What’s the Point?

Julia Henny teaches two distinctly different student populations at Martha Graham High School, where TPR is being used in classroom observation.

English teacher Julia Henny invites students to challenge opinions and conventions.

I’m not one of those teachers who never reveals opinions or personal information. Not that I want my personal life to be the subject of an English lesson, I just want my students to know my true self, not just the “teacher self” that some of our faculty exhibit to the kids. I talk about my children, my hiking club, my many summer jobs, and mostly about my love of literature. Ask any one of my students and they’d tell you: I love poetry, would study it constantly if I could, and I purely dislike science fiction, even though I’ll admit it’s thought-provoking. But leave it to my students to call me out the moment I do something inconsistent with my beliefs. Just when I think they’re too involved in the social drama of high school to remember anything I’ve ever said, they slice me open with the sharpness of their collective recall.

Julia is honest with her students.

Here’s my most recent example. I should have seen it coming. I was introducing a concept-based unit on Dystopia by reading a selection from the futuristic novel Feed. Not long after I uttered the word Mars did some of them start gasping dramatically—WHAT? No way! Is that sci-fi I hear?

View a summary of Feed by M.T. Anderson.

View student projects on Feed.

Not all teachers admire my approach, but it’s worked for me for almost ten years. My students know they can be straight with me. I actually encourage banter in my classroom. To me, challenging one another and dismembering our conventional ideas about life are what make us great thinkers (as long as we all respect each other—and believe me, I’m a broken record when it comes to the topic of respect). We practice this constantly in Honors English through Socratic Seminars, which I started a few years ago. It’s amazing to see how healthy debate helps these kids build rapport. My hope is that arguing about big ideas, concepts, and systems will make my students comfortable in my class and inspire them to participate in discussion. If they remember nothing they studied in high school English, I want them to remember that I cared about their ideas and about them as people.

Julia reflects on her poetry lesson and observation.

It’s a typical rainy Wednesday in April, and I’m starting to feel the strain of teaching socially-distracted sophomores. Now I remember why I scheduled poetry explication for this time of year. The unbroken time between spring break and the end of the year can feel endless, and digging into a poem gets my creative juices flowing and stimulates my students’ minds. Even my Honors students, who sometimes think they know it all, stalled out a bit on today’s poem. It might sound funny, but I’m glad they struggled with the meaning of the text because Candace Greene, my mentee, observed my classes today.

She’s been in my classroom a lot, but today I thought she could put her TPR training to good use. After all, I’ve used TPR to observe her four times already this year. Plus, I don’t find it as intimidating to have a young teacher watching my every move as I do when Mr. Anderson or another administrator shows up at my door.

Read the mentoring program guidelines for Candace and Julia’s use.

Learn about TPR.

It happens a lot with these guys. At first glance, they think only about comprehension, and decide it’s going to be a cinch because the poem’s so short and all the words are familiar. After some investigation, though, they begin to unearth not only the meaning of the words themselves but the way each word is intended to be read. That’s what I want my students to learn from poetry: the importance of form, of rules, of language—and then the power of breaking those rules to make a statement.

View one group’s explication notes.

We’ve just wrapped up PSSA tests, so I intentionally saved poetry explication for late in the school year. These kids know their literary terms in and out and have written persuasive essays until their hands were numb. Critical thinking is a way for them to apply the content knowledge they’ve already mastered. And today my students came through. It took a while, but by the time they presented their analyses of “The Whipping,” they were really challenging each other. Boy, was I proud.

Review the Grade 11 Academic Standards for Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking.

Read about the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA).

I could have invited Candace to observe more direct instruction, but I wanted her to see this lesson because they’re at such a pivotal point in the unit. That is, we finished a model explication last class, so this was their first attempt at independent practice.

View Julia’s Honors English calendar.

Julia’s remedial students challenge her during Candace’s visit.

After my Honors class, I’ve got to haul my teaching junk to another wing of the building and into a classroom that is always at least 90 degrees—not a great environment for trying to stay alert. Candace followed and observed my LANGUAGE! class today for the first time. I think it’s good for her to know what the future may hold—it’s likely she will be teaching this program at some point. Most first-years end up teaching a hodge-podge of standard-level English classes, but the administration is really pushing to integrate research-based curricula for struggling readers and I think all of us will end up teaching a remedial class. This is our first year using LANGUAGE! and I’ll admit it takes a lot out of me to make the transition from Honors to a class with rote, scripted instruction.

Read about the LANGUAGE! curriculum Julia’s school is required to use.

See student data for Julia’s LANGUAGE! class.

Victor uses humor to get attention in Julia’s class.

Even though morale is low with this group, my constant hope is that they’ll buy into the program if I keep challenging them and pushing their buttons. I know this curriculum is research-based, but I can’t help but doubt it. I wind up trying to fit in time for read-aloud texts and journal prompts, because that’s the one area where I have some flexibility. I can see when I read their journals sometimes that they’re soaking up more than they let on. Take Victor, for example. I’m onto him. He may act like he’s out to lunch, but I know he’s not. Our class identity hinges on his personality, and he was on for Candace today.

View student responses to the journal prompt.

The challenge with these students isn’t instructional—the lesson planning is already done. What I’m struggling with is getting them to break out of their shells. It has been difficult. Unlike most English classes, this class meets every day, which is hard for some kids. Also, many of these guys have learned through years of experience how to feign comprehension enough for teachers to get off their backs. Others have given up completely. We started the year with ten students, and now half of them—due to suspension, absenteeism, or districting issues—are gone. Needless to say, it takes all the energy I have to stay positive in this class.

Candace reflects on her observation of Julia’s contrasting classes.

I first heard about Martha Graham High at a recruitment fair at my university. What attracted me to this particular school was the HR rep who interviewed me. He really emphasized the district’s focus on diversity, and he even brought a video of the school’s step team. It didn’t look too bad. I had never lived in the suburbs before, but it seemed like it would be a nice place to start out teaching. The pay is better and it’s much cheaper than living in the city.

Candace feels isolated as a minority teacher.

When I got my school assignment, I went straight to the web to look it up. O-kay, I said to myself as I read from the district website, one of the oldest high schools in the district, high retention ratementoring program. It sounded nice enough, but the demographics weren’t quite what I was expecting after the recruitment fair.

Review demographic information about Martha Graham High School.

I’d hoped it wouldn’t bother me, but the lack of diversity does make a difference—I’m the only African-American teacher in my department. I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb among the faculty. Just last week, another teacher tried to set me up with the new P.E. teacher—the only black man (aside from the custodian) in the building. He’s not even my type, not that she would know that.

It’s hard because I’m used to being in a community of like-minded people. I grew up in a mostly African-American neighborhood. I went to a historically black university. I’m especially drawn to the kids who look like they were transplanted straight from my neighborhood, like Victor, Shameka, and Alicia. But since I observed their class, I’ve found myself fixating on the lack of cultural awareness at this school.

It’s not that I don’t respect Julia. She’s knows so much about being an English teacher, things I’m still learning—diacritical marks, transitive and factitive verbs—but I really feel for the kids in LANGUAGE! after seeing Julia’s obvious enthusiasm for teaching Honors English. I know that I was assigned an experienced mentor so that I could learn more about instruction, but I think it’s important to learn about who we’re teaching, too. To me, that LANGUAGE! class looks like a dumping ground for failing black kids. They’re going over the same material they’ve seen year after year and still not making much academic progress. What’s the point of being taught analogies when you can’t even write a sentence independently? How are kids ever supposed to learn the hard stuff if they can’t connect the material to their own lives?

After a day like today, all I really want to do is sleep. But I promised to go to a choir rehearsal with Wanda. She’s been teaching at MGHS for 20 years and has been like an aunt to me since I got here. Wanda invited me to her church in October. “Just in time,” she’d said, “to start rehearsing for our annual Christmas Cantata.” I went. But I got out of the habit this last semester.

Singing is a good release for me. I think I’ll keep my promise.

Candace shares her frustrations about school with Wanda.

The choir room was bustling. Children were playing in the corner while the adults sat in small groups, warming up their voices over the squeak of brown folding chairs. All this and something about the way the church smelled made me feel calm.

“Girl, I’m so glad you came,” Wanda said as I walked through the doors. “I saved you a seat,” she continued and moved her oversized purse to the floor.

“I may not be much good,” I apologized, simultaneously reaching into my purse to silence my cell, “I didn’t get a chance to look at the music you gave me.”

“Trust me, you’ll get plenty of chances to get it right. Our music minister doesn’t play around!” she chuckled. I tried to laugh as if I understood exactly what she was saying, but I must not have done a terribly good job, because the smile faded from her face and she said, “Everything OK?”

I hesitated. I didn’t want to seem gossipy or mean, but her eyes were so kind that I found myself spilling all my feelings about my first few months at Martha Graham High. When I stumbled to a halt, she heaved a sigh, then nodded.

“Honey, I felt the same way at first. The other women at school invited me to a few Tupperware parties and whatnot, but just it didn’t feel like home. I was lonely. I was right out of college when I started here; just finding an apartment on my own that I could afford was a challenge, not to mention other people my age I could hang with and talk to. And on top of that, I wanted so badly to change things. I wanted my classroom to be a well-oiled machine where all children treated each other and me with respect and understanding… We all do in the beginning, I guess.”

“Well, I’m definitely there, but I-I just don’t know what to do about Julia. I thought she was such a great teacher—she is a great teacher. But I wish she could see herself through my eyes when she’s with her African-American students. She acts like a completely different person with them.”

Wanda narrowed her eyes as if she were thinking hard. “You know, Mr. Anderson, the associate principal, he really listens to teachers when they have concerns,” she said as the organ started up. Immediately, my stomach lurched at the thought. I didn’t even know what I would say, and I sure didn’t want to make the situation worse. I mean, yeah—I feel really weird about how she’s relating to those kids, but I don’t know if I can actually articulate the things she did or didn’t do to make me feel that way. I’m certainly not going to include any of my feelings in the TPR feedback.

Julia sees the results of her TPR observation.

Spring is such a busy time at school, so it isn’t often that I can use my whole planning period for lesson plans and reflection. I’m the drama coach, so between classes, I’m usually scoping out new scripts, writing letters to community businesses for sponsorship, calling parent volunteers, and the like. I’m happy to spend time meeting with Candace, though. She has that new-teacher glow that reminds me why I started out in education—and that’s enough to pass the time.

Candace emailed me later in the week to follow up on her observation. She attached the record of my lessons as well. When I pulled up the results of her observations, I was shocked to see the graphs of my classes side-by-side.

See Candace’s email to Julia below:

Review Julia’s Honors English (class of 24) TPR observation summary.

Review Julia’s LANGUAGE! (class of 4) TPR observation summary.

Looking at this data, there sure are inconsistencies in the way I teach. At the same time, I’m befuddled as to how I should continue from here. I never would have thought that I asked more probing questions in LANGUAGE! than I do in Honors. But should I? The two classes are completely different, and that’s why the curriculum is different, right? I’d feel plain silly trying to incorporate all these behaviors into every class. That can’t be the point of it all, can it?

Mitsuko Clemmons-Nazeer: A Critical Perspective on Teacher Recruitment

See Critical Perspective on Teacher Recruitment.