By 2006 I was a credentialed English teacher in the most culturally diverse district in America. I was excited to experiment, to apply what I had learned after years of wandering outside the tenured public school teacher tract. I wanted to combine the unregulated experiential (private schools) with the theoretical I had learned in my credential program. I wanted all my students to walk into my classroom and feel welcomed and eager to learn.
I stumbled at first. Though I often heard and read positive feedback from my exiting students, I know I failed at merging what I knew worked pedagogically because I underestimated the power of my disposition within the classroom. My attitude, despite my utterances, reflected an authoritarian judgment. I was constantly defending against what might go wrong. My own anxieties over management and testing seeped into my practice. That anxiety made me lecture too long. Direct teach for too long. Grade too rigidly at times. Student’s eyes glazed and I would take cue from that. Never mind organizing toward students managing their own time.
RIGOR HAD BECOME A SILENCING WEAPON
Rigor had become a silencing weapon embedded into a classroom structure that assumed itself as welcoming and more egalitarian than it practiced. But altering the aesthetic, with a disciplined approached that requires repeated reflection, has improved student outcomes, decreased classroom frustration, and enlivened our classroom discussions. Rigor combined with a warmer environment allows more students to succeed, especially those who will withdraw from ideas introduced in an unfamiliar or anxious environment. Barry Chametzky explains in “Offsetting the Affective Filter” (2016) that
A clear relationship exists between the psychological situation (getting out of one’s comfort zone), the consequence (high anxiety and limited interaction with the material in question), and any possible “connected variables” (Glaser, 1978, p. 74).
Several of my first year students went on to tier-one universities, scored fives on their AP exams and are now working happily in fields from finance to education to non-profit organizing. But questions linger for me in what I now consider the mistakes of my early practice: how much did I contribute to the growing anxiety I saw expressed in my students through their inability to focus? How much unwarranted stress had I added to their lives that were growing in distraction, responsibility and worry in a world inundated with instant messages and often, cruel critique? And more importantly, how much space did I allow for exploration and creative, social problem solving. How much did I empower them to set their own learning goals and own texts instead of getting through to them?
PERSPECTIVE IS EVERYTHING
Perspective is everything. I took two years off from teaching to discover I had created a pseudo-welcoming classroom. And I call it a pseudo-welcome because I welcomed students open-heartedly yes, (with easy listening music, culturally responsive and stimulating realia, laughter, encouragement and plenty of opportunities for everyone to succeed).
But I had also privileged an ethos that diminished student agency. And I did so with the misconception that I had a full understanding of how to implement a model grounded in progressive pedagogy. Often underrepresented in these conversations is how ways-of-being are reflected within the classroom. Those ways of being can be blended with rich, multi-layered content representative of all students who enter any classroom. I re-imagined welcoming and structure.
BUILD WELCOMING CLASS STRUCTURE BY LOWERING THE STAKES
Although we teach within environs that over-emphasize high stakes testing, the learning space does not have to mimic what is handed down. We can negotiate into content and standards by first focusing on inviting students into the room as agents of their own achievement. I have learned to first build a room that conveys to each student that they are the topic. It requires discipline. I sometimes wish to jump into content because I am so excited; but I recently realized how much I need to build the emotional environment. I do so by,
FOCUS ON NAMING
Beginning with interviews and introductions that include unexpected tidbits about each student. Students share with a partner one truth and one lie about each other and the class guesses at which is the lie. I encourage students to be creative in their lies and truths. Partners share out about each other. I model the process. Endless laughter and conversations ensue. We set aside initial class-time throughout the first few sessions in order to hear everyone and to break up the process. We also do a choral recitation of everyone’s name and challenge ourselves to remember. To continue learning names, I ask students to repeat their names as they share out during the first few week of class. I emphasize reference to students by name as opposed to him/her/he/she.
Private Journaling additionally assists in lowering stakes and generating ideas within the classroom. I require students to maintain a journal in class. Journals can be used for any subject and I have learned that students examine ideas more freely when they know their journals will not be read. I do grade them; but I grade according to date. I collect them at the end of the term, so this is also a method of holding students accountable for attendance. I keep a writing classroom dependent on ideas and critical thinking. Students are encouraged to share in pairs and small groups after writing to think through ideas. Students are also encouraged to be Socratic by questioning, questioning and questioning.
READING THE WORLD RHETORICALLY
I introduce the method of Reading the World Rhetorically to infuse a nexus between students, the classroom and the real world. I use the same lesson with 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and AP classes. This is a truncated version of a lesson on Hurricane Katrina that introduces empathy/understanding, close reading/annotation, personal narrative and summarizing. I have shared this lesson with colleagues because it is so effective in emotionally connecting students to the classroom. This is the key.
THE SOAPSTONE CHART
Its key component is the Soapstone Chart. It introduces students to reading the world critically. The rhetorical reading insists on subjectivity. The students take what they have experienced and move backwards to understand how the idea was communicated. They think more inductively which allows them to center themselves within the material.
- How am I, as an audience member affected by the material?
- What is the speaker’s intent and how have they achieved it?
We then move through the semester reading all forms of media and situations. Students appreciate this practice within the classroom and often return to thank me for giving them this invaluable tool for “breaking it down”. I could not ask for more from my teaching.
So, welcome students by lowering the stakes. Focusing on getting to know everyone’s name, allowing student’s judgment-free writing spaces in which to generate ideas, and introducing rhetorical analysis as a way of centering personal experiences and thereby consistently maintaining the nexus between the classroom and the world of ideas.
Try to integrate either tomorrow and throughout the term and watch student engagement flourish.
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