Monday, June 21, 2021

Things I Learned in School This Year

 As a teacher, I am always so glad for the summer break to finally arrive, but not necessarily for all the reasons that people outside the profession might think. There's still work to do, just of a very different nature. It's a time to redirect energies into honing my skills and working on more personal projects. The summer break makes me a better teacher because I have time to improve my performance in the classroom without the pressure of students, lessons, and grades, and also to improve my attitude by devoting time to other passions, which reignites my passion for teaching and gives a more weighty purpose to my work.

When it comes to my summer plans as a teacher, specifically, I like to divide the break into two major themes, reflection and retooling. I generally spend all of June reflecting on the year - its successes and failures. I look back at the new methods that I tried and how well they worked, and tweak them for the future, or drop them altogether. Then in July, I use those reflections to study and focus on those skills and methods that June said were deficient and shore up those gaps for the coming year. It's a constant process of self-criticism and refinement that, hopefully, results in my constant growth in the profession.

This past year was a tough one, and my reflections in July have been different from every year. In some sense, I learned some things about myself and about my students that I already knew, but had to confront in a much more direct way. On the other hand, COVID and distance or hybrid learning threw us all some curveballs that forced us to simultaneously sacrifice some best practices in the name of safety and also learn some ne skills and habits that might carry forward and become new best practices in the next year. Here's three of my top reflections on teaching English over the past year.

1) My students are going through it. I always knew this, and I've tried to be sensitive to the fact that students leave my classroom to go to a life that may not be ideal, and in some cases, is quite difficult and obstructs their learning process. It's a realization that has caused me to have more grace in giving deadlines, to ask more questions without stepping over the lines of propriety, and to try to make my classroom equally rigorous and safe, as much as possible. This year, the veil was ripped away in a lot of cases, and I realized that my students are having it rough, and often asking how valuable my lessons are, compared to their current needs. In the past school year, I had students who lost their parents, to COVID and other circumstances. I had students living by themselves, at home, and sick, because both parents were in the hospital fighting the virus. They weren't allowed to be on campus as long as they were positive, and often timid about sharing the facts of their situation. I had students who had to get full time work to help pay tuition and household bills because one of their parents lost a job. Faced with problems like those, getting an essay in on time, one which I probably won't be able to read for another week anyway, doesn't seem like such a crucial matter anymore.

Unfortunately, I often had my own problems. I caught the virus myself and was down for a while, although thankfully not hospitalized and able to make a full and quick recovery. There were family issues going on in my home as well. While this helped me to relate to my students who were struggling and open about their setbacks, there were other students whose grades dropped, whose attitudes changed, and whose eyes, when I could see them, had an entirely different spirit behind them, and, outside of a couple of emails, I could have done a better job of following through to find ways to help. I'm fortunate to have a strong and passionate guidance and counseling team on campus, whom I'm going to be leaning on in the next school year to team up with and reach out to these families.

2) My students learn better when they have the most structure. In the before days, when I could count on every student being in the room with me, I had years of training and experience in keeping them engaged and learning. When I had to do distance or online learning, I was able to come up with protocols and best practices that made the experience both rigorous and, hopefully, enjoyable. In fact, there are things I can do much more easily with an online class than I can with a large group of students in the same room. I can break them into groups and let some leave the meeting to work on an assignment while I have more focused time with others. I can discipline a student in a separate meeting without the other students listening in, and possibly affecting that student's dignity. I can give students more options, and even do some real enrichment, letting some soar without disturbing the ones who need more focused help. At one point, I was teaching at home with a ten-month-old baby who constantly wanted to see who I was talking to, and a male student whose mother was interviewing for jobs was taking turns watching his own one-year-old sister during class. It turned into an online baby party or play date several times, but we were able to make it work, because we knew what was coming.

But that hybrid. 

Having to find methods that work both for students in person and online is nearly impossible, and the learning suffers. The classroom students, or roomies, as they came to be called, complained that the online students, or homies, were cheating, or at least had all the advantages of time, tech, and comfort. The homies complained that they weren't getting the full experience. They couldn't hear, couldn't follow, couldn't effectively join the discussion, and often just gave up trying. I can't tell you how many times the chat would ring and I would see the words "You're not presenting" flash across my screen. 

The best aspects of this season of craziness are going in my toolbox. recording lessons, posting more information and documents online, as well as more precise and verbose instructions, are all going to be mainstays, but I'm definitely looking forward to the days when I can count on having all students in front of me, getting the same experience.

3) Diversity in the English curriculum is important. I introduced a couple of texts this year, one that I had taught before to much success, and one that I had never taught. Both were by African-American authors and had the potential to cause controversy, especially in an already heated season of political and racial upheaval and partisan animosity. It took some grace and prayer to navigate those units, but in the end, I'm glad I did it. There were a couple of tense moments that turned into interesting discussions, but not the kind of problems I was bracing for. Overall, I saw students of color engaging in ways that they hadn't before, and I have to think that it was because they were seeing themselves in the curriculum in ways they hadn't before. Some students who had shown nothing but disinterest before started not only participating in discussion, but taking it over and leading it. Even the tense moments became teachable ones, because the students who took issue with the text or some of the themes were forced to articulate their objections to their peers. Part of the problem with tribalism is that the tribes almost always go to war, never to diplomacy. We don't often listen to each other, and tend to hold tight to the stereotypes and propaganda that our tribe holds dear. These texts opened up a dialogue in which these ideas had to be tested, not only against the curriculum, but against the lived experience of their fellow students.

In one unit involving the novel Passing by Nella Larsen, we got into serious discussions about how miscommunication affects relationships, especially marriages, about friendships that have outlived their value, and about sticking up for oneself. These were things that every student in the class could relate to, sometimes unfortunately, and vocalized their thoughts about. On the other hand, the novel also deals a lot with racism, colorism, and racial "passing," a subject which was foreign to most of the class. Still, one day a female student, African-American, one who had never once spoken in class before without being practically forced, volunteered not only her thoughts on the subject, but pictures of her family, including baby pictures of herself that reminded her of characters in the novel. She got something out of that lesson that might stick with her, and might even see reading and literature as a form of self-reflection and expression that isn't just about people like Hester Prynne or Jay Gatsby. It's difficult to deal with the tense moments, but those kinds of breakthroughs are worth the risk, to draw in students who regularly feel as if they're on the margins of their academic experience, always learning about other people, and never themselves.

All in all, this past school year was a rough one, but if rigor and facing challenges is important for my students, then it must be equally important for me as well. If my summer break is supposed to be about reflecting on the past, what worked and what didn't, then the year of Rona and rebellion has certainly given me a lot to reflect on, as well as a lot more tools in my toolbox. Still, I'm praying that next year is just a little less interesting and challenging.

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