Hey there, fellow forum members!
First, I'd like to apologize for not posting on the forum in months! I've lurked around, following the 'Walk On' thread and keeping up with the latest band news. As a few of you know, I decided to defer law school to join Teach For America as a HS English teacher in a small town. This has been a whirlwind adventure thus far and, in the interest of keeping things focused, I'm attaching a reflection I sent to a friend last week.
As I write this, the bells at school have just sounded for the start of third period. I don't have students during my 3rd period class -- a result of a scheduling error, all too commonplace -- so I'm taking a few minutes to update you as to what I've seen here.
'Here' is defined as Lake Village, AR, a town of 2800 people with one lower elementary school, one upper elementary school, a middle school, and a high school, all arranged next to each other. I teach at the high school as a 9th and 10th grade English teacher.
It has been six months into my TFA commitment, and I feel (as of this second semester) that I have matured and evolved since the first week of school, which was when I saw the reality of what the achievement gap looks like in America's most rural towns and throughout the Delta.
During the first week of school, I realized that many of my ninth graders were reading at upwards of four years behind grade level. There were several that couldn't read. And I don't mean in a 'oh, that Student has trouble with the pronunciation of flamboyant ; I mean, 'oh, that Student has trouble reading the word 'hat' as a ninth grader.' My tenth graders were only slightly better. This posed an overwhelming burden to me during my first semester; I felt like Sisyphus, coming to school each day to try to reach kids to a higher outcome only to watch my progress fall downhill because, at the end of the day, kids couldn't read or, if they could, they couldn't comprehend well because they weren't reading at grade level.
Imagine the challenge. For many 9th graders, the first novel I taught - To Kill A Mockingbird - was the first book they've read. For my tenth graders, I taught a unit on the Mexican Revolution using The Underdogs, a book written on a sixth grade lexile -- and my students didn't get the meaning, theme, or plot. The challenges with literacy were compounded because, as I realized, students hadn't received the character education that middle class or 'stable households' impart.
Unable to distinguish themselves with what was essentially hard work, my students responded in caustic, violent, disruptive ways. I had students threaten and, in one case, attempt to assault. I had students who, bored with class, decided to pee themselves and/or defecate on themselves to get excused. I have students come to class smelling of smokes or not having eaten over the weekend. I have students that - when I ask where they 'stay - they are puzzled and say that 'I live here now,' reflecting the commonplace transience that afflicts rural communities in the Delta. I have students that, as I see growth occurring, are suddenly uprooted to go live with a grandma fifty miles away because the adults in their life are taking an extended leave of absenteeism. I found that problems stemming from low literacy and poverty and a culture of dependency created by a lack of jobs and a plentiful stream of welfare opportunities created a problem in my class where I frequently had to confront (in class) entirely non-school related issues. The first semester felt like trying to get a car with a blown-out tire fifty miles further without stopping to make the important switch. I simply wasn't great; I didn't have the background in literacy remediation; I was doing work that left me unfulfilled because I had a sense of how far behind my students really were while other non-TFA teachers at the school didn't seem to notice or (sadly) care.
After coming to terms around Thanksgiving that there was not any one single cause to the situation but rather a confluence of factors, I revisited my classroom with a new zeal. I refused to be miserable. I refused to tolerate any misbehavior. I set new expectations for work and professionalism in my class. And, to some degree, things got better.
What I want to celebrate:
- Many of my students hadn't read before coming to ninth grade, and several read 3-6 books in the past six months.
- My ninth graders hadn't been taught how to write a response-to-literature essay, but I was able to coach them how to structure an essay and create a compelling paper. Many wrote their first essay for the first time last semester, and you can imagine that I cried a little bit.
- My ninth and tenth graders came to me without having learned to 'trust emphatically' in the truth of the novel. When asked what was occurring, they'd pull any outcome out of thin air, as if projecting what they'd like into the novel: 'Atticus is upset because he's black and going to beat up another person.' Now, students are recognizing that the text has a 'truth' to it and learning to find text evidence. Again, a skill taught in much lower grades in normal school districts, but one that I'm happy that I taught to my students.
Things are going better now. I am no longer pitying students because, and I realized this around Thanksgiving, pity does nothing. Love, which I define as the stern but firm higher expectation set so that a student reaches an ambitious outcome, is what is necessary. I am doing my job because I believe, in my soul, that this is hard work, difficult work, but work that I would not trade for anything else at this moment because I believe it is right work. It is work that needs to be done because, without working in this way, I cannot say that I have tried to make my values and beliefs true in the world.
I will not be my high school English teacher simply because my high school experience will be different from the experience of my students. At the end of the day, I am aiming to give my students an outcome that is markedly different from the one they'd have if they did not have a TFA teacher for a year. I am not perfect. I am not even the best. But I believe there is a dignity and a glory in what young people like me are doing in the Delta and around other parts of the achievement gap in this country, and that dignity lies in the belief that, as not-perfect as we are, we become better for our students because we refuse to accept the status quo.
The gap is changing. It will not always be this way for it has not always looked this way. Change is slowly coming, but it will be generational. And, at the end of the day, I realize that the comparison between me and Sisyphus isn't entirely fair. I do believe that I leave a little pebble strewn on the path, a pebble that accumulates other pebbles so that, one day, the boulder slows down enough and the future has arrived.
I do not know what the future holds. I still think I'd like to do law school after the next 1.5 years. But this is a future that I know that I have the luxury of returning to. At the moment, my goal is to be able to give students that opportunity as well. Which reminds me, fourth period is about to begin.
Thanks for all your love and support. I'll try to keep you updated.