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Beyond ‘Wiggle Room’:
Creating Spaces for Authentic Learning in a Senior English Class
Marsha Rosenzweig Pincus
I would like to see a curriculum that is not so structured and restricting, with some wiggle room. I’d like to have a variation of different teaching methods and materials: a class that isn’t so predictable. I’d like to read books that make sense and have actual meanings. I’d also like to do different types of writing instead of just essays.
It is possible that my previous English classes restricted me from my constitutional pursuit of happiness and that my subconscious saw this as a violation of my inalienable rights. As you have not prohibited enjoyment in the class, I think you’ve already made English matter more than it has in the past.
The class would be more interesting to the students if we really had a say in the class. For example, most English teachers will force students to analyze every minor detail in a book because they feel that there are so many metaphors, symbols and motifs beneath the text. However, when this happens, students leave simply knowing those metaphors and motifs without really understanding the deeper concepts in the text. Thus, if we could really share our opinions on different books that we read in class without being confined to finding the symbols, the class would be much more meaningful.
Prologue: The Last Act
As the summer of 2007 was winding down, I was preparing myself for what was to be my 34th and final year of teaching in the School District of Philadelphia and my 10th year at J.R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School. I was all set to teach the same courses I had been teaching for the past five years – two sections of an Honors English III class with an emphasis on American Literature and two sections of a popular senior elective entitled Drama and Inquiry. I was looking forward to a pleasant but uneventful school year to cap off an interesting and rewarding career when during the last week of August, I was shaken from my complacency by an email from my principal. In addition to my other courses, I was told, I would be teaching a section of English IV. This was not good news.
The comments above represent a sampling of student responses to the syllabus for the English 4 class that I taught at Masterman High School in 2007-2008. Masterman, a magnet high school for academically talented and mentally gifted students from every neighborhood in Philadelphia, is considered one of the most successful high schools in the country. By most accounts it is a desirable place to teach.
That is, of course, unless you teach seniors, who are notoriously difficult to engage. Under huge amounts of pressure and understandably worried about their finances and their futures, they spend the first half of the year preoccupied with the college application process. During the second half of the year, once their mid-year reports have been sent to the colleges and their acceptances start to come in, they turn their eyes toward prom and graduation.
As a successful and experienced teacher, it is hard for me to admit that I was cowed by this assignment. The last time I had taught the class was in 1998, my first year at Masterman, and I remember what a struggle it had been. Nearly half of the students in the 12th grade took Advanced Placement English. That meant that the students in the “regular” English 4 class either didn’t have the scores or the inclination to take AP English. It was either a subject they disliked or one in which they weren’t particularly skilled– or both. In addition, it is a gateway class – required by the state for high school graduation, making the stakes high for the students, who in turn, put pressure on the teachers to make the class relatively easy to pass. Knowing all of this, I spent the days prior to the opening of school obsessively writing and re-writing the syllabus and the nights having the kind of teaching dreams I hadn’t had in years.
Why I was so terrified of this class and what I learned in my attempt to create a meaningful and engaging course for these students in my final year of teaching is the subject of this inquiry.
Inquiry Across the Lifespan: “I Used to Be an English Teacher”
I used to be an English teacher. I taught vocabulary on Monday, grammar on Tuesday, literature on Wednesday and Thursday and composition on Friday. I taught well-planned lessons with behavioral objectives and specific learning outcomes. My students completed worksheets selecting proper tenses and placing commas in appropriate places. After reading a story, poem or novel, they would answer my meticulously developed literal, interpretive and evaluative questions. And my principal saw my work and said that it was good. (from my teaching journal, 1988)
When I was a beginning teacher, this conception of the teaching of English was the only one available to me. It was how I had been taught in middle and high school and it was how I was taught to teach in college. Every now and again, I would deviate from this schedule, prompted by boredom and a desire to try something new. In my first year of teaching, 1974, I invested ten dollars and bought a class set of S.E. Hinton’s brand new novel The Outsiders for twenty five cents a piece. Together, my eighth graders and I read this book, rewriting chapters from different characters’ points of view, converting parts of the novel into a stage play, drawing portraits of Ponyboy and his brothers, and writing personal narratives about family, friendship and violence. One day during this unit, my principal came to my door, announcing that he was here for my formal observation. He looked around the room and he saw 35 adolescents sitting in groups, some of them on the floor. Some were acting out their original scripts. Others were creating a giant collage. All were talking. All were engaged. My principal paused, and I watched him look disapprovingly around the room as he peered down at his clipboard one last time before saying with disdain, “I’ll come back when you’re teaching.”
The following day, 4th period, he did indeed return and I dutifully taught a lesson about parts of speech, complete with examples on the board, followed by a question-and-answer session with a skill sheet for reinforcement. My 35 rambunctious adolescents sat quietly in rows and politely completed the lesson. My principal sat in the back row taking notes and checking items off on the checklist and with a few minutes left in the period handed me a copy of his evaluation with my high scores.
For many years, I was troubled by that incident. While I didn’t abandon the kinds of activities that we did in response to The Outsiders, I did them less frequently and with more trepidation, despite the fact that I knew through my observations of my students’ written and oral responses that this kind of teaching was more engaging and effective. Additionally, I felt more engaged and alive when I was teaching in this manner, eager to see and hear the multiple ways in which my students were making sense of the novel, relating it to their own lives and raising questions about gangs and loyalty, violence and social class. Their responses sparked in me a genuine interest and as I learned more about them and how they saw themselves and the world, I was better able to understand what they needed from me individually and collectively as their teacher.
Unfortunately, during this period of my life and career, I lacked the confidence to value my own knowledge. I was grateful for my superior rating, and it never would have occurred to me to ask for an appointment to speak with my principal to discuss the evaluation let alone to explain and defend what I was doing in my class the day he’d announced that I wasn’t “teaching.” And it certainly didn’t occur to me to examine the items on the evaluation checklist to critique the conception of teaching embedded within. I lacked the experience and sophistication to understand that the evaluation tool was constructed by those in power and it perpetuated a particular teacher-centered, authoritative, skills-based approached to teaching.
Before a teacher can engage her students to live life consciously, she must find the courage to question and live consciously herself – face her own fears, analyze and understand her own desires and see herself as a living human being capable of doing meaningful work in the world. A teacher who has not be awakened to her own possibilities for growth cannot inspire such growth in her students. ( from my teaching journal 2002)
Interestingly, it was my time away from teaching that sparked my transformation. When my children were born, I took a two-year maternity leave. During those years, I would spend my days with my infant and toddler, watching them closely and figuring out how they were making sense of the world. I can still remember the satisfaction and pride I felt as a mother when I finally understood that the sounds of “bruh bruh bruh bruh” that my nine month old daughter was making as she toddled after her brother were not random. They represented her first word – “Brother.” When I took my two-year-old son to the zoo, I listened as he pointed to every animal excitedly calling each one a “Dog!” When we got to the elephant, he shouted, “Dog! Dog!” Another time, he pointed to the moon and uttered with surprise and wonder, “Egg in the sky!” This little two year old was using language to make connections based on size, shape and space and as his mother/teacher, it was my job to lead him gently to new words for concepts he already understood. Before I could engage my children in naming the world, I first needed to understand the ways in which they were doing it and see the patterns and logic of their systems.
Becoming a mother gave me the confidence in myself that I lacked as a teacher. I came to value my abilities to interpret my children’s needs and questions and respond to them in ways that would enable my children to grow. When I returned to the classroom in 1985 after my maternity leave, I was not the same young woman who had left two and a half years earlier.
Unfortunately, I encountered the same expectations for “good” teaching that I had left behind. Only this time, I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my role as the purveyor of the standardized curriculum and the literary canon. Upon returning to teaching, I was transferred to Simon Gratz High School, a large comprehensive neighborhood high school in the heart of the African American community. All of my students were African American and I, a young Jewish woman, often found myself questioning why I was surrounding the classroom with pictures of “great” American authors like Melville, Poe and Emerson and teaching books by Twain, Hawthorne and Fitzgerald.
During this period in my career, I experienced a great deal of dissonance between what I was doing in the classroom and what I wanted to do. I was still standing in front of the class lecturing about books I had assigned from the book list, writing study guides with comprehension questions and developing tests asking the students to identify literary devices. Yet, I was also listening to my students, asking them to speak and write about their lives and their dreams, trying to understand who they were and who they were hoping to become, much in the same manner in which I had learned to engage with my children. This gap between who my students and I were as human beings and what I was teaching them continued to widen in the months following my return and made me feel increasingly uncomfortable in my role.
I honestly don’t know how long I would have remained a teacher if I had not become a participant in the inaugural Summer Institute of the Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP) in 1986. A site of the National Writing Project (NWP), a professional development network dedicated to the teaching of writing, PhilWP was founded by Barbara Lytle, a literacy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and several teachers in the School District of Philadelphia. The NWP was founded on the belief that teachers are the best teachers of other teachers and that the teaching of writing was a complex process involving issues of language, power, culture, and identity. It was during the Summer Institute that I read the work of Paulo Freire for the first time and learned of his approach to literacy teaching and learning in Brazil. In the very first reading assigned during the Summer Institute, his autobiographical essay, “The Importance of the Act of Reading, (Freire,1987), I encountered for the first time the idea that language and reality were dynamically interconnected (29). One sentence in particular caught my attention and caused me to question my fundamental beliefs about teaching English:
In a way we can say… reading the word is not merely preceded by reading the world but by a certain form of writing it or rewriting it, that is transforming it by means of conscious practical work (35).
Maxine Greene (1973) writes that a teacher willing to undertake inquiry into her practice is “no longer content to be a mere cipher, a functionary, a clerk” (7). In this Summer Institute, I learned about teacher research for the very first time and how it was possible for teachers through “systematic and intentional” (Lytle Cochran-Smith, 23). inquiry into our own practice as a way of “reclaiming the classroom” (Goswami and Stillman, iii) from bureaucrats and policy makers thereby generating a body of knowledge that would enable us to learn from each other, improve our teaching, reform our schools and ultimately transform the lives of our students. This vision of an empowered teacher, intellectually engaged in the world, learning with and from her colleagues and her students to effect positive change, energized me and made me particularly excited about returning to my classroom in the fall.
At first I struggled. While PhilWP had given me the vision and the theoretical underpinnings, I still lacked the classroom practices to engage my students in meaningful ways that would honor what they brought to the classroom. Once again, I was incredibly fortunate. In 1987, I became a participant in the very first year of the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival (PYPF) a non-profit, arts in education organization whose mission is to “tap the potential of youth through playwriting,” The program pairs professional theater artists with classroom teachers in a year-long partnership designed to teach students to write, revise and stage their own original plays. From the moment J. Rufus Caleb, an award winning playwright and Philadelphia Community College professor, entered my classroom and introduced my high school students to playwriting, I knew that something special was happening.
In the playwriting workshops, students were able to tell stories that were important to them. They were able to create worlds and people those worlds with characters and give those characters dialogue to speak made up of the words and sounds and rhythms of their lives. I was struck by the way this enlivened students who had been previously unengaged – those students who sat quietly in the back of the room, doing just enough school work to earn a “D.” These students had been awakened by the playwriting process and through my observations of and conversations with them, I was able to have access for the very first time to their thinking about themselves as writers and the ways in which they could use literacy to impact their lives and the lives of those around them.
Terrance Jenkins, one of my Simon Gratz students in the early years of the playwriting program and winner of the National Young Playwrights competition in 1992 for his play Taking Control, initially wrote the first draft of his play because it was an assignment and he wanted to earn a good grade. As he continued to write and revise his play about a teen-aged girl from a shattered family trying to “take control” of the situation when her younger sister becomes pregnant, he shared emerging drafts with different audiences. From that experience, he developed a sense of himself as a writer and saw the possibilities for using writing as a way of bring about positive change. In an interview, for a documentary (Strosser and Patterson) about the playwriting program, he said, “I had a message to get across, I had a story to tell. I wanted people to see this [play] and I wanted them to make a change.” It was through this playwriting program that I learned the powerful impact that adults could have on young people simply by listening to their stories, voices, issues, concerns and questions and responding to them in thoughtful and respectful ways.
In the years that followed, I learned how to adapt the lessons I had learned about student choice, voice and agency in the playwriting program to other aspects of the English curriculum. I became more adept at designing projects that engaged students in the process of inquiry, structuring their interaction with texts and each other in ways that honored their perspectives and questions.
This kind of teaching contributed to substantive reform in some Philadelphia High School in the 1990’s. At Simon Gratz, I co-founded a school-within-a-school called Crossroads which joined 300 students from grades 9 through 12 with 16 teachers from all of the major disciples together into an academic community who stayed together for all four years of high school. Our program was interdisciplinary, writing intensive and inquiry-based. Each year, our curriculum was centered around an “essential question,” a curricular organizer we adapted from the Coalition of Essential Schools. Teachers worked together to make sure that our individual curricula addressed that question in ways that would allow the students to make connections across disciplines.
The first year of Crossroads, we, the teachers decided on the essential question “How does learning connect to your world?” This question worked in two very important ways: 1) it pushed the students to see how what they were learning could have an impact on their lives and 2) even more importantly, it forced the teachers to think hard about the sense our students would be making of the material we were presenting to them. After the first year of the program, students and teachers gathered together in June to evaluate the effectiveness of that year’s essential question and to engage in a collaborative process to select the question for the following year. Some of the questions we explored in the 8 years I was part of Crossroads included:
• How do people events and conditions influence change?
• What are the roads to the future?
• What is the relationship between power and inquiry?
Each question presented its own unique challenges; however, discussing and addressing those challenges throughout the year, became part of the inquiry process for teachers and students alike.
Students maintained portfolios of their papers and projects and were taught how to engage in self-reflective processes, evaluating their strengths, weaknesses and progress as writers and learners. As seniors, they presented samples from these portfolios to a panel of teachers, parents, community members and juniors as part of their senior exit project, which also included the writing of a substantive research paper relating to an aspect of the year’s essential question.
This reform effort has been documented in many places, most notably Michelle’s Fine’s 1994 book, Chartering Urban Reform: Reflections on Public High School Reform in the Midst of Change. The essays in the book illustrate the inextricable relationships between and among school reform, teacher inquiry and student agency. In order for meaningful, positive change to occur, teachers have to be willing to engage their students in a dialogue about issues that impact teaching and learning. At Simon Gratz, I learned how to interact with my high school students in the same ways I had interacted with my small children while on maternity leave. I learned to put their questions, concerns and desires at the center of the learning, accessing their prior knowledge then creating learning experiences in which they could pursue those questions in meaningful ways.
I transferred to Masterman in 1998, just as the new structures implemented by the reform movement of the 1990’s were being slowly dismantled by a new local administration and shifting national trend towards reliance on high-stakes testing as the primary measure of a school’s progress.
While the students at Masterman scored well on these tests, (after all – high scores were required in 5th and 6th grade for admission and again in 9th grade for re-admission to the smaller and more select high school), I immediately sensed an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among the students. I soon learned that Masterman students would often begrudgingly comply with teachers’ assignments; they would less frequently actually engage.
My first year at Masterman, I tried to include the playwriting program in my English classes. I soon discovered that it was not a good fit; the academic requirements and the pressure for students to perform well on standardized tests did not allow for this kind of curricular “deviation.” I became dismayed by the implications of this kind of content-centered, grade-oriented competitive approach to teaching. My new students often told me that it wouldn’t take long for me to be “Mastermanized,” and succumb to the pressures of delivering a traditional curriculum with a teacher-centered pedagogy.
With the support of The Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) I began to explore alternative approaches to what I was doing in my classes at Masterman. Using the terms “main stage” and “second stage” as they are enacted in the theatre as a metaphor for school reform, I developed a theory of “second stage reform” that I thought might be possible at a school like Masterman. Many theatres have two performance areas: a main stage upon which works are performed with a wide audience appeal and a second stage, sometimes called a black box, where new plays and experimental works can be developed. The second stage often serves as an incubator for main stage productions. In rethinking my approach to my teaching at Masterman, I developed an elective class called Drama and Inquiry that grew out of my decade long association with Philadelphia Young Playwrights and was consistent with my critical pedagogy approach to teaching and learning. While my English classes remained “main stage” productions, my elective became the alternative, experimental space: my “second stage” on which I could enact a different kind of pedagogy that might eventually have an impact on the pedagogy of the main stage.
The chart below illustrates the differences between the main stage practices I saw occurring in the major subject classes and the second stage practices I tired to enact in my Drama and Inquiry elective.
Main Stage Second Stage
Emphasis on answers Emphasis on questions
Individual achievement Group accomplishments
Lecture and Debate Dialogue
Knowledge Transmission Knowledge Construction
Test Driven Process Driven
Preserves Tradition Transforms Tradition
For three years of their high school experience, Masterman students follow a very rigid, prescribed academic program with little choice in their course selection. In their senior year, they are able to select from among a small number of electives that take the place of some of the more selective AP courses. The purpose of the Drama and Inquiry course as I stated to the students in the syllabus was to use drama to “explore questions about multiple perspectives, shifting identities and our co-existence in a diverse, complex and ever-changing world.” It was my hope that we could “become a true intellectual community filled with members who raise heartfelt and complex questions and explore answers together in an engaged ethical dialogue.”
In this course, we read plays by contemporary American playwrights that dealt with issues of race, class, gender, ethnicity and identity. Students wrote their own monologues and dialogues and eventually wrote and acted in their own one-act plays. They participated in alternative types of classroom discourse, including Socratic Seminars, collaborative inquiry, reflective conversations, and journal groups. In the early years of teaching the course, I was still required to create written mid-term and final exams, to be given by proctors during times designated by the administration. In more recent years, I was able to get permission for alternative assessments that were more compatible with the nature of the class. I was able to count the text of their original plays as a final exam and institute a series of in-class performances instead of written mid-terms. At the end of each year, we produced a “Drama Showcase” which consisted of original scenes, written, acted and directed by the students, performed for a small audience in an intimate space we created in our basement classroom or on the stage of a local theatre.
In “Learning from Laramie: Urban High School Students Read, Respond and Re-enact The Laramie Project,” ( Pincus, 2005) I document one class’s involvement with the course and discuss what happened when we read, researched and performed The Laramie Project by Moises Kauffman and the Tectonic Theater Company. After seeing the work performed in my classroom, the director of the high school play decided to do the The Laramie Project as the high school play on stage in the main auditorium.. The performances were followed up with the Peer Educators leading workshops about homosexuality and homophobia. The play had literally made the journey from second to main stage
I would spend the rest of my teaching career at Masterman trying to infuse second stage practices into my main stage English classrooms.
Creating “Wiggle” Room – Designing the Course
In designing my English IV course, I had a little more leeway than I had in developing my English III courses because 12th grade is not a “tested” grade for either the state of Pennsylvania or the School District. And while I did have to adhere to English Department guidelines that had been approved by the District (we all agreed, for example, that every student would write a literary research paper in 12th grade), choose texts of literary merit from World Literature, and assign a range of writing, I was relatively free to design the course and select texts that I thought would interest and engage my students.
All of the students had read Orwell’s 1984 over the summer, so I selected novels, films, plays and non-fiction that I thought would enable us to continue to explore issues about language, power, identity and storytelling that 1984 was sure to evoke. I named the class “21st Century English Studies: Literature, Language and Lives in the Age of Globalization” and wrote the syllabus in the form of a letter to the students explaining my goals and rationale and soliciting their feedback. I included these questions as my guiding principles:
• How can we co-construct an English 4 class in an academic high school that engages the students in meaningful ways? How can we make English matter?
• What are the ways in which we can co-construct the curriculum of this course so it can better reflect the realities of human interaction in a global environment?
For their first homework assignment, I asked the students to respond to the syllabus, to tell me what they thought, raise questions, share suggestions and recount their past experiences in English classes.
The three responses that open this chapter are representative of the ones I received from all thirty-two of the students. Like Bob, Tiffany and Shelly, many expressed their disdain for the restrictiveness and predictability of some of their former English classes.
Mariah echoing the desire for relevance and variety explained, “I am really looking for a class that avoids the basic pitfalls of most English classes: tedium and boredom. A lot of English classes just have you read a story then write and essay on it. The simple response to this is to create a large array of techniques to tackle an objective. It can be research papers, skits, discussions, or whatever the students can think of…If the class reflects our wishes, we’ll be more willing to interact and get involved.”
Malik suggested a way to make the literature more meaningful to the students, writing, “My final suggestion is to sometimes move the ‘lens.’ When reading books, we don’t always have to focus on the book with blinders on. We can talk about what’s going on in the world and in our lives.”
Mariah added, “Even if you think that there are certain ideas the student must have about a book, you have to be willing to accept the view of those students who don’t see things your way or the way of the scholars. If you don’t accept those with opposing views, all respect will be lost and you’ll be forced to grade papers that just say what you said to your students. Never suggest that a student try and change his/her views, though it is acceptable to ask them to take a different viewpoint for a moment. It’s one thing to look through someone else’s eyes. It’s another to have your eyes replaced.”
Using metaphors of sight, Mariah and Malik offer powerful critiques of main stage teaching practices and echo Greene’s warning about teacher’s becoming functionaries and clerks in a bureaucratic system.
In going forward from here, there were three things that I did in response to the students’ letters:
• Organized the material into loosely structured inquiries into dystopias, language and storytelling;
• Varied the types of texts and writing assignments that I assigned to the whole class;
• Offered several opportunities for the students to select their own texts and/or the ways they responded to those texts.
In addition, I began our reading and discussion of every text by assigning a personal response. This way I was able to have access to and understand the sense the students were making of each text while they were reading.
Some Common Major Texts: Read or viewed by all
Orwell, George, 1984
PBS Video, American Tongues
Fugard, Athol, The Island
Wiesel, Eli Night
Erdrich, Louise Love Medicine
Cruz, Nilo Anna in the Tropics
Eggers, Dave and Deng, Valentino What is the What?
Saptri, Marjane Perepolis
Some Common Papers and Projects – Completed by All
Film Scenario and Screenplay – Modernization of Antigone
Missing Scene from a Play – In response to Anna in the Tropics
Literary Research Paper – Formal research paper, student selected text
Collaborative Response and Research Journals – Love Medicine
Intellectual Autobiography – Long, complex personal narrative project
Final Exam – (in class essay with student-generated personalized questions)
Sample of Student Choice in Text Selection
Several times throughout the year, students were able to follow their own interests and select texts within the context of the organized inquiry units. The chart below shows the range and variety of texts read or viewed by several students. During these times, students often shared books or movies with each other and engaged in informal conversations about what they were discovering.
Chris Bob Kathleen Ryan
Dystopia Inquiry Republic of Plato A Clockwork Orange Wicked Escape from LA
Native American Storytelling Inquiry Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee Yellow Raft in Blue Water Doe Boy Genocide of the Mind
Literary Research Project On the Road Maus I The Secret Life of Bees Like Water for Chocolate
Moving Beyond “Wiggle Room:” The Intellectual Autobiography
Midway through the course, I sensed a trend towards disengagement among many of the students. The spaces I had opened in the syllabus for student choice of texts and student voice in response to those texts were losing their novelty and many students seemed to be going through the motions, not much differently from the way they would have had the curriculum and assignments been more traditional. I was very anxious to re-engage them to create assignments that would be personally meaningful to all. I thought back to my own educational experiences and recalled an assignment I was given in graduate school that really made a significant difference in my life: an intellectual autobiography in which we expressed our current philosophy of education, tracing our intellectual journeys and laying out the roadmaps for our future research and studies. This assignment prompted me to think long and hard about how my life experiences influenced my choices and how they connected to the books I had read and the questions I had explored in my academic work. I remembered how I had been galvanized the first time I read Paulo Freire, and how I found deeper meaning and purpose in my teaching life after reading Maxine Greene. More importantly, this assignment allowed me to discern the themes and patterns in my life thus far and gave me a sense of agency and purpose for my future, a way of integrating who I am with the kind of work I wanted to do in the world.
I began to modify this assignment for high school seniors. The students would each write a proposal for an intellectual autobiography of their lives so far, including a title, book abstract, annotated table of contexts in which they describe the contents of at least six chapters, one sample chapter and a book cover. Later, at the students’ request, I added an artistic component; these included paintings, poetry books, CD’s with representative songs, photography or web-sites.
The project was introduced slowly and was worked on over a period of three months. The first phase of the project was personal reflective writing in response to prompts I would give the class. The students would write their responses in their notebooks and would only share with others if they elected to do so. The prompts related to their literacy and educational histories. They wrote about learning how to read and write, their favorite childhood books, teachers who had made a difference in their lives, powerful learning experiences in and out of school and images they had of themselves as students.
Because the students had been together since 5th grade, they had shared memories of books and teachers. The conversations in class on the days we would work on these prompts were lively and engaging. Many of these reflections and discussions became personal as students talked about the impact on their lives of losing family members or surviving serious illness. It is important to note that this assignment in which the students were writing their about their own lives was done within the context of a year-long inquiry into language and story telling through the literature we were reading. While I deliberately did not make this connection explicit, many of the students began to comment on how their own writing was similar or different from Eggers’ or Wiesel’s or Erdrich’s. Still others addressed issues of language, culture, power and identity in their own reflections.
The final in-class activity we did before the students were assigned to write the autobiography at home was to look at a portfolio of their writing since 8th grade. Each year, their English teachers would have them select two of their best pieces of writing and write about how they had grown as writers that year. By 12th grade, they had 10 pieces of writing in their portfolios. Examining their writing portfolios in the context of the intellectual autobiography gave more meaning and purpose to what could have been a perfunctory activity.
For the first and only time during the school year, every single student handed in his or her intellectual autobiography on the day it was due. Kurt, who entitled his book Rounded, wrote about his experiences living in two very different contexts – a rural university town and a large urban city. He explored issues of language, race and identity in his own life. After the project Kurt wrote, “It was as though you let us go with all of the knowledge you taught us all year. The project basically wrote itself as we knew nothing else but to make the inevitable connections.”
In her chapter, Jasmine described surviving cancer as a child and how that experience inspired her to become a nurse. In an email to me after the school year had ended, Jasmine wrote, “I started forgetting about you as the grader and I started to really focus on me and my accomplishments, my hard times, the lesson I learned and the person I still wanted to improve on….. After completing this project, I felt a bit changed, relieved. Writing it was healthy for me.”
Another student, Kathleen, was inspired to write the entire book. Each chapter told of a significant event in her development. But what was remarkable about this work is that each chapter was told in a different way; Kathleen had experimented with her writing. She emulated the different storytelling techniques used by the authors we had been studying, writing one chapter as a play, another as a story within a story, another as a graphic novel, still another as a poem. Upon completion, Kathleen wrote, “The intellectual autobiography … helped me create a place for myself in the world, or rather, helped me see the place I’ve simply been overlooking.”
As for Bob, the student who had asked for “wiggle room,” he too wrote a compelling narrative about his early years in school. In his chapter, he described an elementary school teacher who rewarded his students with money for answering questions correctly. Young Bob was very good at that game and continued to “play the game” right through middle school where he won academic awards at 8th grade graduation. By high school, he had decided to opt out, no longer motivated by extrinsic rewards. I am somewhat sad to say that I was not successful in motivating Bob to make his learning in my class more intrinsic; for most of the texts we read and essays we wrote, he continued to “wiggle” his way through them, relying on Sparknotes, in-class discussions, his native intelligence and excellent writing skills to fake his way through essays and other writing assignments. However, he did engage in the process of writing his intellectual autobiography and by reading it, I was able to come to a better understanding of who he was and what he needed (or didn’t need) from my class.
A Fitting Final – Student Generated Exam Questions
This past year, you gave us options, and different strategies to go about looking for the “right” answers to questions… and there was no one answer, it was whatever we thought the answer was, so long as we backed it up. Also, the fact that we could create our own essay topics that were used on tests and such kind of blew me out of the water. The fact that you had faith that we were smart enough to think of intelligent, well rounded, involved questions really made me think I wasn’t as low on the “Masterman Scale” as I thought.
At Masterman, all teachers are required to create final exams that are given to seniors during the first or second week of May. After having taught the class in a way that solicited their input into the texts and interpretations of those texts, it seemed inconsistent for me to create a “one-size-fits-all” final exam. Instead, I proposed that each student create his or her own essay exam question. The only criteria for the question were that it had to relate to one of the issues we had explored in class this year and that they had to include content from at least four texts ( whole class or self-selected) in their response. For those students who chose not to write their own question, I created three questions from which they could choose. Twenty of the thirty-two students chose to write their own questions. *
Barbara’s comments, shared above, address the way in which, just being asked to create her own exam question changed her image of herself as a learner. No longer was she “low on the Masterman scale,” one which ranks students by their grades and test scores, she was “smart” and “intelligent” and capable of completing this complex task. Because, I, the teacher had faith in her and classmates, they could reconstruct their images of themselves as valued learners, echoing Greene ( 1973) when she wrote, “The teacher who believes in stimulating and developing potential will be challenging – at least implicitly – the inhumanity of credentialing systems which sort and rank people according to market demand” (92 ).
And in a fitting outcome for me, the teacher, I was spared the fate that Mariah warned me about in the beginning of the year. The essays I read and responded to for their final exam were varied, interesting and enlightening, reflecting and refracting the course I had designed for them through their diverse lenses and perspectives.
Conclusion: Student Voice and Teacher Integrity,
Alison Cook-Sather (2006) has written that when students have the opportunity to develop a meta- cognitive awareness of their learning both in order to engage and as a result of engaging in serious dialogue with adults, they not only construct their understanding of subject matter content; they also constructs themselves anew. This reconstruction of self is evident in my students’ responses shared above. But what is the impact on the adult who so engages with her students? Greene finds the seeds of the answer in Martin Buber, whom she quotes: “In learning from time to time what this human being needs and does not need at the moment, the educator is led to an ever deeper recognition of what all human beings need in order to grow” (94). Including herself. A teacher who seeks this kind of dialogic relationship with her students will not need to move out of the classroom to grow professionally and personally. She will be able to find the work meaningful and challenging over the course of a lifespan.
Back in 1973, Greene railed against the bureaucracy that was paralyzing schools and forcing teachers into the role of bureaucratic functionaries. Thirty-five years later in the wake of NCLB, her words echo with pointed urgency as teachers once again are called upon to abandon their own goals, desires, beliefs and expertise, ignore their own knowledge about their students and what they need to learn in order to implement restrictive and often meaningless curricula designed solely to raise scores on standardized tests.
In a talk at the Carnegie Foundation, Director Lee Shulman (2008) discusses integrity in teaching. Teachers, he says, need to align their knowledge, purpose, design and action. I believe that it is impossible for a teacher to separate her true self, her values, her beliefs, her background, her experiences and her questions from her work as a teacher and remain in the classroom for any length of time. There have been times in my past where I have been forced to “teach against myself” — that is, to present to young people ideas, texts, positions that I did not believe in. I’ve been forced to present material to them in ways that I know neither connected to nor engaged them. I have been forced to give them assessments that measured skills that are neither relevant nor necessary for real learning. When I have done these things, my actions have not been aligned with my beliefs.
I have struggled over the years to bring the two more in line. Of course, there has been no easy resolution — only the tension that comes from trying to reconcile disparate ideas, perspectives, and approaches. I have tried to listen to my students and respond to their questions and needs in meaningful ways. The constant investigation into my own teaching and a serious attempt to listen and respond to my students’ voices, questions, and desires are the threads that can have held me together and allowed me to teach with integrity.
* To see the student generated exam questions and other materials related to this chapter, visit www.marshapincus.com/beyondwiggleroom
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