Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Relevancy of Staying Gold.


Title I teachers have several barriers.  All equally oppositional to their students’ success on a state test. Title I schools live on the educational San Adreas Faultline. High turnover, inadequate training in culturally relevance, classroom management, and trauma, along with high absenteeism (both staff and students!) all are seismic waves to the endless opportunity gap.

I spend a lot of time considering the opportunity gap.  I ask questions to my twitter network; I read A LOT of professional development books written by experienced educators who continually get their hands dirty and sweat and cry with us all.  I know that the one year I am with my kids I am responsible for getting them caught up on grade level standards while simultaneously exposing them to basic background knowledge that they lack.  Adamantly, I disregard the district’s road map and create my own curriculum (yearly) to ensure the texts I am choosing are relevant to the faces and needs in my room.

Short stories, poetry, informational texts are all chosen carefully through essential questions to guide critical thinking. Questions such as, “How do humans overcome adversity?”, “What makes a good human?”, and “How is history linear and cyclical?”.
Class novels seemed like a luxury.  

Some of my students were several years behind in grade level and those “on grade level” were considered advanced. I found myself in this academic labyrinth, going down path after path to master this perfect formula of standard mastery, student engagement, and honestly, getting admin off my back.

This year, my group had more needs than I felt equipped, more gaps than I could bridge. I teach ELA, not Reading.  There is a difference.  I am not adept at breaking down rudimentary reading skills.  I am, however, skilled at encouraging inquiry, student agency, creating an environment for student led connections. My kids, like all kids, wanted to learn; but they had felt this void and emptiness in their classrooms over the years.  They had given into this apathetic “school’s not for me, nothing is relevant” despair. 

I decided to approach this quarter differently.  After years of abandoning the novel, I requested thirty copies of The Outsiders from three different schools to create a class set.

Of course there are many contemporary YA books, specifically on the Project Lit booklist, that are purposeful as much as they are enjoyable.  With my quick decision to teach a novel though, my choices were limited. As in zilch. Luck would be on my side with The Outsiders to move forward before I was questioned about disregarding the curriculum map for that quarter.

My kids were not necessarily overjoyed.

“This book is huuuuuge!” they exclaimed, thumbing through the 150 pages.

“Why is the print so small?”

I did a day to preview the overarching ideas through an anticipation guide, using that time to let the kids formulate their thoughts on Big Ideas like judging others based off of class and whether or not, as humans, we essentially desire the same emotional needs.  We volleyed a ball in a philosophical chairs fashion, that admittedly also turned into a coaching opportunity that a class discussion was not dodgeball.

The following day I was anxious.  Would the kids embrace the novel?  Was I just teaching an old classic that they wouldn’t connect with. My fears were hypersensitive because my first class of the day was The One. Out of twenty kids, seventeen had letters or numbers attached to their names for services. There was so much stimulation going on in that room, I had no idea if there would be a moment of silence long enough to get swept into the story.

I hit play on the audio and circulated the room. Soon the cadence of the speaker and the mention of a switchblade softened the resolve of the kids holding onto disengagement like a life jacket.  Twenty-five minutes later, the chapter came to an end, but the books didn’t close.

“Well - ?” a voice from the room ventured out.

“Well?” I responded.

“Huh. This ain’t that bad,” a habitually I-refuse-to-work student stated matter of factly.

And I finally exhaled.

At this crossroad, I made a couple of significant decisions.  My readers packets (a collection of worksheets to ‘ensure’ the kids were following along) went to the garbage.  I refused to ruin “this ain’t that bad” sentiment by adding reading checks ritually to our days.  Instead, I would pose questions about the characters, emphatically stressing that characters are humans on paper.  Who did they relate to? What events could they understand? Why were they angry, both the characters and my students, to the circumstances as the plot unfolded? Who was responsible? How could the train wreck of decision after decision been changed?  How are we better?  How are we the same?

We had conversations about the fifty-year difference and the emotional hurdles not really being that different.  We laughed at the slang and played games testing our 60’s pop culture knowledge. We cried when Johnny died.  We were solemn when we analyzed, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost.

And they don’t know about Dally yet.  The tragic character that felt such loss, that the depth of it shattered the hardened exterior of survival he systematically crafted.

Ask me about relevancy.  I will say that some classics still have power. I will say that as often as my brown and black kids need to see their faces in texts, it is just as relevant to see white faces in gangs and violence. I will say that it is relevant for them to see that the struggles they are experiencing have been experienced by their home humans. That maybe their home humans have taken on a Dally-like exterior because their loss has also been great, but that deep down, they still remember.

Relevancy is asking about the author, who was encouraged to use her initials because she was a female writer.  Relevancy is the sadness in knowing that we are still asked to alter, hide, or pretend to be someone else.

The Outsiders is the best decision I have made for my classroom.  My kids come in and immediately grab the novel, expecting to dive into the next chapter.  And they are saddened when we take a pause because we still need to meet some district expectations. My kids may have side-stepped some of the standards this quarter, but what they are gaining is far more important.

They will walk into 2020 being able to say they completed a novel. More importantly, a novel that they dressed up as on Halloween, played Kahoot games during lunch for fun, or identified everyone in their squad with one of the characters.  They became less outsiders because of The Outsiders.