The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Monday, April 18, 2005

We've decided to offer revision for sixteen year olds only through lessons and study-leave workshops this year.
Giving extra classes after school sixteen weeks a year was wearing out our best staff, and students were misbehaving in class in the belief that merely attending a 45 minute revision session would obviate their lack of learning during the day.

No more. If they want to pass, they have to turn up on time and pay attention.
It's seemed to work so far (results aren't out until August). Staff are in better spirits than last year, revision materials are devoured by students, punctuality and attendance at lessons is good.

Yet when two high flying students from other countries asked for extra help, I weakened. Agreed to run some extra informal poetry-analysis sessions for them in the remaining weeks.

Foolish. As if I'm any less prone to tiring my nerves out than the other staff.

The lesson before the extra class. Lawrence (star of many a previous tale here) commandeers the computer, is caught making obscene remarks on a chat site, is caught on a porn site, despite the filters, is caught playing a bowling game, begins throwing coins at other students, and the computer is switched off to much protest.
Lawrence slides under the desk, screaming imprecations, threatening the awful things he's going to do to "that stupid teacher". My favourite LSA, Angela, is in the room. She crouches beneath the desk to ask him why he's acting up for such a good teacher.
"She's not the best teacher! She's a rubbish teacher!"
He storms out, swearing, taking my purse with him, and slamming the door hard on Angela's arm as he leaves.
I shrug, rendered powerless by lack of available sanctions, and continue pleading with Joe (also famous) to cease spitting, and asking Wes to desist in screaming obscenities at Lisa.
At least today Matt hasn't thrown sweets at my eyes.

I'd rather force burning needles onto my retinas than teach an extra class after that.

Yet: I'd forgotten what it's like to teach the really bright students.
The ones who don't need to count the syllables to recognise an iamb. Who can see how Armitage obliquely references Blake, Whitman, Marx. Who can, for that matter, work out that a poet speaks through a persona, and objectively assess the tone and theme implied by this distance.

I ask them to read six poems, analyse them, and assess which they regarded as a true sonnet.
We're taught in the inner cities to make everything short burst chalk and talk; keep it fast paced, buzzy, interactive, model all writing tasks and then ask for little of it.
(Last week, I had looked at a college prospectus where lessons were 110 minutes long, wondered how our soundbite culture is meant to cope with such high expectations.)
This, today was ninety solid minutes of genuinely interesting work, without the need to stop halfway through for chocolate biscuits and horse play because they've never concentrated that long before.

This is my final term in teaching, and I want to enjoy the students' minds and imaginations perhaps a little more than exclusive focus upon examinations and results allows me.

I went home feeling like I'd learnt something. Wondering if this open communication between one mind and another is what teaching is meant to be. If perhaps the aggressive daily hostilities have blinded me to the possibility of real learning and development in my classroom. How it could be if I were to work with well-behaved kids, middle-class kids, kids who have more potential than the majority of my students.

Then I read Ms Hoff:
My relationship that first year had been largely antagonistic. I was the teacher; they were the students; they needed to learn what I had to teach and they'd better behave so I could do it. Losing my voice provided the perspective to realize that, as long as teaching was about me, I was going to fail. When I wasn't the most important person in the room, the students would indeed rise to my formerly misplaced expectations.

I wonder, did I realize all that at the time or is hindsight providing the gift of clarity? Perhaps a little of both. I know that my brief period of silence made a difference in my teaching; I talked less and listened more. And I know that I started looking at my students as individual people. Having no voice meant I had to communicate in other ways - smiles, nods and hand gestures took on great importance - and communicating with each individual student instead of a whole class meant I finally saw that student as a person, not a body in my classroom.
I recognised the inherent arrogance of that line, "as long as teaching was about me".

What I had once loved about inner city schools is there's no prerequisite on the children who enter your classrooms, and the sheer vertical progress you can make with them once you realise this. Once you cease to assume that, because these kids are not adult-friendly automatons who sit and absorb the wealth your mouth spins at them, they simply cannot evolve.

At that point, when you accept the limitations of your students, and start to work with them, rather than against them, you stop trying belligerently to teach, and focus on showing them how to learn.

Life skills are more important than poetry in the long run.

So finally, I did learn something today.