A teacher’s reflection on Hurricane Irma

This week in Athens, Georgia was not normal by any measure of standards.  At about 2:30pm on Monday afternoon, Hurricane Irma arrived and wreaked havoc upon the city’s trees and power lines.  Fortunately, my home remained untouched from falling limbs; others were not so lucky.  I did however lose power at about 5pm on Monday, and I did not get it back until nearly 8pm Thursday evening, the same day that we returned to school after three days off due to widespread power outages.

One’s entertainment options become quite limited once electricity is removed from the equation: no television, no wifi, no Netflix.  Especially if that person – in this case me – possesses a cell phone plan that comes with a modest amount of LTE data before exorbitant fees are applied.  For nearly three days, the only choice afforded to me in my home in regards to amusement was reading.

I read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston for the first time.  Somehow, I wasn’t assigned this text in high school, though in a way I feel blessed in this regard because I don’t think the 17-year-old version of myself would have appreciated this novel nearly as much as the 38-year-old person that I am today did.  Suddenly, the trials of being inconvenienced with using a headlamp to eat breakfast and keeping a cooler stocked with ice to prevent food spoilage paled in comparison with the plight of Janie Crawford in her lifelong quest to find true love.

Once I finished Hurston’s novel, I moved on to something lighter, a book called Blood Salt Water by Alex Morrow.  It’s a crime novel set in Scotland with the story being told through the eyes of a low-level gangster and the police officer that is trying to solve a homicide in which said gangster was involved.  I haven’t finished this book yet, probably due to the fact that my power came back on when I was still in the middle of it.  Instead of reading Thursday night, I spent my time watching Narcos and scanning through my Twitter feed for engaging lesson plan activities.

We live in an incredibly distracting world.  Televisions, computers, tablets and phones can make it nearly impossible to focus on just one task at a time.  I cannot imagine being a student in this era with so many potential diversions at our fingertips: social media, texting, email, games, etc.  When I was the same age that my students are today, I had a television and a Nintendo, both of which my parents could shut down with unbelievable ease.  If I was told to go to my room and read a book or do my homework, the only thing to do in my room was read or do homework.  I didn’t have a laptop or iPhone that I could use to watch just about anything my little heart desired.  Even today, I find myself at times struggling to read for extended period of times without unlocking my phone at least once. How difficult must this be for someone who is just 12 or 13 years old?

As I reflect on my experience from the past week in which reading was my primary activity throughout the day, I feel even more validated as a Language Arts teacher that carves out instruction time each week so that my students have a chance to just read.  The school year is young, and I’m still coaching my students through the process of independent reading from self-selected texts, but they are starting to get it.  The kids are exploring genres and learning that they do possess the reading stamina to get lost in a book for 15 to 20 minutes.  Through their written responses I can see that they are beginning to engage with the various characters and plot lines within their novels.

My students need time to learn to enjoy reading on a personal level, and after this week, I see that more than ever.  They need a chance to read without all the diversions that come along with today’s smartphones.  In addition to technological distractions, many of my students care for younger siblings from the time the bus drops them off at home to when they go to bed.  Most of them do not have access to rich and engaging texts in the house, and a lot of my students are not witnessing adults in their home model reading as something one does for pleasure.

As teachers, it’s our job to give our students these types of opportunities.  We cannot assume that students are getting the chance to read much on their own outside of school, and if you work at a Title I school like mine, you almost have to assume that they are not.      Our classroom should be a place where students can frequently experience the choice of reading something that aligns to their interests.

I’m not saying that we have to remove electricity and technology from the equation altogether, but we should give our students a chance to unplug and focus on just one thing at a time, especially reading.

 

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Discussing race in the classroom

My 7th graders have begun the year with a focus on narrative writing as a way of easing them into the writing process.  They have a much easier time writing about themselves as opposed to argumentative writing where they have to formulate a thesis and support it with reasons and textual evidence.  As a teacher, I much prefer to start the year with narrative because it gives the kids a chance to feel successful early in regards to their writing, and let’s be honest, most 12 and 13-year-olds are not going to be found picketing outside of schools demanding that MORE writing be implemented into the curriculum.

On Thursday of this week, I used a StoryCorps episode called “Traffic Stop” to show my students that even though the story is spoken, it still contains all the major elements of a powerful narrative: entertaining beginning, critical character, setting, suspense, conflict, resolution and theme.  In this episode, Alex Landau speaks about his experience in 2009 of being severely beaten by several white cops in a suburb of Denver, Colorado.  The reason that Landau was beaten to within an inch of his life: he asked the policemen if they had a warrant.  Landau, who grew up with his adoptive white parents, said that this incident completely changed his perspective on how the world viewed him, and needless to say, it certainly left him fractured both inside and out.

TRAFFIC_Title_Card-636x358After we listened to Alex’s story, I had each of my classes identify all of the narrative elements in his story.  When we got to “resolution”, a hand shot up and a student said, “There kind of wasn’t a resolution.”

I’m a white teacher working in a middle school with a student body that is just 12% white.  I’m reminded of this fact every day when I look out at my students and see only one, two or none that look like me.  In all four of my classes that day, students pointed out that while Alex Landau’s story certainly had a strong theme, it didn’t have a resolution.  I asked my students if they thought the police would have reacted in the same manner if I had been in Landau’s shoes, to which they quickly replied in unison with a resounding “No!!!”.  I asked my students if they thought that was fair, and again my question was hammered back with another “No!!!”.  I told them that I agreed with them, and that it wasn’t fair, and that I hated that for them.

We then moved on to examine a model narrative written by an 8th grader in California called “The Racist Warehouse“.  The story is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl who is shopping for a new dryer with her mother in a completely white neighborhood.  They are discriminated against by the employees from the moment they enter the store as they are constantly being followed and monitored.  When the mother actually makes her purchase, they end up having to wait for nearly an hour before the dryer is finally loaded up onto their U-Haul.  They watch multiple groups of white customers get their purchases ahead of them, even though the narrator’s mother bought her item well in advance of these people.

My students KNEW what it felt like to be followed around a store or mall by employees or security guards.  They asked me if it had ever happened to me.  They wanted to know what I would do if I was in that situation: would I be mad?  Would I get an attitude after 55 minutes of waiting as the girl’s mother in the story had?

I told my classes that of course I would be angry, and that I’d probably write a strongly worded email to the company and demand some sort of compensation for the inconvenience.  I told them, though, that I had never been treated like that as a customer, and a girl in the back said, “Cause you white”.  I nodded in agreement.

The discussions we had that day in all of my classes were powerful, especially considering we were just a week removed from the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I want my students to feel like our classroom is a safe place where we can talk about race and social injustices.  I hate it that some of them have already experienced overt racism similar to the girl from California, and I’m heartbroken when I think about my students’ futures because I know that at some point many of them are going to be treated unjustly as they become young adults simply because of the color of their skin.  As a white male, I have no idea what that feels like.  As much as I try to connect with my students throughout the year and build relationships, the best I can do when it comes to matters of race is to empathize with them because I’ll never know that kind of discrimination.

Coincidentally, the theme from my classes on Thursday found its way into my cross country practice that afternoon.  My team typically runs in the woods across the street from the school, and I always have the kids wait until everyone gets done with the run so that we can all cross the road together.  Sometimes I have to jog back a bit to encourage some of the less talented runners to push themselves all the way to the finish.  As the last couple of runners and I joined everyone else at the road on Thursday, I noticed that my principal was among them.  Apparently a woman had driven by my team and immediately called the school to report potential gang activity happening across the street, and my principal was just coming out to confirm what she already suspected: that it was just my cross country team, which is mostly comprised of African-American and Latino students, doing exactly what they were instructed to do by their coach.