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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Forty-four

This birthday was a difficult one for me - for reasons you'll read below. Lunch hall duty (in between active monitoring, of course) provided time for me to write through my feelings as I approached this milestone. I debated whether or not to share this highly personal journal entry, but ultimately, this is who I am at this moment, and I believe in the power of writing to work through difficult emotions. The process did prove cathartic, so I share as a reminder that writing works, and the harder it is to write about something, the more we need to do it. I'm not sure if what I ended up with is poetry, prose, or incoherent rambling, but here it is - raw and real. It needs revision and editing, but I'm not going to do it this time. What I wrote through glassy eyes between checking passers-by for their ID badges is what will remain.


Monday, April 23, 2018

Imposter Syndrome

The idea for the following poem came from a freewriting exercise during poetry club. My students and I listed all the things we were not, and I wrote "confident." This is the result of musing on that subject:

Imposter Syndrome
by Amber Counts, April 2018

Searching for symptoms on WebMD
Often results in one diagnosis:
I’m dying.
Most roads lead to cancer.
But what about psychological symptoms?
Patchwork quilting,
Ordered chaos.
Symptoms touch. Overlap.
But no cancer here.
Well, almost no cancer.
Though ailments may fester and grow
like cankerous sores on the psyche,
They often defy simple self-diagnosis.

Of one diagnosis, I am sure.
I suffer from “Imposter Syndrome.”
The symptoms?
  • Perfectionism
  • Overworking
  • Undermining one’s own achievements
  • Discounting praise
  • Burnout
  • Sleep deprivation
Common thoughts?
  • “I must not fail.”
  • “I feel inadequate.”
  • “I got lucky.”
Traits?
  • Diligence
  • Giftedness
  • Lack of display of confidence
Despite any amount of evidence of their successes,
“Imposters” remain convinced that they are
Unworthy of such praise.
This explains why I graduated
Summa cum laude
And still question my potential.

According to Wikipedia (ever the resource for accuracy),
Imposter experience may be accompanied by
Anxiety, stress, or depression,  
But it is not classified as its own mental disorder.

I would disagree, for this syndrome
Touches my life everyday.
With every accomplishment
With every ounce of external feedback
That I receive
And then doubt.

But it’s not a disorder and
Cannot be found in the DSM.
Interesting, then, that the best ways
To treat this non-disorder include
Writing therapy and group psychotherapy
to alleviate a person’s
Sense of inadequacy.

They say that feeling like an imposter
Can positively affect career advancement
Due, no doubt, to constant diligence
And search for authentic success.
Famous “imposters” reportedly include:
Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks,
John Green, and Emma Watson.

Surely this shows the malignancy of this non-disorder,
For if greats such as these cannot fathom
Their own worth,
Then what chance do I have?


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Yes, Workshop Really Works in AP English

I’m going to break blogging protocol and begin with the admission that you probably aren’t about to read something you haven’t read before. So why will this post continue on with approximately 1,000 more words? It’s simple: the divide between English teachers who embrace workshop practices and those who don’t continues, and I want to add to the throng of voices who assure even the most adamantly opposed to workshop that it can, and does, work wonders.

First, let me share a brief overview of my teaching experience. I taught pre-AP (Honors) English 4 for one year. That was a dream! With no standardized test to prepare for, I had the freedom to construct a curriculum that focused on creative and real-world writing. We read. We wrote. We reflected. We repeated. We became better readers, writers, and thinkers. Note two things here:
1.     I say “we” because I instinctively felt that I should write along with my students. Teachers of writing should write.
2.     Ultimately, thinking has always been my goal. Not just English. Certainly not how to bubble a Scantron. Thinking.
The next year, I began teaching AP English 4 – literature and composition. The previous teacher of that course remained right across the hall, and she frequently visited my room to check up on my progress. She had traditional beliefs about how an AP class should be taught. “Students have to read Pride and Prejudice and Heart of Darkness,” she insisted, and test prep should be the focus of the course. After all, AP courses are all about passing the exam, right? (Yes, and thinking, I thought.)

But my pesky instincts and strong will intervened. That year might have been a train wreck, as I tried to follow as much of her advice as I could stomach (though I gave my students a choice about which Jane Austen novel to read), but I also incorporated choice for two of the novels that students read that year. I even tried something wacky – holding a Socratic seminar that explored theme and author’s craft even though we had all read different books – and it worked! I knew my class seemed more legitimately engaged than others I had seen in the past, but I needed help. I needed to know that I wasn’t crazy. I needed the pedagogical research behind what I was trying to do. I needed examples for how this could work – especially in an AP classroom. I needed support.

At that point, my friend and mentor, Amy Rasmussen (see her amazing blog here) invited me to participate in the North Star of Texas WritingProject summer institute. Hallelujah! The month of reading, writing, workshop, and inquiry provided the tools I needed to implement workshop. Yes, even in an AP classroom. And here is where I cannot take credit for what I will share. So many trailblazers have come before me. Many quality books on workshop await those who are curious, and Amy’s blog listed above is a valuable resource as well. However, AP teachers seem especially resistant to the ideas of choice and workshop. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter after incorporating choice for the past 6 years in the AP classroom:

·      Rigor in an AP classroom has nothing to do with what students read. Rigor, in an AP classroom, has nothing to do with what students read.
o   Let me break that down further by focusing on the word “read.” Teachers who think that their students are actually reading those canonical works just because they’re assigned are woefully ignorant. Seriously – Google the statistics if your students haven’t been honest with you about it. Dedicated students will typically Sparknote or Schmoop it. Less dedicated students will rely on classroom discussion or other means to fake it, and multiple-choice tests make that easier to get away with. Sometimes, I hear teachers explaining the entire text right before a test! I have to wonder what rigorous work the students are doing in this scenario.
o   What makes any learning activity rigorous depends on how much we’re taxing our brains to make meaning and synthesize new ideas. If we create assignments that ask students to show their thinking about a text, rather than giving a test on, say, Beowulf, we put the responsibility on students to show us their learning in creative ways. Differentiation is automatically built-in with quality assignments, and “faking it” becomes almost impossible – especially when accompanied by…
·      Reading and writing conferences – these are key to determining what your students are reading, what they should be reading, how they are progressing, where their individual obstacles exist so they can develop a plan to overcome them, and helping them grow as writers. Teachers should be asking questions most of the time – not merely providing answers.
·      Providing students with choice doesn’t mean that students will all choose YA books that don’t provide an adequate challenge, and the individual discussions help with this. My course is divided into thematic units, and my syllabus lists several choices between award-winning novels “of literary merit” in each unit that range in genre, cultural heritage, and date of publication, so students are choosing, but between good stuff. If a student wants to read something not on the list, they simply talk to me about it. They often surprise me.
o   Two of my students chose to take on Charles Dickens in December, and another asked if she could read Franz Kafka’s The Trial! That’s not in my syllabus. I don’t have a multiple-choice test ready for it to “assess” her learning. Instead, she completed a creative project over her novel, novel notes to help her review the book before the AP exam, she wrote about it, and more importantly – we talked about it. I know she read it, and I know what she thought about while she read it. Magical.
o   When students have some choice about what they read, the percentage of students who actually read drastically increases, as does their understanding of the text. This actually improves their chances of successfully writing about the book on the AP exam!
·      Finally, how does this prepare students for the AP exam? For college? That takes me back to my initial focus on thinking. If we provide students with choice, ask them to take personal responsibility for their learning, and coach them through the reading, writing, and thinking processes – which are all intertwined – they will be prepared for an exam designed to assess their reading, writing, and analytical skills.

I don’t know if I can satisfactorily answer the question further because I don’t really understand it. How could workshop fail to prepare students for an exam? Students read more. They write more. They think more rigorously. 

Workshop seems like a no-brainer for those who implement it, so why the divide? In my experience working with resistant teachers, these are the common categories of concern:
1.     Insecurity – it takes a lot of courage to write and think in front of students. We must show our vulnerabilities. We must admit that we are not perfect. We don’t write perfectly the first time we attempt it. Maybe we fumble over the right word, or we misspell something in front of the class. Good! What a real, valuable learning opportunity for students to see that all humans must work and think through writing! But we must have courage and the confidence to know that we have so much to offer our students.
2.     Perceived loss of control – I say “perceived” because traditional teachers often feel that they have control while they lecture, prescribe multiple-choice tests, and dictate reading choices. Students actually gain quite a bit of control in these classes. They control whether or not they tune out that lecture, whether or not they actually learn anything along the way, and whether or not they actually read the assigned text. Again, it’s really hard to fake these things in a workshop classroom. My classroom often looks chaotic, but I walk around, listening to what my students think, and instantly adapt my instruction to address the areas that they need addressed.
3.     Fear – administrators look at our test scores. They shouldn’t, really, but that’s another blog post. Many teachers fear that anything but a traditional test-prep approach won’t adequately prepare students for the test. Students should be acquainted with the test format and have strategies going in, but ultimately, the skills being tested are developed through workshop. Again, reading comprehension, the ability to analyze a writer’s craft, and the ability to write one’s own analysis develop as students authentically take part in these activities. So far, my students have outscored their peers in test-prep-focused courses.
4.     More work for the teacher – yes and no. It’s just…different. It’s easier to pull out that copy of a copy of a copy of an old multiple-choice test and grade a Scantron than it is to grade authentic writing, discussions, or projects that show students’ learning. It’s easier to give the same lecture for the gazillionth time than it is to listen, adapt, and address student inquiry on the spot. However, it’s also easier in a way to place some of the burden for a student’s education on that student. When students are responsible for showing their learning, explaining their writing process, and coming up with their own questions, they direct and take ownership in their own learning. This is what it means to be a teacher and not just a lecturer.


For teachers still on the fence about taking the workshop plunge, I recommend observing a teacher who implements the practice, attending a National Writing Project workshop, and reading blogs and books on the topic. The information and support is out there, and students everywhere deserve the rigor that only workshop provides.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tikkun Olum: Repair the World


As a newcomer to the 2017 NWP and NCTE conferences, I walked around in a perpetual state of astonishment and sensory overload. The one refrain that reverberated through my mind, other than “free books,” was the concept of Tikkun Olum, roughly translated as “repair the world.” First conveyed during the NWP plenary and repeated by several presenters throughout the NCTE conference, I had heard this phrase previously through my Holocaust studies coursework at UT Dallas and through training with the Holocaust Educator Network. The phrase represents a belief which I hold dear, but hearing it again from a variety of presenters at the conferences underscored just how important it is for each of us to repair the parts of the world in which we live.
Teachers have the unique opportunity to encourage young people to do the same, as most of us see over one hundred children daily throughout the school-year and spend more time with them, on average, than the other adults in their lives do. What if we could bolster students’ empathy through reading and discussion and then – more importantly – empower them to go forth and “repair the world”? As teachers of English and language arts, we understand the importance between the texts we read and their real-world implications. We understand patterns in society and how literature warns us not to repeat mistakes of the past in a much more human way than history does. We understand the power of language to change the world.
How do we get our kids to see these things? We must take the time to have our students make connections between the texts they read and themselves, their friends, family, community, country, world, and humanity as a whole. We must provide context for what they read and connect fiction with non-fiction – in both fiction and non-fiction based courses. Bring news articles into AP Literature and bring some poetry into a class built around non-fiction, for example. We must empower our students to see themselves as readers, writers, thinkers, and feelers by not simply providing them with opportunities to write authentic pieces for real audiences, but expecting them to do so. We must encourage risk-taking as they find their voices and resist the urge to beat them down with formulaic writing and artificial writing scenarios. Why not have high school English students practice writing letters to senators, or have students submit their poetry to national publications? Students could create public service announcement films and publish them on YouTube. The possibilities are endless, but imagine the engagement and ownership students will experience with these examples versus writing to another STAAR prompt. We can still help them hone their craft along the way, but students would learn that there is power in their writing.
While empowering students to make change with the written word, we must also help them develop as oral communicators. This nation is in crisis. The adults no longer know how to engage in civil discourse. So what hope do our kids have, who spend most of their time avoiding “awkward” social interactions while they stare instead at phone screens? We must make conversation a centerpiece of our classrooms. Learning to engage each other respectfully – especially when we disagree – is perhaps the most powerful way that we can prepare our students to repair the world.