Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Heels Were Made for Teaching

Bookshelf at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, France
One of my study abroad trips in college
“Wait, what do you mean ‘Free Read Day’? I don’t get it." This was the general response from my students when I told them to bring a book, no iPads, Kindles, eBooks, magazines or comics, to read in class last week. (Note: A student brought Captain Underpants and actually tried to make an argument as to why he could read it as a junior for Free Read Day. A book that comes with stickers is not going to fly for Free Read Day.)

This face would probably shock
my students
When they were unable to bring a book to school, I let them borrow some of mine.  
I shocked my students with the fact that the books I gave them were not 17th century poetry or written in Old English. The books I gave them were by modern and contemporary authors with some elements I know they weren’t expecting (“Uhm, this book says the word ‘beer,’ is that okay?”*) and with endings they certainly were not anticipating (“Why does he just walk away? Why did she still love him?”**). But I loved that they were holding books from my personal library, with my old notes and scribbles in the margins. I know they felt like they were looking into my diary or something, and in a way they were, by my diary as a reader not as a writer. 

Student A: “Are we going to find notes to ex- boyfriends in here?”
Me: “Would I still have the book if I wrote notes to other people in them?”
Student A: “Guess not.”
Me: “Besides, I would never let an ex-boyfriend keep my books.”
Student B: “ Wait, You have ex-boyfriends?!”

This is the same reaction to my having a doctor’s appointment, as though we, teachers, do not go to doctors or get sick or leave the school campus for anything. Did I think that about my teachers? I guess to some degree I did, but when I came back to school after the doctor they were very inquisitive then as well.
Student A:“Are you sick?”
Me: “Nope.”
Student B:“Are you getting sick?”

Me: “No, just a check up.”
Student A again: “Were you faking sick?” 
Student B:"I bet you were faking."
Me: “Okay, time for a pop quiz.”

With this year winding down I keep wondering if I have made any impact on them besides my clothing-- which is still commented on daily (“I don’t think you have worn the same shoes twice,” said a male student to me. “Yes she has, she wore those before Christmas break. That is two times this school year, gosh, you idiot,” said a female student in my ‘defense.’)
But I think about my most influential teachers, the ones that made me want to be a teacher; I wonder if I have done even half of that, a third of that, for my students. I know they will not leave my class dreaming of being an English teacher. I know they will not go out and buy every Barry Hannah, Miranda July, Mary Karr book they can find.*** I know that they don’t think Shakespeare is cool or that Old English is easy. But I want so badly for them to think something, to learn something and most importantly, to feel something. That is what reading and writing does that no other subject really can, it makes you feel. I want my students to have read something, even if it was just a page and the rest was Sparknoted**** I hope they read it and had to look inward at themselves in a way they hadn’t before. We have talked about pride and greed and lust and love and death and creation and isolation and abandonment and fear-- oh goodness have we talked about fear. The most fearful thing, after all, is that someone can look at us and see us for who we truly are. Reading is that, it forces you to look inward. I want them so badly to have studied these themes and thought, I know what he/she feels, I have never killed anyone to become king, but I know how it feels to want something you can't have or I know what it feels like to be alienated, I know what it feels like to reach out and have no one reach back-- I didn't know other people ever felt that way.

I personally fear that I did nothing but show them how to write a proper thesis statement and insert page numbers on a Word doc.

A student from the other 10th grade teacher’s class said that all we do is color in my class. He said this to two of my girls who are not making very good grades and that all they have to do is stay in the lines in my coloring books and they will get an A. My teacher friend teaches the class that this conversation was taking place in. She said the girls stood up for me, but mostly for the rigor of my class.
“It is, like, hard. Like, we really have to read and learn stuff. She grades our essays hard and she makes us like, go deeper”
“Yeah, you don’t even know. It is a hard class and we are trying really hard to make good grades. It is hard.”
The girls also told me about this the next day. We joked as a class about if that was actually the case, than they should all have made A’s on the test I just handed back, which they did not.

Being the young, new teacher I am an easy target. 
Being the young, new teacher means I will quip right back at you. 

My teacher friend said I should come meet this boy, the naysayer/hater, so I did.
Teacher Friend introduced us: “Boy (name omitted to protect his identity), this is Mrs. Savery. She wanted to meet you.”
I smiled big, gave a firm hand-shake and said, “Hi, Boy. I hear you really want to come to my class to color.”
He looked at me wide eyed and shocked, “Uhm, no.”

“Really? I think you should just stop by sometime. I have plenty of extra coloring books if you want a break from Mrs. Other 10th Grade Teacher’s class.”
“I like Mrs. Other 10th Grade Teacher’s class.”
“Oh, that’s great! I will let her know. But in case you need a break from all of your learning and test taking, I have all of the Crayola crayons you can imagine and we don’t even have grades. Just stick figures.”
Still shocked and stammering he said, “Oh, okay.”
“Okay, great! Well, come by sometime. It was so nice to meet you!”

My girls, who were listening from the hallway, all hugged me after like it was an episode of Saved by the Bell and I had confronted the bully. They thought it was, like, so awesome. Which it kind of was.

(Boss, if you are reading this, please don't fire me. I was standing up for my students! I was standing up for literature!)

What was even better was that the next day a few students stayed after class to tell me how much they had learned this year and what a good teacher they thought I was.
“I would take your class every year if I could. Even if there was a coloring class, I would take yours instead!”

What did we learn from this, class?
We learned that teachers talk. That you shouldn’t talk about what you don’t know.  That maybe I have done something for my students.

And don’t mess with the teacher in the red-soled shoes.

*Reading Larry Brown's Big Bad Love; which is not, in fact, about love being big or bad. Well, maybe a little bad.
** Reading "Up In Michigan" after I told them that Gertrude Stein told Hemingway it was the cruelest story she had ever read. And it is pretty cruel. So of course, they wanted to read it.
*** All amazing authors, very contemporary and not for everyone.
****Sparknoted: a verb meaning read the first and last page of a book and used Sparknotes for the rest.

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