Traversing the Wall–Why Teachers Teach

I finally got over it.  When I received my “Minimally Effective” rating over the summer, it hit me a little hard.  Every teacher wants to feel appreciated, not just by students, but also by the powers-that-be.  I officially appealed, of course, shortly after receiving the certified notice.  I provided multiple attachments documenting the work I did last year with my students–the writing awards, test scores, championships, and outreach.  In December, I received my response.

All those things were deemed “irrelevant.”  In essence,  my “core professionalism” was found lacking, and that was that.  I pouted some more–not in my classes, but elsewhere, mostly on my drive home after school.  I did not think the assessments I received were accurate or fair.  That youthful part of me that always sickened at the scent of  injustice turned its indigestion towards me.  “Leave the school,” it demanded.  “This isn’t worth it,” it cried.  At times, I simply felt I was too old, or maybe too black, for the mold the system seemed to be seeking and rewarding.  Perhaps at the dawn of my seventh year of teaching, the profession I entered late in life had outgrown me.

I stopped blogging because I wanted to uphold my vow not to turn these pages into a political screed against all things Rhee.  Having experienced the workings of DCPS as both  parent and teacher, I understood the challenges and miscues inherent in educational reform.  I had devoted more than a few posts to my own impressions in both those pools.  As the system frantically works to pull its head above water, it is inevitable that good teachers will get wet.  Still, I felt like I had hit that wall marathoners write about–the 20 mile mark where the distance ahead appears deceptively longer than the one behind, and the trophy at the end seems hardly worth the prize.

I think I just needed a little time to spew silently and then refuel my focus.  I spent that time with my new crop of students as we came to recognize in each other kindred spirits on on the loose  We all seek acknowledgment that someone is watching the good things we do. How ironic that my last post some four months ago focused on the subject of “Gratitude.”  Today, after leaving the King Memorial, I realized it was high time I stopped looking behind at things I cannot change and start celebrating the things I can.

It is an exciting time in my classes.  In two weeks, the last of my “reluctant debaters” will finally stand up and present their arguments in a competition.  I am certain they will discover, as have the ones before them, that the hardest part of speaking in “public” is not finding your voice, but rather believing your voice is worthy to be found.  I look forward to their awakening.

In AP English, I have taken a different approach to a similar problem.  I have twice as many students as I did last year.  All love the vocabulary and the concept of rhetoric, but too many falter when it comes to the reading.  In taking timed tests from past exams, too many chafed at the lengthy passages in the multiple choice section, or the occasional dense text in the rhetorical analysis selection.  For others, managing their writing proved a challenge.  I sought to repeatedly assure all my students that mastery came with practice–but it became apparent to me in December that I needed something more.

I turned to history.  I focused their eyes on Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.  We read racial segregation ordinances and other original documents outlining the climate in the city and the nation at the time.  We combed the text for figurative language, repetition, parallelism, antithesis, context, exigence, and the like–but we also used these materials to prepare for the inquiries to come.  We turned our attention to the four little girls killed in the September bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Only a handful of students had ever heard of the horrible event Walter Cronkite termed “The Awakening.”  I wanted them to understand that real sacrifices had been made in their name.  I wanted them to embrace our opportunity, so we read about Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise.  We learned their stories.  We watched Spke Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls, and we annotated pages of background material related to both the bombing and the later (much later) prosecution of several responsible persons.

Just before Winter Break, we took turns doing a dramatic reading of Dr. King’s eulogy at the funeral for three of the young girls. Students were then assigned to read and annotate Dr. King’s lengthy Letter over the break.  Owing to the interest generated by our background work and their own innate cultural interest, most completed the reading as assigned.

Finally, after break, we analyzed Dr. King’s seminal Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a treasure trove of rhetorical techniques, counterargument, diction, and syntax.  First, we read aloud the original letter from the eight white clergymen which precipitated King’s response.  We identified seven specific charges contained in the “complaint.”  I then divided the class into seven groups, each responsible for one claim.  Each group had to select text from the Letter which best countered the issue cited.  The group also had to identify all rhetorical devices utilized by King in the passage selected, determine which appeal (ethos, logos, or pathos) the passage most established, and then link text, device, and appeal to King’s larger purposes as brainstormed in a prior class.  We even charted it all on the board.

This linkage between text, technique, and purpose is exactly what AP English Language is all about at its core.  Students must move beyond summary to analysis.  They must articulate not simply “what” a writer says, but rather “how” and “why” he or she crafts it.  Suddenly, students who were experiencing difficulties making the connections understood the direct relationship between words, impact, and intent.  I can now use that platform to move to other text “outside” their comfort zone.  The whole journey made for powerful moments in class and reminded me again of why teachers teach.



About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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4 Responses to Traversing the Wall–Why Teachers Teach

  1. magistra McG says:

    thanks so much, for writing this, for teaching our DC kids, and for persevering in spite of IMPACT and all its craziness. We both know you are not minimally effective, as do your students and all who read this.
    You inspire me, a DCPS teacher who struggles daily in trying to do the best for students as well as to jump through the hoops imposed from above, which often seem to have very little to do with the students I see daily.
    Thank you.

  2. This is very interesting, You are a very skilled blogger. I’ve joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your excellent post. Also, I’ve shared your site in my social networks!

  3. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is fantastic blog. An excellent read. I will definitely be back.

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