Fancypants, Pen Pals, and Real English: Making Space for Learning with Uncertainty

Feb 11th, 2019 | By | Category: Featured, Winter 2019

Gregory Masterson Booth
English Teacher
Sheridan High School
Thornville, OH

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”—Epictetus

I’m stating the obvious when I say schools exist as a mechanism to help shape a society through the shaping of individuals, and that we seek to shape those individuals by instilling a set of positive values. I’m also stating the obvious when I say every school and every classroom has a hidden curriculum which can help its students establish values and a worldview through the subtle reinforcement of cultural norms. The presence of these hidden curricula means there is no such thing as simply teaching a subject. All instruction is activism.

Sometimes the norms reinforced work in concert with those norms students bring with them from home; sometimes they work in opposition. A problem arises, however, when consensus about what to reinforce seems hard to reach and certainty replaces inquiry. Too much, perhaps, has already been said on how information silos and endless echo chambers appear to have made more intractable competing norms, with too little connecting our awareness of these problems to the actions we take in their face. For their part, my students, pulled to poles in the constructions of their worldviews, seem now to enter the classroom with ready-made tribal identities. And while this type of thinking assuredly romanticizes an imagined past with more social cohesion, I carry a sense of urgency for trying to expose my students to materials and people outside of their comfort zones, to combat fear and division with inclusivity and open-mindedness. In theoretical contrast to the technological tribes we are wary of, then, the English classroom is, at its core, a site where students can (and should) still encounter the unfamiliar.

…I carry a sense of urgency for trying to expose my students to materials and people outside of their comfort zones, to combat fear and division with inclusivity and open-mindedness.

I believe collaborations and exchanges like those encouraged and made possible through BLTN are needed now more than ever. They, like anything else in the classroom, however, require planning and preparation. Two years ago, my students in rural Ohio and I coordinated an exchange with Pierre Carmona and his students at San Francisco University High. The results were so positive that we planned another for the following year. That second exchange did not turn out as well as the first had. Two episodes effectively illustrate some of the problems we encountered. I chronicle them here in some detail in order to reflect on the maddeningly complex relationships between teaching and learning, and perhaps to hold space to reflect the need for a nuanced view of professional learning and for what counts and matters as “English teaching” today.

The first began with a raised hand. I had spent the entire semester up to that point trying to get the small cabal of reluctant learners in Block II to care about anything we were doing. On this particular day, I was working myself into a fever in front of the class, peppering them with questions, watching the usual suspects get into the spirit or stare at me with indifference, respectively, depending on their allegiances. We were about halfway through Hillbilly Elegy and found ourselves in a conversation about the causes of small town decay, referencing the arguments of the author while espousing hypotheses of our own. Hillbilly Elegy was the first book we planned to read as part of our collaboration with Pierre’s students. Half the class had bought in from the jump, letting the novelty of a collaboration with these “fancy pants” students from San Francisco ignite their curiosity without much prompting on my part. A few were happy enough to get along by going along. And yet another group, that small army of three, led by the owner of the hand now raised with a nonchalance I interpreted (with barely contained glee) as an attempt at disguising her own interest in the conversation, tried at every turn to subtly advertise their disdain for the collaboration, for the books we were reading, and, most especially, for me personally. But with this olive branch act I knew I had finally brought them in to the fold. Now the class could really take off. I could finally put behind me the anti-utilitarian rookie mistake of focusing my energies and attentions on the few to the detriment of the many.

“M——!” I shouted. “Yes! That’s what I’m talking about! Lay it on us!” I reflected for the one millionth time how satisfying teaching can be when a classroom comes together to become a supportive community of answer seeking people.

Her bored expression didn’t change. She just stared straight at me from behind her heavy eyelids. “What does any of this have to do with English?”

(Part of me wants to believe our classrooms really are monitored with hidden video cameras, administration never confirming nor denying, for I wish I could watch the transformation of my face in that moment. Watch it go from hope to horror. Did it turn all at once or slowly, I wonder?)

The cold war had turned warm. M—— complained that her twin sister’s English class was studying “real” English, doing more grammar and vocabulary, to prepare them for the End of Course Exams. Why was I wasting their time with pointless conversations? With social studies? With pen pals? Who cared about what these kids from San Francisco thought?

After collecting myself, I launched into a defense. I’d like to say my response was calm and even-handed. The students on Team Booth wore satisfied smiles, probably helping me to believe I was on the side of righteousness. But in a thou-doth-protest-too-much display of self-doubt, I probably only doubled down on the line that separated that student and her friends from me and anything they might have gotten from the class in trying to convince them to trust the process.

The cold war had turned warm. M—— complained that her twin sister’s English class was studying “real” English, doing more grammar and vocabulary, to prepare them for the End of Course Exams. Why was I wasting their time with pointless conversations? With social studies? With pen pals? Who cared about what these kids from San Francisco thought?

With my lengthy diatribe we fell even further behind, practically and in every intangible way as well.

The second defining moment was our first, and only, attempt at a video chat. It must be said that something has changed in the last few years in my community and with the kids who live there. As I said earlier, students seem now to be entering my classroom with fully-formed political identities. Where once students would explore and think through complex issues to perhaps arrive at something resembling a worldview or political identity, they now enter with the identity but not the philosophical exploration that should have preceded it. Instead, I have, for example, students who drink out of mugs with the words “Liberal Tears” emblazoned on them, who dress as Hillary Clinton in a prison jumpsuit for Halloween, who parrot party lines but don’t seem to understand anything about the issue beyond the rhetoric. In other words, the partisanism dividing our political world writ large has intruded into the everyday dealings of the student body at my high school. In our case, the default identity isn’t Conservatism in the William Buckley sense; it’s Trumpism in the Alex Jones sense.

It must be said that something has changed in the last few years in my community and with the kids who live there. …[S]tudents seem now to be entering my classroom with fully-formed political identities.

Part of that identity is adopting a certainty immunity to investigation, to anything resembling doubt. So, in that spirit, a student in my Block IV class (not the one with the Liberal Tears mug) had taken it upon himself since the beginning of the collaboration to satisfy the worst stereotypes of Appalachian people in his interactions with the students from San Francisco. I need to say that the overwhelming majority of my students are amazing. Empathetic and thoughtful, they are the best people I know. This student, however, seemed to go out of his way to write provocatively and without empathy on every topic our readings would introduce. One might think having a student like that (or many students like that) is exactly why we wanted the collaboration to happen in the first place, and while that is true, the gap between the hope we had for productive dialogue and the reality of our efforts proved to be a chasm. Even more disappointing for me, that chasm was completely my fault. Pierre and Pierre’s students were better, both in their intentions and their outcomes, than I and my students would be, and the video chat I referenced earlier would symbolize that.

My typical response to racist remarks is patience. I try to ask questions; I try not to respond with emotion, not to help entrench them behind a defensive barrier of pathos devoid of logos. Usually I can rely on the rest of my class to help provide a delicate censuring to hurtful ideas. Sometimes, however, there aren’t enough voices of reason to override the hateful ones. And sometimes the conversation is just beyond my ability to navigate.

The occasion for the video chat was something similar, a time when I didn’t think there was anything I could say to provide an opposing view for my students. We were discussing patriotism. My students said a patriot loved their country and wanted what was best for it. The NFL and players’ protests against police brutality were in the news, so I asked my students if Colin Kaepernick was a patriot. I thought I could outsource a different point of view, enlist Pierre and his students in the immediate moment to provide some thoughtful dialogue (I already knew from conversations with Pierre that his students were much more sympathetic to Kaepernick’s message than were mine), and that that would prove more impactful than the questions I could ask my students. My hope for the conversation was not that students would embrace the other side of the argument, but that they would understand it.

What followed was a perfect illustration as to why that year’s collaboration was not as successful as our previous year’s. I called Pierre in the middle of my class and suggested we have a video chat; he demurred, wisely it turns out, saying we weren’t really prepared.

“Preparation!? We don’t need no stinkin’ preparation!” I said. Herein lay the crucial difference between Pierre’s professionalism and my slapdash madness, between his effectiveness and the absence of mine. We’d wing it and it would be great, I assured him.

It was not.

As I readied the equipment and invited Pierre to establish the connection, my students bubbled with nervous energy. They gathered within view of the camera, self-consciously adjusted their appearances, and bounced around in wild play with each other. Not only were Pierre’s students seniors and mine sophomores, but my students also worried Pierre’s students were “cooler” and more cosmopolitan. My students quieted but still fidgeted when Pierre joined the video conference and the image of his class began to materialize on our SmartBoard. His class sat silent and serious in a row, staring at the camera. My students’ nervousness seemed almost immediately to turn to dread when they saw their own self-consciousness juxtaposed with the seriousness of Pierre’s students’ demeanors. I felt my own pain, too, feeling like a failure in not being able to create a similar environment of scholarship. When one of my students tried to lessen our shared tension with a joke, none of Pierre’s students laughed. They were not aggressive, they were not judgmental, they were just serious. After 15 or 20 minutes of unproductive conversation, with my students trying to hide the lack of substance behind their witticisms and slogans (a tactic they must have learned from me), Pierre mercifully suggested we end the call and try again when we had done a little more to prepare.

We’d wing it and it would be great, I assured him.

It was not.

The video conference did much to reveal so many of the gaps we were trying to transcend with the collaboration, so this should have provided us with motivation. Instead, it demoralized me and my students. And very quickly, as the semester wore on and we found ourselves falling behind in our non-collaboration coursework and I found my students resistant to some of the texts we were reading, I let the collaboration slip away and left Pierre to drift in the wind.

Now, I know it seems like I’m describing the entire endeavor as a failure, but there are positives to salvage from the experience. My students were able to read literature they otherwise wouldn’t have come in contact with. We read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, Rebecca Solnit’s Invisible City: A San Francisco Atlas, and a number of short stories from writers like Vanessa Hua and Lysley Tenorio. They shared their writing and themselves with people from across the country. I know it wasn’t a total loss. I know my students had good learning opportunities. For example, even the group containing my video chat firestarter had productive conversation in their shared Google Doc while debriefing the failed video chat as Pierre’s students patiently attempted to get my student to explain his point of view so they could better understand him. I sensed no judgment from them. Unfortunately, I got the impression my student still saw his responses as a chance to perform, missing an opportunity for reflection. Thinking on it now, I know I should have done more to lead him toward self-reflection, yet still I draw a blank as to how.

Over the course of my 14-year teaching career I have had everything I thought I knew about teaching and learning revisited, revised, and remedied more times than I can count. And each time, I risk becoming too comfortable with my new knowledge before needing to be reminded of my ignorance all over again. Said ignorance established, I still believe this personal and repeating journey from nescient certainty to certain nescience (and back again) is exactly the sort of understanding we must seek to instill in our students, an admission of always-imperfect wisdom on the road to our own becoming.

So despite my sense of missed opportunities and my claim that the exchange did not turn out as well as I hoped, I still believe it was a success, even if the examples I highlighted show only the students who struggled most with buy-in. Real connections with real people matter, and those students who struggled with buy-in were still engaged with Pierre’s students. (See an excerpt of the students’ online correspondence here.)

And one can attribute it to whatever they wish, the universe’s sense of humor perhaps, but that student concerned she wasn’t being taught “real” English scored better than her twin on that End of Course Exam she was so worried about, wasted time with pen pals and all.

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