A Letter to My (Disgruntled) Students

To My Students (the Disgruntled Ones):

When I first started teaching four years ago, I was so excited. I relished the idea of sharing my passions — literature and writing — with the minds of the future; I looked forward to having a positive impact on your lives, lives that would touch so many others. I worked diligently to obtain licensure; frenetically worked to meet college deadlines; wearied myself writing a teaching portfolio that was some 50-plus pages filled with data, research, and observations.

I desperately wanted to be good enough for each of you.

The first year was tough. I left for school most mornings before 6:30 and stayed long after 8:00 most evenings. My weekends were consumed with countless hours of lesson planning, and my first year of marriage took a backseat to 67 kids I’d only known for a handful of weeks.

Mornings were for preparing myself, mentally. Mornings were filled with fear and nervous anticipation — Is today’s lesson what they need? Am I helping them to deepen their knowledge?

Evenings were for grading and planning. I saw each of you for 50 minutes daily (when you didn’t have ball games or special masses to attend or school assemblies or confession or bake sales) and was expected to teach grammar, writing, reading, vocabulary, and spelling. Evenings should have been for family and rest and four-mile runs, but they weren’t. They were for work.

The second year was better (I hit some sort of almost-effective stride), but I still stayed up at night wondering: Did I teach them anything of value today? Should I have handled that situation differently? Did I make a mistake that will leave a lasting impression on them?

Last year, I began teaching high school. I thought I would love this. I thought, Finally! I’ll get to teach the novels I cherished as a high schooler! and These students will be much more capable of complex logic and reasoning, and They will be more independent. I thought you would be more like the student that I was: driven, respectful, curious.

And above all, I still desperately wanted to be adequate.

For all of those hours of anxiety and fear and fervent planning, you have gifted me with contempt.

You have told me to f*** off, you have cursed me in the hallways, you have posted hateful remarks about me on Twitter and Facebook and even your locker doors. You have told lies to your parents, who then took to Facebook to further berate me.

You have refused to participate or listen in class. You have refused to attempt reading and writing assignments, to study vocabulary terms, to come in after school to make up missing assignments; then blamed me for your failing grades.

You have lied to me. You have disparaged me in other teachers’ classes. You have criticized my teaching methods, whined about my expectations, and questioned my curriculum choices.

And still, I lie awake at night thinking about all of the ways I have failed you. I stare into the darkness, dreaming of ways that I can become more Enough for each of you.

I cannot accept that I have done all that I can. I cannot accept that this is the best I can do for you, and because of these standards for myself I am miserable.

But that is not all. Here is a list of other things I cannot do:

I cannot make you understand the weight of your choices. I can only foster opportunities for you to learn that your actions have consequences, whether you like those consequences or not; and hold you accountable for those choices, hoping that one day you will appreciate what I have done for you.

I cannot make you realize that when I ask you to read books on or near your ability level (rather than 5 levels below), I’m not doing so as a punishment, but because you will only develop your vocabulary and ability to cognitively reason at a higher level if you read harder. I can only continue to set forth challenges and hope that you will rise to meet them.

I cannot make you want to work hard; I can only encourage you to, and hope that you respect yourself (and your teachers) enough to do so.

I cannot make you appreciate the doors that will open to you when you become fluent writers and speakers; I can only bear your complaints, time and again, as we struggle through essays and blog posts and presentations and classroom discussions, and hope that you someday communicate in a manner that beckons others to bend their heads and listen.

I cannot make you see that the sun does not rise and set from between the cheeks of your arse, despite what you may have been led to believe by your parents or your own egocentrism. I can only hold you to the same intensive standards to which I hold each of my students and hope for the best.

You see, students, teaching is all about hope. There are no certainties, no infallibilities, no Definite Absolutes. When I teach you, I do not do so with the assumption that I know everything or that my methods are the best or perfect or even always okay. When I teach you, I hope that I am doing something right, amid all the wrong.

Teaching is rarely a rewarding gig. The moments of illumination and gratitude that educators talk about? Fleeting and far too sparse. But we trudge onward, arms swinging in a march-like cadence, because we hope.

Please — don’t take that from us.

With a fervent heart,

Your teacher

 

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The 6 Stages of Plagiarism Aftermath

December is my favorite month of the school year: units are wrapping up, students are more cheerful (and unruly), teachers display a renewed sense of camaraderie, and days of freedom from responsibilities beckon warmly. Although the month is filled with the agony of finalizing and grading heaps of exams, a small part of me rejoices in these stressors; there is light at the end of the long, dark wormhole that has been the fall semester.

This year, I was dismayed to discover plagiarism halfway through the frenzied circle of hell that is Grading Essays. Dismayed isn’t the right word for it. . . . No; I was aggrieved. Discouraged. Infuriated. Insulted. Exasperated.

I was freaking pissed off.

People who aren’t professors, English majors, or lovers of literature and writing often approach the topic of plagiarism with a “So, what?” mindset. Some laugh and say, “Shoot, if I hadn’t plagiarized, I wouldn’t have made my way through college!” Others say, “Well, it’s not a big deal if there’s just a little plagiarism, right?”

Right. Just like it’s not a big deal if I only stab someone with a knife . . . a little bit. Right? And it’s not a big deal if I steal candy from the thrift store . . . if I only take a little bit. Right?

I was raised to believe that cheating of any kind is intolerable. Same goes for theft. So when I learned about plagiarism in grade school, I took the crime very seriously. Plagiarism is both cheating and stealing. It’s the holy grail of intellectual offenses.

In high school and college, I knew several of my classmates plagiarized often and without reserve. Their crimes were distant, though; I viewed these peers as idiots and cheats, and dismissed the issue at that. Now that I’m a teacher, though, the problem has become personal.

When a student plagiarizes, he or she doesn’t just commit the heinous theft of intellectual property. That student plunges a metaphorical dagger into the back of his or her teacher and twists it with a sharp wrench of the wrist. Allow me to provide an example of the 6 Stages of Plagiarism Aftermath teachers may experience:

  1. Disbelief. First, the teacher blinks at the text a few times. She may rub her eyes for good measure, close the document and open it again, run it through the plagiarism checker one more time, and/or take a swig from a mug of coffee/tea/Pepsi that is nearby — whatever’s handy, of course.
  2. Fury. Next, she begins to shake. The tremors start in her hands, which are twisted tightly in her lap, and spread throughout her body until even her bowels are quaking with rage. Her skin may also begin to adopt varying shades of red.
  3. Grief. She’s just realized either these offenders A) are very stupid; or B) believe that she is very stupid. She’s not sure which is accurate; possibly both. This time, she reaches for the coffee and chugs.
  4. More rage. At this point in time, there is nothing the teacher would like more than to scream at the offending student. Instead, she vents to any and all teachers that will listen. Other victims of these rants may include spouses, family members, non-teacher friends with high moral standards, strangers, and pets.
  5. Anxiety. By now, the teacher has alerted school administration about the crime. (Let’s call it like it is, shall we?) She would like to bring the full force of the law upon the plagiarist, but now she begins to tremble with apprehension, rather than anger.
    1. She will be questioned. Did you teach the students about plagiarism? Are you sure this is plagiarism? Are you sure they knew what they were doing was wrong?
    2. She will be challenged. Why can’t I redo the assignment? This was my first offense. Don’t I get a second chance? What about So-and-So? They told me they copied their essay! Did they get in trouble?
    3. She will be denigrated by students and parents. This is such bullshit. She didn’t teach the material. She didn’t help me enough. She didn’t do her job.
  6. Normalcy. Eventually, the teacher will return to a state of mental well-being. This will likely come after a few days of heartburn and anxiety-vomiting, once the students have been dealt with and tempers have subsided a bit.

Plagiarism isn’t simply the trampling of the soul of another writer’s work. No, that is not the only crime committed when a student commits this type of theft. When students plagiarize, they also gut their teachers, who so often feel a certain amount of responsibility, despite their lack of involvement in the decision-making process to cheat/steal.

When a student plagiarizes, I am left wondering: If students knew of the mental turmoil these choices caused their teachers . . . would they think twice?

***

This public service announcement has been brought to you by a highly disgruntled English teacher.

A Note on Compassion

This week, my eighth-grade students began a project-based learning (PBL) activity that blends their coursework in science, English, and history classes. They’ll work on this project for three weeks, during one or all of those class periods. Their task?

Establish a society from the ground up.

Vague? Absolutely. Challenging? You bet.

These students have just spent more than a month learning about the development of the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and government system; they’ve also been studying the government’s influence on the preservation and allocation of natural resources, paying special attention to the National Parks Service and humankind’s impact on our environment.

The two teachers that I am collaborating with on this project want students to think about the natural resources for their designated regions, draft rules and government systems, determine basic human rights, etc. I want them to collaborate effectively, develop presentations that are compelling and informational, research to find information, and market their countries to compel others to “move.”

We knew this undertaking would be a challenge. We knew that students would argue about menial components (like the design of their country’s flag, or what their nation’s song should be); and we expected groups to struggle with the concept of compromise. We knew that some students would do very little, whereas others would attempt to shoulder their entire group’s burden singlehandedly.

In all our conversations about the project’s learning objectives, though, we failed to consider one crucial desired outcome: compassion.

On day two of the collaborative experience, I sat with one of the groups as they discussed their country’s would-be rules (based on the group’s core values, established the previous day). Here’s a snippet of the conversation that ensued:

Student A: “Okay, we’re banning Muslims, right?”

Student B: “Yeah, no Muslims, for SURE. Have you seen what they’re doing to our country?”

Student C: “And Jews.”

Student B: “Add ‘build a wall’ to the list.”

Maybe I should have intervened after the first student opened her mouth; maybe I was right to let them talk through it for a few minutes. Either way, I sat in a shell-shocked kind of stupor for a solid 2 minutes. Then I chimed in. “Why are you banning Jews?” I asked.

One of the girls, who had been pretty quiet thus far, asked, “What are Jews?” My soul wilted a bit. We chatted for a few moments about the religion and culture, and then she asked, “Wait. Why are we banning Jews?” The other kids in her group couldn’t think of a good reason, so they agreed to remove that list item. We went on to discuss their issues with Muslims, as well, and the students quickly realized they didn’t know as much as they thought they did. I urged them to replace the word “Muslims” in their doctrine with the word “Christians,” and see if they still thought their rules were fair.

During my drive home that evening, I reflected on the experience.

They’re only 13 years old, I reminded myself, as I knew many others would say. They’re just repeating what they hear at home.

And isn’t that sad?

In the two hours we spent together that morning, I watched students spend more time arguing about who to exclude, discriminate against, and condemn than they spent talking about any other component of their projects. I was left wondering, after it all — How am I going to teach these kids compassion? Isn’t that something that parents are supposed to instill from Day One? 

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about parenting. I don’t have kids. But during my four years of teaching, I have reflected often on the upbringing my parents bestowed me with. I don’t wear rose-colored glasses: I am well aware that my parents likely harbor some racial prejudices. I think this is true for all members of society, whether people are willing to admit it or not. But my parents did not raise my siblings and I to treat others maliciously. We were not taught to believe that exclusion is right and just, or that others are automatically bad or good due to the hue of their skin or the dialect with which they speak or the religion they do (or don’t) practice.

We were taught, above all, to respect others — and always, always stand up for what is right. To know that it takes all kinds of people to make this world turn. To know that sometimes, we will encounter people we don’t like or disagree with — and that those feelings are perfectly acceptable and normal for us to experience, but we should always treat others the way we want to be treated.

My dad’s always been a beacon of integrity for me, when it comes to dealing with others. I have strong memories of him passionately expounding on situations in which someone was being pushed around by somebody else, simply because one person had more power or sway than another. He told me time and again when I was younger, “You must defend those who cannot defend themselves.” I’ve met few people that feel as passionately about doing what is fair and just.

I know, I know — those of you who know me are probably thinking, Sure, this is well and good, but you’re an asshole sometimes, Renee. Point taken. I don’t claim to be perfect, and there are many times in my life I’ve acted in ways that I regret and wish I could undo. But imagine how atrocious I might be, as a human being, if my parents had taught me that entire cultures of people are bad. What if my parents had instilled in me the belief that we should separate ourselves from those who have differing opinions or unpopular viewpoints? What if they’d raised me to believe that different is bad and that same is good? Holy automaton, Batman!

I’ve been rambling, friends, and for that, I apologize. For those of you who have stuck with me this long, I have a request:

Think about the messages you share with your children on a daily basis. Are they messages of love, or messages of hate? Are you teaching them to forgive others, or condemn and hold grudges? Are you challenging them to expand their horizons, or are you teaching them to remain stagnant? 

I think sometimes, it can be tempting to isolate ourselves and the ones we love. I think this occurs because we fear change — we fear losing the people we love to different perspectives and ideals and lifestyles. Certainly, in this age of political division, it’s easy to allow ourselves to be consumed with contempt for anyone who dares to think differently. But I also think if we spend too much time building a wall, we will miss out on all the diverse beauty that the world has to offer, and that would be a crying shame.

The Write Stuff: A Teacher Reflection

This summer, I attended a writing institute in Emporia, KS — a location for the National Writing Project. The experience was magical, to say the least (literally: I was dubbed “Most Capable of Turning Any Situation Into a Harry Potter Reference”). I learned a great deal about myself as a writer, gathered feedback from writing peers, and acquired a wealth of knowledge on the topic of writing instruction at the elementary and secondary level.

One core belief demanded attention in the weeks after I’d left: My students need to be writing daily. As an English major — writing, not literature or teaching — I had already established this belief; as a new teacher, though, I struggled to incorporate this principle in my daily labors. I wanted my students to write more, I knew they’d become stronger writers if they wrote more . . . but I couldn’t figure out the time thing. Where would I find all the time they needed to just . . . write?

After three years of teaching, one summer institute, and a few weeks of stubbornly (and metaphorically) ramming my head against the same brick wall time and time again, something finally clicked: I teach in a small, rural school with only one other teacher in the English “department” for grades 7-12, and my school doesn’t have a curriculum or scope and sequence. (That’s a new-teacher nightmare for another day, folks.) The one certainty I do have in this one-man-band I call my content area: time.

My students now write approximately 5-10 minutes daily in their Writers Notebooks. We’re in the midst of the fourth week of school, so it still takes some time to settle down and get in the writing “groove” — especially since they usually write at the beginning of class, and they’re still trying to transition from one subject to the next — but I allow them to plug in their headphones while they write, which minimizes the number of conversations that occur.

A few times each week, I use the projector to show my students an intriguing image (usually a foreign location or fantasy illustration) and ask my students to just create. I want them to have fun with words, to learn that writing doesn’t have to mean five-paragraph essays or the “right kind of creativity.”

And they love it.

I write alongside my students. I’ve noticed they’re more likely to hunker down and scribble away if they see me writing, too — in fact, when they see me whip out my pen and notebook, a hush falls over the room. I gaze around the room some as I write, partially to keep an eye on kids and gauge when to stop the writing; partially to let them know it’s okay to look around sometimes, as long as they return to paper at some point.

When we’ve reached a stopping point, I always ask who would like to share. Since we’re in the early stages of the school year, several of my students are still shy. Sharing writing is extremely intimate, even when the stories are make-believe; but I want my students to learn the joys of putting their work out there, of having their voices heard. I want them to learn that sharing writing is no different than putting their woods projects or art projects on display in the hallways or at the end-of-year student show.

So I share my writing, too.

The first time or two, a few kids joked that there was no way they could live up to the work I’d shared. (I promise I’m not doing this for the ego boost.) Despite their jokes, though, I noticed kids becoming enraptured with the stories I created. They’ve come to expect me to share my work. While it’s nice to have an audience (captive though they be), I didn’t start sharing my writing to impress or intimidate. I had an inkling that if I modeled the act of sharing personal writing aloud, my students might be less terrified of taking the author’s chair, themselves.

Here’s what I’ve noticed in just a few weeks:

Hands have begun to shoot up more quickly when I ask, “Who wants to share their writing?” Students have stopped groaning (as much) when I tell them to pull out their journals. Kids no longer snap their notebooks shut the moment I ask them to find a stopping place — they scribble a bit longer, some several minutes longer, and many wait with their notebooks open on their laps or tabletops: an invitation to be asked to read.

Sure, some still drag their feet and a handful can only manage to eke out a sentence or two in ten minutes; but I feel confident that with time, when writing becomes a habit, the words will come more easily.

Today, I shared this photo with my senior English classes. A handful of the more technical-minded boys wrote about how they would improve the structure, while a few penned stories of runaways seeking a place of solitude amid the waves of this lake (or river, or ocean). I shared last, as

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Borrowed from newslinq.com.

always: a fabricated tale of an unloved sea urchin whose shell grew at a rate proportionate to his loneliness.

After I finished reading, the class sat for a moment before one girl blurted out, “Whoa. Is that what happens when you read all the time? You get good at writing and creating stories?”

I laughed a bit, because their notions of “good” writing are a tad generous among high school students; but I was pleased nonetheless because her comment led to a conversation about the importance of reading. These kids are well aware I’m a book hoarder; there’s a whiteboard posted outside my classroom door with weekly updates about the books I’m currently reading. I also may or may not have taken things to an extreme-geek level when I revealed to them my giddy excitement at the arrival of my first Book of the Month Club box.

If I’m lucky, though, my students will begin making that connection between frequent reading a better writing and taking it more seriously; if for no other reason, to improve the works they bring to the collective table during our daily writing time.

 

I’m taking it personally.

In first grade, a kid from Cassoday (accidentally) tripped me as I hustled (perhaps more quickly than I needed to) from my desk to the trash can, empty chocolate milk carton in hand.

I was clad in a white, fringed and embellished Western-style shirt — my favorite — because it was picture day. I was excited, for three quite understandable reasons: 1) we’d just finished snack time; 2) it was nearly 3:30; and 3) I’d smiled my biggest grin ever — showcasing my complete and utter lack of front teeth. I knew Mom and Dad would be super-mega-ultra proud of that grin, so naturally, I was in a hurry.

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My face connected with the desk like a magnet had drawn the object and I together, and in moments, blood was gushing down my chipmunk cheeks and onto that remarkably white V-neck. Naturally, my first reaction was: Holy shit! That’s a lot of blood! (sans the expletive; I was only seven, guys) and then — I caught sight of  Cassoday-kid.

You know those movie clips in which a major character narrows his/her eyes and looks at another character/object/animal and the camera zooms in on that dirty look, so nobody misses it? Yeah. That happened.

It suddenly became clear to me, as I glowered (and hyperventilated/cried upon a stool in the boys’ bathroom, which was [mortifyingly] closest for my bleeding-like-a-stuck-pig self): Cassoday-kid had tripped me on purpose, duh. Any fool in his right mind could have seen I was in a hurry to get to the trash can. His foot was obviously intentionally placed in my direct path.

That all went down about 20 years ago, and I’m still half-certain I was tripped purposely. Of course, being the reasonable adult that I clearly am, I’ll pretend to lean more toward certainty that it was all an accident, caused primarily by my own haphazard hurrying; but deep down…that’s another story, folks. I took it personally. I used my woman-brain to twist this relatively innocent experience into a grudge-worthy personal attack.

In fact, over the past two decades, I’ve taken personal offense to comments, sideways glances, Tweets, jokes made by siblings, memes, blog posts, gum on my shoe . . . You name it, I’ve taken personal offense to it, as if the person saying/doing any given thing said/did the thing as a direct criticism of myself. Do I realize this is a completely irrational line of thinking? Absolutely. Is it something I continue to do? Most def.

As a third year teacher, I struggle most with this particular aspect of myself, which doesn’t lend itself well to my career. I work with a horde of angst-y teenagers who — more often than not — blame anyone other than themselves for shortcomings. The ability to connect actions (or lack thereof) to consequences is not something they’ve mastered quite yet. Examples:

  • It’s my fault my students did poorly on a test, despite the fact that they didn’t complete the reading, or failed to do their practice homework, or talked over me during class, or refused to participate in class discussions.
  • I’m mean because I sent students out to the hallway — because they didn’t complete the chapter we would be discussing in class.
  • I’m unfair because I gave students homework over a holiday break — because they didn’t finish any of their reading homework assignments, so we had to read over break in order to finish the book before the end of the semester.

Get the picture?

Deep down, I know that my students enjoy me; at least, most of them do. But at the surface level? I’m an insecure 26-year-old, floundering about the halls of a high school in memories of my own horrific high school experience, berating myself for every little detail my students find to criticize me about. I sometimes want to shout, “Hey! I hear you! I’m taking it personally!”

I’m aware that students’ brains are still developing. I know that their hormones are raging, and their emotions . . . terrifying. I know that they’re trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be, the careers they want to obtain, the next color they’ll dye their hair, why their parents don’t come to school events, where their next meals will come from, why their best friends are no longer talking to them, how math and letters can possibly exist in the same world . . . and yet . . .

I’ve got feelings, too.

Homecoming, 5.0

I’m going to walk out on a metaphorical limb and make the assumption that any individual who has returned to the strange, wicked world of high school as a teacher has experienced feelings of deja vu and vertigo, of sorts. At times, I find myself in extreme flashback situations–moments that I cannot stop or control no matter how much I’d like to do so.

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Exhibit A: Homecoming week. This past week at school was a smorgasbord of quirky dress-up days, haywire attention spans, king and queen kiss speculations (because homecoming royalty has to kiss, duh), awkward tittering about who has just asked whom to the dance, and as a cherry on top: class and organization float decorating on Friday. As a class sponsor, I had the opportunity to supervise my group of rambunctious teens as they bickered their way through the decoration process. (Cue the personal high school flashback, now.)

Float decoration was a direct reflection of my own high school experiences with homecoming and other events that required class cooperation or participation: some kids worked diligently; some kids napped in corners; some kids disappeared to God knows where; and some kids sat around brooding, irritated that their plan wouldn’t be utilized. The end result of these experiences is always the same: When the project is finished, the collective unit gathers round to scrutinize, and those who have contributed nil start the barrage of negative criticism.

“This sucks. It looks terrible.”

“That line is crooked.”

“Who drew this? It’s awful!”

And so on, and so forth. Meanwhile, the handful of individuals who did contribute to the item in question begin to feel indignant, and backlash ensues. Typically, the terms lazyworthless, and jerk can be distinguished from the hasty emotional rebuttals of those injured few.

As a high school student, I was always part of the offended group; I worked tirelessly to ensure our class would “win” whatever competition my school had in place, and quickly became frustrated with classmates who only had negative comments to make. As a teacher, I now possess the “power” to shape this experience into a learning opportunity.

Here’s the lesson, kids: Life is like a homecoming float. You can either dive in headfirst, armed with glue and glitter and visions of Miley Cyrus on her wrecking ball; or you can sit on your haunches, suspicious or apathetic with no intentions other than being that wrecking ball, ready to take someone out with your negative words and “cool” attitude. The choice is entirely up to you.

However, be aware: The “you” that you choose to be in high school is not all that different from the “you” that you will be as an adult. Choose wisely, young grasshoppers. Choose wisely.