"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Thursday, September 22, 2011

First impressions of the first week

I am gratified to have received so many messages of support for me in my new position (mostly upright) at American History High in Newark, and so many inquiries about my first week. These Interwebs can really reinforce one's sense of community. (Or, for some people, their illusion of community, but this is not the time or the place.)

So a few scattered observations about Week One, partly to satisfy the curiosity of friends, but mostly to amuse myself when I reread it at the end of the year.

First, the students have been enthusiastic and welcoming, and judging from the comments reported by my principal and colleagues, hopeful for and supportive of me. They in turn seem to be ready and willing to do what is required for success and to effect change in their lives and perhaps the lives of their families. When I talk about ramping up the workload, where I would have received loud protests in my old suburban district, here I get a few murmurs and demurrals, with a general understanding that the expectations must be high in order for them to reach their goals. The students seem to know and accept that the results they want can only come from hard work, even if they have the natural resistance of the young to the prospect of hard work (although usually not the work itself).

The faculty is definitely on-board as well. The school is only five years old, and yet has already had a change of principals and some upheavals in faculty, some caused by the madness of our politics around school funding. [If you ask me, and you didn't, school funding should be in a lockbox as untouchable as that for Social Security, buffeted from changing political winds. It is part of the sacred compact between us and the Americans who preceded us and between us and those who will follow. To suggest crippling changes is to recommend treason to the very idea of America. Sure, we can argue about how to spend the money, and see if we can't do it more efficiently, but savings should be plowed BACK INTO OUR CHILDREN, not any other little projects people have up their sleeves. End of hysterical screed.]

As anyone who knows me would expect, I have far more doubts about myself than about my students, who are still young and flexible. Will I be able to maintain the pace and the standards? Will I find the words to say and things to do to coax and coach my students to performing at a collegiate level? Virtually all of my classes are with seniors (I have a handful of juniors in Creative Writing), and as far as we at AHHS are concerned, they are all college bound; therefore, the biggest part of my job is to make sure that freshman English contains few, if any, shocks or surprises.

So the question is, can I get my assessments out of the trap of worksheet-type short answers on the one hand, but steer clear of assignments that aim so high they become vague and poorly defined? Can I tune the tone of my students' written voices so that they have the detachment of the academic voice without losing passion and personality. (I always think of E.B. White as the perfect essayist - calm, rational and observational while also being warm, human and SPECIFIC.) Will I get these courses to hang together and make sense in the brain as we move from project to project, from one literary work to another? Will I properly differentiate among students and among classes? Will I figure out a bright-line distinction between CP English and Honors English? Will I challenge my AP class without wearing them (and me) out? Will Creative Writing get its focus and not devolve into throwing things against the wall to see what will stick?

I've volunteered to advise National Honor Society, which is a first for me, but seems appropriate for a teacher of seniors. I have only a slight idea of what and how much that entails, so that is terra incognito. I will not even discuss my other extracurricular plans, insofar as they are only in the proposal stage now, but suffice it to say that should they move forward, a huge amount of trenchwork will be required, as there is no pre-existing infrastructure to support such activities, as there was in my last school.

All this to say, I really hope I am up to this. That said, my supervisors are investing a lot of confidence in me, and if I succeed, it will be done more to justify their faith in me than because of my innate belief in my abilities. I know I have taste, energy, seven years of classroom experience and an ability to communicate. I feel the lack of formal training in teaching, especially in literature. This is where I feel most acutely that we should change our titles from teacher to coach. I know how to coach -- that's how we teach music and drama. It's an apprenticeship, trial and error method. There is no map, and that is what I am used to. But real literature teachers have maps, and I will learn to make and use them. And being a mere child of 55, I am just as resistant to doing something new as my 17- and 18-year-old students.

We all know that we have to stop thinking about schools like factories. But are we ready to think of them as laboratories, as loci for, in FDR's words, "bold, persistent experimentation?" To do so is to accept that some experiments will fail. This doesn't trouble me. The default position for young brains is to learn. They will learn, willy nilly, like it or not. Often, the best thing you can do as a teacher is not to impede the education that is going on, with or without your own agency. The question is exactly what and how students will learn. Stephen Sondheim got it right (as he so often does) about our responsibility as parents and teachers.
Guide them but step away,
Children will glisten.
Tamper with what is true
And children will turn,
If just to be free.
Careful before you say,
"Listen to me."
Children will listen...
Also, I really need to get more sleep.

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