Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
For the Class of 2011: One Last Vocab Review
By the time you read this, my babies will have graduated. Yes, Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School, founded in 2007, graduated its first class on June 24, 2011, at 9:30 in the morning in what's got to be one of the largest school auditoriums in New York City. The graduates wore robes and caps in the school's colors — red and gold — with specially purchased, carefully arranged dresses and suits and shoes and hairstyles underneath. The faculty and administration were dressed to the nines, and speeches were given. Lots of speeches.
I don't have a special role in the graduation ceremony, and I'm okay with that. My job at the school for the last three years has been to teach the graduates-to-be English, and the very fact that they're walking across the stage to take a diploma means that I did my job well. Still, as with the close of every school year, I find myself wishing I had a moment to talk to my kids, as a group, one last time. I guess that's the nature of teaching — you spend the last month of school desperately waiting for it to be over, and then your summer missing the faces that surrounded you during the school year. This year is poignant because I know I won't see this particular group again, come September.
Cleaning out my desk this week, I happened upon a couple of sheets of paper labeled "11th Grade Vocab Test" and I was taken back to the day I told the now-graduates that we'd be doing vocab every week — an announcement received with all the delight you can imagine. As I scanned the words I had decided were imperative for learning, I began to think about how they embodied my graduating students. It presents an interesting question — do students become the words they have been taught, or do teachers subconsciously choose words that define the students? Someone should fund further studies about this. In any case, I realized that this was the answer to all my needs. I would write to my students via this column, making use of their vocab. Think of it as one last review, guys.
Word #1: intransigent
I remember giving this word to my 11th grade class last year. As I was handing out vocab sheets, one of my students shoved the paper to the floor, stating, "I don't want to do this. And I ain't gonna do it." Seconds later, another student asked, "What does intransigent mean?" I pointed at the first student, and the second looked puzzled before saying, "It means 'rude'?"
Not quite. My students were not all rude, of course, but more than a few were intransigent about certain beliefs that they'd held for a long time: They were NOT going to pass the English Language Arts Regents. They were NOT good writers. They could NOT write essays. They would NOT be getting high school diplomas. These beliefs were sincerely held and the result of educational and personal experiences — not to mention that the vast majority of my kids came from homes where neither parent had gone to college — that had left them with a firm, if incorrect, belief in their own incompetence.
Word #2: acquisitive
But I didn't share that belief, because I am incorrigibly convinced of my own success as a teacher (frankly, you gotta be), and because I saw something else in them: acquisitiveness. When given this word they almost always used it to mean the desire to get more stuff, but I associated it with their desire to get more knowledge. "Where you from, Ms. Reed?" one boy asked. "What it like there? You got cows?" "Do college classes have bells?" asked another. "How do we know Shakespeare is the greatest playwright ever?" "Why you like to write plays?" "Can I turn 'The Road Less Taken' into a rap?" "How often do penguins have sex?" One question after another, and they almost always boiled down to the same thing, "Teach me more. I want to know more."
Word #3: taciturn
Word #4: begrudging
I soon realized that the only way I was going to get the kids to believe in their ability to pass the English Regents (the goal I could best help them achieve) was to get them to connect doing so with graduating, and to connect graduating with going to college or trade school, and to connect going to college or trade school with a life out of the inner city. This meant knowing their dreams. When we first discussed their dreams, I went home sad because I thought the dreams were too big or too small. I know, I know. I'm not supposed to say dreams are too big. But what else can you say when confronted with a room of 25 kids, 18 of whom say they want to be professional singers? And if you're wondering what a too small dream is, that would be the brilliant girl who said she wanted to be "maybe, like, a secretary?"
The next day, when I came back to the classroom, I said, no. I told them that I was sorry, but they're not all going to be professional singers, and they might be really happy at being a secretary, but why don't they try some other things first, just to see. What else do you want to be? What else do you like to do? What does it mean to be a success — what will that look like for you? They'd sit there, like their vocab word, taciturn, pondering, caught in that moment when childhood daydreams no longer suffice. Answers came begrudgingly, dragged up from subterranean inner lairs: maybe it would be cool to be a beautician; maybe I'd like to run a daycare; maybe I am smart enough for college; maybe there is a college that will take me; maybe there is even a college that would pay for me to be there.
Word #5: carping
And then, as dreams turned into goals, everything went smoothly from there on out. The end.
Ha! Hardly. The Regents are hard tests, and studying for then was hard, too. Reading Shakespeare was hard. Applying to college was hard. Balancing school, work and a child was hard. When your life overwhelms you, and your anxieties are impossible to look at, let alone address, carping can save your sanity. Thankfully, Ms. Reed not only provided the word and its definition, but also provided the ingredients needed for carping. Complaints, small and needling, could be placed about the color of the walls in her room, and the way she didn't call on you first even though you hand was up first. And the Regents questions were so nitpicky, and the guy next to you made a weird popping sound with his lips when he wrote. When would you be able to read something without looking up half the words in the book first? Your pencil point broke and Ms. Reed's sharpener was sticky and weird. No one wants to write first thing in the morning/just before lunch/at the end of the day, anyway. The date on the application said January 31st, so why did your college counselor need it before then? And it was COLD in here.
Carp. Carp. Carp. I read somewhere that we complain about the little things when we can't bear to look at the big fear.
Word #6: germane
Word #7: tenable
Time slid by, and essays came back graded. The students were often shocked by the grades their work received, which were seemingly inevitably higher or lower that what was expected. A number of students with sloppy handwriting and poor organization skills were delighted to see that the complexity of their expressed thoughts earned higher grades; Other students, with a penchant for the same dry opening that had worked in 3rd grade ("This essay will be about The Crucible.") were shocked to see that immature, if clear, writing was no longer going to cut it.
Slowly, slowly, they began to improve, in writing and in their beliefs. They wanted specific instruction on what to do to be better, and they began to believe that they could do it. Passing the Regents went from an impossible idea (many had failed at least one Regents test already) to one that was tenable.
And I'll never forget teaching the word germane. Some words land with kids right away, and then others seem to never get quite locked in. Germane was veering towards being the latter kind, until one young man used it in a sentence. I was urging students to get focused, as we were only a few weeks away from the Regents test date. He said, "Oh, my God, Ms. Reed! That's so close! Make sure you only teach us stuff that is germane, okay?" Everyone got it — especially me.
Word #8: substantiate
When I gave this word, a student said, "Like, substantial?" Yep, I agreed, it was similar. Looking back now, I realize that it's what I asked my students to do, over and over. To substantiate their beliefs in themselves, and my belief in them, by passing the Regents, passing 11th grade, completing their college applications, and graduating high school... and these were substantial tasks.
When I finished grading their English Regents for the first time, I burst into tears. I was so proud of them. 85% had passed. Kids who had sworn on their way into the testing room that they had no idea of what to do, kids with IEPs (meaning that they had learning disabilities or significant emotional or behavioral issues), kids who had worked hard but never quite gotten it right — they all passed. That young woman who threw her vocab list on the floor with "I ain't gonna do it"? She had passed. In the end, they nearly all passed. It was a substantial achievement, and it substantiated their belief in themselves.
Word # 9: eschew
Word # 10: invidious
If this column were a movie, I'd be paid more. Also, it would end with the above: a teacher quietly crying tears of pride as she opened her classroom door to tell the waiting students of their success. But this column is not a movie. Flush from the various victories they'd achieved, the class was unaware of an invidious presence sneaking into their lives: one that told them to eschew hard work and responsibility, and instead frolic, rave, hang out, chill, and so on. I, and their other teachers, not to mention their parents and guardians, begged them to keep learning, knowing that while they had gotten in to colleges, that was no guarantee that they'd be able to stay in college. Study habits had to be improved. Knowledge bases needed to be broadened. There still was no time to goof off.
Word #11: belabor
But June inevitably came. While we teachers fought the urge to distribute one more vocab list or some reading suggestions for the summer ahead, our kids moved past us: on to Prom, where they looked simultaneously older and younger than ever; on to the Senior Awards Dinner, where tears of surprise are always on tap; and on to graduation, when they slipped out of our grasp, and we hoped that they would be the best version of themselves, the person we had glimpsed or known well. In her graduation speech, our valedictorian used another vocab word — candid— and I smiled to myself.
When they were still in high school, the vocab word I gave to them and that I used the most was belabor. "I don't want to belabor my point..." I'd say, and I'd always get a couple of fingers shotgunned at me, and a few "Vocab word!"s too. It was an apropos word: I do tend to repeat myself, and much of what I'd say to my students they've already heard from me. So, let me close this column, and this school year with this:
Hey, graduates of Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School: You did it! We're so proud of you! Now, go out and there and be your substantial, acquisitive, germane, tenable, intransigent selves, and don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do whatever it is that you know you need to do, because look what you have done already. Please keep learning and using vocab words, because, as I always told you, they make you sound mad smart, and you are. Thanks for making me a better teacher, and a better human being.
I love you, and I'll miss you.
Bye for now,