Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Mourning and Celebrating: Lessons Learned at Stella Maris
I'm in mourning this week: my school is closing. Not the one I work in now, but Stella Maris High School, a small (ultimately, apparently, too small) Catholic girls' school, which I've always described as "on the beach in Queens." It really is on the beach — just about 50 yards from the sand. When we had fire drills, we dispersed to the boardwalk. Stella might be the only school in New York City where students were routinely chastised for wearing bikini tops under their uniforms.
Although vibrant and bustling, Stella was on its last legs for the entire time I was there (2003-2007) and at last has been shut down due to dwindling enrollment and lack of funds. It was inevitable, but it's also quite sad. I'm sorry for the girls who are already there (most especially the Juniors, who will end up going to some other school for just one year), and for my former colleagues, who are talented and caring women facing a difficult job market.
But my sadness goes deeper than just sympathy. I began teaching there as a long-term substitute, and stayed even though I knew the paycheck was too small and commute too long. I stayed because I felt safe and loved there, and because the administration and student body allowed me to come into my own as a teacher. My four years there, mirroring the four years of high school itself, were no coincidence, I think. It takes that long to become a true Stella Girl.
I hope you'll indulge me then, as I share with you some of the practical lessons I learned at Stella. The school building, immaculately (ha) kept by Sister Kathleen, may close down in August, but these lessons will stay in my heart... and in my classrooms, wherever they may be.
Topics Not Covered by Afterschool Specials
When I began at Stella, I was put with mostly freshman classes and we were all equally flummoxed into being introverted by each other. After a few days of strained silence, broken only by my meager teacher talk ("Let's open our books... and.... um..."), I realized I was going to have to do better. So I started to talk. About me. What I was wearing. What my commute had been like. The weather. Soon, I was downright chatty. And I got responses. The girls began to express opinions about my clothes and the commute... and, as time went on, I heard about other, bigger matters too.
Last week, one of my students at my current school came in and took a seat at the beginning of the day, as she always does. She's usually quiet, so I was surprised when she mentioned, "It's getting colder out, Ms. Reed." I realized that I had said something about the weather to her nearly every day; she was unconsciously mimicking me, to form a connection between us.
Small stuff? Perhaps. But this is how our students learn to verbally communicate. Making conversation is a skill we value in others (and miss desperately when they lack it). And I think that for teenagers, especially, it's nice to have the weight-bearing load off of them, when they are so often asked only really difficult, personal questions by adults, of the "What do you want to do with you life?" and "Why did you come in so late?" variety. I'd want to talk about the weather, too.
So, that's lesson one from Stella — students are people, and people like to have small conversations about little things. They ease us through life.
And So I Came to Love the Write-On/Wipe-Off Board.
The next thing I learned from teaching at Stella is the comfort of routine and the importance of preparation. At first, I approached things in a sort of willy-nilly style. Let's say this — it was very similar to what Iggy Pop might have done had he gone into teaching English: a bit of free for all. Some days we read aloud! Some days we did vocab! Some days we... wait, did we do vocab already? Well, let's take a vocab test! I can't? Why not? Oh, you didn't know about it... Yeah, there was some of that going on.
Well, in the classroom, as in life, preparation is everything, I've learned. Homework for the night goes up on the board before school begins. We review for the test the day before a test. My syllabus is four pages long and mostly consists of protocols for how I'm going to deal with things when they go wrong.
I'm all for change and spontaneity, and I'm willing to throw a lesson plan out the window to talk about college prep if 90% of the kids are suddenly sweating bullets over college prep. But no more do I embrace nihilism as a teaching strategy. This means that I spend much more of my time than I ever thought possible thinking, planning and working ahead. But you know what? I generally work through my day of teaching without too much worry about how to get the copies made before the kids come in, or what to do if we finish up to early on the story I skimmed through on the bus. I hit a number of problems anyway (I've always felt "Problem Solver" is a closer title to what I do all day), but they're usually, at least, not of my own making.
One way I do this, which I figured out at Stella, is by having a vision of where we're going. It's so easy to lose track of this, especially in a subject like English which all of its potential paths. But when you have your eyes on your classroom's prize, both short term (we will all be able to identify and discuss theme) and long term (we will all pass the Regents exam), it's hard to get stumped about what to do next. Keep moving forward, baby (as I think even Iggy would agree).
Here's a practical tip I learned at Stella: Don't leave until you're ready for the next day. This is basic stuff, I know, but by the end of the day, I often want to run out of the school building, arms and legs akimbo, screaming. But that just leaves me pushing to get ready in too short a time (along with other colleagues who are jostling for the copier) the next morning. I try — not religiously, but with dedication — to not leave until I am set up for the next day. If you find that your mornings are out of your control, you might want to try this too. (Folks who, like me last year, have first period free, do us all a favor — save your photocopying until then.)
The Adjective "Great" is Applied Purposefully
This week, we started The Crucible at my current school. I didn't even need to look up the character list. This is my fifth time through the play — which I love, as I'm a sucker for words like "Goody" -- and I can even keep Mercy and Mary straight without a crib sheet. It's nice to go back to Salem, 1692, with a new group of kids, like a field trip of the mind that I take every year. They'll notice things I haven't and I'll point out some things they'd miss. ("Look, kids! Foreshadowing! And, yes, Abigail is talking smack!")
I first taught this play at Stella. I taught it because I had read it once before and I needed to teach a few things I knew while I read ahead in the things I didn't know (yes, the wonders of Ethan Frome were still undiscovered by me). It was a big hit with the girls (not so big as Jane Eyre, much bigger than, um, Ethan Frome), to my delight and relief. And so, I learned a most basic concept in teaching literature, but one which I rarely see mentioned: choose works you think your students will like.
This usually gets changed a bit, into "teach works your students will relate to or understand" or "teach works at your students' comprehension level." Not bad advice, but I think we so often forget that reading good literature can be joyous, can make you giddy as a visitor in a previously unknown world and can show us the universality of the human experience. I'm all for works that relate to students' lives, but I also think it's good to show them lives that aren't their own. I learned this at Stella — pick something of good quality, which I have personally been affected by, and then see if the girls are intrigued too. I've been wrong — And Then There Were None was a bomb — but when I am, I usually just move on. Life's short. Edith Wharton wrote other things; so did Agatha Christie. Great literature's considered great for a reason.
Teaching is a Craft. (See What I Did There?)
Last week, in the last period of the day, I looked at my weary looking group of teenagers. There were five of them, those who had taken the PSAT for three hours that morning and had not required extra time as mandated by their Individualize Learning Plans. I had just had them for an entire period of ELA — now we were on to Playwriting. Half of their classmates had skipped out early. Suddenly, looking at their fatigue-ridden faces, I simply could not ask them to identify the plot points of Iphigenia. Instead, I reached under my counter and got out the good stuff — scrapbooking paper, crayons, markers, scissors and glue. "Ok, guys," I said. "Let's make something."
The crafting break? Yeah, learned at Stella. At first, I was at a loss as to what to do when attendance unexpectedly plummeted, or three-quarters of the class was out on a field trip, at confession or at a sporting event. What do you do with the four kids left, all of whom, inevitably, are right on track with their studies and woebegone about being left behind? I don't like to give study halls. I think those are just mandated gossiping/bullying times. But we do all sometimes need a break. So, I learned that art supplies and either a free reign or very simple guidelines ("Draw the setting of a story you want to write") almost never go unappreciated. It's amazing how often a previously unremarkable student revealed a strong talent in visual art through this activity. My only guideline is that students can't make something for me, something I learned after being given five or six "I sweat Mssss.ReEd!!! <3" signs in one class.
Everything Old is New Again
Stella was an old-school environment. It was a school. And it was old. At first, faced with textbooks from 1981, I despaired: Not a single African-American female writer was included in that text. I supplemented, of course. But I also came to feel that the rush to the new wasn't always serving my kids well. Education seems to go through phases, each one ballyhooed and presented to teachers as the cure-all we've all been waiting for, to make students motivated, accomplished and hard-working. This seems to ignore the basic truth that a big chunk of humankind is neither motivated, accomplished or hard-working (although all VT subscribers are the exception to this, of course).
In many ways, I welcome these ideas, and have found ways to adapt them into my classroom. For example, when I was in grad school, the concept of an "Aim-driven class" (in which the teacher presents an Aim in the form of a question on the board at the beginning of each class) wasn't in vogue. Nobody asked me to write one at Stella, either.
I was extremely reluctant to convert to this format upon leaving Stella and coming into the NYCDOE school system, but I now see the value of distilling a class's goal to a specific question. "What is 'Theme' and how can I identify one in The Crucible?" is a handy goal for a student to see, and (somewhat) saves us all from hearing "I don't even know why we're doing this" later. If you haven't tried distilling your lessons into aims, I highly recommend it.
But we didn't do aims at Stella. We had vocabulary, spelling, grammar and literature lessons, and we worked through them at a brisk, but not unreasonable pace. Words were memorized and used in sentences, literature was read and analyzed in four-paragraph essays, and everyone had a shot at learning the difference between a contraction and a conjunction. We had fun, too, more fun than I have had at my new school. We had special occasions, and big class parties, and annual events, all of which allowed me to celebrate our community and the students I had come to know as part of it. I work harder at my new school, and I suspect I've become a better teacher. I also know it's less fun and less like a family, at least right now, and I would daresay my students feel the same way. (We're very new, of course, and it takes time for these things to happen, I know.)
Which education is better? Honestly, it's hard for me to say. I think each is necessary for the kind of students being taught. There's a big difference between sheltered young women on the outskirts of New York, and the urban kids I teach now. And I trust that in each situation, the students are deeply blessed to be surrounded by a caring and driven faculty and administration, determined to get them a good education.
That's my last lesson from Stella, actually — that the biggest gift of being a teacher is not, as we probably all know far too well, monetary compensation or summers off, but rather the privilege working together with our students in hopes of helping them become the best versions of themselves they can possibly be. I first realized this at Stella Maris High School, and I hope I carry into my work today. In the end, that optimism and belief in the power of education is probably what most makes me, as I hope is clear to all who meet me, a Stella Girl.