Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Thinking About Education When I Don't Have to Educate

While I was visiting friends over the 4th of July weekend, we all panicked when a flyer from a local store advertised a big "Back to School" sale. If you were in the Boston area, you may have heard me scream, "I have ten more weeks! TEN MORE WEEKS!" Perhaps you recognize that horror. But, don't worry, folks, most teachers have at least a month left. No need to get up from the hammock yet.  

While I'm sleeping in and vacationing, however, my head's still been in the classroom, thinking about a new curriculum for next year (I'm moving from Freshman to Junior-level ELA), of course, but also continuing my mini-series on books and films set in the classroom. We got lots of great suggestions in the comments on my last column, and I'll look at some of those for August. This month, however, I planned to take a look at LouAnne Johnson's My Posse Don't Do Homework, later retitled Dangerous Minds after the film that was based on it, and The Freedom Writers Diary, which is billed as being written by "The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell." The first is so commonly referenced to me that I think of it as the more up-to-date version of Up the Down Staircase, while the latter runs a closer second in mentions, despite the nebulous grammar of the title.

I say "planned" because, in a first for me for this column, I didn't finish reading a book. I flew through My Posse... (possibly because I was reading a copy with a garishly faux-spray-painted cover that I was embarrassed to read on the train), but kept hitting a standstill on The Freedom Writers Diary. Why? Well, that brings me to my first topic, and then I'll focus on Johnson's book.

Call 1-800-No-More-Ghostwriters Now, and Give 'Till It Helps.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I sometimes read and review non-fiction books for Publisher's Weekly, and have done so since 2003. Thus, I have read more than my fair or reasonable share of non-fiction titles that have been ghost-written within an inch of their lives. This isn't so bad if the book is about aligning one's chakras or choosing the right puppy, cases in which too much authorial voice would be distracting. (Just get to the auras and terriers, already!) But I've also read quite a few memoirs that have been sanitized (for my protection?) by the absolute and utter removal of a distinctive voice. This drives me nuts, because what is the point of reading someone's memory of their life if I am not reading their voice about their memory of their life?

I'm sad to say that The Freedom Writers Diary has just that problem. It doesn't help that the individual entries are numbered, so there's no way of telling if you're reading several students' multiple entries, or many students' singular entries. And it's even more galling that the kids' voices have been streamlined into one style of writing — a style that is overly articulate for the majority of teenagers and lacking in distinction.

Here's an example, supposedly taken from the journal of a student: "As time went on and I became very familiar with the lesson material, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. Go figure. I could now understand and was able to participate in discussions that were related to great literature." This doesn't sound like a 15-year-old to me, although it does sound like the notes of an adult who's talked to a 15-year-old about his class work. I'm puzzled as to why the choice to eliminate distinctive voice was made, as well as shoving exposition into journal entries. It just seems false to me, to take a teenager's voice and neaten it up and expand its scope, so that every entry reads like a standardized test's reading passage. Why not just include a explanatory narrative?

Too harsh? Possibly. I know many teachers use this book in their classroom and, for sure, the work Erin Gruwell did with these kids sounds remarkable. But I'm always begging my students to tell their stories, in their words, to the best of their ability. "Everyone's got a story to tell, and everyone can learn the tools to tell in their own particular way. Be specific," I say, often. I wish I had read this fascinating story in the participants' particular voices.

What do you think? Am I way off-base? Does the importance of the story sometimes trump the need for a specific authorial voice? Should we sacrifice style for clarity, at times? Do you think your students can tell the difference? Should you teach them to do so? Why or why not?

I Have Sworn to Refrain From Mentioning Coolio.

Specificity of voice ain't a problem in My Posse Don't Do Homework, one reason why I enjoyed reading it far more than I anticipated. I've been referencing Dangerous Minds as a description for my current teaching post since last summer (specifically, "Fame meets Dangerous Minds"), so it was high time to actually read the book, a memoir written by a teacher, which reads like her own words.

LouAnne Johnson's chronicle of her first few years of teaching pretty much defines the words "plucky," "indomitable" and "ever-so-slightly-touched." She was 35 when she began teaching, with a stint in the Marines under her belt. A stint as a student teacher morphed into teaching full-time in a paid position way before she had much experience in the classroom. Like many of us who teach, she quickly found herself under-prepared and overwhelmed.

In this, the book reminded me of Up the Down Staircase. Though this one is non-fiction, many of the same motifs appear: a bright young teacher, a mildly cranky and world-weary mentor, kids who are tough on the outside but (mostly) sweet and smart on the inside. Up... opens with the main character desperately trying to get her homeroom silent on the first day of school (and decidedly not achieving her goal).  Johnson writes that she spent 15 minutes waiting for her class to quiet down before walking out. (I would like to note that my personal record is 22 minutes of waiting, which came to an end only because I laid down on the classroom floor, stunning the class into silence — they thought they had killed me.)

In fact, it's Johnson's honesty about these challenges that makes the book work. Teaching is a hard job, and, contrary to the slogan, there are days in which it is very hard to love it. She captures that struggle. I also give her major props for portraying the way that occasionally what a student does makes the day acceptable (with a note, a hug, or a good paper) but that sometimes, there is no magic pick-me-up at the end of the day. You go home alone, you mope around, you figure out what to do for the next day's lesson plans, you watch "How I Met Your Mother."

God bless the woman for actually talking about lesson plans, by the way. I forgive her the implausibly articulate and motivating impromptu class speeches she says she made because she at least mentions the reality of lesson plans. You see, lesson planning for the teachers portrayed in books, movies and television is like going to the bathroom — assumed to be happening, never depicted. But in the NYC DOE, where I teach, I'm required by law to have complete lesson plans, one per class, on my desk at all times. Every day. That's the reality for many teachers, and while it certainly isn't glamorous or particularly fun, it's really awesome to read something from someone who knows that.

No Matter How Motivating, I Will Not Give Out Hannah Montana CDs

But I'm not down with Johnson on some other issues. Principally, I can't condone (or imitate) the amount of time and money she puts into her classroom. The woman chronicles hundreds of dollars and dozens of after-school and weekend hours given over to her students. The book actually begins with her lending $100 to a student who needs it, and she often gives out prizes, takes them on trips (not field trips, but social events) and buys them dinner when they're hungry. I admire her generosity, but I dislike the standard it sets for teachers.

We've got a problem in this country — well, we've got a lot of problems, but I'll focus on this one, leaving the issue of our addiction to Lady GaGa for another time — and that's that we're losing teachers at a fast rate. Young adults who go into teaching often don't stay. I'm a bit of an anamoly because I'm in my mid-30's, have taught for the last 7 years, and haven't transitioned to a non-classroom position (what can I say? I get a little high off of assigning the bathroom pass). The majority of my colleagues are significantly older or a good 10 years younger, and the younger ones mostly do not expect to stick with teaching as a lifelong career.

I bring this up because I think part of the reason teacher burn-out is so common is because the expectation is so high. We, as a culture, want our teachers to work night and day, for our kids, giving instruction, of course, but also helping to raise them into decent human beings. We hold up as models the intense giving that Johnson was able to do. I'm not proud to say this, but I can't do what she did. I have friends, a family, and other obligations, and, while I do try to make my classroom safe, fun and warm, I cannot spend the entirety of my weekends and my evenings on my students too.

Perhaps I protest too much, so let me boil it down. I'm all for giving compassionately. I'm all against giving to the point that one loses sight of one's life, and I think Johnson crosses that line, as she does seem to recognize, but not change. Balance is important, and we put too much pressure on our students if we make them our lives.

You'd Give Too

Of course, Johnson gives so much of herself because her students need so much. Her real gift to her readers is to capture the lives of her students, and their voices, in her book. Remember that I mentioned she gave $100 to a student in need at the beginning? Here's what he writes to her in a note: "But I'm gonna try to do my own homework only don't be surprised if I flunk everything because I never did it before... I won't tell you that lie because you trust me. And I don't know nobody else who would give $100 to a Mexican kid on a handshake."

That's just one example of many, and these make the book. Instead of neatening up her students' words, she lets them flow across the book the way they do in real life — grammatically incorrect, poorly spelled, sometimes struggling to articulate a feeling or thought. This is what I see in my classroom every day. Johnson's students, my students, maybe your students — they're not just kids from the ghetto, or the barrio, or the projects, or the McMansions, or the suburban ranch homes — they are individual people, and it is our challenge, and joy, to work with each of them. And it honors them to share who they were at that particular moment in their lives.

Perhaps this seems obvious, but capturing individuality in writing (and teaching individuals for that matter) is far more difficult than speaking broadly about ideas that everyone can agree on, but that few can figure out how to implement. For example, how to help severely undereducated kids ready for college and a more prosperous, rewarding future. Johnson's book is over 10 years old now, but it still resonates because she has real insights into how to help, and she captures the real voices of those who she helped.

And I Got Written Up for Helping a Kid Who Was Having a Nosebleed

I do want to make one last, brief point about Johnson, lest I sound too overly enthusiastic about her work. There are quite a few incidents in this book that gave me pause. She walked out of her classroom several times, kissed a student on the cheek, and physically threatened a student at least twice (and not clearly in jest). All of these incidents are part of the façade of being a teacher who isn't down with the status quo. A little faux rebellion isn't that bad, but I would get written up for doing any of these things, even if the circumstances around them legitimized my actions.

And for good reason. Where I teach, doing any of these things is asking for trouble — a teacher-less classroom would go berserk, a kissed student has a legitimate harassment complaint, and physically threatening a student would be unlikely to end there (not to mention that it doesn't really model the nonviolent style I'd like my kids to pick up on). This is the case almost everywhere, and I'd hate for new teachers, the very people who would get so much out of reading this book, to think that they can behave that way without consequence.

Oh, and the nosebleed? I didn't put on rubber gloves before helping him.

Michelle Pfeiffer Did.

I do recommend a read through My Posse... It's fast and funny, as the cover says. I suspect many of you who aren't in the classroom might be inspired by it, too. So this is a good moment to remind you that teachers need your help. Hillary Clinton reminded us that it takes a village to raise a child; it also takes a village to provide enough looseleaf paper for my classroom for just one month. If you are not a teacher, but a lover of words (as most of the folks who read this site are), please think about trying to find a teacher who you can support throughout the coming year, financially, or in other ways. We need to know that are efforts are noticed and appreciated.  If you're a parent, pay attention to what's going on at your child's school. Ask questions, drop by, look around.

Johnson's book reminds me that amazing things are being done. I guess that is pretty inspiring, come to think of it. And, at the end of August, I'll feel refreshed enough to go back to facilitating amazing things too. See you then!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 29th 2009, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
"I would like to note that my personal record is 22 minutes of waiting, which came to an end only because I laid down on the classroom floor, stunning the class into silence — they thought they had killed me."

Hahahaha! I have so many stories like that as well. I don't know what my personal wait time record is (I think it may be an entire 44 minute block...), but I do remember sitting on the floor a couple of times waiting for my class to be quiet. One time, out of frustration, a friend who taught in Louisiana crouched on the ground, clasped her hands and rested her face on them. The class hushed up and when 7th grader started saying, "Ms. Graham, are you---," he was cut off, by another student who said, "SHHHH!! Can't you see she's praying?!" Those Southern kids wouldn't shut up for their Language Arts lesson, but they shut up for prayer time!

Your article this week has reminded me why I love teaching, yet why I'm no longer in the classroom. I was still teaching when Freedom Writers came out to theaters and I couldn't go see it. I felt like it would be romanticizing what I did on a daily basis and continuing to set the expectation that in order to have an impact on struggling students, teachers must take a second job, use their own money to pay for classroom supplies, let their personal lives deteriorate, etc. Of course, that doesn't attract a ton of people to the profession nor does it retain the people who are already there. I've never read My Posse Don't Do Homework, but you've inspired me to pick it up now! Maybe one day I'll be back in the classroom teaching science to middle schoolers.
Wednesday July 29th 2009, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"Romanticizing!" Yes, that is exactly the word that captures what I was trying to express. Thanks for nailing that, Elissa!
Monday August 3rd 2009, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
It was inspirational really; thanks to the teachers for the pain they take to impart civilisation to the future citizens of the world....

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Shannon kicks off her series on classroom classics with "Up the Down Staircase."