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Correspondence
Derek,

A few thoughts to tack on to that first letter.

You know I’m not cynical, right? These kids live in my head. I dream about them. I know their handwriting—80 of them! I just checked off the weekly free-writing and was amused to note that most of them only put their first name or an initial on their paper and I knew who they were.

So many are failing because they drift in and out of class. They miss days or even weeks, and I don’t know what to do to get them to come every day. I have a core group in each class that always comes to class and those kids aren’t failing.

The school will give them 2 hours of tutoring a week, free, if they’ll go into the Writing Center, but most won’t go.

Here’s a funny/embarrassing thing related to the black/white issue—they don’t treat it as a racial identifier, simply an identifier, like, that person over there is a girl. A couple of kids were talking in class about the library, and I’ve never been there (embarrassing, I know) because the campus is huge and has nothing to orient people to buildings, and I’m always rushed—and anyway, I asked them where the library was. One kid said, “It’s in the building where the black kids hang out.” I gave the kid the dim eye, and another kid, a black guy, said, “No, he’s right, it’s where the black kids hang out.” Here’s the other embarrassing part: the library is in the front of the building where 2 of my 3 classrooms are! If I came in the front door, instead of the back, I’d walk past a big group of hip young black dudes and straight into the library.

And I’m their teacher.

Betsy

Betsy,

I had a dream I had all the time in the world to write you back, and for some reason I wrote you a story about panda bears going extinct. But the pandas weren’t pandas. They were paragraphs. Maybe because you were describing the challenges of teaching young people to write paragraphs?

The gist of the dream-story was that you and your students adopted the last healthy paragraph from China and obtained another quasi-healthy paragraph from somewhere else—a dilapidated zoo somewhere in America, maybe—and suddenly baby paragraphs were EVERYWHERE and you and your students nursed them to health with baby bottles and bamboo shoots cut into little bites. The pandas were somewhat mangy and droopy-eyed but beautiful.

That’s hopeful, right? If we can get baby paragraphs to marry, we might eventually read multi-paragraph essays that focus on single ideas.

I LOVE that you know your students’ handwriting. That puts you a step above me so early in the year. I have a hard enough time attaching names to faces, much less faces to papers. Maybe by the end of the term you’ll get to a point where you don’t need names or initials. The only identifier on student work will be the details in their writing.

As for the kids who can’t or won’t come to class, you can’t fix that. Showing up has to be on them, unless you’re going to be one of those inspirational teachers from the movies who shows up unannounced to truant students’ homes… and ends up making boxed macaroni and cheese for the unattended children who live there. A phone call can’t hurt, but you’ve got 80 students—and kids of your own.

I know we’ve talked about my hesitancy to talk in class about race—how as a white person in authority I try to keep my mouth shut—but you seem capable of talking about race with sensitivity. I need to try harder. I will say this: my students aren’t hesitant. I overhear them in the hallway talking about where they’re going to meet up after school, places in the building they call “Little Somalia” and “The Border.”

Derek

Hi Derek,

I’m skipping church because Bobby is on a youth group retreat and the weather is beautiful. I’m going to sit on my screened porch and grade essays all day. Maybe I’ll take a walk.

I can only dimly imagine how your 10th grade Language Arts class differs from my introductory community college class.

I share three different classrooms with an unknown number of other adjuncts and my students are utterly deficient and all I can do is try to get a few of them to care about literature and grammar when all they want is a grade. I don’t know any of my colleagues. As near as I can tell, the only thing the college wants from me is to report students who use financial aid to buy groceries and who copy and paste stuff from the internet.

Here is what happened Friday. It ruined my day. Wednesday they had a three-paragraph essay due on A Worn Path. We worked on it in class for two weeks. They also had a grammar test they were panicked about. I graded the grammar test before class on Friday and the scores were pretty good compared to the last test. The students who got the higher grades were mostly those who bought into my independent reading program.

But many/most have quit reading, and more than a few of the essays lit up the plagiarism detection program. So I indulged in a rant about the benefits of reading and took students aside as they left class to tell them I was failing their papers for plagiarism. One girl I had to chase into the hall because—after napping on her desk—she got up mid-class to leave. I asked her where she was going, and she said, “I have somewhere I need to be.” She was high. This is the girl who had the nerdy guy turn in her paper for her. I’m required to inform students face-to-face if I’m reporting them for academic dishonesty and I knew I wouldn’t see her again, or possibly ever, so I stopped class and followed her into the hall to talk to her. So I could fill out the form.

They were supposed to have read “How it Feels to Be Colored Me” by Zora Neale Hurston so we could discuss it, but they don’t read the assignments, so in every class we were going around the room reading it, taking turns like we were all in 5th grade. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable about being the skinny little white lady with the glasses who was correcting the pronunciation of the words and stopping the reading so they could look up words they didn’t know in the dictionary in front of a class of mostly black kids who were reading a lyric essay written by a young black woman they didn’t understand. One guy said she must have been on crack because he couldn’t understand her metaphors.

So I decided that the kids who always come to class and are trying pretty hard would receive grace about their plagiarism. I asked them to stay behind so I could chastise them and tell them to rewrite this weekend for a non-failing grade. If they did so I wouldn’t report them for academic dishonesty.

My last class is my favorite. I like the kids. A bunch of them are really working. But they are almost all black, and they were not in the mood for the read-aloud we were engaged in. One of them, a girl, has been visibly stressed for the past couple of weeks, and even though she seemed to have the essay under control during our class work, she’d opted to cut and paste stuff from the internet in her final draft. I asked her to see me after class.

So this is what happened: when we were finished reading the “How it Feels” essay, she and her friends stood and she turned and in rapid-fire Gullah told them something bitter, and they agreed and laughed humorlessly. They weren’t talking about me—they’re too respectful for that—but it was definitely intended to put me down. They had their own language and they were never, ever going to let me in.

And when I sat her down to talk about the essay, she got angry. She said I didn’t give them enough information. That I didn’t answer her questions. That she didn’t understand what I wanted and that was why she copied an essay from the internet. I commented on her stress level, and one tear slipped out. She always has on beautiful eye make-up. Then she told me, little by little, how her mom just got out of the hospital, how she had to pick up her little sister and take care of things at home and get another job. She didn’t want anyone to know her business. She didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. By then the tears were messing up her make up. She didn’t want me to help her re-write, she said. She would do it herself.

She left, and I felt lousy. Like I’d peeled away her protective covering and exposed her nakedness. It was terrible.

Well, Kevin is up and the sun is shining. I hope it is in Seattle as well.

Betsy

Derek Smith is the editor of this blogazine. This is his eleventh year teaching high school Language Arts.

Elizabeth Kalman is the great-great-great granddaughter of a Cherokee Indian maiden picked up by a wagon train on its way from the Trail of Tears in Texas to the Kentucky coal fields. Her great-great grandfather was one of the first merchants to bring silk worms to the U.S.  He kept a detailed hand-written journal that Elizabeth recently transcribed and is in the process of editing. She frequently wishes she could have accompanied Henry David Thoreau on his excursions to Cape Cod.  She grew up on Nantucket Island and is now an adjunct English instructor at Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina, with an MFA from Seattle Pacific University.

Comments

4 Comments

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  1. December 12, 2012

    So, so good.

  2. smithdl #
    December 12, 2012

    So glad you like it! Betsy and I are glad you’re reading. 😉

  3. December 12, 2012

    Fantastic words of wisdom, you two. I am mentoring/coaching a first semester grad student in his beginning college teaching (for the next year) and he is reading these letters with me. Thanks for opening up the conversation.

    • December 15, 2012

      I love this letter interaction about nitty-gritty of teaching. You guys are brave and wise and honest and I wish I was more like you. But maybe I am, in a different sphere – called to a courage of varying color.

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