Scenes from Room 106

Click to listen to this post.

After twelve days at home, I headed back to my classroom in Detroit last Monday.

I lugged in snacks and prizes, two laptops, and my lunch, then prepared to meet my students who had been on winter break. Some of our students love breaks — time to sleep, work at their jobs, and scroll on their phones. Others dread breaks — more time in somewhat chaotic or hostile environments, less food security, and less predicability. I try to keep that in mind as I stand at my door watching them walk down the halls. My students, unlike students in other districts, did not go to Cancun or Miami over their break; they likely spent their time in their bedroom, behind the counter of a Subway or a Panera, or in a car with a family member, attending to medical appointments, groceries, or other family responsibilities.

I can’t know or imagine what they experienced on their “winter break”. Instead, I try to keep my eyes and ears open to see and hear what my students are saying [and not saying] to me so that I can respond with care, and “care” can look like a lot of different things.

One of the first to enter my room last Monday was Damon*. Damon has been in two of my classes all year — required senior English class and an elective writing class. He’s not always motivated; in fact, he often falls asleep. My approach with him has been mostly compassionate and firm. At the end of the first semester, after he had procrastinated on the major project for the quarter and asked me in front of the whole class in the Zoom room to walk him through the past three weeks of instruction so that he could finish the work on time, I came down a little more than firm. “Damon, this is not how it works. You can’t opt out of three weeks worth of instruction and then expect me to use class time in one-on-one support to carry you through. This is a habit that I have seen in you that will not fly in college. You’ve got to get it together.” I stopped speaking for just long enough to hear him leave the Zoom meeting. I’d come down a little too hard, even if all I’d said was true. He didn’t return to class that day, and he didn’t turn in the assignment. When he came to class the following week, I pulled him aside, apologized, and urged him to fully opt in moving forward. He mostly has, with intermittent gentle shoulder shoves and admonitions from me.

Last Monday morning, as he met me at my threshold, he said, “Mrs. Rathje, I won’t be here tomorrow. I’m going to Ferris State to register.” I enthusiastically put up my hand for a high five and said, “Way to go, Damon! That’s amazing!” because even though he often struggles to stay engaged even at the high school level, he is believing [and so is his mom] that he can take this next step. Now is not the time for me to tell him how hard it’s going to be, how many supports he’s going to have to reach out for, or how likely it is that he might actually fail this first attempt. Not today– today is for high-fives and encouragement.

Later that same day, I was wrangling my last hour class into some semblance of order so that we could tackle the days’ content. By the time this class starts at 1:20pm, I’ve already had 200 minutes worth of seniors, so I’m running low on gas. This group challenges me. Thy are tired, too. They talk too much, they play too much, they can’t find their seats, and they certainly don’t want to learn about the context in which Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime was written. Nevertheless, I set my expectations and acknowledge those who are following instructions. However, several are still not with me, and then one too many disrespectful comments later, I hit my limit and start in: “This is unacceptable. Your phones need to be down; your eyes need to track me. This is not just for this class. Right now is your opportunity to build muscle for whatever you are facing next. This type of behavior will not be allowed on a job site or in a college classroom. You will be asked — you’ll be told — to leave. Your behavior is disrespectful and childish. You can do better, and I am insisting on better.” The eyes roll, and the derogatory comments leak out quietly, but the room has quieted a bit. I proceed with the lesson. I walk through the notes, instruct my students to open a document in Google classroom, then break them into groups and tell them to get started. I hear James* who sits near the front of the room, say “This internet sucks,” under his breath as he tries to open the document on his phone. Where his laptop is I don’t have the strength to ask right now.

I walk around the room supporting as most work to find contextual information about South Africa, apartheid, Nelson Mandela, and Trevor Noah, when James looks at me beaming, “Mrs. Rathje, guess what I just did?” I am not sure I want to engage since he’s still holding his phone and his answer may include information about high school drama, Tiktok, or something else I don’t care to know about, but he seems so excited that I ask, “What did you do?” He replies, “I just paid my phone bill! Now I don’t have to use this terrible wifi.”

“James!” I say, forgetting any frustration I felt just a few minutes ago, “that’s impressive! You must feel so accomplished. Paying a phone bill is no small thing!”

He replies, “Oh, I been paying my phone bill since I was twelve. That ain’t new.” And that comment reminds me that sometimes my students act childishly perhaps because they’ve handled adult responsibilities way too early. I can still insist they meet my expectations, but I can do so with the knowledge that they are already carrying a lot — much of which I remain unaware.

On Thursday, I handed out Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa during and after apartheid. I directed my students to the opening pages, clicked an arrow on Audible, and we followed along as Trevor Noah began his story. I moved around the room, pointed out where we were, and stopped frequently to direct my students to a reading guide so they could answer questions to check for understanding, We were about half way through the first chapter when I noticed that they were engrossed. I could tell because they turned their pages in unison, laughed at the funny parts, and began to move easily between the book and the reading guide. I was beaming. Though this might seem like a baseline expectation for a classroom full of seniors, in my classroom, it is notable.

Even more notable were the comments as we wrapped up for the day, “This is a good book!” and “I can’t wait to hear what happens next.”

I can’t possibly in 1500 words or less convey to you the complexity of simultaneously holding seniors accountable for being mature and responsible while cheering them on as they navigate the difficult and celebrating when they engage in the ordinary. I can’t describe how full my heart feels when they share themselves with me — their anticipation for a college visit, their pride in paying a bill, their enjoyment of a story. I can’t expect you to understand how blessed I feel to share space with these developing humans. You’ll have to take my word for it.

establish the work of our hands for us— yes, establish the work of our hands.

Psalm 90:17

Road Trip

Click the arrow to listen to me read this post.

My principal called me and my partner, the college access counselor, into her office. We’d received an invitation from Central Michigan University, our charter school’s authorizer, for our seniors to attend a college visit on Wednesday, September 29.

The event was free for our students, but it was only a few weeks away, and we’d have to hustle to pull it together — communicate with students and parents, get permission slips, and coordinate chaperones and transportation.

“What do you guys think? Do you want to take them?”

Almost simultaneously, my colleague and I said, “Absolutely!”

Last year we provided virtual college visits for our students. Each Wednesday, students would log into a zoom room and an admissions rep from a university would pop in and share a presentation, often with slides or a video. We provided incentives for students to show up, turn on their cameras, and ask questions. It was the best we could do, and for some of our students it was enough.

For most, though, it was hard to imagine what college life might be like by merely watching a slide show on the screen of their chromebooks while lying in bed in their pajamas. To be honest, it was very hard a year ago to imagine life beyond the isolation of Covid period.

Last year, virtual visits were the only choice we had. Now that we were being offered an opportunity to actually put our seniors’ feet on a college campus, we couldn’t pass it up. We had to give them a clearer vision of college.

My colleague got busy on a flyer and a permission slip, and our vice principal/athletic director quickly secured us a bus. A few days later, I started meeting with seniors one-on-one.

“You’ve been invited,” I said, “to go on a field trip to Central Michigan University next Wednesday. We’ll leave at 6:45 am and return at 6:45 pm.” I paused after this information each time I said it to allow students a moment to process. Each of the students looked me in the eyes and nodded before I continued. “Here is the agenda. You’ll tour the campus, attend a class, and get a T-shirt. There is no cost for you, but you need to return this permission slip by Monday.”

Each of my students — students who sometimes grumble and complain about school, who often want to sleep or eat in my class, who struggle to stay engaged from time to time — each of these students responded with a measured excitement.

“Ok. Thank you. I’ll bring in the permission slip.”

Over the next couple of days, I heard doubt surface.

“Mrs. Rathje, are we going to have to ride on a yellow school bus?”

“No,” I replied, “we’ll be on a charter bus.”

“What about the lunch? What are they gonna give us — some bologna sandwich and chips?”

“I imagine it will be a regular college dining room meal. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

“Why do we have to leave so early?”

“CMU is a couple hours away. The event starts at 10am. We don’t want to miss anything.”

We started with a list of 48 students we were willing to invite — those who, despite Covid, are on track for graduation, have consistent attendance, and are mostly engaged in the journey toward college. Several opted out for various reasons, and we ended up with 31 students and four chaperones on a plain vanilla charter bus.

The students were excited and, I think, a little anxious. The questions kept coming.

Mrs. Rathje, are we all going to stick together all day today?”

“No. We’ll be together for parts of it, but you will each go to the class you signed up for. We’ll be separated for that.”

“What if I don’t like my class? Can I just leave?

“No. You are going to give it a chance. You’re going to stay with your group. You’re going to survive. I promise.”

“Mrs. Rathje, you better be right about the food.”

“Trust me.”

After we left the Detroit metro area, Lansing was virtually the only sign of “city” life amid miles and miles of farm land. The students, on their phones or sleeping, were mostly oblivious, but as we neared Mt. Pleasant, which is not far from my childhood home, I woke them and called their attention to the surroundings.

“If you look out your windows, you’ll see mostly farmland, but in the next few minutes, on your left, you will see the CMU Chippewas’ football stadium.”

They looked out the windows as I continued to narrate.

“On the right you see everything you need within walking distance — restaurants, groceries, a pharmacy. As we turn left here, you are officially on campus.”

The phones were mostly down as students looked out the windows.

We pulled up in front of the Student Activities Center where someone in a maroon and gold shirt was waving us in. Inside, more people in maroon and gold were calling the names of our students, handing out backpacks and T-shirts, and encouraging us to change into them to designate that we were part of the group.

I heard just a little grumbling, “Mrs. Rathje, do I have to wear the shirt?”

“Yes.”

Then compliance. They quickly changed, grabbed a donut or a juice that had been set out for them, and then walked en masse into the basketball arena where the opening session was in progress.

The stands on one side of the gym were filled with students — I’d say about 300 or so — from charter schools across the state. Perhaps 80% or more of those students were Black, and most were from Detroit.

In this opening session, the students learned about the culture of CMU — “Fire up, Chips!” — and some of the programs. Next, we were broken into groups for a campus tour and lunch.

I was proud of our students as they followed our tour guides, asking questions, and checking out the campus, and I was probably as excited as they were when they got to lunch and realized they could pick what they wanted and eat as much as they liked. I got my own lunch and sat down at a table with some young men from our school. They weren’t embarrassed or trying to avoid me as some teenaged boys might do. They spoke to me. They asked me questions. In fact, other students sought me out during that lunch time. They, too, had questions and just wanted to check in. They were relishing a full hour of lunch and the freedom to move about among actual college students.

When I saw some of the students who’d expressed concern about lunch, I asked “How was your food?”

“It was great! You were right, Mrs. Rathje!”

After lunch, we moved into class sessions. We were separated into even smaller groups, and students attended sessions based on their interests. It was fun later to hear students report on their experiences.

“I learned about exercise science. It was about how the muscles work,” one said as he massaged his own bicep.

“We were in the TV station learning about how films are made,” said another.

But my favorite was the one that I read on a reflection assignment completed after the event: “We had to do an egg experiment where we dropped it from a certain height to see if it cracks or not. My egg was the only one that did not crack, and I got a mug for it.” He hadn’t said a word the whole trip home. He had held that little victory to himself.

As we wrapped up at the event, I questioned our students. “Well, what did you think? How was your day? What did you learn?”

I got all kinds of responses.

The understated: “It was alright.

The tired: “It was a lot of walking.”

And the excited: “This is my dream school. I’m applying this month.”

As we walked to our bus, we met up with one of our grads from last year who is currently attending CMU. He shook the hands of some of our seniors who, in the fog of Covid, hadn’t known he had chosen to go to college at all. My colleague and I asked if he would come speak to our students when he is home; we’d like him to share his experience with our seniors. He said he would and added, “going to college has changed the way I think about everything.”

The bus ride home was hot. The air conditioning on our bus quit working as though to remind us that our fantastical day of hope was over. We were headed back to our school in Detroit where we wouldn’t go on tours, have hour-long all-you-can-eat lunches, or be bathed in images of possibility.

However, the next day in class, my students wanted to share with those who had not gone. They didn’t mention the hot ride home, but they wanted to share what they’d seen, what they’d done, and most importantly, what they had eaten.

“Mrs. Rathje, are we going to visit more colleges like that? “

“If it’s up to me, we sure will, but right now let’s get back to our college research. Who is adding CMU to their college comparison chart?”

A few hands in the room went up into the air.

“Excellent. Let’s find out even more than we learned yesterday.”

Perhaps I imagined it, but it seemed to me that my seniors were a little more engaged, a little more motivated, a little more interested in the possibilities of college.

Bring on the next road trip.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29: 11