In a few hours, this will all be over. I am not ready.
There are many moments in life that I don't realize their importance until long after they've passed.
Then, there are those that freeze time. They declare their significance in real time, demanding an emotional toll before I'm ready to pay it. Folger TSI is one of those things. Time has been frozen, but it has also moved far too quickly.
The faculty, the staff, the fellow teachers, the plays, the books, the lectures, the research, the curriculum work, the performance lessons, the presentations, and the performances: how is it possible to narrow down or even put words to how each of these parts contributes to the whole? How do I begin to make sense of the love in my heart and the jolt in my brain that have both been firing non-stop for four weeks? How do I explain to other people that "Where's Rob?" and "Don't be like Macbeth" are two of the most hilarious sentences to ever exist when you haven't slept for 28 days?
I know that my connection with the Folger will not end here. I will carry it with me and through me to every student and teacher who enters my classroom until the day I retire.
I won't have these people all together in this place again, but I will carry them with me forever. They have inspired me as an educator, an academic, and a human being navigating this troubled world.
Tomorrow I will go home to my life that I love, but I will leave a portion of my heart planted here in the Folger Shakespeare Library. I hope even more parts of my heart will fly back with my TSI family to their regular lives.
This is what education and teacher professional development can be. I'm going to do my damndest to make sure that I live up to it.
My mind was full of scorpions and the cyclical nature of time this week as we read the Scottish play.
I have been thinking forward, planning my new Shakespeare curriculum with more Folger Essentials while still maintaining the integrity of my writer's workshop, two things I have never quite been able to marry until now. My heart and head are full of the new possibilities my future students will have because of the four weeks I have spent here this summer.
I am thinking backward, mourning for the students who have already left my classroom, wishing I could pull them back and give them the Shakespeare experience they deserve. I don't think I have ever been a bad Shakespeare teacher because I had a fantastic mentor who grounded me in Folger ideals long before I came here. But hearing and reading about these methods is on a different plane of existence from actually diving into them with the people who created them.
I am thinking here, now, always about how guilt is the earmark by which I know I am growing as an educator. It sounds strange to frame improvement with such a negative emotion, especially when that guilt is always outmatched by enthusiasm, but it's the guilt that blooms into growth in the pit of my stomach.
I felt that guilt right after I switched to using writer's workshop.
I felt that guilt after I started writing with my students.
I felt that guilt after the years I spent researching the best ways for me to provide feedback to my writers.
I have felt that guilt after every important decision I've ever made to improve my classroom.
And I feel that guilt now, as I revise and refine what Shakespeare will look, feel, and sound like for my students.
The guilt of feeling like I didn't do enough for my former students fuels the enthusiasm I have to constantly make things better for my future students.
But, oh, if I could go back and give the teacher I am now, and the teacher I will be, and share her with those former students, too.
This week, you were sophomores.
These words, spoken by one of our Folger Curriculum gurus (the lovely Heather Lester) keep scrolling through my brain this morning as I try to wrap my head around TSI 2018 Week 2.
I am trying to remember what it was like to be a sophomore.
Seventh and eighth grade are vividly etched into my brain. I keep their memories close to the surface because those are the grades I teach, and I don't ever want to commit the sin of forgetting what it was like to survive adolescence. Being a teenager matters. There are so many moments from when I was 13 or 14 that were far more important in shaping the person I am today than anything I've accomplished as an adult.
But I am not a middle schooler here at Fogler, I am a sophomore, and I have been wracking my brain trying to remember what it was like to be one. Of all my school years, tenth grade seems to be the one I remember least.
Here are the things I do remember:
So, was my sophomore week at TSI comparable to the teenage sophomore my brain is so desperately trying to get me to forget?
Being a TSI sophomore means that I've settled in. I've pushed past the brain-fried, awestruck, sleep-deprived freshman and etched out my own little place in this world. I'm heading into week three looking forward to what new challenges arise.
My brain is not working properly.
It has overloaded.
I am terrified that any minute it will refuse to cooperate and just abandon me completely.
If that happens, it was worth it.
Please know from the start that this week in review cannot come close to fully representing everything that the Folger Teaching Shakespeare Institute encompasses. If I had the brainpower to devote to it, I could write a book solely focused on any one day.
But I don't have the brain.
Or the time.
(Or the rest. Oh, God, I haven't slept a full night since I got here!)
So this will have to do.
First, imagine coming here from 8-5 (or sometimes 8am-10pm) every day for work. No big deal. Just the largest Shakespeare collection in the world and that pesky Capitol building down the block.
I could stare at the Folger and sit outside on the steps eating lunch every day for the rest of my life and never feel any less awestruck than I did the first day.
But I don't have time to be awestruck. We have work to do.
We start every day with a short homeroom that attempts to give us a grasp of what the day has in store. Peggy O'Brien assures us that, as teachers, we do the most important work in the world. I have had so many people in my career tell me this at some point in time, but it almost always feels like a sales pitch. It doesn't from her. When she says it, I believe it.
We stay in the theater for a morning lecture from one of the scholars. This week, I've listened to world-renowned experts talk about:
After seminars, we are always in some rotation of the following:
The performance and curriculum lessons have all been packed with amazing, instantly-usable strategies to use in my classroom. Some are familiar from my previous knowledge of Folger methods, but it's still a completely different beast to do them as a student and experience them at the source. Things that I've only read about are now alive in my teacher body and brain.
The research might kill me. It's been so long since I've done a deep dive into inquiry on a topic that has nothing to do with teaching. (I specifically chose for this research to be about curiosity instead of classroom.) Add in the fact that I've never had the ability to access primary sources in person, and it's almost too much to wrap my head around. My research project might be terrible, but it's also already one of the most exciting research experiences I've ever had.
Just this week, I have touched, read, and taken notes on both King James's Daemonologie from 1597 and an original 1560 copy of the Geneva Bible.
For the super-nerds who are curious: my research question is What is a rebel? as it relates to Macbeth. I'm grounding it in I Samuel 15:23 ("For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft") and doing a deep dive into King James, his witchcraft obsession, the divine right of kings, and how the witches from Macbeth have been portrayed throughout history. I have no idea where I'll end up. It makes me want to laugh maniacally and sob, simultaneously.
Top left: Spine of Geneva Bible (text from 1560, rebound in 19th century using 17th century panels)
Top right: I Samuel 15:23
Bottom left: Daemonologie from 1597
Bottom right: King James's paraphrasing of I Samuel 15:23 as part of his major support for the existence of witches.
It's been a week. One week.
I have spent all of my waking hours surrounded by Shakespearean experts and top-tier educators from all over the United States.
My head is full, and so is my teacher-heart.
I found out a few months ago that I'd been chosen as one of 25 teachers from throughout the US accepted into the Folger Shakespeare Library Summer 2018 Teaching Shakespeare Institute.
My immediate reaction when I received the call at school involved a lot of jumping and screaming and tears of joy, with terrified students wandering in from lunch to wonder if I'd been attacked. (Apparently my happy screaming is terrifying.)
I am insanely proud of being accepted for many reasons, but partially because I never really let myself believe that I would be. I didn't want to get my hopes too high for something that seemed such a long shot. As with all things, I applied despite that fear because I couldn't allow myself to miss the opportunity.
Now it's here. I'm packing my bags and triple-checking the lists I've made so that all will be in place for my 6am flight on Sunday. I'm sure I'll be writing extensively about the experience during my month in DC, so I thought I'd start today by posting the application essay that helped get me there in the first place. I set it up mostly as a "My Shakespeare Autobiography" and then transitioned into persuasion. I wrote and revised this application essay 100% during class workshop time with my 8th grade students as responders and cheerleaders, and their feedback and support was instrumental to the application process (Shout out to Period 3!).
Summer Institute Application
As a student, I never liked Shakespeare. My only experience with his work was when we read Romeo and Juliet my freshman year of high school, and I spent so many hours flipping between the text and the translation glossary that I couldn’t keep anything straight. The only redeeming quality was that Baz Luhrmann’s movie version was released at the same time, and there was no way a self-respecting 14-year-old like myself could turn my back on Leonardo DiCaprio in his prime. So I suffered through Shakespeare and was relieved when I never encountered him again.
As an English teaching major, my fear of Shakespeare was something I held as a close secret, but never had to confront. My college classes in British literature assumed that everyone had extensive knowledge of Shakespeare, so the professors made sure to expose us to other authors. When I landed a teaching position at the middle school level, it seemed that I would never have to deal with Shakespeare outside of pop culture references. Five years into my teaching career, I entered a graduate school program specifically for secondary teachers of English, and it was there when my worst nightmare reared its head: a graduate level seminar in the teaching of Shakespeare.
When I saw the course description for the class, it felt like a personal attack. My classmates were thrilled: they all taught high school English, and every one of them was responsible for at least one of Shakespeare’s plays. I was the only middle school teacher in my cohort, and I spent the weeks leading up to that semester dreading it. I would have to spend five months doing graduate level work on something that I was terrified of that also wouldn’t apply to my classroom.
I could not have been more wrong. The instructor for the course was Rick Vanderwall, a former middle school teacher and Folger Institute graduate, and he changed everything about my perception of Shakespeare. Unlike my high school experience, he taught me how to read the plays by ignoring most of the footnotes and glossary terms and figuring it out for myself. He relieved me of the pressure to understand every last word and line and instead gave me permission to enjoy the language and the story. He showed me that these plays were meant for performance, and that performance encompasses so many things other than simply acting out a scene in front of an audience. But the most important thing he showed me was that Shakespeare has a place in the middle school classroom.
Rick suggested I start with Midsummer. What play could possibly go better with the goofy awkwardness of seventh grade? With help from some of the lesson plans from Shakespeare Set Free, I dove in. We used insanely large print, and experimented with tableaux vivant and creating our own modern versions of scenes. I created more performance activities that I thought would be fun, like having my students act in a Jerry Springer-style talk show panel of Egeus and the lovers to help them sort out conflict and relate with the characters’ emotions. ("The Hauptsteen Show" is a perennial favorite in my classroom.)
I am the only language arts teacher for both 7th and 8th grade in my rural Iowa community. Because of this, my classes are full inclusion, with 16.2% of my students on IEPs for special education, and 11.8% of my students categorized as English Language Learners. With a 50% Free and Reduced Lunch rate, many of my students are also living below the poverty line. All of these populations were initially terrified of reading Shakespeare, but it quickly became one of their favorite experiences in my classroom because it was the great equalizer. Higher level students grappled with Shakespeare’s language just as much as everyone else, so many of my struggling students found an area of reading and speaking where they could be just as successful, if not better, than their peers.
After that initial success with Midsummer, I knew I wanted to do Shakespeare again with students during their eighth grade year. I settled on Macbeth because it was my favorite. Challenging, yes, but if the goofy antics of Midsummer fit seventh grade, then the darkness and morality of Macbeth could mirror the angst of my end of the year eighth graders. They loved it. Their experience with the language during 7th grade paved the way for many of them to proclaim how much they loved Shakespeare when it came time for Macbeth in eighth grade. That magic has repeated itself for five years now in my classroom. In high school, my students will go on to read Romeo and Juliet during their freshman year, Hamlet in 11th, and for some of them, it will be their last encounter with Shakespeare. By diving into both Midsummer and Macbeth in middle school, I feel fortunate that none of my students will be in the same position I was as a student. I’ve had many people doubt that middle schoolers can handle real Shakespeare over the years I’ve been teaching these plays, and I want more ways to prove just how capable young students are when it comes to the language and themes they encounter in Midsummer and Macbeth.
I am applying for this summer institute first and foremost because it focuses on the two plays I teach, and I want to dive into fresh and new ways to help my students with their Shakespeare experience. Selfishly, I also want to rekindle my own exploration into Shakespeare. The prospect of spending intensive time with my two favorite plays while also reading a history for the first time makes this the opportunity of a lifetime. My journey from fear and avoidance to love has already been one of the high points in my career as a teacher and student, and I want to continue that magic. My students know that my passion for Shakespeare was kindled because I had an amazing teacher who taught me how to interact with these plays in ways I never dreamed were possible, and I want to do everything I can to provide that same opportunity for them.
As an active teacher-writer, frequent cooperating teacher for preservice teaching candidates, and member of the Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board, I would also love the opportunity to share my learning experience from this institute with a larger educational community. Since finishing my graduate degree in 2014, I have not taken an intensive academic class as a student, and I am yearning for the transformative experience that can happen when a group of dedicated educators gather to dive into challenging work together. The Folger session at NCTE convinced me that there is no better way to spend a summer than to immerse myself in Shakespeare at the Folger with other educators from around the nation. I would love the chance to be an active participant in this amazing opportunity.
“Clarion-Goldfield-Dows Middle School Demographics.” Iowa School Report Card, Iowa Department of Education, , 18 Dec. 2017, reports.educateiowa.gov/schoolreportcard/home/demograf?yr=2017&sch=12060209&type=middle. Web.
After years of setting lofty summer writing goals that I never stuck with (Blog post every week! An hour of novel writing every day! Journal submissions! You get the picture...), I gave myself the smallest possible goal for this summer: 20 minutes of writing every day. No standards for quality, no self-dictated genre; just twenty minutes of sacred writing time every day.
I have been out of school for ten days, and I have only missed two days of writing so far. It's too early to label this a successful venture, but this small habit has already far surpassed previous years' summer writing goals.
I run into this problem often enough: grand ideas + early enthusiasm + maniacal energy= frustration, burnout, and eventual disinterest. (This has been a pattern throughout my life that can be applied to everything from work to relationships to cooking.) As I get older, I'm better at setting smaller, more realistic goals along the way. My normal productivity level can best be described as "intense" but I'm still never quite satisfied.
The lack of holding myself to a quality standard for summer writing freaked me out. My students have all heard me preach a million times about the importance of low-stakes free writing to develop the writing muscle and to build a love of writing, but there's still a small part of me that felt guilty about setting a summer writing goal that essentially boils down to free writing every day. Is it too indulgent? What makes this different from the journal I keep every night? Is this just a summer diary? Answers: yes, it's digital and more in-depth/focused, and yes, probably.
Since I've maintained the habit (so far) but I haven't been too kind to myself about the writing, I'm going to practice what I preach.
When I first get 7th graders in the beginning of each year, I spend a lot of time getting them to notice and highlight "golden lines" in their notebooks. (This is a fairly standard practice for a lot of writing teachers that I first heard about from my friend and teacher-cheerleader, Allison.)
To me, golden lines are sentences or phrases that I'm particularly proud of: things I wouldn't change if I took the piece into revision, or lines I would use if I converted the writing into a poem. However, with none of my writing being all that good this week, I'm shifting my perspective for selecting golden lines. This week, my golden lines are sentences where I felt the strongest connection to the emotion I was trying to capture in each piece of writing.
Here they are, in all their un-revised, not-that-great glory:
My writing over the past ten days has been self-indulgent and repetitive. Now that I've established some consistency, I want to push myself to play around with a different skill or genre each day to push away from staying too much in diary territory.
School is out.
The kids are gone, leaving a trail of lost pencils and battered notebooks in their wake.
Teachers are still here, fulfilling contract days, alternating our time between meetings that can barely hold our attention and quiet time packing up our classrooms for summer.
And while I've already started working on my "things to try next year" doc, today seems like a good day to look back instead of looking forward.
Instead of reflecting on my teaching, today I'm thinking about myself as a writer during the 2017-2018 school year.
I don't usually separate out those two versions of myself: teacher and writer. I lump them together, my writing usually serving to strengthen the teaching part. Being a teacher-writer is the best decision I could have ever made for my classroom, students, and self, but forgetting to separate the teacher-writer and just plain writer is a bad habit I've fallen into.
Most of my favorite writings don't have anything to do with teaching aside from being written in my classroom with my students. And it might benefit my students to hear more from the writer-me as opposed to the teacher-writer-me they usually see when we write together.
Writer-me is lazy and unmotivated, procrastinates a lot and rarely finishes what she starts. Teacher-writer-me always steps up and does what she sets out to do in the appropriate time frame. (Of course, modeling my terrible writing habits would probably take some of the impact out of the power of modeling as a teacher-writer.)
Teaching aside, I wrote three pieces during this school year that I'm truly proud of. Actually, looking at dates, I wrote all three of these pieces within the past three months. (My talent appeared during a narrow window this year.)
1. My favorite post from the blog this year is easy: it's the one I wrote two weeks ago (Give Sorrow Words). It's my favorite because writing it was one of those cathartic experiences where you can actually feel yourself getting the poison out of your system. I needed to write that piece in order to understand what I was feeling. I wrote that piece in order to name the beast that had been haunting me so I could begin the work of defeating it.
2. The best piece of writing I created in class this year is a personal essay on breath and breathing told through vignettes. Writing it made me feel alive, and it stuck in my head long after the class period each day when I was working on it. It's still hovering over my shoulder, waiting for me to come back. Someday, it might grow into one of my favorite things I've ever written, but it's not there yet. I know I'll come back to it.
3. The best writing I created this year in real-life was the eulogy for my grandmother's funeral. I'm still not sure if the words stand alone on their own merit, or if my delivery made them what they were. I do know that for the rest of my life, there will never be another speech I'm more proud of writing and performing than the final words I wrote to give my grandma the send off she deserved.
Two more work days, and then my summer is mine for a few weeks before my next adventure (more on that soon...hint).
My goal for the next three weeks is simple (and maybe impossible): write for at least 20 minutes each morning. It doesn't have to be good. It doesn't have to produce anything long term or publishable. It just needs to happen. I need to keep writer-me in the habit even when she's not in teacher mode.
Graduation hit me hard this year.
That shouldn't be the case. I'm a middle school language arts teacher, so by the time my former students graduate, I haven't seen or spoken to most of them in four years. But when you live and teach in a rural community, it's easier to keep in touch.
Keeping in touch is what makes saying goodbye so hard.
You see, there's this boy. (It's always a boy.)
Before I became a teacher, I never imagined I would have the soft spot in my heart for teenage boys that has developed over the years. (There are a lot of things I never imagined in my pre-teacher life.)
I knew I could be a solid, fierce role model and cheerleader for young women, but I didn't know what my place would be with boys. I adore them, I push them, but I don't usually fill the same role in their lives that I tend to for girls. It makes sense: like calls to like. Middle school boys might think I'm fun and enjoy my class, and they definitely respect me, but there's still a separation there. So when a boy comes along who still chooses me to be his role model, my stone cold heart melts in a way that's entirely different.
I know girls will keep in touch. Barely a week goes by when I don't receive a shared doc, an email, or a drop-by visit from a former girl student. And those who have graduated and moved on still set up semi-regular coffee dates for life talks. I cherish the young women who choose to keep me in their lives. They are just as important to me as I am to them.
There are also plenty of former girl students who I've loved and adored who have chosen not to keep in touch, and I respect that. Maybe because I'm also a woman, I realize that I didn't turn back to the people I needed until after I learned how much I needed them. Or that some of the people I now consider to be the most important women in my life are teachers I never saw again after I left their classes. With girls, there is a sense of security that I know they'll reach out if they ever truly need me again.
Boys are different. Most of them don't keep in touch, no matter how important I might have been to them at one point in time. They're still excited when we run into each other, but they don't reach out, and I respect that distance even if it secretly wounds me. I was important for the time I needed to be important, and part of their growth into adults is to prioritize who in their life makes the cut in the long run. It's okay if I don't make that cut, no matter how special they might be to me.
When a boy actually makes the choice to keep in touch, it hits harder than the girls.
Last weekend, one such boy graduated. He sent me a copy of his latest work or asked for my honest feedback on pretty much every paper he wrote over the last four years. And in his senior year, he chose to come back and be a teacher's assistant in my classroom instead of taking an extra study hall. He has been a role model for my current students. There has never been a time in the past four years when he has not still felt like my student. Six years is a long time for a kid to make the choice to stay in your life. I teared up more than once over the weekend, thinking of how hard it is to let this particular kid go.
As I talked about it with a teacher friend last night, trying to figure out why this is so emotional for me, something came out that I knew was hiding underneath the obvious attachment. It's not just about the kid; it's about me.
I am mourning the loss of the teacher I used to be.
When I had this particular boy in middle school, I was also waist deep in grad school. I did my research at night and my new discoveries and ideas ended up in lesson plans the next day. I experimented with so many things during those two years. Every time I threw something new or different at the kids I taught during those years, they rose to the occasion.
I became a better teacher with them.
When I pushed, they pushed back. We achieved more together than I had with any other class up until that point. They are the first group of kids where I truly felt like I had achieved the potential I had always been capable of.
Sometimes, the ugly voice in the back of my head whispers my greatest fear: You were a better teacher with them than you are now. That voice is the loudest thing in my head right now, and has been for the entire month of May.
This particular kid stands out because he was the best writer I'd ever had, and still remains one of the few boys that earn that distinction. Boy writers can be tough to crack, especially in middle school. His success as a developing writer felt like my success as a teacher finally getting her shit together. Working with him and his classmates made me who I am, but they thought that's just who I was naturally. To him, I was and am the greatest teacher who has ever existed. But I wouldn't be that person without that group of kids.
And now I look at him and I think the version of me that he sees is better than what I actually am. I don't know if I'm that teacher anymore. I am not a bad teacher now (far from it), but I worry that I'm not what I once was.
That terrifies me.
I am not ready to be done, and I am not ready to be someone who settles for being less than what she is capable of.
This week I mourn the loss of one of my favorite students, but I am also thinking of what this kid taught me about being the best teacher I could be.
My future students deserve the best version of me. Now I have to go out and find her again.
When my students turn in their major, workshopped papers toward the end of each trimester, I require a Dear Reader letter. (My general format is based on a combination of strategies from Carol Jago in Papers, Papers, Papers and Nancy Sommers in Responding to Student Writers.)
I require four things in a Dear Reader letter:
1. My students have to tell me their purpose for that specific piece of writing.
2. They identify what they feel is a major strength in the piece and invite me to notice it.
3. They tell me a weakness in the piece and how they attempted to address it during revision.
4. They tell me what kind of feedback they want from me.
Number four can be the biggest challenge for some of my students. Asking for the feedback you want requires knowing yourself in a way many people rarely stop to think about.
There are always tough guys. (This is middle school, after all.) They want the straight truth. They want me to be harsh.
I am a straightforward person, I remind them. But that does not always mean I appreciate straightforward feedback. My writer-self is proud and easily wounded.
Not us, we can handle it!
Until they get that first response letter from me that contains a straight truth they did not want to think about.
While I am never consciously harsh, there are some who realize that they don't want the straight truth. I remind them that their feedback letters should never be something that makes them upset or defensive. If it does, then they've asked for the wrong kind of feedback. Next time, they ask for gentle feedback, or honest but nice feedback. They learn to know themselves better.
As a young writer, I took offense when teachers were overly critical. I have never liked editors. The hairs on my arms raise when someone refers to my syntax as awkward. I can handle things better when my responders ask me questions and invite me to reflect instead of offering lectures. I will listen to critical feedback if a reader also tells me what she loves about my writing. I have learned to know myself better.
I never write a feedback letter that doesn't contain a paragraph of positives and one of criticism, regardless of what the student asked for. Their request changes my delivery, but not the content. I try to give them what they want and what they need. We learn to know each other better as students and teacher.
Feedback is the cornerstone of relationships in an English classroom.
If there is no feedback, the relationship is never created.
If there is untimely feedback, the relationship is not nurtured.
If there is excessively harsh feedback, the relationship is poisoned.
If there is only positive feedback, the relationship is not genuine.
The balance is tenuous. Our words about our students' words have power. It is easy to forget ourselves as writers. It is even easier for our students to never truly know themselves as writers. Compassionate, specific feedback geared to each individual's needs as both writer and person helps us all to remember who we are and what we need.
Spring is finally in the air, after all, and that means kids are done. Every teacher I talk to lately is in a huff about irresponsible kids. I, myself, am frequently popping veins in my forehead about irresponsible kids.
They don't do the work even when I give them plenty of time and support. Been there.
They don't follow basic directions/capitalization/punctuation/[insert irritating behavior here]! Yeah, that's the worst.
It's pure laziness and lack of effort. *Sheepishly looks over at student paper where my single-word comment of Effort is underlined three times with three question marks.*
I get it. Kids can be lazy and show extreme lack of effort, have poor time management skills, and blow off everything school-related to stay up until 4am playing Fortnite. And teachers can blow their gaskets about it and lecture the kids until we're so worked up we can't stop. Soon it turns into a downward spiral of us worrying about their futures and job prospects, and general dismay of future generations going down the toilet, and...
Most kids have very little experience with serious consequences for their actions.
Most kids have little perspective to draw on because they're too young.
Most kids don't understand the decision-making cause and effect relationship because few of their decisions in life are left up to them.
Most kids don't know why responsibility, effort, and deadlines are even a big deal aside from the fact that every adult within earshot likes to tell them that these things are vital for the all-important future. (They have no real understanding of this future aside from that it makes everyone freak out on them all the time and seems like something to worry about constantly.)
Most kids won't truly learn and internalize any of these soft skills that we're trying to instill in them until much later in life when their own experiences, mistakes, and regrets become far more impactful teachers than we will ever hope to be.
I know this because I was one of the worst. I skipped so many classes in high school that I knew exactly how many unexcused absences I could rack up in every single period before I'd get dropped from the class. I knew the time frame when I needed to make damn sure I was the only person in the house to answer the automated truancy phone call that my school sent home every time a student had an unexcused absence. While my apathetic approach to class attendance didn't do me any favors in high school, the consequences were also never quite enough to make me see the error of my ways. I knew it was wrong, just like my students know that not doing work is wrong. I just didn't care at the time (and neither do they). My attendance in the first year of college was also pretty abysmal, until I realized that I couldn't pull it off nearly as well, and this time, poor performance in class meant money down the drain. It still didn't completely convert me to the perfect attendance kid, but I eventually straightened out. It wasn't until years later, while paying back student loans and dealing with truant students that I wanted to strangle my younger self for the wasted time, knowledge, and money that came from skipping class.
If I, as someone who wanted to be a teacher, did not grasp the very simple concept that attending classes was kind of, maybe, I don't know, important, then maybe it's time we cut the kids some slack on the issue of responsibility.
I'm not saying we don't have consequences. We draw the line and we stick to it when it makes sense. Just this morning, I told a kid that after multiple opportunities to re-write and submit a certain paper (opportunities he ignored and didn't take advantage of), it was now too late and he had to live with the grade. He sniffed and told me that his parents wouldn't let him attend an activity he really wanted to go to this weekend unless the grade changed. I told him that I guess he had to live with that consequence, then. I was the bad guy, and that's okay with me. Maybe in the future, he'll remember that and change his actions. Or maybe he'll be a kid like me and his responsibility level won't change for another decade. Or maybe he'll never learn it and the unhappiness in his future life will be one long consequence of his actions. I'm not a fortune-teller; I don't know what will happen with that one totally-normal, sometimes-irresponsible 7th grade boy. But I do know that me complaining and threatening and lecturing have zero impact compared to whatever natural consequences eventually arise.
There has never been a time in history when the older generation thought youth were responsible, motivated, and hardworking. It's not in the nature of adult-kid dynamics. We want them to be better because we want to use our experience to save them from what could happen if they continue to make poor decisions. We want to make sure they don't repeat our mistakes. We can't. We can love them and support them and guide them, but we can't stop them from making poor choices. Going through adolescence is the single best on-the-job training for how to function as a human, and we figure most of that out by screwing up until we arrive at something that works.
The best thing we can do is continue to push our students and not give up on them even when the disappointment clouds over our eyes and we want nothing more than to rant and rave. If kids can grow up and learn to eventually make better decisions, then maybe as teachers we can also learn that not everything is worth getting worked up over. Many of my formerly-irresponsible students are now gainfully employed, contributing members of my community. Their late assignments and lack of capitalization in 7th and 8th grade (and high school, no doubt) didn't lead them to a life of despair. There's no reason those same things should lead their teachers to take on the burden of that despair instead.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.