From the Classroom

Writers owe a debt to teachers, particularly those who teach reading and writing. Their efforts mold the minds of readers and writers of tomorrow. With any luck, the students of today will be those who purchase or write books in the future. 

“From the Classroom” is a column written by real teachers, written for the rest of us.

I’m A Teacher

By Tracy Spruce

Whenever I’m asked what I do for a living I always simply reply, “I’m a teacher.”

Historically, this has proven an insufficient answer because there’s always the follow-up, “Oh really? What do you teach?” Then, my inner smartass responds, because I know that the inquirer wants to know which subject, hence the “what.” My annoying habit is to say, “I teach 10th graders.”  Before the third question comes I always toss in, for the sake of my fellow human, “I teach reading and writing. I teach 10th graders more about reading and writing.”

I’ve been in public school classrooms for 18 years now. This school year is my first in a high school, having taught my first 17 in middle school, mostly 8th grade. And it has always been true for me that I must remember from day-to-day, school year to school year, that I teach young adult readers and writers first, and English second. And, everything we do in my classroom is done to help the student be a more powerful reader and writer. But let me tell you, it’s a can of beans, and the richest, most beautiful, real, gut-wrenching work I can do.

When I first started teaching in 1997, I was fueled with knowledge fresh from my Bachelor of Arts in English degree. I tried to teach Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour to 6th graders. I was hell-bent on marching them through literary movements and tried to show the connection between art, architecture, and literature by using photocopies of a Manet painting and a gothic chapel and for a “hands on” activity kids cut up the copies and created a new mosaic of an image. It was my attempt to teach some sort of lesson on deconstruction or postmodernism. The kids had fun with the scissors and glue, but jeez, what was I doing?

Parrot in the OvenI’m a fortunate creature in that it didn’t take me long, the end of my first year in that middle school, to come to the realization that I really didn’t know what I was doing. And it was a student that showed me the way. I recommended a book to a student after talking with him a bit, Geraldo, an incredibly smart and thoughtful young man who was also in constant trouble (there was as stink bomb debacle and something about marijuana). He left with the book, Parrot in the Oven by Victor Martinez, stuck in his back pocket. The book was a newly published young adult novel about a young Latino man trying to make it in his neighborhood and make the right decisions for himself and his family. It seemed like a novel that Geraldo might connect with and find himself “into.”

Within the next days Geraldo was placed in in-school suspension, for some offense I can’t remember, but I do recall sending an assignment for him while he was on lockdown to write about the book in some way. Who knows what I assigned to him really, but what I got back floored me. He didn’t write about the book. He wrote about himself. He wrote a micro-memoir about getting caught for petty crimes in his neighborhood and at school, and how he wanted to turn his life around.

As I read Geraldo’s notebook entry I noticed something about his writing. He used this beautiful repetition and ended the piece with this fairly long, stringy, and lovely sentence. I grabbed my copy of Parrot in the Oven and realized that what Geraldo was doing was using Parrot in the Oven as his mentor. He wasn’t copying or plagiarizing, he was inspired and learning craft moves from a text he was engaged in reading. He was learning to write about his own life by reading the work of a writer whom he loved. His sentences mimicked the flow and intensity of Victor Martinez’s writing.  And he was given the time and the space to do it at school, albeit in a less than ideal situation.

It was around this same time that my teacher friend and mentor, Kenan Rote, recommended that I read Randy Bomer’s Time for Meaning, a professional text about the teaching of literacy in the secondary classroom. This experience with Geraldo, my inability to stop reading, highlighting, underlining, and scrawling, “Yes!” in the margin of Randy’s book, and countless conversations with smart, inquisitive, teachers cemented what has become my non-negotiable, or standard, as a reading and writing teacher: choice. Students must have choice in their literacy lives and education and a good teacher doesn’t bring the content of the curriculum, the students do.

Time For Meaning, Randy BomerOver the last 18 years in the classroom, from 6th grader Geraldo to my current 10th graders, I realize that my bottom-lines have never changed. In fact, I’ve become fiercely protective of them as I’ve navigated curriculum changes from the state, hung out in debates over national standards and the common core, and survived initiative after initiative and program after program as tides change and big business education moves in and out of a school. I’ve taught in 5 schools in two districts: the largest district in the state of Texas and one of the smaller ones. I’ve participated in countless hours of professional development and I still stand firm and strong on these few principles:

  1. Students need and deserve choice in their reading and writing education;
  2. I can’t teach young people anything about reading and writing if they’re not engaged in the act and practice of reading and writing; and
  3. Writers become better writers by studying and reading the works of those that inspire them. 

I am spinning wheels made of worksheets that crumple and go nowhere if I forget these ideals.

And I have found that these basic principles will swallow up any new-fangled hot trend, or recently purchased program in education. My students and I can navigate our way through whatever is considered the new “best practice” if we keep practicing at our best. I’ve worked with some of the most gifted, fierce, intelligent, dedicated, and yes, tired and frustrated teachers and mentors over the years who have helped me forge my beliefs. And the students. I’ve learned more from them than any course, book, professional training, or workshop. I’ve worked alongside young people who have the most privileged lives, two professional parents at home encouraging them and providing them with the best of life, and ones who are facing the most dire and tragic of situations including gang violence, incarceration of a parent (or themselves), death of a sibling, teen pregnancy and any other myriad of social issues. Every one of these young adults brings their life with them into the classroom and I feel like the best part of my work is teaching them to use it when they stand at a bookshelf searching for the their next, just-right book. Or when they open their notebook and start an entry, “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about…”

Am I teaching my state’s curriculum? What are my students’ test scores going to be like in this high-stakes testing culture if they aren’t being marched through a prescribed curriculum? Is my class “rigorous” enough if young adults are getting to make decisions about what they read instead of everyone being forced to read the same text, in the same way, at the same pace, and glean the same ideas from it? If we’re all writing, say poetry, or speeches perhaps, is it possible for us to study one or two common texts together for a short time to ask ourselves, “What are the qualities and features of this genre and how do writers craft it in powerful ways?” and then send young writers off in search of texts in the genre that they can relate to and think to themselves, “I want to write like that!”

My litmus test for anything we do in the classroom is the idea that we do the work of real readers and real writers. In fact, we read a class agreement every day at the beginning of class – an agreement that I co-authored with a group of students at Jane Long Middle School in Houston.

The agreement remains an ideal and “pie in the sky” document for my students and me and has for almost a decade now. It begins, “We have a balance of freedom and responsibility, independence and community, choice and challenge. We are up to big work and we are proud,” and ends with the statement, “We imagine what is possible for ourselves and our community and we act in order to live into those possibilities. We think big and we live big.” The crux of the agreement is that we do the work of real readers and real writers. And so any strategy I teach, any activity we do, any project or type of writing we craft has to pass that test.

  • Is it something I would do as a reader or writer?
  • Is it something readers and writers in the community and world actually do? If not, it probably doesn’t belong in the classroom. And if it is, I should teach it explicitly and teach it well.

So I ask myself about my own literacy life and I study others’. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a novel, one that charged my heart with words and fire, one that wrecked my soul and thinking, one that left me sick to my stomach with loss and grief and then thought to myself, “Hey, I really feel like writing a summary of this book to prove to everyone that I read it.” Or, “I really need a shoebox so that I can now create a diorama of a scene from this book.” What are the authentic acts that a reader performs after reading a book that’s impacted them? The acts are as varied as the books on a shelf or the readers in a bookstore:

  • Readers are dying to talk about the book they just finished with someone else who has read it.
  • Readers set up little scenes before, during, and after reading—with their book, their beverage of choice, or set the book on their legs and take pictures and post them on Instagram or Facebook, and start a thread of conversation inviting others into their reading lives or to recommend the book to their fellow readers.
  • They log onto Goodreads or Amazon and rate the book with stars and write a review.
  • They write about it in a reading journal – exploring all of their feelings and thoughts about it, not really worried about whether what they’re writing is “right” or following the format of a 5-paragraph essay or “book report.”
  • They immediately go out in search of other books by the author or maybe even get a little stalker-like and start a surveillance of the author’s website, social media page, look for pictures of them, friend them on Facebook or write to them about how the book changed their life.
  • They collect their favorite quotes from the book and try writing sentences like the writer – imitating the style and diction. Or they make memes of the quotes and post them to their Tumblr or Pinterest pages.
  • And sometimes, they sit with a finished book in their heart and head for days or weeks even, unable to start the next book because they’re not ready to leave behind the characters and scenes quite yet.

Speech-colorAnd what about writing? What do real writers do in their lives that makes them powerful, effective masters of craft? How do poets, novelists, journalists, speechwriters, memoirists, essayists work? Do they keep a writer’s notebook and if so what kinds of entries do they collect in order to eventually turn their thinking into a piece of published writing? How do these writers know how to write in a particular genre?

I think, just like my student Geraldo, it starts with a genuine desire to study the thing, whatever the thing is and adding the thought, “I want to write like that.” Then using the text as a mentor to ask more questions, like, “Hey writer, how did you do that?” And not being able to have the writer answer back, studying the text for it’s organization, it’s beauty or pain, it’s sentence structure and diction, and continuing to ask questions like, “I wonder why the writer decided to make it like that?” Maybe a teacher could come up with a similar list for the work of real writers:

  • Writers make time for their writing. They sit every day with pen and paper or open their laptop and they just write and think and observe and wonder.
  • Writers use their lives, their anger and upset, their joy and ecstasy, memories and current situations as the fuel for their words.
  • Many writers keep notebooks and they collect artifacts and “stuff” from their lives, clippings and snippets, photos and drawings.
  • Writers make lists, they rant and rave, they collect favorite quotes and words, they write messy, they make plans and outlines, they rewrite and revise.
  • And sometimes, writers sit and stare and think and don’t get a word on the page because they are lost in thought or stuck or exhausted.

I have learned that I can absolutely allow all of these acts into the classroom and even explicitly teach these practices as lessons in a unit of study. I can filter state mandated curriculum through a lens of authenticity and choice and keep engagement high. And I can celebrate the moments in my classroom that might otherwise seem like failures or challenges, such as the two young ladies who almost came to blows over a book because one walked into the classroom and announced the ending to the book that the other was reading.

I can respond to the young man who tells me early in the school year, “I hate reading and I’m not gonna do it,” by apologizing for the fact that books and reading have let him down and asking him to try and remember that last book that wasn’t like that for him. I like the times when I’m worried about a student over the weekend because on Friday she told me she has a crush on one of the male characters in her book and I know that he’s going to die before the end of the story. I like when kids are mad when I don’t have the next book in the series they’re reading. Or when, like the other day, one of my sophomores was working on his speech persuading black men that have good jobs to give back to their community by mentoring young boys, he throws down his pen and says, “Why am I doing this it’s not going to make a difference!” And listening as another student talks to him about how it’s important that he write it and that he’s going to get to send his speech to people who might really listen to his ideas. And, my pregnant student who writes me a letter letting me know that she still hasn’t told her grandfather, that she misses her mother, and signs it “#I’mallalone.”

My students’ stories and their lives as readers and writers matter. Their struggles and celebrations are significant, and the making for great literature. This school year has been one of the toughest for me. Mostly because I’ve moved to a high school and two of the classes I’m teaching are filled with students who have experienced reading and writing as doors slammed in their faces. They equate reading and writing with standardized tests that they’ve historically struggled with and failed. And, they are two years older than most of the students I’ve worked with in the past, and they are developmentally angry with me just because I’m a teacher.

 It’s taken a lot longer to gain trust this year. It’s February, and I’m still having conversations where I’m saying, “Yes, you should write about that! Your position about half school day/half work day for students who have jobs would make a great topic for a speech,” and having them look at me with squinted eyes and pursed lips, finally sighing and saying, “Whatever.” 

But last week Erick and Alejandro did draft a speech together, using Henry Rollin’s “Letter to a Young American” as their mentor text, and using persuasive techniques to help craft an argument to the school district that once students reach the working age of 16 they should be allowed to opt-out of electives in order to work and help provide for their families. They’ve sold me! But now they have to revise their draft, polish it up and get it ready to be performed. All of which is covered in the State of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills – but Alejandro and Erick don’t care about that. 

Tracy SpruceTracy Spruce is an 18-year veteran English teacher, wife, and mother of three living in Austin. She was a middle school teacher and staff developer for the Houston Independent School District for 13 years and is currently teaching 10th grade at Del Valle High School in the Del Valle Independent School District, in Austin, Texas. She is a poet and expert thrifter, constantly searching for discarded treasures. Photos and her poetry can be found on Instagram at tracytrix_atx.