Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Summer Winds Down

My Rising 9th graders just finished their second novel of the summer, John Knowles's A Separate Peace. The predominate sentiment was one of praise for this minor classic. I had my concerns because all but two of my scholars are female. One of these young women noted that we have completed a great deal of reading this summer--a true statement.
Our first novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, weaves its story through 600 plus pages, and A Separate Peace courses over 200. In addition to these two novels, they have read nearly half of the chapters in How to Read Literature Like a Professor and three short stories by Flannery O'Connor--"A Good Man is Hard to Find," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," and "Everything That Rises Must Converge." We still have a week and a half to bust through Lord of the Flies.
And as the summer wind down, I find myself both filled with pride and filled with sorrow. These scholars, from inner-city Hartford, will have read five novels (Their Eyes Were Watching God last summer and Brave New World this past spring), two non-fiction (On Writing Well this past spring), and countless short-stories, articles, and essays over the course of fourteen months with us. They have risen to our expectations and pushed themselves beyond their own. They defy the stereotypes of inner-city youth.
But then I begin to think about the fall, of the impending chaos I will enter at the end of August. A different town, but a similar demographic. I know that inner-city youth can succeed; I know that inner-city youth want to succeed. Yet, too many do not. Too many of my school year scholars give in to the temptations around them--the hall-walking,the disrespect, the lackluster effort. Is it us? Is it the school, the teachers? Is it the parents? Or is there a vast difference between the poor of Hartford, CT and the poor of the rest of Connecticut?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Hark the Herald Angel Sings

Now that my students are a week into using my slightly informed version of the Harkness method--a discussion based approach to student learning--I am ready to reflect on my own implementation and student implementation. Oh, and since we've been reading A Prayer for Owen Meany with the Rising 9th Graders, the post title aptly fits.

Teacher Implementation
The key discovery of this first week is that I don't trust my students--at least generally, I don't. My Rising 9's who were accepted to independent boarding schools have made trusting them easier than the unplaced Rising 9's who will attend public school in the fall. Our Rising 8's make it extraordinarily difficult to trust, and the Rising 7's are strong, but young (I normally teach high school during the year).
Certainly, in order for me to succeed at the method, I must learn to trust them. But it seems complicated. In order to trust them, they need to know what they are talking about. In order to know what they are talking about, someone needs to teach them. In the past, that someone was me imparting the knowledge base on the student.
In an effort to understand how to implement the philosophy, I purchased Respecting the Pupil: Essays on Teaching Able Students by members of Phillips Exeter Academy faculty. The title is important--Able Students. What if they aren't able enough to make this Socratic approach work?
Too often I find myself abandoning my line of questions to show them some interesting motif or symbol. But I'm slowly improving. I catch myself now, forcing myself to ask a solid, if not leading, question.

Student Implementation
Boys will be boys, is one way of saying that often groups live up to the stereotypes. So, students will be students, whether they are in a public school in the Connecticut suburbs or whether they are urban students with lofty goals of fleeing public schools for hoity-toity boarding schools even deeper in the Connecticut suburbs.
They don't finish their reading which makes participation difficult. If all are not participating, the discussion feels disjointed, almost chaotic. Or, they finish the reading but only at a cursory, hey I got it done didn't I, level. Their active reading makes little sense and shows no sign of mental action despite the many markings.
They are shy and too talkative. They lose focus and talk over each other. But when they click, it is fantastic to watch!