Saturday, November 24, 2018

Thanksgiving & Writing Holiday Poetry

As teachers, we must always remember not to assume anything about our students' vacations. Their experiences will vary greatly depending on religion, income, traditions, family structure, and at the high school level, many of our students work during weekends and holiday events like "Black Friday." If we ask them to use a holiday as inspiration for writing, it is important to think about how we word those prompts. We must make it safe not to have the common or "traditional" experience. With a holiday as controversial as Thanksgiving, we must make it safe for students to express a variety of feelings about the holiday itself, issues with family dynamics or lost loved ones, and other age-related topics ranging from sitting at the kids' table to worrying about the last round of college applications. Of course, in true workshop method, the best way to model sharing in a safe atmosphere is to write with your kids. This year, I decided to focus on how I felt about Thanksgiving at different points in my life. I would adapt this a bit for a student writing prompt, or - better yet - I would ask them for ideas.

Here's my poem inspired by Thanksgiving:

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Review of Yellow Crocus with Minimal Spoilers

I can’t remember how I came across the novel Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim except that I’m always searching for quality novels that portray both the diversity and unity of the human spirit that my students might enjoy reading. I also can’t remember how I came across a review for the novel while I was only about a quarter of the way through the book, but I noted that several people on Goodreads had given the book a low rating, citing “lack of torture” and the fact that “it depicts a white woman who cares about a slave” as negative aspects of the book. Because Yellow Crocus explores the lives of two strong female characters – one a wet nurse and mammy who is forced to give up what little she has to care for the other main character in her charge, I continued reading – ever mindful of whether or not the book glossed over slavery as “not so bad” as one reviewer put it.

That reader, and others like him, missed the entire point of the novel.

Though Mattie has no choice but to leave her own infant son behind in the slave quarters, raised by others, as she moves into the big house to nurse and then raise baby Lisbeth, she does love the innocent baby. She sings to her, soothes her when she’s sick, and carefully teaches her life lessons – ever mindful of her “place” in the house and in society. Critics who note the absence of torture seem to have missed every instance of how traumatic life was for the enslaved characters in the novel. Men have been tortured and murdered, and several knowingly risk their lives just to learn to read and write. Families are regularly torn apart at the whim of masters who sell their slaves to different owners. Even Mattie eventually risks her life to flee to freedom with her newborn daughter, and Lisbeth comes to find out that habitual rape of enslaved women by masters is just one reason why Mattie risks it all to escape. “Happy” people, as some reviewers called them, do not risk their lives to escape oppression. Strength and resiliency should never be mistaken for happiness. Perhaps some readers lack the empathy and emotional depth to understand the pain that enslaved people endure, and that sometimes focusing on the psychological torture is just as important as describing the physical.

The relationship between Mattie and Lisbeth is key in this novel, and Mattie plants the seeds that allow Lisbeth to grow into an abolitionist against her family’s wishes. We cannot underestimate the power that such real relationships had to change the course of this nation’s history. Lisbeth saw Mattie as a human being. She loved her “more than [her] own mama.” When we interact with people we’ve been told are “others,” we gain empathy. This is a healing novel, and though it does not provide a full picture of slavery or all experiences (no one book can do that, nor does this one claim to do so), it shows that change occurs when we build relationships based on our shared humanity. Laila Ibrahim provides a message of hope that we still need as we work to heal racial tensions. Mattie and Lisbeth note “the vast distance between us” even while looking into each other’s eyes, but their love and mutual respect forms an unbreakable bond. Acknowledging that such relationships existed does not negate the horrors of slavery at all. It does quite the opposite, in fact; we should feel horrified that anyone was ever complicit in such crimes against feeling, thinking people, and stand up against ongoing injustice. This isn't another story in which the white lady saves a black person (at least 3 movies come to mind). Mattie saves Lisbeth, to quote Titanic, "in every way a person can be saved." Beautiful.

Sunday, April 29, 2018


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.”
  • 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.