It’s 8:01, and I am sitting in my classroom on the first day of school. My new students will enter my room in about forty-five minutes.
There are sticky notes with numbers on every desk. There are Do Nows with seating charts on the back. The Do Now is posted on the Smartboard. The objective is posted. The schedule is posted. The homework is posted. I’ve prayed for my students and for myself and for all teachers – especially ACE teachers on their very first day.
Everything is as ready as it will ever be.
But strangely, when I think about how I want my students to react to their first day of English class with me, and although I’m a little ashamed to admit it, all I can think of is Michael Scott:
There are lots of assumptions about high school students you have to get rid of when you become a teacher.
The first is that most high school students know how to read.
This group of kiddos, born around the year 2000 (!), grew up with internet, cellphones and an increasingly frantic cultural emphasis on the soundbite, the status update, and the hashtag. It’s sobering to realize that most of them do not remember dial-up.
Even when I was in elementary school, computer typing classes with boxy, green-screen machines were in vogue. Judging by the widespread pushes in education nowadays about iPads for every child, I can only imagine that for many of my kids technology already was a big part of their elementary school experience – Smartboards, Youtube videos, Powerpoints, even “educational” video games… again, useful vehicles for condensing information into small, digestible bites.
Baby food, but not meat and potatoes.
The point is that unless these high school students had parents who read to them every night, access to lots of books, encouragement from their families, and a special type of intellectual thirst that can’t be quenched by television or wikipedia, they inevitably suffer from an inability to read in order to learn.
They are still too busy learning how to read for extended periods of time in the first place.
Unfortunately, in high school, most textbooks assume that you already know how to read. Most teachers do, too. For social studies you might be assigned a chapter about the origins of the American revolution and quizzed the next day, under the assumption that you learned something from reading it (or that you read the chapter tat all). Or in science you read a chapter about mitosis and meiosis and later you’re expected to explain the process yourself. Or even in math, the text gives you charts and graphs and directions – and sometimes even word problems – and you must have both sides of your brain working at once to tackle the problem.
But of course all that kind of reading requires a lot of patience, mental stamina and an awareness (learned in fairytales and other classic literature) that people often do not say what they mean, nor do they really mean what they say. But if you haven’t read about deceptive witches and foolish greedy children who eat Turkish delight, then you come into high school totally unprepared for the biases and hidden agendas sprinkled throughout most texts you encounter.
I find myself, when teaching, trying to find ways to make complex directions and concepts as short and simple as possible. I have even adopted catchy phrases to help my kids remember how to write thesis statements (“A is B because of 1, 2, 3!”) and explain quotes (“remember, quotes can’t speak for themselves!”) and even sit up straight (“SLANT!”). That is what the teacher books tell me to do.
I’m trying to meet my kids where they are, so that’s okay I guess. But sometimes with my own use of Youtube videos, graphic organizes, and gimmicks, I feel like I’m exacerbating the problem and catering to their infirmities rather than helping them learn how to really read.
I’m not saying that all my students suffer from this malady. I do have a few very strong readers – far better than I was at their age. But year after year, that number is growing smaller. And I am faced, as an English literature teacher, with introducing Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Dante’s Inferno to a group of people who need to learn how to read before they can to read in order to understand.
High school teachers are not themselves prepared to teach reading. Our own certification is based largely on our content knowledge – not on our ability to impart basic skills. There are many times when I wish I had been in ACE’s middle school or even elementary English content class so that I would have a better grasp of how children learn how to read in the first place.
It’s very difficult to teach someone how to do something you don’t remember learning how to do yourself. This is true with teaching writing but even more true of teaching reading. All I can remember is being constantly read to and suddenly — seemingly out of nowhere — reading C. S. Lewis for myself. I doubt this was the actual course of events but that is the way I remember it. And I read Lewis in order to learn – because I was curious about miracles and the problem of pain and all the rest of it.
Unfortunately, many of my kids read in order to avoid bad grades. Or to get good ones. Or they simply don’t read.
Cris Tovani, a reading strategies specialist, has been a huge help to me in the last few years in breaking down the complexities of the reading process. If you are at a high school teacher like me, often at a loss as to how to bridge the gap of years of little reading in your kids, check out her books.
You’d be reading to learn yourself – but perhaps eventually you’ll be able to pass that invaluable skill on to your students.
For the last 2 years in a row, I have begun my school year teaching “Growth Mindset” as an integral part of my introductory writing unit. It was a good way to go since usually the summer reading essays are pretty bad (no matter what they learned freshmen year) and many students tend to feel discouraged when they first get those papers back, covered in red pen.
This year, I’m actually going to just devote my first two weeks to 1) classroom culture and procedures and 2) growth mindset.
We’ll tackle essay writing in Unit 2.
One thing I’m really excited about is the Retake Policy I and another former ACE teacher at my school introduced last year.
I feel like my grading policies now really do reflect what I “preach” about growth mindset.
Basic grading policy:
ONLY assessments are included in the gradebook. That means no homework or completion or “participation” grades. Only quizzes, tests, essays, presentations. In other words, their grades now reflect only standards-aligned learning objectives – what they actually mastered.
Students may choose to retake an assessment (within a given timeframe) to show stronger mastery of the learning objective. The highest grade (almost always the second one) will go into the gradebook. *I’m still deciding whether or not to provide that opportunity only if they did not show basic proficiency the first time – i.e. earn a 75% or lower.
Students must meet with me twice to discuss the mistakes on the first assessment, learn how they can improve, and create a study plan.
Before they actually retake the assessment, they must submit a typed letter that shows their reflection on their mistakes, goals for improvement, and learning process.
I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful this policy was to so many of my kids last year. Poor initial assessment grades, instead of a death sentence to their GPA, became opportunities for growth and deeper learning.
Of course, I cannot force them to engage in the retake process. They must make that choice for themselves. But the ones who did experienced a wonderful transformation in their approach towards school and their own abilities.
The title comes from the philosophical work of a French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and like all of O’Connor’s titles ought to be closely attended to while reading. You can look up excerpts from Chardin’s “The New Spirit” here and try to decipher his complex mystical theology, but just considering O’Connor’s title “innocently,” with the plot of the story in mind, I would guess it could mean that as things “rise” closer to the truth, they also come closer to — that is, “converge” upon — one another.
There are also several instances of “convergence” in the story itself.
Brief summary: the plot centers around a young man (whom Flannery herself would probably call a “big intellectual”) who is bringing his mother to her exercise classes at the local YMCA. He is embarrassed by her racism and narrowness, and she is proud of his college education.
Some instances of convergence that I noticed: The mother’s ugly purple hat, described in detail at the very beginning of the story and a frequent topic of conversation, is echoed by the narrator’s description of the sky: “The sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored monstrosities of a uniform ugliness though no two were alike.”
So – the hat and the sky converge? I say that with a complete lack of authority.
Later, the hat comes up again while they ride the bus. A black woman who sits down across from them is wearing the exact same hat as the mother. Despite racial and societal divide between them, they match. (The son is delighted by the irony of this convergence).
The black woman also has her own son. The mother plays with the little boy and condescendingly offers him a penny — which the black woman angrily rejects.
The mother’s intellectual ignorance is matched by her son’s emotional ignorance.
And the son’s persistent judgment and disgust throughout the story is completely reversed at the end to… well, I won’t spoil the ending. If you’ve ever read O’Connor, you know it will be interesting.
But it’s the title itself that continually arrests me – everything that rises must converge – and the following story acts like a lyric poem – responding to the entitle, enfleshing the title, challenging the title – but never really explaining the title. I don’t pretend to understand it.
Still, this short story gives me hope that no matter how twisted and damaged our attempts at truth are, they nevertheless eventually converge into the truth of God, rising little by little until they finally reach His peace.