Monday, June 27, 2016

Not Just A Matter of Luck

It is our first full day at the TED Summit in Banff. Our group of 30 TED Innovative Educators (TIEs) from around the world is pitching our innovation plans. Mine has to do with mentoring passion. In preparing my pitch, I am reminded of a conversation a number of years back.

The year I first started teaching high school English, we piled into a friend's Honda and drove south to Williamsburg, Virginia, to spend Thanksgiving break with a group of friends from our college years. We spent all morning, afternoon, and into the wee hours of the morning cooking, eating, laughing, playing Boogle, and chatting. Sometime after three in the morning, one of my close friends turned to me and declared me lucky. "You've always known what you wanted to do with your life." And then she popped a question that many of my high school students have also grappled with:
"How do your figure out your passion?"
I didn't always know that I wanted to be a teacher. As a child, I remember declaring that I wanted to be an astronomer, namely because being an astronaut sounded scary and none of first grade peers seemed to know that an astronomer was. I thought it sounded cool. Secretly, I wanted to be a mermaid. But all the while, whether astronomer, mermaid, author, or teacher, I was writing. When I look back at what brought me joy as a child and what continues to bring me joy, it often involves writing. My passion for encouraging emerging writers to share their voice with real readers developed out of my own love for writing.

Luckily, I had teachers along the way that encouraged my writing. Tucked away somewhere in a trunk in my parent's basement is my very first book - The Amazing Talking Dog -  which I wrote as a fourth grader as part of the Young Author's initiative. In eighth grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Zeinstra, had us bring in notebooks which we wrote in every single day. We scribbled down lines from favorite poems which we found in her collection of anthologies lining the windowsills. We crafted stories that incorporated the hijinks of our peers as main plot points, taking joy in reading them aloud. We wrote every day. As a high school senior, my AP English teacher asked if he might submit a poem I wrote for an assignment to a regional writing competition. Before submitting it, we met after school to talk about the tone of one particular word I had used in the piece. Mr. Dik and I discussed how a single word can alter the feel of a text, but ultimately, he left the decision about whether I changed the work in my hands. Weeks later he took me into the city along with a couple of other classmates when the winners were announced. My name wasn't classed, but it didn't matter. I was lucky. It was this experience - playing with words, crafting lines, working with writers - where I was lucky to discover what I wanted to spend my life doing.

My good friend and so many of my students have not been as lucky, especially when what has brought them joy does not easily fit into one of the content-area silos of our current education system. What happens to the student who wants to design toys? What content-area does that fall under? Will that student be encouraged in our current system? What happens to the passion that does not easily fit into the curriculum of our algebra classes or biology or American literature?

We are educating students out of their stories. We are educating people out of passion.

That Thanksgiving conversation has haunted me, namely because I found my friend's question so difficult to answer:
"How do you figure out your passion?"
She wanted something more tangible, something she could do. Was there a class that I took in college that helped me discover a career path I am passionate about? Was there a book she could read? In my current classroom, I hear echoes of this same question. Is there a website I could look at? A test I might take to understand what my passion might be?

We have taught students how to look up the answers, but we have given them the questions. We have fed them questions that have right answers. My students, many of them, lack the confidence to struggle with the unknown, lack the practice of coming up with their own big questions.

I teach high school English in the third poorest county in my state. Our high school of about 900 students sits squarely in the middle of Michigan farm country. Over the course of this past year, I have had students struggle with food insecurity, homelessness, depression and suicide, broken homes, and broken hearts. Our teachers are fighting to raise our graduation rate and prepare our students for what lies outside the walls of our school. Unfortunately, our effectiveness is measured in how well our students pass the state tests. And so to prepare students for these tests and to take the college entrance exams, many of the writing experiences that my students have had in school have been in the form of timed essays written to a single prompt. As many of my students will be first generation college students, early exposure to the type of writing tasks that they will encounter on the SAT and ACT and AP test is helpful. To an extent. However, this cannot be the only type of writing we ask of students. Such high-stakes testing situations will not make up a majority of the writing experiences that my students will have over the course of their lifetimes. And yet, this is the type of writing they are most often asked to craft whilde in school. By the time I meet students as sophomores, juniors, and seniors, they are frustrated writers, frustrated by a lack of choice, lack of purpose, lack of writing that has relavence to their lived experiences.  They no longer see the purpose of writing yet another essay. Far too many papers have been returned with red circles and hash marks and a letter that looms large at the top of the page. Sure it is for a grade, but what does that mean? What has that taught someone about the purpose of writing?

I want my students to graduate high school as connectors, collaborators, and creators. If we don't facilitate more opportunities for students to do this inside the classroom, how can we expect them to be curious and critical learners outside of the classroom. As teachers, we need to facilitate possibility, potential, and passion. How can we help students not only discover their passion but pursue it as well? It shouldn't simply be a matter of luck.
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