Hope Springs Eternal, Even in the Concrete Jungle

21 Mar

I’ve taken a couple weeks of breathing and “me time” since the last post, and that’s probably a good thing.  Coming off what was certainly the roughest week of my teaching career (at least since my first year) I had to make a quick rebound to prepare for the beginning of the third trimester, in which I am teaching two entirely new curricula.  Also, I  just plain had to refocus my priorities.  But a funny thing happened.  Spring has sprung.

I’ve shared with my readers, in a post a few months back, my dreaded feelings on the winter months.  But spring in schools is a different story.  The mood–in a matter of days–can shift drastically.  For everyone’s own and personal reasons, each person working in a school, begins to just act different as the weather warms up.  Administrators in schools throughout the city begin to change their tone and focus to prepare for the annual reviews they will receive from the state, the city, their network leaders, parents, and staff, even the students themselves, which will dictate the future of their schools and many people’s careers.  Teachers can see the much-needed rest of spring break and eventually summer approaching, and they look forward to some of their students graduating and moving on.  Kids…well, its nice out, and they get to be kids again, less time locked indoors, graduation approaching for some, and one more notch in the belt for the rest.  They can see progress.  And so we all start acting differently.  Anyone who is familiar with sports radio or ESPN programming has certainly heard the old cliché “You are never as good as your best game, and never as bad as your worst.”  I hate clichés but this is as true as it gets for teaching, as well.  You are NEVER as bad, overall, as you feel when you are reflecting on the worst classes, days, weeks.  And as much as I hate to admit, you are never as good as you feel reflecting on the best ones.  As a Jets fan, and a teacher who has worked in schools that all too often operate as the Jets equivalent of educational institutions, I also know that so often the best weeks are followed by the worst weeks.  And then, if you’re lucky the opposite is true: a week where you feel like worthless shit can be followed by the euphoric “holy hell, I must be doing something right, these kids are killing it!” type-of-moment.  The last couple weeks have been one such blessing.  And man did we need it.  Like the warming of the weather (and the beautiful breezes, budding trees, and wonderfully dressed women that accompany spring in New York) this new beginning has been a godsend.

A little more than two weeks ago, I was absolutely dreading what my students’ term presentations and defenses were going to look like.  So many factors were clouding my opinion of the progress we were making as a class (or classes really…all 4 of them) that I had very little faith.  And then, magically, I was incredibly impressed two weeks ago when it came to the actual presentations and defenses.  Students, in crunch time, were able to produce essays and visual presentations (iMovies for the most part) that showed a lot of deep thought about the themes and topics we had covered and the issues and questions the assignment asked them to address.  One particular essay was a well-thought out, wonderfully humorous examination of how the student related to the main character of Catch-22, Yossarian.  Best of all he heeded my insistent advice to “write with your own voice” and not the thesaurus-heavy nonsensical writing that “formal” essay writing has made far too popular in high school (I know this has been going on forever, I was guilty of it 15 years ago, myself.)  But in addition to the formal essays, other students produced wonderful projects that showed similar literacy skills using digital media instead of traditional essays, and defended their projects by answering challenging questions from their peers and teachers.  Everyone really elevated the level of discussion to a place that I wasn’t certain we would be able to take it.  It was the first time in too long that I felt like those edu-buzzwords “Rigor” and “Differentiation” were dancing arm-in-arm in my classroom.  I was incredibly proud of a number of my students for the awesome results they created.

Last week we began our third trimester.  Inspired by the results from the Term Projects and Defenses from term two, I am eager for something even bigger and more consistent from my students this spring.  My class sizes are small (a result of a number of students moving on to Senior English finally, as well as an unfortunately dwindling population, and a little bit of “luck”.)  The new students who were admitted between trimesters appear to have that excited and exciting energy of a fresh start (something that teachers at a transfer school learn to cross their fingers and pray won’t dwindle with time.)  Some long-term students are looking forward to graduation.  Kids are acting like kids again, teachers like teachers.  The zombies have gone to hibernate.  Spring has sprung.

This was supposed to be a less journal-style post than the last, getting back to topical blogging.  And I promise, the personalized nature of what I have written so far is heading towards something more topical.  The near three-week break since my last post has seen something very interesting happen in the hyper-connective-Facebook-focused-digitally-driven lives in which students, and the majority of the adults in their lives now live.  A couple weeks back, the self-same kids who would often tell me they didn’t want to read about a book that didn’t take place in their neighborhood because it had nothing to do with their lives, were asking me to tell them about Uganda.  The viral Kony2012 video that has been both celebrated (by most) and vilified (by many recently, including myself) has at the very least achieved one of its major goals: it has us talking about the way in which the hyper-connective world can be a positive for humanity; it can, with the right message, the right approach, and the right people behind it, unite people across the globe, young and old, to discuss, care about, and fight to change problems that we face universally.  These problems that we may know little about because they don’t take place in our own neighborhoods, may now matter.  We may no longer keep asking, so what does it have to do with us?

The reaction many of my teacher and education-oriented buddies had to the viral film and its aftermath was similar to my own: excited to see the kids talking about something like this, but concerned that issues about the invisible enemies they face in their own lives still aren’t being heard, shared, made “viral.” I have spent the early days of this trimester sharing ideas with some educators, and especially with my Senior English students (who happen to be working in an inquiry research course) about using similar types of media, and other outlets, to begin to share messages that are meaningful to us as students, teachers, and citizens.  The thing is, it’s fine to vent in our classrooms, or during staff lunches, or on Facebook and blogs about issues in the modern education climate that bother us.  But if we can’t take the energy of spring, and try to make something awesome, something meaningful out of our reactions, we are looking at a lot of much longer, colder winters ahead.  So in that light, I am feeling a true excitement about working with students and teachers in my classroom and from a host of different schools to make something awesome this spring; something that addresses the concerns of American Education that I address in conversations and on my blog, and in venting, rambling Facebook posts each day.  Anyone interested in joining in on the work, you know where to reach me.

Lastly, the writing in this post sucked, and I am aware of that.  But it’s hard to put the energy of hope into words.  You just have to ride it. Who wants to ride with me?

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