Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Hanging In, Hanging Out, and Hanging On: A Collaboration Begins #SOL15

Dana in the big square; me in the little one!
During the summer I learned that my friend and colleague Dana Huff, who blogs at Huff English and whom I met through the Folger Shakespeare Library, would be teaching English Literature and Composition for the first time next year. As I will also be teaching English Lit and Comp for the first time, Dana and I decided to meet up via Google Hangouts and discuss the course and our plans. 

For more than 1:45, Dana and I talked, but we didn't confer about AP only. Nope. We chatted about the challenges of HANGING IN for the long haul in our maligned profession. We visited about HANGING ON in the face of reductive, pseudo education reforms that run antithetical to our notions about pedagogical excellence. Of course, we spoke about HANGING OUT throughout the school year and offering support to one another in our AP Lit and Comp journey as we share best practices. 

For our first Google Hangout, here are some of the things we discussed: 

*First day plan: Dana shared her plan to seek input about student goals and obstacles they face. At one point she made a comment that reminded me of the ONE SENTENCE project I used for a MACBETH lesson. This has inspired me to change the lesson to one about universal themes in literature by having students write about and share their life theme. 

*Assessment and Revision: Dana reminded me that the College Board wants to see a plan for student revision built into the required audit syllabus. I like Dana's suggestion for requiring students to revise essays that fall below a 5 on the AP nine-point scale and offering all students an opportunity to revise. 

*Whether to teach the course thematically or by genre: I shared my AP by the Sea facilitator's thoughts about a thematic course and how I changed my mind about teaching the course as separate genre studies. 

*Dana told me about the acronym TWIST, which refers to tone, word, image, style, and theme. We also talked about TP-CAST and the various other AP acronyms. We both realize we have the AP Vertical Teams book with these resources that we can use. 

*Dana had a great idea about having her course go full circle by revisiting the questions she began with at the end of the year. 

*Class size challenges: Dana teaches in a private school that promises to keep class size low, and I am in a public school. Dana's two sections of AP are below 15, and I have one section of AP w/ 19 students. (Many of our seniors take dual enrollment English through ISU.)

*Books we're teaching: Both Dana and I received complimentary copies of Carol Jago's Literature & Composition: Reading, Writing, Thinking (Bedford/St. Martin) book, and I also received a copy on Perrine's Literature: Structure, Sound & Sense, Twelfth Edition (Johnson and Arp, eds. (Cengage Learning). We chatted about the merits of both books and like both. Additionally, we talked about some of the major works we're teaching and the challenges of teaching new books and those our predecessors taught. We both have visions for the class that align more with our constructivist philosophy of learning. 

*My facilitator shared a huge file of materials with participants in the workshop I attended. I shared this with Dana, as well as the syllabus I composed for the audit. Dana is sharing her documents with me, too, but she has the unenviable task of retyping many since she did not get a digitized copy of the resources. 

Finally, before ending our visit and waving goodbye, I suggested that Dana and I keep notes about our collaboration during the year and consider writing about it together next summer. I asked Dana if she had ever seen a book about or read an article about sustaining and making a collaboration such as ours work. We both see this as a gap in the professional literature. 

Near the end of the hangout, I snapped the screenshot above and later posted it to FB where another friend from the Folger saw it and commented: "Hey, I'm teaching AP Lit and Comp for the first time next year, too." Dana and  I invited Julie Bowerman to join us, and we later added one more to our merry band, one of Dana's friends from the Kenyon Writer's Workshop. 

Now we are four newbie AP Lit and Comp teachers ready to read, write, reflect, and rehash the challenges and rewards of our new teaching experiences. We're ready to HANG IN, HANG OUT, and HANG ON together! 

*It's Tuesday and time for the Tuesday Slice of Life challenge presented every week by the merry band of teachers at Two Writing Teachers. Head on over to TWT for more slices. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Last Kid Chosen: Slice of Life Tuesday #SOL15

Slice of Life happens each Tuesday through the hard work and dedication of the team at Two Writing Teachers. Check out other slices here

"You need a partner."

I dread hearing those words. My stomach tightens. My feet rivet themselves to the floor. I turn my head but not my torso and scan the room for someone--anyone--standing alone. Since I'm at the front, seeing poses difficulty.

I'm transported back to grade school. Reliving those cringe-worthy days. Again, I'm the last one chosen. I'm 56, fairly accomplished and confident. I'm a failure in this moment. The diplomas, degrees, accolades of my academic life no longer matter. Only this moment in this class at this gym possesses meaning. Even the old ladies--like me--have found a partner.

The instructor motions a middle-aged man over to me. I recognize the mortification on my face in her reaction to mine.

We had just finished the 5X5 kettle bell rotation and move on to floor exercises, which is why we need a partner. I'm required to hold the man's ankles and he mine in one exercise. I'm uncomfortable standing by his head with his hands grasping my shoes to avoid touching the bare skin of my lower leg.

During my turn, he tells me, "You can quit."

"I never quit," I retort.

And I don't. I endured the rotation.

The instructor informs me at the conclusion of the next 5X5 that I "can find a new partner" if I'm uncomfortable. Tears seep from my eyelids. I try to speak but can't locate the words I need to tell her that looking for a new partner when everyone else already has one would draw attention to my plight and cause me more duress. Only tears speak my anguish.

At the next floor rotation, the instructor motions another instructor attending the class to partner with me. This means that she'll have to give up her partnership with a strong male for one lesser than. Her original partner, a young man in his 20s, is assigned a somewhat geriatric, flabby man in his 50s.

I am incompetent. I am rejected. That's how I felt. That's how I feel.

The change takes another route. A gracious woman of my generation approaches me and says she's partnering with me because she can't keep up with her first partner. We give one another an understanding look that says, "We may be old, but we're not dead, and we're doing the best we can do."

The class proceeds with my new partner taking a restroom break during one floor rotation.

There's a deja vu quality to this class, both in terms of its internal structure on this day--five kettle bell exercises repeated five times with the 5X5 rotation repeated five times after each floor rotation, which are all different--and its ability to transport me back to my childhood where I relive being the last kid on the playground picked for all team sports.

At the end of class, the instructor approached me: "Thanks for sticking it out. How did it end up working out for you?"

"I almost didn't," I respond. "It was like being back in grade school."

"Well, I'm sorry. I really am." She walked away. I followed both her departure and her pained expression through my own tears.

*Side Note: Last week I read a professor's post on FB about her son's AR reading program and the way it marginalizes some readers. I thought about the pain children experience when we turn reading into a playground competition that chooses some kids and leaves others standing alone. Then Friday I attended kettle bell (my favorite class w/ my favorite instructor, BTW) and had the experience I wrote about today.

As I return to school next week and greet students August 26, I want to remember that no kid deserves to be the last one standing and searching for someone with whom to learn and talk and share.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Reluctant Fangirl: Slice of Life Tuesday #SOL15

Yesterday author and National Book Award nominee Beth Kephart penned an eloquent commentary about the pitfalls of popularity among artists. 

My own egalitarian world-view and desire to respect boundaries of those who create art long ago made me a reluctant fangirl. Only recently have I begun to stand in lines of autograph seekers and will still only do this if procuring an author's autograph. Doing so still makes me uncomfortable. 

I think about how the author must honestly feel as lines of teachers await a moment of contact with those we idolize. Am I somehow intruding on the writer's creative space? Does the author silently seethe and long for the solitude of alone time? 

Our lives in the bubble of social media, where many writers maintain fan pages and accept friend requests from their loyal follower and fans, must on some level exact  a price I can only imagine. The mystery of who a writer is and how a writer lives gets unveiled on social media. We have drawn back the curtain on the Wizard, and in doing so, at least for me, have lost part of the reading experience. That is, I can't help but conflate what I know about a writer based on his/her presence on social media with the books I read. And in doing so, I've lost some of the pleasure inherent in the solitude of reading. 

Kephart wrote her comments after seeing Amy, the critically acclaimed documentary about the gifted singer Amy Winehouse, a woman who eschewed the spotlight: 

Winehouse never originally wanted to be famous, never thought she would be famous, never imagined herself capable of fame. She is there, in the footage, saying so. But fame became hers, fame became her, and she had to live, and die, with the consequences.

I haven't seen Amy, but I have witnessed the constant posturing by some teachers who position themselves to get as "close" to YA and children's book writers as possible. There are some whose book recommendations hold no credibility for me because the lines have been so blurred that I'm not confident an endorsement for a title necessarily happens based on an honest critique of a book or a desire to seek approval from the writer. 

This desire to court favor runs in two directions, as Kephart writes: 

There is a dividing line between those who make things in order to be known or seen, and those whose loyalties lie with the things themselves—the songs, the films, the stories. There are those who craft themselves into a brand—who orchestrate aggrandizements, who leverage opportunities, who seek out "friendships" that will advance them, who overstay their welcome, who build cliques that further not their art but their careers, who ricochet with gossip. And there are those who (I think, in the book world, of Alice McDermott, Marilynne Robinson, and Michael Ondaatje) seek out private quiet. Yes, they cede to interviews and talks and touring when their books are released. But they also vanish from public view, and consumption, just as soon as they're able.

I'd add Thomas Pynchon to the list Kephart mentions as I can think of no other more reclusive writer. I don't think he's been photographed in more than 30 years. 

In high school I wrote one fan letter--to Barry Manilow. For years that letter needled me because both it and the response, a form letter, reminded me of a false construct. And as I think about that letter and the "friendships" I've forged with writers on social media and through chats at conferences, I'm reminded to remember boundaries. I'm reminded to observe the social construct and weigh it against what I know gives a text merit. I'm reminded to offer honest commentary and to disclose my personal relationship with a writer. I'm reminded to be gracious and respectful of the time writers devote to fans like me and to question my motives in forging relationships with them. 

I'm reminded that writers need space to create and that the best fangirl persona I can offer is to keep some mystery alive and to embrace my reluctant, inner fangirl. Writers give so much when they create books, is it fair to ask more? 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Reading Ta-Neishi Coates's "Between the World and Me" as a Privileged Middle-Class White Woman #SOL15

The Slice of life story challenge happens each Tuesday thanks to the generosity of the team at Two Writing Teachers. For more slices from this week, click here. 

The day Harper Lee's much anticipated, poorly edited Go Set a Watchman landed in readers' hands, a much more important book also hit the shelves: Between the World and Me by Ta-Neishi Coates. 

Public response to Between the World and Me has been overwhelmingly positive. Rather than review the book per se, I've thought about the book as a member of the white privileged class. Coates has written the book as a letter to his 15 year old son. The epistle structure personalizes the argument so that readers soon sense that they, regardless of race or gender, are glimpsing into something very personal and private. There is nothing pedantic about Coates's approach. He's telling his son a story laced with truths about life as a black male living among the white privileged class. 

Writing that phrase white privileged class I realize is itself a potentially polarizing phrase. White folks don't like to think of ourselves as privileged, as having opportunities minorities don't have simply because our skin is white. Myself included--especially because I grew up poor. Isn't economic class, after all, a more important criterion for determining success? Coates would answer "no," and I tend to agree. 

Simply, all that we have in this country we owe to the enslavement of black people for over 250 years. We don't acknowledge this. The recent debate about the Confederate flag's place in the history of historical artifacts has not only opened unhealed wounds, but it also magnified the false narrative that the Confederate states battled for states' rights. Here's Coates on the topic: 

Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains--whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.


The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance--no matter how improved--as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.

Think about that for a moment. My story, the country's story, is inextricably intertwined with this narrative of enslavement. What would the country have been like without slavery? What would not have been developed? What literature would not have been written? 

I remember thinking about how the North benefited economically from slavery when I read Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time. It's an important point Stowe makes. Another point about which Stowe raised my consciousness is the systematic destruction of families we owe to slavery. 

Coates refers to the "ownership" of "our own bodies." To his son, and by extension to white readers, Coates says: 

You are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful--the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you--the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know....You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.

As a middle-class white woman, I know that when I'm stopped for a minor traffic infraction, my body is safe. I've never been dragged from the car, pushed to the ground, handcuffed, and carted off to jail. How often does the narrative turn to attempts to justify the death of a black person at the hands of police? I don't live with the fear that those hired to protect and serve me will take my body. Nor do white mothers typically need to explain this to their children as part of the rites of passage talks. 

Indeed, it's the way Coates writes about owning one's own body instead of losing one's life or dying that I find rhetorically compelling. It's as though he's saying that even though slavery ended over 150 years ago, black people still don't own their bodies the way white people own theirs. 

To illustrate his point, Coates spends considerable ink recounting the story of Prince Jones who was killed by a police officer, and Prince was an economically privileged college student whose mother is a respected physician. Still, Prince's body was stolen from him. 

I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth...The truth is that the police reflect America in all its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country's criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.

Indeed, the training police officers receive is increasingly grounded in the idea that a suspect is inherently dangerous, that the life of the officer is more important than the oath to protect and to serve. 

Coates acknowledges that the black male experience of having lost ownership over "our own bodies" isn't unique to black people. Blacks owned slaves in the Sahara; the Irish experienced losing their bodies, etc. Yet this does not diminish the impact of his argument. 

I've thought often about what it must be like to be born into a world that espouses a dream built on the ownership of my people's bodies. This is the legacy of being a black person in America. Coates speaks about "the dream" as being that of racial privilege. He does take a critical look at education, and as a teacher, it's hard to swallow but necessary to consider. 

We tell stories. They express who we are and what we believe. America is a nation of storytellers, but the winners, the privileged, the powerful determine whose stories get the widest audience: 

A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals.

One may not be a racist cut from the Confederate flag waving apologist cloth, but we benefit from social structures grounded and constructed in a narrative that denies our privilege. Coates tells us that "it is traditional to destroy the black body--it is heritage." But heritage isn't necessarily something good or positive to be coddled and protected.

When the story told dehumanizes and denies the subplots of exploitation and of body ownership, when the dream is one given birth by the nightmare of slavery and the snatching of bodies, we must acknowledge that our freedom, our successes we owe in large part to the forced sacrifices of black people for over 250 years.

The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. The have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. 

At the end of the letter, Coates challenges his son to struggle. Struggle to remember the narrative of his black heritage. Struggle to live within the systemic structures of white privilege. Struggle for wisdom and knowledge. 

We must also struggle, advises Coates. Struggle to understand that the dream on which we stage our lives threatens our world in ways we must acknowledge and fix. 

There is a vast gulf between the world in which a black person is born and the one in which white people are born, and this has nothing to do with economic class and everything to do with the story that fills the gulf. That's my reading of Between the World and Me, and as a middle class privileged white woman speaking between you and me, I now understand that in ways I didn't before peeking into Ta-Neishi Coates's letter to his son. 

*Watch an excellent interview with Ta-Neishi Coates on Democracy Now. In the interview, he shares a reading from the book.

Update: Minor editing to fix surface errors at 800 p.m. MST.