Learning Cycle

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It seems like just a few minutes ago that I was polishing up my ELA IV syllabus, organizing my classroom, and preparing for the class of 2022 to walk in.

But it wasn’t yesterday.

It was nine months ago.

They had walked in mask-clad and sheepish, unsure of the safety of the setting and the expectations of this middle aged white woman who greeted them too enthusiastically at the door.

For nine months we shared space in room 106 — some only showing up a handful of times before transitioning to our virtual digital-content option; others attending in person at various levels of engagement throughout the year.

We weathered multiple transitions from in-person to virtual instruction, completed two in-person college visits along with several virtual visits, and navigated the college application process. Some re-took the SAT. Some met with an Army recruiter. Some filled out the FAFSA.

In January one finished her credits and moved on to community college, one switched to our online curriculum and started a full-time position with Amazon, and three others transferred to other high schools.

Through the course of the year, one lost a brother, another learned her mother is dying, and one had a baby.

Many held down jobs at WalMart, McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s, Subway, and Wendy’s. One grew the clothing business he started during the pandemic; another got paid to do hair.

Almost everyone applied to at least one college, and many are enrolled for the fall — at Ferris State, Central Michigan, Michigan State, Oakland University, Henry Ford College, and a number of other colleges and trade schools. Some will take a semester or year to work before college, some will jump right into the workforce, and a few will join the military.

They are excited. They are relieved. They are terrified.

On Thursday morning, we greeted our seniors in the cafeteria, provided them with a chicken (wings) and waffles breakfast, and gave them the space they have had on just a few occasions in this building to just hang out and talk. They had submitted the songs for the play list that was bumping out of the speakers, and they intermittently joined in with the words or moved with the music as they hung out in clusters — standing or sitting around tables covered in red.

The principal addressed them — told them how proud she was and urged them to keep going. The class president, the valedictorian, and other students and staff stood up and took their moment at the mic. We watched a video compilation of photos gathered throughout the year and remembered some key moments — Homecoming, Decision Day, Senior Pinning.

And then, the students lined up for one last lap of the halls — the senior clap out. Underclassmen and teachers lined the halls and the seniors celebrated their way down all four halls to the sounds of cheers and the music blaring from the speaker one of them carried.

And then they were gone.

Sure, a few remained finishing finals, turning in missing work, and paying senior dues, but most walked right out the door — free at last.

The following night, at a venue 20 minutes from school, they gathered again, cleaned, polished, styled, and decked out for their senior prom. It was my job to stand at the door and direct them, so I was first to spot them as they rolled up to the door like A-listers dripping in swag, tottering on heels, and striking poses as we all clicked away.

They had a lightness about them — they had made it. They had finished high school despite adversity, despite a pandemic, despite the broken systems that they’d had to navigate, despite poverty, despite educational disparity. They were one short week away from crossing the stage, grabbing their diplomas, and tossing their caps, and it showed.

They filled the dance floor shouting lyrics in unison, applauding the reveal of their prom king and queen, and reveling in this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

They weren’t thinking about the challenges that lie ahead or the disappointments that they had already experienced.

No. For one night they were magic — gleaming, invincible magic.

This week I will sit in my empty classroom in front of my laptop, examining my syllabus and scope and sequence. I’ll be asking myself, how much further can I push this next class, how much more can I give them, in what other ways can I prepare them? What experiences can I provide that will better prepare this next group to step into their future?

I’ll rearrange the desks, re-think my incentives, and ponder my classroom expectations.

I’ll walk away and take some much-needed rest — tending to my garden, my body, my spirit.

Then, in three short months I’ll be standing at my classroom door, too enthusiastic, welcoming in the class of 2023, who might be a little less sheepish, a little less uncertain, but just as deserving of the best that I can give them, just as worthy of feeling for a few brief moments like magic.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord

Colossians 3:23

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.

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