Saturday, October 1, 2011

Chicago Called

I'm a grown up with weekends. 

There's this world, post-college, where you work all week with Colleagues, where emails are Political, where Casual Conversation isn't Casual so much as it's Business, where everybody needs Something from you, you all know the Deadlines, and so Passive Aggression is about your Job Security instead of the dishes in the sink.

I have to say, I was oblivious.

But Chicago called, and I came running; leaving work on a Friday evening, stopping in at my Grandma's, dropping my car off at the airport, gliding in to the familiar rooftops and light patterns of the south side, the Weekend Feeling crept over me.  Not unlike fog, on it's little cat feet.  So it comes, I thought, the time after college wherein adult relationships with old friends are cultivated over weekend visits and making plans for drinks, brunches, dinner.  Weekends with people who get that morning is a time for coffee, not sleeping in, because good luck working all week if you sleep all weekend!

It feels indescribably good to sit on a familiar couch listening to the brown line go by, here for no good reason besides desire to see my friends.  Chicago, too, is like an old friend.  Walking up Wabash from the Orange line, I was greeted by the architecture that framed a lot of my growth into adulthood.  The familiar wind is like putting on a warm jacket.

I want to tell you a story about my week.  I am teaching Characterization.  We define this, in English-teacher land, as 'what a character is like' and 'how we know what we know about them.'  We teach evidence and inferencing, which is far more difficult as it sounds. I have a tendency to overwhelm my guys with work because I feel the urgency of the job so deeply; there are days that they don't handle that well, which is absolutely all my fault.

Tuesday was one of those days.

This is what I wanted my class of freshmen to do:
1. Take notes on Characterization (10 minutes)
2. Read a two page greek myth and summarize each paragraph (20 minutes)
3. Fill out a STEAL chart as a class (Speech, Thought, Effects on others, Actions, Looks) (20 minutes)
4. Fill out a STEAL chart on their own (20 minutes)
5. Take a vocabulary quiz (15 minutes)

Don't laugh too hard, please.

They were quite angry with me.  One of them, who I had doing an alternate assignment, sat in the back yelling pretty terribly profane things about me; one shrieked about the injustice of my food policy; one fell asleep; one kept stealing Red Storm Dollars (a school wide incentive system) from her neighbor; another was taunting my intellectually disabled student about her zits, and another was poking the boy in front of her with her newly sharpened nails.  There was one in the back who said, "No!" and made a weird, defiant sound in his throat every time I told the class to do something, even as he did the thing I was asking him to do.

It turned into a pretty majorly stressed out day.  I managed to get the notes and the first STEAL chart into them, but independent work went to hell in a handbasket; they didn't know what I was asking them to do because I hadn't taught it long enough and they were too busy rebelling against the workload to listen when I was teaching.  When I finally sent the foulmouthed one to the office for trying to hit a girl, another one just sauntered right out of class.  I went to get him back.  Somebody wrote 'dick' on my projected word document.  I put them all in their seats and told them to put their heads down for the remaining two minutes until the bell rang.  I wanted to cry, and I knew, I just KNEW, it was all my fault. 

It isn't that they couldn't get the concepts or that they're bad kids.  They are genuinely good kids.  It was that I overwhelmed them with transparency about the workload for the day.  I am, actively, overwhelming them with the amount of work it will be to get them to move two reading levels in a year; what I SHOULD be doing is flooding them with recognition of their progress, not how far we have to go...

Anyway, they retaliated.  When someone was writing on my projector, that person or a friend took the monogrammed silver ring I wear everywhere from where it was sitting on my desk.  When I realized that it was gone, halfway through my second class, my stomach fell into my feet and my heart started flopping around in the empty space in my abdomen.

And the thing is, that second class loves that I work them to death.  They say this is the hardest class they have, but they say it with a light in their eyes.  I'm not treating them like they're stupid, because they're not, and they can see the value in that -- kids who in every one of their other classes throw desks and never do their work are workaholic angels for me.  I have discovered a girl with a 7th or 8th grade reading level who everybody else thought functioned like a third grader; I think I'm seeing this because I respect them with work and transparency.  But that first period freshman class doesn't read the workload as respect, they read it as antagonism, and I should know better.  Of course they retaliated.  Working them to the point of frustration probably feels like an act of war.

So, against the advice of my administrator and the teachers I talked to, I personally apologized to each of my students the next day.  I explained that I knew the class had gone terribly, I knew it was my fault, I knew I was being retaliated against, but also that there are better ways to send the message.  I wanted my ring back, I said, and I'll set up a way for you to anonymously let me know how class is going.

This, I suppose, they could see as respect. The next morning, I found my ring in my work mailbox.

I love these kids so much.  I feel awful that I'm putting them through being my guinea pigs, that I have to learn this on them, that they feel like they have to do things like take stuff from me because I'm pushing them too hard.  I am so overwhelmingly proud of them for managing to learn anything from me at all most days. 

I look forward to teaching my freshmen next year, when I've taught them that work is a sign of respect.  In the meantime, I really have to learn to teach more with fewer assignments, right?

I love my work, all fourteen to sixteen hours a day of it, and it's time to get back to it now.  If you have any ideas, do leave them.  I'll try to write more often, I promise! 

What a perfect morning for reflection. 


  1. Forget what the administrators and other teachers advised you to do. You did what you thought was right, and it worked. Those kids are lucky to have you. They may not know it yet, but they will.

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