Getting “There:” The Narrative Behind the Grade

Suddenly, there is snow on the mountain range that encircles Salt Lake City and the first quarter has come and gone.  Even after spending 11 weeks together, I confess that we, my students and I, aren’t “there.”

You know, there, that elusive place in education where students are investing, taking ownership, engaging, and enjoying thinking.

We have engaged in the elements of workshop, but our classroom feels like we are on a 10 mile per hour train to “there” that is frequently derailed.  Reading as a community was a high point, but the momentum has since stalled.  My old bag of tricks–student-created due dates, “go to” YA books that may shock or surprise, favorite mentor texts–aren’t reaching a far too large chunk of my people. 

Students are being compliant, but they’re not engaged.  

I am not okay with this.  It feels…I feel…mediocre.  

Was it me?  Is it me? The stress of junior year? Too much choice?  Not enough choice? Other teenage things I don’t know about? In an effort to figure out what was going on, what the story behind the data was, I asked students to write the narrative of the student behind the grade. 

I simply wanted to know:  Who is the student behind these grades?  Who is the human behind the numbers?  

Throughout my 100+ students, the reflections were consistent and their honesty certainly made the case for continuing to cultivate a workshop classroom.  Thankfully, we are heading there.  Summatively, these are the three take aways from their data-driven reflective narratives.

  • Stress and anxiety:  Junior year seems to unkindly smack students in the face.  I have seen it for eight years now. The ramped up, seemingly casual yet threatening chats about the looming college process sits heavy on their shoulders.  Increased course demands eat up time that used to be spent with friends or participating in activities without sacrificing academics. Aside from school stress, there are two-sport athletes, thespians, part-time workers, and family child care providers struggling to balance.

All the more case for carving out time to read for pleasure.  These students’ lives are just as busy as adults. Giving time to read, even 10 minutes at the start of class, can be “therapeutic” as Emily said: “This student found reading at the start of class each day to be therapeutic.  She is sad on odd days when the class doesn’t read.” Our students need time to pause. More importantly, they need to connect with characters, settings, and challenges that mirror their existence. They need to read that sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t, but you will get through these tough years.

  • True choice is new:  While students now admit they really like being able to choose books, choice in August was scary.  I believe it was scary because they didn’t know themselves as real readers, just readers who were assigned chapters due on certain days.  Aria, who is reading through everything that is on Netflix or will soon be a movie, reflected: “This student, who read three books last quarter, loves being able to choose books without judgment.”  

All the more case for exposure to new titles.  While my school is a college prep school and many teachers, from theology to science, assign books to read outside of a textbook, it isn’t a culture of readers.  Students struggling with choice lack a knowledge of what genre or story they prefer versus what they don’t like. My developing readers need exposure via student recommendations, book talks, library displays, topic journals, or ANY other medium, so they can continue to curate a “To Read” list with meaningful titles.  

 

 

  • Writing voices are still developing:  Elliot wrote:  “This student has never been asked to write anything besides school stuff.  This student has a writing voice, but it is quiet and shy, only the notebook knows it now, but the voice is gaining courage.”  Wow. Check out that voice! Many times, I feel my students don’t trust their ideas or analysis as being “right,” just as they don’t yet trust themselves as writers, frequently asking “Is this what you want?” or “Is this good?”

All the more case for writing, writing, and writing more.  Writers need practice just like athletes. Aside from developing confidence in their ideas, students need to develop confidence in trying out elements of voice to develop the craft of writing by writing beside mentor texts, infusing craft into formal writings, journaling, and closely reading for craft in their choice books.  

Boiling it down:  students need time, exposure, confidence so we can get there.  

I will keep at it, as Lisa encouraged, because the work is not easy, but we know it is worthy. As some keep resisting, fake reading, or simply not reading at all, I will keep conferencing and book talking.  I will give reading time As students doodle instead of write, stare at the ceiling instead of revise, ask “Is this good?” instead of trust their skill, I will keep modeling writing and encouraging.  The culture I create this year will create momentum for next year, then into the following, speeding up the train to take us to that special place of learning.

The train may not be speeding ahead, but it’s chugging along.  At least I know we are on the track, heading in the right direction.

Maggie Lopez teaches American Literature and AP literature in Salt Lake City.  She is anxiously awaiting the start of ski season in Utah and NCTE in Houston next month, while reading Girl, Interrupted and scouring for flexible seating furniture on a budget. You can follow her on Twitter at @meg_lopez0

 

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