The end of the year is upon us (finally!), and I’ve been reflecting as I always do. This year, though, I’m thinking about something I’ve rarely considered before–not just what I taught, what worked, or what I want to do next year. I’m thinking about all the things I didn’t teach this year.
There are 180 precious days in a school year, and the way my school is structured means I spend 90 days with each set of students. That seems so fast. There was no time to waste, so here’s what I didn’t fill that time with:
Whole class novels. This was a controversial choice for me, given that I love so many authors of American literature–Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. But, no matter what novels I’ve chosen in the past, there’s always a student that book isn’t right for. Fahrenheit 451, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, The Glass Castle, Maus–none of them is a perfect match for every child. I’ve used a wide variety of strategies to get students to be able to read those books, and every ounce of passion I can muster to get them to want to read those books, but still–students have been conditioned to not read, to just get on SparkNotes, or ask an older sibling, or use Wikipedia. When the stacks of matching novels come out, groans abound and engagement tangibly disappears. I’ve seen this. I’ve battled it. No more.
So, I scratched whole class novels altogether. Students worked in book club groups twice, and engaged in independent reading challenges two other times. We read tons of short stories, articles, essays, and middle-length writings together. But we didn’t read a single whole-class novel, and my readers still thrived.
Did my students grow as readers this year? Yes. I watched students who hated reading come to love it. I watched students who couldn’t read well at all increase their stamina, passion, and skills related to reading. I watched students who were good readers but bored with books fall in love with nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, or award winners as they discovered new genres. I watched students who loved to read flourish and challenge themselves with complex texts and childhood favorites alike. Most of all, I watched a community of real readers spring up in my classroom–students recommending books to one another, self-selecting books and keeping long to-read lists, telling me all about their finds at Barnes & Noble. These readers have become truly independent. “Now,” Taylor writes, “I think I can read anything that’s put in front of me…and enjoy it.”
A movie. As I’ve walked the halls this last week or so, I hear the unmistakeable sounds of cinema from behind closed classroom doors and darkened rooms. I have no doubt that students are watching relevant films–movie adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in English, Forrest Gump in History, etc. But this year, I felt I had absolutely no extra time…there was SO MUCH I wanted to do! I used to love showing O Brother Where Art Thou with The Odyssey, and my students really delved into the symbolism of both texts. But this year, my SmartBoard was full of YouTube videos, slam poets, or the still, quiet images of a document camera showing some writing.
I didn’t have time to show a movie, but I also wasn’t pressured by the crush of hours of grading that usually prompted me to show films in the past. I’ve taken Kelly Gallagher’s rule about student work to heart–students should be doing four times as much reading and writing as we could ever grade. So, I’ve read and responded to about a quarter of my students’ work, and let self-evaluations, peer conferences, and notebook passes do the rest.
Most of what I taught last year. Last year was great, don’t get me wrong–but this year, my students were a new batch. They’re different kids than last year’s group, so the same things won’t work for them. After seven years in teaching, I know that. I didn’t waste time trying to figure that out…I just started fresh. I know I’ll do the same thing next year…out with the old, and in with the new.
Tests or formal essays. Tom Romano likes to call the typical English essay a “five-paragraph you-know-what,” and it truly is a dirty little assignment. At an NWP workshop I attended, each teacher was asked to bring some samples of student writing. All around me emerged typed, double-spaced, Times New Roman, size 12, thesis-at-the-end-of-the-first-paragraph essays. From my own bag came photocopies of messy scrawls in notebooks, multimedia This I Believes, strongly-voiced commentaries, poetic musings developed from quickwrites, and lengthy, involved, multigenre research papers. No two pieces looked alike, and they certainly looked nothing like most other teachers’ samples.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a faint nostalgia for my own high school days, when I took pride in being able to punch out a perfectly formatted five paragraph essay in just under an hour, and which made absolutely no sense but looked great, and which constantly netted me As. But I listened to my neighbors rant about poorly integrated in-text citations and incoherent thesis statements, I dismissed that nostalgia and read my own students’ work for what truly matters–good writing, heart and soul on a page, and authenticity at work. As my husband said when he saw me dwarfed behind a pile of multigenre papers to grade, “I could read some of those for you.” “You wouldn’t know what to look for,” I said.
“Good writing is just good writing,” he replied, and he is right. As the year ends, my students are good writers and good readers–not all of them are great, and there are kids I feel I could’ve pushed harder, but all are certainly better than they were when the year began. I’ll look forward to our last day of class, when I’ll gift them each a new composition notebook and a pile of classroom library books to read over summer…and to months beyond, when I get to hear their stories of summer literacy in the fall.