What I learned at senior exhibition day

Recently, I had a chance to visit a local high school in an underserved area of town where I was to serve as a “community partyer” during Senior Exhibition Days.  For the exhibition, students prepare and deliver a twenty+ minute presentation, with multimedia support, and then respond to questions for another ten to twenty minutes.  Afterwards, a panel of teachers and community partners discusses the presentations and, using a rubric prepared by the school, evaluates it.  Then the student returns for feedback and further discussion.

My dry description of this process doesn’t do justice to it or capture the lived experience, which was downright magical—for several reasons.  First, the students were into it in a big way: they came prepared and raring to go, dressed neatly and looking their best:  no slackers here.  Their professionalism was striking to me: they had worked hard on these presentations, and it showed.  They had no formal scripts, but rather talked right to us, suing slides to guide their discussion and help us follow.  They cared—and they made us care.

Second, the content of the presentations I heard simply blew me away.  They were all based on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, a tough text for the most experienced reader.  Each student had chosen a character to focus on – and they dug deep, revealing a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of their character and of the text.  Later I learned that they were reading the entire book in their English class, discussing it almost page by page as they go, and that they had already written three papers about the book, one on their own definitions of love, one about how love works and doesn’t work in the novel, and one on a specific character.  All the students said they had a terrible time at the beginning of the book but went along with it since they really admired their teacher and she wanted them to read it.  But their attitudes soon changed.  One said, “I learned that I had to be patient with the story.  At first, it didn’t make sense to me, but then it all started coming together.”  By this time of the term, all thought Song of Solomon was a “really cool” book.  And as their presentations revealed, they came to this understanding at least partly because their teacher asked them to relate the novel to their own lives.  They had learned to “read” the stories of Guitar, Milkman, Hagar, and the others as life scripts, repeated patters (of templates as they called them) that shaped the characters’ lives.  Once they had identified such patterns in a character, they looked for such templates in their own lives and examined them critically.  The students I heard talked with apparent ease about their own life stories and scripted or repeated patterns of behavior, drawing lessons from the novel to help them imagine ways to flip the script or break destructive patterns. They talked intensely about love, and of loss, and of desire, always returning to Song of Solomon and their growing understanding of it and of themselves. 

These were stunning performances, given by students who, in other settings . . . well, would NOT be reading and analyzing a very difficult work by Toni Morrison.  So I learned something I already knew but don’t live by enough:  it’s impossible to set the bar too high if you can engage students in learning about themselves in relation to others and to texts.  These kids were reaching way beyond their grasp—and doing so with maturity and confidence and wisdom.  As one student said, “I’ve gotten to be way more responsible since we’ve been working on this project.  Now I want to be responsible.”

I also learned something important about timing.  When these students gave their presentations, they were only about two-thirds through the novel and still had about 5 weeks of the term to go.  Having the exhibitions not at the very end of term seemed a stroke of genius to me, because now the students have gotten deeply into their analyses and built up steam in terms of approaching their final essay of the year, the culmination of their work.  And they are excited—they want to k now what’s going to happen at the end of the book.  In fact, each student included predictions about how various characters might end up, which is of course what highly experienced readers do all the time—anticipate and predict. 

So now they go back to t heir English class and finish Song of Solomon, reading together and savoring every detail, and continuing to write about the book.  One student, who said he “wasn’t much of a reader,” found the novel “so good” that he says he is going to read Beloved next.  “I’ll never forget Song of Solomon,” he said.  And I’ll never forget these exhibitions.  I just wish Toni Morrison could have been there.  I think she would have learned something from the senior exhibitions as well.


What I wish for teachers . . . .

Did you observe Teacher Appreciation Day on May 7 this year? I caught a mention of this event on the Web and then read about celebrations that happened across the country, some of them involving movie stars like Matt Damon: check it out and see a video at http://www.eonline.com/news/255498/matt-damon-support-teachers-rips-cameraman-at-d-c-rally
Since I’ve been preparing to teach part of the summer at the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English, which offers MA degrees to middle and high school teachers of English, I’ve been thinking about the fabulous teachers I’ve met there over the nearly 25 years I’ve been participating, teachers who inspire me with their grace and wit and sheer tenacity. I wished I could send each one of them a big thank you bouquet, or at least a note of deep gratitude for the work they do every single day for America’s young people.
My mother, the only member of her family to get to go to college, was a teacher—in a one-room school house in rural Tennessee. She showed me the importance of education in her own life, and she taught me the value education could bring to mine. I am living proof that she was right, and I am thankful for every day that I have been a teacher, from my internship in a 7th grade classroom in Gainesville to my first job as a 10th and 11th grade English teacher in Orlando, Florida to my subsequent work at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa—and at the University of British Columbia, Ohio State University, and Stanford. In the darkest moments of my life, my job—teaching young people—kept me going, was the nourishment I needed to persevere. So I am a big fan of teachers, and I’ve seen—in classrooms across the country—the remarkable work that they do to get students invested in being readers and writers and learners, even under the most difficult circumstances.
On a recent and seemingly interminable plane ride back from a lecture trip to China, I was thinking about the teachers I had met there and, as often happens, one thought led to another and I began thinking about one very special teacher I know, my sister. She teaches high school in Florida, and has been for many years. When she goes into her classroom every fall, she knows that some student are carrying burdens she can’t begin to see, that others have needs she can’t know about, and that many don’t think they have what it takes to go to college. But she won’t take that for an answer: in fact, I think the phrase “tough love” may have been coined to describe her and the way she challenges students. Every year I get to hear about some of them, and I am delighted—thrilled, really—when she tells me about one who is going on to college. That’s the reward that goes far beyond her lousy paycheck (teachers are woefully underpaid all over the country, and especially in Florida).
So I was thinking these thoughts as our plane hurtled across the Pacific Ocean, when suddenly I had one of those “eureka” moments: “well,” I thought,” “if I can’t give a big bouquet or thank you note to every teacher, maybe I can do something for this one teacher, some small token of my deep respect for her, and a representation of what I would do for other teachers if only I had unlimited funds!
So this year, on May 24, 2013, my sister’s school will begin awarding a scholarship in her name to a student who shows potential for college work but needs some extra support. I asked that the award not be based on GPA or standardized scores but on the teachers’ sense of who could benefit most from such a scholarship. My sister won’t know about the award until the day it happens, but it’s my fondest hope that it will please her and the first recipient of the scholarship. You can bet I’ll be there in spirit (I’d be there in body too if I didn’t have to be on a plane heading to North Carolina that day), and I’m looking forward to next year’s scholarship winner, and the next, and the next, and the next.
But this one, this award being given on May 24, 2013, this one is not just for my sister but for all the other magnificent teachers out there. Here’s to YOU.

Do You Have a Good Book Story?

Do you have a good “book story”?

When I was in high school in the 1950s, my best friend got to take a trip to France with her mother. I still remember being overwhelmed with the thought of going “abroad,” and I waited impatiently for her to return so I could hear all about the fancy hotels, the theaters, the bookstores, and the “left bank.” I thought (hoped!) she might bring me a souvenir from this most exotic of places, but I would never have guessed what that souvenir would turn out to be.

Readers of a certain age may remember that in those days girls were encouraged to wear girdles to help improve our posture (I am not making this up!). I can still remember wriggling into these torture machines – and even more I can remember the feeling of sheer freedom that came in the 60s when women were “liberated.” At any rate, my friend, who was pencil thin, wore a girdle-, one that on this particular trip came in very handy: she used it to smuggle out an uncut copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This book—my souvenir!–was all the rage in those days: it had been on trial for obscenity in Britain and was one of three books (the other two were Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill) that were outlawed until the ban was finally overturned in 1959. (Though Frances Steloff of New York’s famed Gotham Book Mart championed and distributed the book in the face of the ban, none of my friends knew that at the time).
At any rate, I cut open the pages and read the book with thrills of illicit delight—as did all my friends. I felt empowered to be reading about a woman who defied convention and class—hooray for her, I thought! I’d love to know what ever happened to my copy, but I do know that it was well worn—it had been pretty much read to shreds.

This “book story” came to mind last weekend when I was visiting the home of a friend and looking around her living room. There I came on a volume that had definitely seen better days—its’ pages were coming loose from the cover and it was obviously also well worn. When I picked up the book my friend exclaimed, “Oh you have to hear the story of this book!” Now I was even more intrigued: what could be so interesting and special about a book titled The Divine Plan of the Ages? My friend went on to tell me that this book had been a prized possession of her mother, who had graduated from college in 1932. But, as she pointed out, you truly can’t tell a book by its cover.” So I turned the page to find the dedication page: “To the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and all His consecrated Saints. . . . This work is dedicated.” “Go on,” my friend said, “turn another page. Keep going.” So I did and found—“the author’s unabridged popular edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover! My friend’s mother, clearly already an entrepreneur as a college sophomore, had somehow secured the book—and had been “renting” it out to friends for 25 cents a night. Throughout her childhood, my friend’s mother had referred to it only as THE book; my friend didn’t know what it was until she was going through her mother’s things after her death and found it. And what a find it is: every page has been turned and turned and turned: I could almost hear the young women trading it back and forth, talking about the terribly risqué romance between Lady Chatterley and the gardener.

I remember lots of other books as well, though none quite as titillating as Lawrence’s. I still have my copy of Hurlburt’s Story of the Bible for Young and Old, whose fabulous illustrations and accessible style brought many of those stories to life for me. And while I no longer have them, I absolutely loved my family’s Book of Knowledge encyclopedias, which introduced me to many works of literature in easy-to-understand form. Gulliver’s Travels was a great favorite, and I remember being very surprised when I got to high school (or was it college?) and learned that Swift’s actual work was much longer than the version I had read in the encyclopedia!
I think a lot about such book stories and about books that have had a special place in my development as a lifelong reader and writer. I often ask students about books that they know and love, and to my delight they still stories to tell about such books, though they can tell similar stories about movies and even video games that hold similar places in their imaginations. Such stories are woven into the fabric of our lives, part of the warp and woof that make us who we have become.

Do you have a special book story? If so, I wish you would share!