically just requires the students to repeat what I said and call that an English education?

English is about critical thinking, it’s about reading and interpreting and discussing and arguing over other people’s words, and then writing your own in response.  It’s about learning to utilize communication skills to make your voice and your opinion known through a venue we all understand. It’s about questioning and it’s about thinking. And I think it’s a heck of a lot easier for us teachers when students obediently write down what we’ve said and call it gospel.  But if there is no room for each student’s voice in your classroom then I would argue that it is not an English class.

Now I want to take a second to point out that there is a difference between questioning and confronting, and that difference is respect. A student needs to be able to show respect for their teacher’s authority in the classroom, but in turn the teacher should also show respect for the student and their right to a different opinion.  It’s a balance that can be precarious at times, but necessary to truly build an English critical thinking education in a world that loves to produce thoughtless consumers.