When Workshop Hits the Struggle Bus…

One of my favorite new terms this year is the struggle bus. My kids say it when they’re having a rough morning or when they don’t understand something or when they’re just generally having a difficult time in life–“I’m on the struggle bus today, Mrs. T.” It seems that hardly a day goes by without someone mentioning that phrase, so maybe that’s why it seems resonant to me today.

struggle-bus

Actually, that’s not why at all. My workshop work has hit the struggle bus a bit this year in my grade level classes–that’s the truth of the matter. If you’re in this field at all for any length of time, you’re bound to hit it. That big old bright yellow school bus of a struggle bus is sometimes hard to avoid–is it those long tough early months of school? Struggle bus. Is it a gaggle of girls who just can’t seem to settle in to what you’re working on? Struggle bus. Is it game day and a classroom full of giant man boys who are so hopped up on adrenaline that reading and writing in the last period of the day is the last thing on their mind? Struggle bus.

So what do you do when you hit the struggle bus? Well, you find a way to mix things up and shake things up. I’ve hit some struggles this year with a couple of my classes that I haven’t experienced before. You see, I’ve always been pretty good at figuring out how to get kids interested in reading, and I’ve gotten to be pretty good at putting the right book with the right kid. I pride myself on it. I think back glowingly to the number of kids in the past few years who came in as avowed non-readers or who proclaimed themselves to be “over” reading since it was something that they did in elementary school with AR. Almost all of them left my room having read more than the year before and many of them have reignited a reading habit that I hope will only grow as they mature. I see them in the halls and they update me about their latest book or the new series that I should try. They reach out to me from college to ask for book suggestions or to mention to tour that they took in a college class of Flannery O’Connor’s home (and I was JEALOUS!). We formed bonds over those books and those conferences and those shared experiences, and those bonds haven’t ended just because they’re not currently enrolled in my classes.

This year, though, I’ve got a tough crowd. Oh, they’re the typical crowd I usually get–mostly super sweet, lots who are quite smart and interested in the world around them, some who are struggling in a variety of ways, some who like to act big and bad but are soft and squishy on the inside–teenagers are teenagers, after all. There are lots in this group, though, who seem to be particularly immune to my charm and reading connection magic. Some of my favorite “go to” books have fallen flatter than Tom Brady’s football in Deflate Gate. Some kids are serial quitters, picking up a different book every day. We just finished reading The Great Gatsby as a core text in my grade level class, with them reading Gatsby outside class and us working on connected texts during class…except I think very few were actually reading Gatsby outside of class.

I had my year all planned out based on some tweaks that I wanted to do from last year, but after Gatsby, I decided that what we needed was a major overhaul. Out go the window with my plans and carefully designed goals. I can teach many of the same standards with almost any piece of text–do I have to be tied to a plan that I made over the summer without a full understanding of the people in my room who would be most affected by those plans? Nope. What I’ve come to realize is that my year doesn’t have to be in exact lockstep to the plan I laid out for it. I work in a small private school, and I’m the only one who teachers Junior English, so I do have some autonomy that may not be available in other settings, but I intend to make full use of that opportunity.

Since I’m having trouble getting them to connect with longer texts, I decided that we’d spend the rest of the semester reading and writing poetry. Rather than having them dig into Farewell to Arms (for now, anyway) or jive our way into the Harlem Renaissance, we’re going to spend some time reading lots of poetry and trying our hands at doing some writing as well. I figure that I can pull in traditional beloved poetry and help my kids to see the connections to the new things that are being written today and even to the songs that they’re listening to on their phones.

That, for me, is the beauty of workshop. Because I tend to work with these texts as mentor texts, I have more freedom to tweak and adjust as I go and as I see needs in a classroom. If I have a group that responds particularly well to rhythm and rhyme, then maybe I pull some poetry that I can compare and contrast with some of Tupac Shakur’s pieces from A Rose that Grew from Concrete. (I also have to confess that they’re often shocked when I, a 45 year old white lady who I’m sure they think has no clue about such things, pulls out something from Tupac or references Biggie’s artistry. 🙂 I was in college in the ’90s–Tupac and Biggie were staples in the music scene. 🙂 ) Or maybe I’ll pull some silly pieces from Ogden Nash. Nothing gets a room full of teenage boys giggling than some of his silly poetry. But the magic happens when I hand the reins to them and have them enter the playground and try to work on their own versions of these texts, inspired by the style or by the content of one of these mentors. I love nothing more than seeing the big bad dude rush excitedly to his friend to share the phrase in a poem that he has just come up with or when the quiet kid decides to do her own parody poem of the “Johnny Johnny” meme and stands up to perform for the class and gets cheers and ovations.

The struggle bus will always be around, I suppose, but instead of getting run over by that big looming sense of doubt and uncertainty (or just of tiredness!), think about changing things up and switching them around, and invite kids into the playground that can be poetry. It doesn’t all have to be old stuffy boring pieces that make their eyes glaze over with boredom; it can be bright and vibrant and relevant and can reinvigorate your classroom.

What do you do when you hit the struggle bus in your classroom (or when the struggle bus is hitting you)? Let me know in the comments section!

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