LA5370 Reflection - an open email to my former mentor
August 5, 2016
Dear Mrs. D,
It’s raining here in Tallahassee. I think it rains here every day. It’s strange being here before I actually start courses in three weeks. Broke (they haven’t even paid me enough to cover rent) and alone (I’ve made some friends but most are bound for their respective “homes”) I’m left here to reflect on the course they required me to take and pay credit fees for, though the credits don’t count toward my degree. I know that I’ve never taught a college course before, but it’s still hard to believe that an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction and 10 years of teaching English on a secondary level weren’t enough to exempt me from this training. They call it “bootcamp.” I think they are trying to be funny. Maybe some day I’ll laugh about it.
Needless to say, this is NOT what I imagined finally making it into a PhD program would be like. I’ve tried to make the best of it I can, keeping my complaining on as minimal a level as I can. (I know! My low level of complaining is anything but low. I’ve already spent 200 words complaining!!) I miss you and our conversations about education. I think you get my complaining like others don’t always, get that I have high expectations and that my complaining is part of a process of getting reality to match up with my expectations. I probably should just change my expectations, I know.
The actual course itself has been a good experience. Our instructor is a phenomenal teacher and leader. From the start she set out clear expectations. She uses strategies high school teachers are familiar with and are proven to be effective—journal writing, reflective writing, shared responsibility for discussion, checking for understanding, review of expectations, etc. etc. She’s incredibly knowledgeable about pedagogy, presents at conferences, is a leader here and in the field, but she doesn’t feel the need to lecture on and on and on. She’s brought in dozens of TA’s to speak to us. The rest of the class is a group discussion (we sit in a big circle: you would hate it) which she has her GA’s facilitate. She listens and speaks up occasionally when it is appropriate, but really lets the class work through the ideas organically. All of this can be intimidating, I think, for many people. But I get the sense that she “has my back.” In fact, I’ve heard that phrase over and over again in one-on-one conversations with TA’s in the program. This, I’m sure you understand, is rare and precious. Have we ever worked for an administrator we were sure “had our backs”? I know I heard that false promise from more than one.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find some our old “friends” in the required readings for the course: Peter Elbow, Nancy Atwell, Tom Romano, and your-friend-not-mine George Hillocks. This seemed to confirm much of the theory and practice you helped me gain through book groups, NCTE conferences, NWP, etc. etc. etc. The program is certainly process writing oriented, which is great. It seems relatively student centered. The role of the teacher as reader is emphasized. Genre and multi-genre (multimodal) work is required. In other words, they are doing all the great things you taught me to do! Of course all of this is in a enormous system that requires every student to take this course whether they have AP credit or not and whether they are going to go on in English or writing careers or not. There’s a tinge of disdain for the AP program and English education on the secondary level in general which can be a little disheartening for someone that has invested a great deal in those very things.
But I’m learning new things too. All my “teaching is political,” Friere ideas are resurfacing. I read some work by Jacqueline Jones Royster that I found really inspiring and encouraging. You should check out her stuff. I think I might use her piece “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own” in my class. The readings usually lead to some progressive teaching philosophies. They sort of range from very traditional to a broader more “emerging” view. I’m tempted to try to keep up on all the emerging theory by reading journals and trying to make it to a conference, but I try to remind myself that I am here to be a student and a poet first, a teacher second. We both know that teaching will suck up all the energy you allow it. Another “new” term I’ve heard a lot about is the “rhetorical situation.” Did you use this term in your AP class? I think I may have spoken about the “occasion” pieces were written for but I didn’t use this term. I’m actually a still a little incredulous toward the system of rhetoric as a whole. It’s hard to believe I briefly considered pursuing a PhD in it. These days, to me, it seems very tied to very old ideas—that effective or “good” rhetoric has certain identifiable qualities, comes from a certain tradition, and worse “belongs” to a certain group of (educated) people. (I’m painting with too broad a brush). Your mantra “Everything’s an argument” keeps playing in my head. Part of the reason for my doubt about rhetorical situation is that I’m not sure we can actually know what the situation was when a certain text was created—we see history through a limited lens, and one that is almost certainly biased. Contemporary rhetorical situations may be easier to analyze, but we still have limited and biased access. I’d say the same for looking at the rhetorical situation of our own work! But does that mean it isn’t worth considering? No.
The grading system is the one thing I think is most different from my experience in secondary ed. They encourage the use of “portfolio grading” and the use of e-portfolios where students compile all their work and then it is graded by the teacher at the end of the course—and it is worth a majority of the overall grade. This would not have flown in any of the schools we worked in together. (Remember how my “contract grading system” caused such palpitations with the parents?) Every assessment had to be clearly quantified with a rubric or at least a specific standard with evidence for why a student was “emerging,” “developing,” “proficient,” etc, and part of a larger system of pre-tests, summative and formative evaluations, standardized school, state, and national tests, and “UPDATE YOUR ONLINE GRADES BY THURSDAY OR ELSE!!”. I’m pretty skilled in engaging students in dialog about their writing, written and verbal “feedback,” but I’m still navigating how I will give them a grade without any real administrative grading systems in place (except that if they get lower than a C on a paper they have to retake the course, essentially eradicating the D, F portions of the traditional scale. I think you’d call it grade inflation.)
I got a chance to observe a TA teaching a comp course this summer. I spent about two weeks in her class. Honestly, the best part of that was just getting to know a fellow poet and rockstar individual. I think the classroom management strategies I learned throughout the years (Yes! I have classroom management strategies! No we don't just sing “Kumbaya!!) will serve me well in the college classroom.
Ah! This letter is getting long! Thanks for listening to me whine! I really am thrilled to be here. Really. I would never have made it without your professional guidance and friendship. Thanks for investing so much in me. I’m eager to pass it on in the opportunities present now and those in the future. Enjoy your summer! Try not to spend too much time in your classroom! Also thanks for storing all the crap I left in your garage!! I have no idea if I’ll ever have a place here in Florida where I can fit it all.