Something you may already know about English teachers: we procrastinate. We let the stacks of journal entries and essay tests grow high. We clean our refrigerators, organize drawers, bathe our dogs—anything to avoid all that grading. Common Core Standards, with their heavy emphasis on writing, have made the grading load even heavier. (I once heard a student, while writing his third extended response of the week, mutter, “I ain’t did a worksheet since seventh grade.”)
I must be feeling masochistic this year: my kids have already written one essay and several journal entries, with another essay test planned for Monday; the stack of papers is quite undeniably large. (Worry not: my Schoology account is now set up, and trees will soon be saved.) So, tonight, after securing my requisites–Cherry Sprite, green Uniball pen, calico cat—I am finally ready to grade. To start hearing their stories, these 77 students.
They have only been mine for 900 minutes. 15 hours. But, already, it is there, in their sloppy handwriting and their short sentences: a desire to be heard. They tell me stories of shooting doves: “I had equality with Papa, just for a minute”; of first bike rides: “I called my dad that morning, back when I still liked him”; of raising their own money for school pictures: “I started singing, and people from all over placed money in the cup beside me”; of their pride in being the first in the family to make it to high school: “. . . even though to everyone else, it may be a small accomplishment.” It is marvelous, this early unravelling, this fragile trust.
For over a decade, I have read everything from research papers on artificial insemination of cows to first person narratives about favorite relatives shot dead in the streets of Miami. My students write of kisses behind the skating rink, the keys to their first trucks, and the impending deaths of their beloved grandparents: I bear witness to it all.
Many people lament the bureaucratization of education. They yell about Common Core and testing and teacher evaluations that are based on pseudo-science. And, yes, it is all a bunch of malarkey.
But I would like to remind my fellow teachers to look behind the malarkey. Behind the pile of Pearson’s money, behind the computers, behind the bubble sheets—there they are: our students.
They are ours. We get to claim them. We get to say things in the teachers’ lounge like, “My students just started Antigone.” We can tell people in the grocery store, “My students are so sweet this year.” At the Friday night football game, we can brag, “That’s my student who just scored.”
We bear the power of possession. Pearson doesn’t.
We teach them the power of kindness. Textbooks don’t.
We write the kind words on their journals of heartbreak. Governors don’t.
Because of us, they will flourish. They will learn kindness and respect.
Yes, we will write commentary in the language of the standard, scrawling “Good use of precise language [CCSS ELA-LITERACY WH 9-102.D], ” like the state school superintendent wants us to. Far more importantly, we will write things like, “I can’t wait to take my picture with you on your graduation day. We will be cheesin’ on that football field.” Surrounding this, we will take a few seconds to draw sloppy smiley faces. From across the room, when students see our notes, they will smile at us, glimpsing our shared future.
That’s our payment. We are paid in smiles, in hugs, in high-fives, and in shouts across gymnasiums. Sometimes, we are thronged in grocery stores and malls like minor celebrities, causing our own children to grouse, “Why do they like you so much?”
The answer, of course is simple: we are people. Not computers, bubble sheets, or multimillion dollar companies. We are rarities: adults who still truly care.
As such, we still have some power. We can ooh and aah over a quiet student’s poem. On Mondays, we can remember and comment upon interceptions at Friday football games. We can take the time to hang up a student’s artwork or chat about colleges. We can sneak hungry students crackers and Sprite.
The executives at Pearson, the governors of every state, the computer programmers and slick salespeople all have one thing in common: they were all taught in classrooms like ours by people like us.
And since they have forgotten, let’s remember. Because somebody should.