Teachers don’t have favorites.
Sure, and Mom didn’t like me best because I was the baby. However, there are definitely those students whose growth leaves us beaming with pride, whose writing leaves a lasting impression, whose authenticity leaves us questioning how we can help fix a systemic problem. I’ll come back to this.
For the written portion of my Final Exam, students reflect on their journeys as readers, writers, and thinkers. In examining how their culture has shaped them (e.g., home, family, friends, school), their narratives are poignant and heartbreaking and authentic and beautiful–which makes it my favorite writing assignment of the year. Their narratives are positive, as they recall reading with their parents and grandparents, zipping to the library with their elementary classes, tearing through the I Survived series, and choosing books over television and gaming because, “duh, reading was awesome!”
But these final compositions are also quite raw, as students relive the forced visits to the resource room for extra reading instruction or their ongoing struggle with dyslexia or not having anyone to read to them or to take them to the library or hating reading because of reading logs or being scolded for reading ahead or spending way too many months discussing a single book or closely reading one page in a grade-wide text for two weeks.
The essay that stopped me in my tracks this year (and there’s always one) included the excerpt below.
For context, the narrative, as a whole, was positive. And the author is an excellent student who earns stellar grades in her classes, is creative, and has a great sense of humor. I would take a class of 25 of her any day of the week.
But she’s also a truth-teller, which made it devastating to read.
We teachers work our tails off to compete with a Grey’s Anatomy Netflix binge or a seven-hour COD (Call of Duty) gaming marathon. We get up at 4 AM to prepare for the day. We hurry home, after we’ve dropped off the last friend in the after-school carpool, to begin leaving feedback on essay drafts. We answer emails until we go to bed. When the final drafts come in, we devote 15-20 minutes assessing each one–multiplied by 100+ students, several times a quarter. (To save you from doing the math, that’s 25 hours. Assessing one set of essays. Written to a common assessment prompt that we most likely did not design.) We have our own, shortchanged children snapping how they “never want to be a teacher” or how they hate how we’re “always on the computer.” We sacrifice our family time and our planning time and our lunch time and our catch-our-breath time to sit with students in need.
But we can also be dangerous landscapers. When we get into autopilot mode or continue doing what we’ve always done or teach the way we were taught or work so long creating something that we can’t possibly abandon it or focus more on data than reading the room or assume learning is happening because we are teaching, we cut back our students’ excitement “like the sides of a perfectly healthy but unwanted shrub”–often without even knowing it.
Don’t get me wrong. I work feverishly to avoid this dangerous landscaping. I try to make my classes engaging, to bring relevancy to the content I am asked to teach, to foster a love of reading in my students, to help my students write with voice and style and sophistication (rather than craft a formulaic, 5-paragraph essay that does not exist outside of a high school classroom).
But no matter what I do and say and assign, my students (or at least the ones who feel comfortable enough to tell me) confess that–in the system as a whole–X must equal 3, that they will lose points if they create their own thesis statement instead of using the teacher-provided one, that this–and only this–is what color represents in The Great Gatsby.
We are trimming away our students’ love of learning–unwittingly inviting them to go on their phones during class–when our actions say, “I’m going to take what you said and shape it back into what I want you to think.”
Every year, we are entrusted with 100+ healthy shrubs, and despite our greatest efforts, our feelings of #nailedit lessons, our satisfaction in a year well done, we are unintentionally cutting back otherwise healthy shrubs.
Ironically, we want our students to be free thinkers.
We want our students to be passionate about learning.
We want our students to think outside the box.
We want our students to be curious about our subject matter.
We want our students to be creative.
We want our students to be problem solvers. (Employers do, too.)
And our students can be and do all of these things–just as long as they use this starter sentence. Chop. Or read that book. Chop. Or fill out this worksheet. Chop. Or color inside the lines. Chop, chop.