Changing the World

In July 2020, having been offered a freshman English position at Detroit Leadership Academy, I emailed my enthusiastic acceptance. Within hours, the hiring agent reached back out to see if I would be willing to instead teach senior English. The school had a new initiative called Cougars to College, wherein this senior English course would serve as the vehicle by which all seniors could secure entrance to college. The course had never been taught before, so the person who agreed to teach it would be writing the curriculum, and because the pandemic had interrupted the students’ junior year right at the time that they would’ve been preparing for and then taking the SAT, the first unit would be a crash course in SAT prep. The rest of the first semester, the teacher would be working with the college counselor to help students navigate the college application process.

Just a couple of months earlier, my husband and I had made the decision that I would apply for high school English positions, especially those in schools where race and poverty had historically led to educational disparity. In the wake of racial unrest following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, and Breonna Taylor, I felt newly called to this work because I believe that Black lives matter and I wanted to do more than just say that with my mouth.

My interior idealistic 25 year old self wanted to change the world.

I applied widely to schools in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor and landed with Equity Education, an agency committed to intentionally tearing down racial inequities — they want to change the world, too!

They were asking me to teach seniors about the college application process, even though they didn’t know that in my last high school teaching position I had worked with the counseling department to walk with high school juniors and seniors through researching colleges, writing college essays, doing SAT prep, and writing resumes. They couldn’t have known I was uniquely qualified to design and teach this course — they couldn’t have known this was more than all I had dared to hope for.

But God knew. He knew that I’d been preparing for this position for most of my career. I’d not only taught college writing and AP courses for nine years in St. Louis, I’d also taught freshman writing and developmental composition at the college level. I’d designed curriculum for rigorous dual-credit courses and for more foundational courses for emerging writers, so when they asked, “Would I be willing?” my response was, “Are you kidding? It would be my pleasure.”

Almost immediately, I started planning, preparing, and amassing materials. My coworkers at my previous job had showered me with a library full of adolescent and classic literature. A friend purchased boxes full of highlighters so that I could provide each student with a blue, a yellow, and a pink for analyzing sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Other friends (and my mom, of course) collected school supplies to stock my shelves, and one couple funded my purchase of 100 composition books. My son and I lugged all this stuff to my classroom, and there it sat for an entire semester.

Covid made it impossible for me to distribute these materials before school started. My students were on their side of the Zoom screen in their bedrooms and kitchens; I was on my side teaching from my desk. For the entire first semester, we did everything through Google classroom — every single document was electronic.

And can we just say, thank God for Zoom and Google Classroom which have allowed us to stay connected with our students! For many students, teachers are the only interaction they have outside of their homes — the only change of scenery from an otherwise endless quarantine.

We started the first semester by learning how to use Zoom, Google classroom, Gmail, and the Internet. Many of my students had never had a computer at home before, so the whole first quarter was spent on digital literacy and SAT prep. After the seniors had taken the SAT, we moved onto researching colleges and writing first a college essay and then a resume. By the end of the first semester, many students had been accepted into college, some with substantial scholarships.

Now, full transparency, we also have chronic absenteeism (30-40% of all students) even though an attendance team (and our teachers) are working diligently to get kids in class. Nevertheless, I feel good about the progress we made first semester — virtually and during a pandemic. We have students who are on track to go to college who might not have been without our concerted efforts.

Now, knowing that they are going to college and what they will find there, I feel compelled to spend the second semester preparing them, so a couple of weeks ago, when our seniors came to school to get their senior pictures taken, I was ready for them. Each student received a copy of Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime, a set of highlighters, and a composition book. We are going to read the memoir, not only to learn about Noah’s experience, but also to practice reading, build stamina, and develop critical literacy skills. We are going to use the highlighters to analyze text and to build grammar skills — highlighting topic sentences or prepositional phrases as the situation demands. The composition books — they have the most transformative potential.

Last week we kicked off the second semester, which we started with a syllabus — the first one many of them had seen. I can’t hardly send a group of first-generation college students off to class without working knowledge of how to decode a syllabus.

The second day of class, I prompted my students to take out their composition books. These, I said, would be used every week. We would fill up the pages with writing. They would not be graded on spelling, grammar, or punctuation, but they would receive full credit for simply filling up pages. Any writing, I told them, improves writing, and the more you write, the more your writing will improve. It’s just that simple

I put a few prompts on the screen:

  • This pandemic…
  • Thinking about college…
  • Any topic of your choice.

Then I set a timer for 8 minutes, turned on some instrumental music, and told them to write until I said stop or until they filled a page. And then, my students and I wrote.

As the clock ticked, I checked in: “You should be filling up one page of your composition book…” then, “we are halfway through our time…” and “keep writing, even if you just write the names of the people in your family…” then, “Time’s up. Stop writing.”

I asked a few students to share how that felt. In this virtual space, I honestly didn’t know if anyone would want to share, but they did.

“I loved that; I love writing,” said one.

“To be honest, I didn’t write anything; I just sat here. I couldn’t come up with anything,” said another.

“It was alright,” offered another.

I had them take a picture of the journal with the camera on their phones. (Yes, almost everyone has a cell phone, even though some don’t have reliable wifi.) Then I had them upload their photos to Google classroom.

Later in the day, after my classes, I had time to read…about their disappointment of losing their senior year to the pandemic, of their fears about college, of the conflict they are having with their parents, of the trauma that happened to them as a child, of the chronic illness they are living with.

After a semester of listening to my voice and seeing my face on a screen, some of them trusted me enough to share a piece of themselves through their writing. I wrote back to each and every one — thanking them for sharing, commiserating with their grief, and encouraging their bravery.

Look, I realize I’m not going to close the educational gaps that exist for students of color any time soon. I am not in one virtual school year going to get all my seniors to college or give them all the tools they need to be successful there. In fact, all of my seniors won’t likely graduate on time.

But here’s the thing, if I can get a classroom full of students writing in composition books, sharing their feelings and telling their stories, I might just change the world.

That’s all I really want to do — just change the world.

But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Romans 8:25

**If you would like to help me change the world, I will always and forever be accepting composition books, highlighters, and other school supplies.

I

Reflections on Life as a High School Teacher, re-visit

This post, first written in May 2015 (and edited in May 2019) is one of my most read — probably because my Lutheran North people love me almost as much as I love them.

One year ago today I said goodbye to my life as a high school teacher. I graded the last exam, entered the final grade, hugged a dozen or more kids, packed up my desk, and moved on.

Sniff!

No, I’m not crying. Really, I’m fine.

Sniff!

Over the past couple of weeks, former colleagues and students have been posting milestones on Facebook — the last week of classes, prom, senior assembly, baccalaureate, etc. I’ve been smiling as I view updates and click ‘like’ on dozens of pictures each day. And, I’ve been feeling a dull ache in my chest. I miss that part of my life!

Don’t get me wrong — where I am now is where I am supposed to be! I am confident of that. I don’t think I’ve quite landed at my new normal yet, but I am definitely on my way there. I love being back in Michigan where we can see family much more easily. I am reaping the benefits of a slower pace. I am truly enjoying my work with students aged six to thirty-something. But, you know, my life as a high school teacher was a pretty sweet ride.

Here is what I miss: 

  • working side-by-side with some of the most committed professionals I have ever encountered — The staff at Lutheran High School North in St. Louis is made up of a team of individuals who love kids and are willing to sacrifice time, talent, and treasure in order to walk with those kids on their educational journeys. In my book they are second-to-none; they made me a better human.
  • creating the culture of a classroom –– A magic exists inside the walls of a classroom where a teacher can foster the exchange of ideas and a community of learning. Each room is different; each year is different.
  • watching dorky little freshmen grow into adults — Each year I would be amazed as the seniors entered the building in August so much differently than they had entered three years earlier: more confident, more aware of themselves, and yet, more considerate of others. The freshman who couldn’t unlock, or even find, his own locker, turned into a senior leader who showed the new freshmen the ropes.
  • being surprised by visits from alumni — Sure, I was in the middle of instruction, but a knock on the door and an interruption from a student I hadn’t seen in three years was always greeted with a hug and a brief interview in front of my students. What did you learn at college? What do you wish you would’ve known before you got there? What is your favorite memory of Lutheran North?
  • finding amazing wisdom in the writing of teenagers — It didn’t happen every day, but it wasn’t rare to read an essay written by a sixteen-year-old that used such beautiful phrasing, such vivid imagery, or such concise wisdom that I would be compelled to carry the paper down the hall to read it out loud to one of my colleagues.
  • being challenged by the young people who watched what I did day in and day out and weren’t afraid to enter into dialogue with me — Mrs. Rathje, why do you drink so much coffee? How long have you been married?  Would you be willing to go talk to another teacher with me? Did you ever feel like God wasn’t answering your prayers? My mom is having surgery today; would you pray for her?

Yeah, it was a pretty sweet ride. The teachers, students, and experiences I encountered at Lutheran North have forever changed me. They influence the work that I do today. All those stacks of papers I read over the years gave me the experience I needed to be able to do the editing and proofreading I do for graduate students now. The years of figuring out how best to manage the erratic behavior of students in the classroom prepared me to work with a variety of students one-on-one. My interactions with other teachers made me more sensitive to the ways that I communicate with coworkers and more equipped to receive constructive criticism. My discussions with parents grew my heart and helped me better understand the complexity of family systems and how they impact the lives of students. I was, during all that time, being prepared for what was next.

And now I’m in the “what’s next,” being prepared for what comes after this. It’s pretty remarkable. Life is school; school is life. That’s probably the title for another blog post on another day.

For now let me say my hat is off to you, Lutheran North. I am, and will ever be, proud to say I am part of the Crusader family. I love and miss you all and pray that God prepares each of you, too, for whatever He has next.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Philippians 1:6