By: Danielle Wilson
I watch one of my students dig at her cuticle with her teeth. Her midterm lays sprawled out on the desk in front of her, but she is focused on her finger, now picking at it and inspecting it closely. Her hand goes into the air tentatively: she wants a Band-Aid for her now bleeding finger. She has chewed it down to nothing. When I ask what is the matter, she explains that the night before, her dad’s house burned down– he’s in the hospital and her step mom is staying in a hotel. She’s just really worried about her dad. I ask if she’s okay right now, and she nods, so I say, “Well, you’re here and you’ve already written half of your essay. You might as well finish it. Try your best to concentrate. I’m here if you need me.” She nods and looks back at her midterm.
I’m sitting in a circle of about eight students. We started out by sharing what we liked about our independent reading books, but the conversation has devolved into morbid serial killer Netflix Originals that they enjoy. I let the tangent continue because, for what feels like the first time this year, they’re sharing a moment, smiling and relaxed, finding common ground with each other. It’s just been one of those negative classroom dynamics, and my co-teacher and I have struggled to bring any joy to this class. Today feels like a small win.
“Hola! Hola!” I greet the girls with an exaggerated smile. They giggle and reply back, “Hola” as they rush to their seats. They don’t know many words in English yet, despite being here for several months. They mostly don’t participate in class or socialize with the other students. It’s a good thing they have each other, and we let them sit together. Their lives are hard enough. My co-teacher and I ask ourselves daily, how do we connect with them? How do we get the other students to connect with them?
“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
I read this line from The Great Gatsby aloud to my students and get a little thrill. Yes, that’s a nerdy English teacher thing to say, but for many of my students, this book is the first time that they notice the actual beauty in writing. There are faults to this story, but I’ve still yet to tire of the romance and the sadness of it, that it’s filled with lines that sound like poems, and each year, I get to experience it again with a fresh batch of juniors who are ready to drink up his words after a fall semester of dry nonfiction and research.
I have felt discouragement in teaching this year, for all the same reasons that all of the teachers I know get discouraged sometimes: the money—and politically—driven system is failing a good portion of my students, and I am not in a position to fix it; in some classes, the students themselves have not been a good fit for each other, and the discord is often palpable; I have felt bogged down by current educational practices du jour—data, evidence, common formative assessments, PLTs, project-based learning, etc., etc. When planning lessons, I feel pulled in too many directions, having to make room for so many things—it’s easy to get lost in the trees and lose sight of the forest.
Looking back on my first years of teaching, I had far fewer tools in my toolbox. I knew what essential questions were and that I should do group work sometimes. I didn’t have a Smartboard, laptop carts were a brand new luxury, and grades were still averaged by hand. But, I made some of the best connections with my students then because I was passionate about the importance of what I was teaching and about them.
I’ve been trying to channel this sentiment the last few weeks, thinking about what is REALLY important about this book to the girl whose house just burned down, to the girls who are just starting to learn English. Spending time in the classroom just to all talk with each other. Not sacrificing independent reading for the next common formative assessment. Not justifying everything we do with a rubric. Sometimes just enjoying a good book.
I’ve been doing this long enough to know some truths: that the public school system is both broken and immeasurably important to society; that educational theory works like a pendulum, and if you wait long enough, it will swing back; that schools will change, administrators will change, curriculum and standards will change, but it will always be me, some good books, and some great students to share them with.