Every day in the classroom, good or bad, is about the why. The purpose is paramount. And that’s what I want to address today – what is my why, what is my purpose for participating in Rogue Teachers.
This is going to sound cliche, but there is no other way to start the explanation. I’ve always felt a bit different. I’ve always felt like an outsider. Perhaps that’s a result of attending four elementary schools by the end of third grade. (Side note: I skipped kindergarten, but, that’s another story for another time.) Perhaps it’s the result of growing up in a single-parent household in which the lone adult was a practicing addict and recovering alcoholic. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I sought solace from the chaos in books. I was a voracious reader as a child. Perhaps it is my penchant for repetition in my writing. There are many things about me and how people react to me that makes me feel like I’m just not like most people.
Never has this weirdness felt more acute than since I began my teaching career five years ago. I spent 13 years as a journalist in my first career after completing a bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Washington in June 2000. I realized after seven months of soul-searching that the stuff I always enjoyed most were the times I got to write about students. I got my first job at a school I covered for a number of years where the department chair was a gentleman who started his education career at my high school alma mater in Bellevue in the early 1990s. It was a warm, welcoming place and I was told that I needed to teach a couple of common texts for each prep, otherwise the rest was up to me.
The texts were classic English canon. For 10th grade honors, it was Macbeth and 1984, while for core 11 it was The Great Gatsby. OK, one common text for juniors. I may have said in an interview at another school I hated Gatsby and wouldn’t want to teach it. Karma, my friends. After teaching it twice, I love it. That there is a movie with Leo DiCaprio as the titular character certainly helps to teach it.
I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing, of course, as a first-year teacher but I did my best with the canon and threw in some of the other stuff that I thought was more modern into my curriculum. The more I teach canon texts, the more I realize that it is problematic, especially as the demographics of my school change. My students struggle to see themselves in the canon, which is mostly dead white guys. Some of my colleagues, whom I deeply respect, have dramatically different viewpoints on texts.
I definitely lost it last fall when we were planning a brand new unit the district wanted us to teach. I lost it because my colleagues wanted to teach a text by a dead white guy in the middle of a social justice unit. They were all familiar with it. Given some personal circumstances at that point, I wasn’t in a position to take on a new text while also teaching a new unit. I had a meltdown. This is how important it is to me to push the boundaries of what texts we teach, especially because I believe deeply that the skills we teach kids are far more critical than the texts we use to teach them with.
For my students’ sakes, I stuck to my principles: I refused to teach the text. I used a bunch of other modern texts to drive academic discussion, which was the focal skill for the unit, and it went OK. Later on, my colleagues admitted attempting to teach even a short novel in that unit wasn’t ideal. The unit needs work. The way I taught it needs work. But, I stand by my refusal to add the novel, particularly a novel by a dead white guy.
Later on in the year, I taught Catcher in the Rye with my other prep. Looking at the kids as we started reading together, I knew this wasn’t going to work. So, I supplemented and cut a lot of stuff I did the year before when I was collaborating with colleagues who had the whole unit planned out while I was teaching senior English for the first time. I had zero issues with dumping a Socratic seminar on the symbolism of Holden’s hunting hat.
Why do we even teach this novel anymore? I love it, by the way, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for the kids in front of me. When I asked a colleague that question, he didn’t know, which means we teach it because that’s the way we’ve always done it at my school. That is not a solid rationale.
We’ve collectively dumped 1984 as a sacred, whole-class text in 10th grade. We all present it in some form or another but, again, it’s not right for the kids in front of us. A colleague told me once that my enthusiasm for a text is what gets kids into it. I don’t think that’s true at all. Sophomores simply aren’t cognitively or developmentally ready for the text. We can tackle all the same skills and issues with myriad other dystopian texts. I love Brave New World but that doesn’t mean it’s the right text for the kids in front of me, either.
I chafe against the way my colleagues teach. I chafe against the way the district wants us to teach. It causes conflict. Administrators have to intervene. I have become difficult to work with because I challenge all of this.
I need a space to tackle all of the issues I have with how English has traditionally been taught. It bored the hell out of me in the 1990s and it bores the hell out of students now. Yet, we’re still doing it basically the same way in 2019, nearly a quarter-century since I graduated.
I want to teach quite differently than I have or feel I have the space to teach, due to expectations by district and building staff, due to the limitations of our six-period, 55-minute class schedule allows not to mention the woeful underfunding of our department budget for books. I hope that we can use this site and the companion Facebook group to question those practices in a productive manner. I want to work through these issues with like-minded individuals rather than constantly fighting pushback from colleagues who don’t question why we teach the texts we teach. I want to be subversive and disruptive because it’s what’s best for kids.
That’s why I am here.