Interrupt the Process

The last two weeks of school have been unusual and hectic. First was homecoming week, in which the days are themed and the students are in costume and there’s a powder puff football game and skit practice, float building, door decorating, and a parade. That week was followed by a Monday holiday and then testing – PSAT and Practice ACT for two days with community service thrown in the mix. Even though class must go on, a realist knows that not much gets done after hours, and students’ attention is not at its best in class.

You can only imagine my students’ frustration when in the middle of that chaotic two weeks, I assigned a timed rhetorical analysis essay in class. Some were resolute and resigned; others were complaining; but none was optimistic. Still, I pushed on, handing out the passage to be analyzed and the ‘practice AP’ paper upon which I make them write.

The room went quiet and then they dug in. Fifteen minutes went by as they read and annotated the passage. Another five passed as they began to formulate ideas and outline how they might tackle their essays. Then suddenly with no warning, I stopped them and assigned them a partner or group with which to meet.

This technique, compliments of my APSI instructor, Valerie Stevenson, is called Interrupt the Process.   Here is what it looked like:

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IMG_1467The relief on their faces was obvious, even though they didn’t know where I was going or what the outcome of this assignment would be. They didn’t yet know I wouldn’t take them up for a grade when class was over. All they knew was that in this moment, they got to collaborate with a friend, get another’s perspective, share the burden and the stress of this difficult writing assignment, and not have to face it alone.

This look on their faces was priceless to me, and then even more valuable were the conversations I began hearing once they pulled their desks together and began talking and exchanging ideas. That’s when I grabbed my phone and snapped the pictures. I wasn’t even sure why at the time I was doing it, though I figured I’d feature them on my blog somewhere.

Later that afternoon, as the blog post began to write itself in my mind, I realized the importance of “Interrupt the Process” as a metaphor in my own life. Where would I be without community? When life gets crazy or difficult, I need a friend to ‘interrupt the process’; to speak up and give me a new perspective, or reach out and tell my that the idea I’ve come up with is actually not bad! Both intervention and validation come from the mouth of another. When I’m stuck in something difficult, I need to turn my chair and my face toward a friend and get help.

The value of the technique in my writing class is to give the students practice in timed essay writing, insuring they take the practice seriously, yet not turn every writing assignment into an assessment. It also enables them to learn analysis techniques from their friends and helps them see in new ways and gain multiple perspectives.

I had surgery a few years back and remarked to a friend a day or two after that I was trying not to take the pain medicine that the doctor had prescribed for 10 days post-op. “Why not?” she asked. “They aren’t going to give you badge for not taking it.”   (She has her doctorate in education!) “Doctors prescribe medicine for a specific length of time after surgery because people generally need it for that length of time,” she said.   Why was I treating recovery from surgery like some test on which I would be scored according to my teeth-gritting endurance?

Most days don’t end with a gold star by your name. Most of them are ‘just practicing’. Most of life is not for a grade. By design, it is intended and necessary to “interrupt the process” and get all the help that we can.

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Accepting What Is Can Set You Free

One of the parts of my job is serving as a mentor to new faculty hires in the upper school. For eighteen years I have been hanging around this place as a parent, room mother, PTO volunteer, board member and most recently, a teacher. If anyone should know the school culture, I should.; and hopefully, I help our new hires navigate the first year of working in it. As is true in any good teaching relationship, though, the learning goes both ways. My new teachers teach me while I am formally supposed to be leading them.

Last week we sat down at lunch to chat about some of the ups and downs of their first two months on the job. One of the teachers began to talk about how a certain class, who had been difficult to train under her preferred classroom style. She and I had talked earlier in the year about strategies to deal with the group, about some of their history as a class before she came to this school, and why they might be challenging her in ways her other students at another grade level were not.

Somewhere in her reporting that things were going better with this group now, she made the statement, “I think I’ve begun to accept what is.” As soon as she said it, I had the ‘lightbulb in my head” experience. Accepting what is in front of you as a teacher is the most liberating and creative-unleashing experience, even if there is initial grief in that acceptance. We all want students who are trained to attentiveness and show up prepared for our classes every day. We all want students who learned and sufficiently practiced all skills from the previous year so that they are ready for the curriculum we are prepared to lead them through. But…they are real people, and so was the teacher that had last year, and real people have problems and bad habits, and sometimes just life happening to them. And what shows up in our classroom is not always what we wish it to be.

“Accepting what is” is one of those phrases that sounds like compromise but has freedom on the other side of it. As soon as the teacher said it, I responded that this realization would carry over into her parenting, marriage, and most any other relationship in life.

We had one child for whom “time out” was not effective at all. Why? Because he is a natural introvert who loved nothing better than being alone in his room studying what made his ceiling fan turn or the light switches come on. If that got boring, he proceeded to take the back off his toilet and study the inner workings of the float valve. The other child rarely needed more than the threat of a few minutes of solitude. Gregarious and fun-loving, she would self-correct almost immediately rather than be banished from the group.

I had to rethink technique constantly in parenting as my two children, a boy and a girl, an introvert and an extrovert, were two completely different creatures. Moving from frustration to the truth -accepting what is in front of you – can set you free.

Am I saying give up or give in? Absolutely not. I’m still goal-oriented in my classroom. I train toward what I want. I keep the standards high. But I surrender the ideal – which is the theories they taught us in education courses – for the real, those flawed human beings who show up in front of me every day. They do the same for me, I hope; and then the creativity begins.

Honor the Edge

Different teacher. Different class. Same word. 

Last week I wrote  about honoring the transitions, inspired by a phrase I heard in a yoga class that week.  This week, in a different studio with another teacher, I heard a  similar phrase: Honor the Edge.  The teacher went on to say that the whole class was going to be about edges.  Turns out my whole week was going to be about them.

To honor the edge in yoga is to stretch to the point of discomfort, but not to the point of actual pain, a ‘good hurt’ as the teacher described it.  You want to go to the edge, to the place where the muscle is stretching and working and pushing the boundaries of what it normally does for you.  You stay there, breathing into that place, trying to create more space and elasticity.

I couldn’t help but think of this phrase when I read Donna Lamberti’s blog  about remaining silent and letting her students stumble and be frustrated because they’d refused to follow directions on a project.  She disciplined herself not to step in and rescue them, going for the larger life lessons and seizing the opportunity to help them grow.

I watched  “honoring the edge” play out again at my school with a student who struggled on an initial assignment in a rigorous course.   Because of a scheduling problem this student is taking a class normally reserved for students an entire year older, thus she finds herself sitting among students with an extra full year of knowledge, practice and experience in that subject. She has heretofore been a straight A student, but the rigor of this class is challenging her and she is not having the instant success that she, her parents, and her previous teachers are accustomed to seeing, rather she’s playing ‘catch up’ to her peers for a few weeks or months.   This challenge actually should be expected and is a good thing…if you can stand the stretch at the edge.

To push to a point of discomfort, not to pain or shame, just to a bit of frustration of confusion is usually where the learning takes place.  Problem is, as parents and teachers, we sometimes have a hard time letting our children or our students stay in their discomfort. For that matter, we probably don’t allow ourselves to stay in it either.

My own child, a college junior studying abroad this semester, decided to buy herself a train ticket, make a hostel reservation, and travel alone to a coastal town in her host country for a weekend adventure.  I was quite proud of her as I would have never done this at her age, but at the same also worried about her traveling alone in a foreign country, staying in a hostel with strangers, and navigating her way around a town where she knew no one.  When she arrived there the first day, she sent me a few texts indicating things were not quite as she expected to find them.  I immediately sent back that if she felt unsafe or the hostel was unclean that she should get on the train and go right back to her flat in the city.  She said it was neither unsafe or unsanitary, “just weird”, which told me she was experiencing the discomfort and stretch of traveling alone in a strange place, going to a restaurant by herself, figuring out what to do and settling in to the idea of sharing it only with her journal and her camera.  Still, she didn’t sound like her usual confident happy self and my mother’s heart wanted to tell her to go back to the comfort of the city she has become accustomed to, even though she was clearly in no danger.  My next move was to go online and start researching the destination.  I had the idea that I could could send her links of where to go, what to do.  I’d stay in constant communication with her so she wouldn’t feel lonely.  I was going to try to have the experience with her if she stayed.

Then I caught myself.  This was a “growth mindset” moment for her and I was trying to prevent it.  I need to be available only if she asks my advice, but she needs to figure out whether to stay or go, to stick it out or hop the first train back to familiarity.   The confidence or the regret needs to be hers.  Turns out, she stayed, pushed through the first day and night of uncharted territory,  went to museums, galleries, and dinner alone and the second night sent me a text saying she was 180 degrees from where she was the previous day. Text messages couldn’t mask her confident tone.  She honored the edge, breathed into the stretch, and grew stronger for it.

Last year our faculty read Carol Dweck’s Mindset as a summer read. It made me want a ‘do over’ for many days of both parenting and teaching that are already behind me, but it also inspired me to stay in the moments of discomfort, lean into resistance, breath into the stretch, and see what it can teach me – and to do that for my own children and my students.    Like on my yoga mat, the stretching and staying at the edges in life create the strength and flexibility I need to face the next challenge.

“Don’t Let Me Hurt Them”

It’s not as bad as it sounds.  I’m not completely end-of-May-exasperated on the first full day of school.  Though I readily admit to this very thought shouting in my consciousness at year’s end, it also floats into my mind at the school year’s beginning.  In August, it has a completely different context.  It’s one of my breath prayers – those one-liners you say on the run or in desperate moments.

Help me. 

Here I am. 

Show me what to do.

I’m listening. 

Add to that list:  Don’t let me hurt them.  I know the power of the tongue.  I’m a wordsmith, a writer and an English teacher.  Every job I’ve ever had paid me to use words and I know their power.  That’s their attraction for me, the mysterious, surprising capacity of the endless combinations and context in which they dwell.   They can bless and curse;  expand life or diminish it.  They wound and they heal;  they love and hate. They encourage or they demoralize. They empower and enthuse; they also reject and refuse.

When you love and own and practice words the way I do, there is tremendous potential for good or evil. In the course of the day with my students, I can instruct and encourage, comfort and cast vision, or I can confuse, unnerve, embarrass or demoralize.   Just writing those last four words frightens me.  The rate at which I run my mouth, often before my brain is engaged (as my father used to say) is dangerous.   Teenagers can be snarky and sarcastic and funny.  They complain and speak about things of which they are ill-informed. The tendency sometimes is to want to get in there with them.

But I can’t.   There is not a balance of power.  I’m the adult. They are “not quite yet”.  I’m the teacher, the giver of the grade; they are students who have to do what I assign.  The temptation to become one of them in conversation or to get a laugh at another’s expense is one I must not give in to.  The opportunity to teach them the high road in civil discourse and in personal relationships is mine. So is the chance to comfort the hidden hurting ones who walk through my door every day, whether they tell me those hurts or not.  My minister often says, “There’s pain in every pew.”  So it is in my classroom – in every desk.  I pray I am never the instrument which inflicts more.

I know the power of words, get drunk on it at times,  have run away with those words without thinking of the consequences. I’ve lost count of the times in my life I’ve had to ask forgiveness for using them carelessly.  So I’ll begin this new school year the same way I do every year, with this simple prayer, “Don’t let me hurt them.” 

Writing Is an Act of Faith

Writing is an act of faith. You don’t know where it is going when you start.

My students have just finished writing researched argument, which is a way of saying “a research paper”, but I was trying not to call it that, to spare them paralyzing fear and help them see the value of the assignment in connection to their AP Language and Composition exam where they will write rhetorical analysis, argument and synthesis essays.

I gave them the assignment, carefully explaining the steps to the research process and writing about it, and then they began by reading a non-fiction book that makes an argument, researching that topic to see what other writers discovered, analyzing and synthesizing that information, forming their own thesis, then writing about it.

Funny thing happened at step two. Many of them had chosen books about controversial subjects that interested them, thinking at the outset they agreed with the author. By the end of the reading, they were fully convinced. Then they started reading other research and frustration set in: I thought I agreed with Malcom Gladwell but now I don’t know.
I’m confused because I thought Deborah Tannen was right but this writer totally disagrees with her. I’ve completely changed my mind; can I change my thesis? These were the comments I was hearing one morning in class and I began to smile, even laugh. I cheered! That frustrated them even more.

What I knew and they didn’t (yet) know was that the process was doing its work. This is the point! I told them. You don’t really know what you think until you begin to write. As the students researched and learned, they began to change their minds, or sharpen an existing opinion, they experienced the thinking and writing process just as I want them to – as an open-ended act of faith. You begin without knowing the end. You start with a question and maybe you find an answer, or maybe you have to write new questions .

Writing is thinking and discovery. You have to stay open. One must follow the question, even if the answer means you change your mind.

Write your way out of a hole. I’ve said this over and over as my students struggle with a prompt or timed essay question. Just start. Write something. Turn the flow on. You may discard the first paragraph or first page, but just start the pen moving. Believe writing will come if you just start.

I’ve preached this for years and yet I don’t always practice it myself. At times I am faithless. I don’t write. I think I have nothing to say or believe that I don’t know what I think. Yet, like faith, the process has never failed me, when I trusted it. When I began – to write something- there is always something to say, even if it’s a list of questions. Even those tell me what I am thinking, wondering, and wanting to know.

One word, phrase, sentence or question at a time, I build a ladder of language to get myself out of the hole. I do know what I think- if only I practice faith and begin to write.

What is their water?

I wrote my way in the last blog post to this sentence, “I will be writing somewhere…because for me, this is water,” referencing David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech which my students were studying for its rhetorical effects. Wallace begins the speech with a story of two young fish swimming along. They are met by an older fish swimming the other way who says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The younger fish swim on a ways and finally ones looks at the other and asks, “What is water?”

I recently had a former student contact me to ask what I was writing lately. His email became the catalyst for me to write the first entry this year. He actually reads my blog, apparently, and had missed it. I’d written plenty, filled a Moleskin journal since April, but nothing was out there for public consumption. It occurred to me, when answering his question about my writing, that though I’d written thousands of words, that wasn’t obvious to my students.

I had been taught in my college days to always write with my students. I believe in that. The best writing teachers are those who write themselves. But actually writing WITH my students, in class, at the same time…it’s harder than you think. They have questions for me; I have papers to grade and lessons to plan. Something always seems more urgent than writing while they write. 

But maybe that isn’t the essential part. Maybe knowing I write and seeing my writing is what matters. Knowing that I, too, have to wrestle against the blank page, have to re-order, cut and paste, and hit the delete key often is what is important to them. I suspect they need to know that I don’t know all the answers and I struggle with ordering my world too and writing is a means to do that. It’s probably good for them to know that ‘first drafts’ in my Moleskin journal are never what the public sees. And while I’m confessing, they should probably know that much of what I write there isn’t good writing or interesting reading.

Writing is essential to me, a ritual as necessary to living as water to swimming. I’m thinking on paper. I often quote Flannery O’Connor, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.”

I have to process things in language, either spoken or written. The writing saves my husband, children, parents and friends from having to listen to more than their share. It probably saves on prescription medication and therapy too. It’s a means of discovery, problem-solving, and remembering. It’s an act of worship.

The student who sent the email – I suspect writing is his water too, though he’s multi-talented with painting, photography, drawing and music. He may have multiple waters. As a college freshmen, he is emailing his high-school English teacher that he misses reading and writing this semester. He’s editing friend’s papers for free to get his fix. That’s a man who loves words and is desperate for them! Thinking of him prompts me to think of other students – what is their water?

I don’t mean passion. First of all, that word is so overused in high school and college now it is rendered meaningless, at least to me. Sometimes I don’t feel passion at all toward writing. I resist it. I wish I didn’t feel compelled to do it. I’d have more time for easier, more fun, more entertaining things. My writing life is not passionate as in “I love it and always want it and want it above all else at all cost”. No, water is not passion.

Water, according to Wallace’s fish anecdote, is the necessary medium for swimming. What is my students’ water and can I help them discover it? What is essential to them? Is it hands-on experience? adventure? nature, sketching? solitude? music? movement? competition? I have no idea how to go about doing that and maybe it’s not even my role, but I have a starting point for answering my question. When my students are stuck on an essay question, I tell them, “Write your way out of a hole”.

Ask and You Shall Receive

Yesterday, I announced to my fifth period class that I would be leaving them in capable hands for part of the period while I left to go sing at the graveside service of a dear friend from my church.  His daughter and son-in-law are close friends of mine and two of his grandchildren are my former students and currently seniors at our school.

I have the luxury of teaching at Trinity Presbyterian School, whose mission is “to glorify God by providing the highest college preparatory education, while training students in the biblical world and life view, thus enabling them to serve God in spirit, mind and body.”  Because of who we are as a school, it is entirely acceptable to say to my class, “I would appreciate your prayers for me as I sing for this family and for them as they grieve the passing of their grandfather.”

It was a very cold day;  and singing is best when the body is warm. I was nervous about not being able to sing well outside and also about being able to keep my emotions in check when I saw the faces of these people that I love and the casket of this fine man who was our first Sunday School teacher when my husband and I moved to Montgomery eighteen years ago. I did not want my poor performance to be a distraction at such a sacred moment for this family.  Frankly, the tension was building in my body and I didn’t know if I could get out four verses of “Amazing Grace” under the circumstances. So, needing all the help I could get, I asked for the prayers of my ninth graders.

“We could get in a circle and pray right now,” one bright-eyed, warm-hearted girl said. It caught me by surprise.  What courage!  We were already conveniently sitting in a circle, and so I said, “Ok, would one of you like to lead?”  I was thinking I’d pray myself, setting an example to them that I ‘walk my talk’. Before I ended the question, the same girl who suggested it piped up, “I’ll do it.”   And so within seconds, I found myself surrounded by a circle of fifteen-year-olds with heads bowed with one voice praying aloud offering gratitude for the gifts of the day, the school, each other, and asking for comfort and peace for the family we all know and love and for strength for me as I sang.

The very act itself, the sound of her voice, the willing spirits of every soul in that circle gave me the gift I needed to walk to my car and drive to the cemetery.  For those who think today’s teenagers are too tied to their social media, too self-centered and spoiled, don’t have the right priorities and incapable of leadership in our culture, think again. Come visit my class. There are some courageous, compassionate, selfless young people who’ll step up when the need presents itself. They have much to offer us old folks if we ask them.

I Almost Read Ahead

“Mrs. Slawson, I read last night. This story is getting good,” this coming from a fifteen- year- old boy who was doing his best NOT to read in my class this year.

“ I read, too,” another reluctant reader piped up.

“ It’s actually pretty interesting,” a third one said.

“ I almost read ahead last night,” I heard from my left.   That good – he almost read ahead.

I’m about to sprout wings and fly around my room. They are reading!  They are reading!  I’m not sure what I have done, but most of them  are reading the novel I assigned them.  I suspect it might be what I have not done.  I’ve not gotten in the way of great literature this time.

I recently read an article (  the source of which I can’t remember or I’d cite it here)  in which the writer questioned why we teachers stop to discuss while we read through the book with a class rather than waiting until we’ve read the complete story.  How would we like someone to stop a film every fifteen minutes to discuss it with us rather than just let us enjoy the story?  I’ve long suspected that some of my students didn’t have to read for themselves because they could rely on me to ‘retell’ the chapter in the discussion.  These two things together prompted me to try a different approach.

For the most part, we are reading To Kill a Mockingbird in full before we begin to analyze it for the symbols, the themes, the plot or setting,  and the tools of characterization.  We will look at those things, but only after we have had the pleasure of being told a great story by Harper Lee.   We are learning some new vocabulary and I am asking students to do some writing as they go to reflect on what they read, but for the most part, we are reading.  I’m giving them class time each day to accomplish hopefully half  of the reading I expect, and the rest should be done for homework.

Some students like to tell me they can’t read in class. I refuse to accept that.  If I can keep the room quiet, (and I can) and let them get comfortable, many of them find that they can leave the cinder block walls of my room and travel in their mind’s eye to Maycomb Co. to roam the streets with Jem, Scout and Dill.  I give them time in class to read for two reasons:  at least I know they are reading some of the book because I watch them do it; and more importantly, I want them to know I mean it when I tell them that nothing is more important to their academic lives than reading.  How can I tell them reading is such a high priority in their lives if I don’t make it one in my classroom? 

I recently asked my students  in each class how many of them read chapters from their textbooks when they are studying a unit in history, science, or math.  Unfortunately, only a few hands in each class went up.  Most of them just study class notes, they told me.  This is disheartening because as a college-preparatory school, our students should leave here being comfortable reading textbooks.  My daughter, a freshman in college, has noticed that her sociology professor might assign 75-100 pages of reading between classes, which only meet twice a week.  No way is he going to cover all that material in two fifty minute lectures per week!  Yet she will be tested on it, hence, the need to read the book.

Granted, I have Harper Lee, Pearl Buck and Ernest Hemingway to help me “sell” the pleasure  and virtue of reading in an English class. Still, reading the book – whether novel or textbook – is essential to college-preparedness. So if you pass by and we are sitting on the floor, under the pool of lamplight, book in hand, leave us alone. We are  reading!