JBW matters a lot 1/27/17

Once I presented at a 4Cs with Gary Tate and Ira Shor. OMG. I was so intimidated and thrilled and overwhelmed. The room was PACKED. I usually gave conference presentations to myself, my co-panelists, and two friends in the audience. (I will eventually circle around to JBW toward the end–it’s all connected.)

I talked about what it was like to use my comp/rhet college teacher experience in a 2nd grade classroom trying to implement not only writing across the curriculum, but standards-based learning. I also talked about, I think, what I’d taken from K-12 writing scholarship and used in college classrooms when I got back to that. I focused a lot on race, class, and gender when I taught writing back then because we all have some of that. And I care about clarity.

None of those three things are easy to talk about with anyone, let alone 2nd graders. I look back on that year as one that was audacious. I had some nerve: no formal education background, experiences, or classes in college (maybe two about 6-7 years prior, but I’m not sure I even finished that semester!). I had been teaching mostly for the last six years in college classrooms and studying comp/rhet (my MA focus and some of my PhD focus) and literature (another PhD foci). So what did I do when I found myself teaching second grade? I eventually set up every subject like a college class. The principle required a lesson plan for every subject for every day, submitted each Monday morning. Like I ever stuck to that. BUT still I had to do it, so I did. It was kind of fun once I got into the rhythm of it–it was like a giant year-long syllabus and schedule.

I included parts of college texts for the kids to read because their texts were 30 years old (small, Catholic school with no money–the social studies text was the oldest, printed in 1958). I had to copy those texts at my own expense because we only got 500 pages of copy paper a month to use, but we did have a copier AND a mimeograph, so we had options for use. I had been using John Trimbur’s Call to Write as a text in my college writing classes, so I just used that for the kids. I taught them the SAME things as my college students, but I took all year because they were little humans, and we had to go slower. Instead of reading kid books published in NYC about kids in NYC, we wrote our own stories about kids in Texas and “published” those for each other. We had guest speakers and artists drop in from the university and local businesses. We had open “house” every Friday afternoon when we’d invite community helpers to visit our classroom for popcorn and an MGM musical so we could do social studies collaboratively with the people who actually were community helpers (the focus for 2nd grade social studies). We read 19th century British authors together and I read several things aloud to them. We spent three weeks on “The Lady of Shalott” (1832) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. We’d read one stanza and look up every unfamiliar word, post those on our poetry word wall. Next day, we’d re-read the first stanza and then add in the next. We also created an illustration of everything we “saw” in the poem on a white board with multi-color dry erase markers. Everyone got to write on the “story” board and contribute to the poetry word wall. Next day, three stanzas. I always read aloud, and then we listened to Dame Judi Dench read the same stanzas. I brought in big art books with Victorian paintings depicting the poem at the end of our time reading. The students were riveted by the poem, by Dame Judi’s voice, by the story, adn stunned by the paintings. Their writing in response was awesome–at first it was all summary, but by the end we were doing higher level work–synthesis, imitation, creation. OMG. Seriously, like the best teaching I’ve ever done in my life.

At the start of the year, after “Back to School Night,” several parents were asking for the principal’s head on a platter–complaints to the diocese were a pretty regular thing for about a month. I was unorthodox. I was too hard. I expected too much. I was asking them to write all the time. I required too much reading. I wanted to go through too much math, too quickly. I assigned homework (like: bring in your family grocery list, or any other writing you could find around the house; make a list of three things you talked about with family members; write three sentences describing a wall in your home; ask everyone in your home to say one thing about Then they got into the swing of things. It was a remarkable year. Everything was connected to writing, and everything was connected to race, class, and gender.

As soon as that became clear–that I was rebel scum and part of the resistance–more complaints to the diocese and the principal AND the assistant principal, too. But they weren’t going to fire me mid-year, I hoped. I never got a sense they had my back exactly, but I every Monday, I wasn’t fired, so there was that.

And here’s what I know: the kids were all paying attention, working hard, handling themselves, doing writing in every subject, behaving in class, in line, at recess, at lunch, nobody had untied shoes, no one messed with anyone’s space, no name calling, all respect and support, and reading like college kids: for content and as writers. We were kicking it, and the kids knew it. The parents were just afraid. I get it. New is weird, new is hard, new is not proven, new is uncomfortable. The worst part for the parents might have been that I was this wild thing doing unconventional things with their children’s education, and I was also the one who was going to teach them the Roman Catholic Catechism they needed to make their First Communion. It was a lot for a parent used to traditional teaching to take in, even though I’d taught Saturday Catechism for four years to fourth graders while I was in high school. Also, I disallowed desks in rows in the classroom (that freaked out everybody, including my colleagues). THAT was really strange.

JBW helped me a lot back then. I had access to this journal through my subscription to NCTE/CCC and through my university, too. I read these because I didn’t know any better. Turns out JBW made a world of difference in the way I taught those second graders (I know you all can see that now that you’ve dipped your toes in the JBW waters), and when I got back to teaching college, I was a different teacher.

I was fond of telling the little kids that there was no real difference between them and college students, except college students could drive away. We’d laugh and then be all bowed up about what we were doing, but what I was really doing was teaching basic writing across the curriculum with a theme: race, class, gender. We were little radicals, moving and shaking up that little school. We changed the conversation from “if I get to college” to “when I go to college”–for some of the students whose parents had never set foot on a college campus, this was huge. We even toured a college campus–stayed all day, visited four academic departments for snacks and mini-lectures (and a hands on demo class in the dance dept.), took an architectural tour of the campus with a design prof, ran around on the football field and got pom-poms and programs, visited admissions where we got pencils and book covers, ate lunch with a group of college students on the lawn. After lunch the college kids played frisbee, kickball, and tag with my little kids. We were only about a half hour from the college campus, but most of the kids fell asleep on the drive back to our school. It was an entire win.

Like I said, best teaching I’d ever done ever. And JBW helped me. They didn’t intend that, I know, but it was the one place I could find gentle, kind, and rigorous thought on teaching to students not quite ready for what many consider college writing. It was surprisingly perfect. As we dig around more in JBW, don’t think its only impact on you will be as a teacher of college writers or a college student–if you let it get into you, you’ll see it’s about writing for anyone and everyone.

Perhaps, it’s not just about basic writing, or how it worked to guide my odd year-long journey. Maybe it’s a journal that’s just right for everyone. At the very least it does this: it advocates for a kind of education that breaks down traditional barriers. Maybe that’s why it matters so much.

[if I can find my 2nd grade class picture, I’ll add it in here later]