Monday, July 27, 2015

The Marrow Reading Series: Summer School, Alternative Education, and Some of What I Think I Know About That

Here's the essay I read at last night's wonderful reading series, The Marrow, hosted by Naomi Huffman and Leah Pickett, and had a number of great readers and truly is all-around excellent. I encourage you to check it out when you get the chance, Chicago! It's at the Whistler, a wonderful Logan Square bar, and you can follow the series on Twitter, @themarrowchi.

The following is a modified version of the essay I read, "Summer School, Alternative Education, and Some of What I Think I Know About That" --

I started teaching English during summer school in the Maine Township High School district way, way back in 2012. I’ve taught it every summer since then, and found it’s really its own animal from a teaching perspective.

 Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far:

 It’s funny, really, but all the stereotypes about summer school students, that they’re completely unmotivated, that they don’t care about their futures, that they are wildly immature, are only half the story. Yes, some aspects of those qualities are reasonable enough to believe, but like so much of our shared human experience, they tell only parts of a bigger story.

In my experience, a lazy student isn’t just a lazy student. It’s always more complex than that. More times than not, students who end up in summer school are there because they’ve rejected some part or whole of the four-year high school model, one that if you’re at all aware of the bigger educational picture, has sought to make learning progressively homogenized and structured around the idea that there can be one singular model for educational success that all students will aspire to, and, what’s more, all students are expected to reach.

But that’s not how education works, really. Teaching is a jumbled, disorganized system of adults, many of whom pretend to have secret knowledge of how things “work,” teaching students who either do or do not have faith in said adults’ abilities and are suspicious of their actual understanding of how things “work.”

It’s also having a student only a year removed from living in Iraq thrown into your classroom without regard for that student’s circumstances or how overwhelming it might be for him or her to learn among a classroom entirely full of native English speakers. But that was the case for me this past summer school session. And fortunately, the student in question was willing to meet with me for ten minutes after every class for a recap of the day’s lessons and to discuss things we talked about, and I had time to set aside to modify an essay assignment so that it wouldn’t be too overwhelming but still challenge this student, adjust the final exam to make it likewise something both comprehensible and capable of being completed.

 That’s life in a credit recovery classroom, in the reality of such a situation where students are brought together in a combined English I through IV section, somehow, freshmen through seniors. Evening high school is much the same, something I also teach, although the class sizes are smaller. I had twenty students in summer school this past month, entirely manageable and arguably close to the ideal number of students, which in my opinion is around fifteen.

And the weird thing is, these classrooms seem less competitive and hostile than the ones I’ve experienced in classrooms during the regular school year. There’s certainly playful teasing, and the occasional incident that’s a bit more extreme, but usually those incidents are directed at me, the horrible authority figure ruining their lives.

 It has gotten me thinking a lot about an article Rebecca Solnit recently wrote for Harper’s entitled, “Abolish High School.” That and an article by Megan Stielstra entitled “An Essay About Essays.” Both deal with assumptions about how we educate and questions the established approach. In short, Solnit is making the point, why should students suffer through a one-size fits all approach to a four-year high school when there are plenty of ways to implement and make available many different alternatives, and Stielstra is making the point, essays don’t have to be the tedious and mechanical experience they are as they are currently taught in most high schools, they can (and let’s face it should) offer an opportunity to explore ideas and challenge a person’s individual sense of creativity.

 We read these essays in most of my classes and every time we do they’re met with a mixture of awe and the kind of eye-opening revelation that comes with someone speaking a very real and honest truth. The kind of truth that’s all-too obvious when it’s spoken aloud, like the emperor having no clothes, that sort of thing. Force and power and authoritarian constraints will only alienate a sizeable percentage of students, which my alternative students always seem proof this notion. They can do the work. I’ve read and discussed over my years in alternative classrooms celebrated authors and thinkers like Solnit and Stielstra, as well as Franz Kafka, Philip K. Dick, ZZ Packer, John Steinbeck, Roxane Gay, Friedrich Nietzsche, James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt, Voltaire, David Foster Wallace, Simone de Beauvoir, Italo Calvino, Daniil Kharms, John Cheever and George Saunders, to name a few.

And students never fail to appreciate these texts, often because they understand intuitively the arbitrary quality of the power structures that writes like Kafka weave into their work, despite his penchant for ambiguity. It’s why they quickly intuit that “The Knock at the Manner Gate” isn’t about someone being punished for literally knocking on a gate, but the absurdity of so many of our rules and laws and how easily they can be manipulated to condemn a person, when necessary, whether guilty or not. Most of the students I work with have been on the losing end of that power relationship before. And let’s be honest, so have most of us. Some of us just experience it sooner and / or more severely than the rest of us.

I think about porn for educators like Freedom Writers, which I like but let’s face it, fetishizes the teaching profession in the same way most professions are fetishized by Hollywood. I think about these kinds of movies, teacher as superhero, and I see a thousand essays people could write on missing the point. They mean well but they miss the point. I think they mean well. Whether they mean well or not, they miss the point. Most every educator wants to inspire kids but the real goal, the simple and useful goal should be to tell them the truth, as you understand it, as often as possible. That’s what they really want. That’s what I didn’t get as a student teacher awkwardly dancing around the fact that I had a girlfriend, not sure of how to respond to a personal question from a student. It’s important to remember to be human, I think.

 It’s how you avoid situations as an educator like ZZ Packer’s Lynnea, a worn-out first year teacher in a Baltimore public school, inhabiting Packer’s short story, “Our Lady of Peace,” who says, exasperated, to a former colleague who is now a police officer writing her a ticket for disobeying a traffic signal, “Do you know what it feels like … to have worked one long motherfucking day with a bunch of kids who want to strangle your ass and you want to strangle theirs and you think about that sentimental shit -- that ‘if I can only reach one’ shit -- and you don’t reach anyone?” Then her former colleague says “Yep” and hands her her ticket, which is both funny and true, all of it.

 I find myself wanting to just be part of the conversation, dipping in with my various questions, the ones essayists like Megan Stielstra encourage all of us to approach the craft with, or as she writes in her essay about essays, “What you need is That Thing; maybe a question, a fear or a fury.” That just sounds true to me.

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