The Start

One of Stephen King’s rules in On Writing is to first write for yourself, and then worry about the audience later. I have a problem with this. Firstly, I don’t really “write” at all anymore. I never sit down after work with a pen and paper to write down what happened for the day. I don’t sit in front of the computer when I’m bored, never eager to open a new document and pen a science fiction story based on a dream I had last night. So, I think that rule should be re-written to say “first, sit down at the fucking desk and start typing, and then worry about your audience later.” That’s not to say that I disagree with every one of King’s rules in his 2000 memoir slash writing guide. All I’m saying is this blog is going to be mostly for me, and as I write, I’m going to try to never worry about the audience. I’m typing this first entry as I wait for my boyfriend to log on to Skype so we can talk. He’s in France with his 9th grade students as a part of a home-stay program. They’re away for a whole month. I know that a very big part of my decision to start writing. Admittedly, I have a lot more free time these days due to his absence.

To explain the title of this blog, I need to talk about Kimberly Hill Campbell first. Campbell, who now teaches at the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College, taught middle school and high school language arts in a rural school district and served as the founding principal of a small, urban high school. In 2007, Campbell published a book called Less is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts – Grades 6-12, and it’s this book that inspired me to start writing. I’m an 8th grade ELA teacher in the middle of her second year of teaching (my first year was a weird, experimental teaching model where I was one of nine teachers in the room with 25 students…I taught a full curriculum, though albeit to 7 students overall, so I still count it as teaching experience). I’m also in the middle of my final year of graduate school. In the fall, I will have earned my Masters in Effective Teaching from the Sposato Graduate School of Education.

One of the hardest things about teaching this year has been creating the curriculum. In August, during faculty orientation, I found out that the other 8th grade ELA teacher (a three year “veteran” in the school, and someone with a plethora of experience) quit unexpectedly. This left me a newcomer to the school, a newcomer to teaching 8th grade and a new comer to teaching a whole classroom full of students, in charge of creating the curriculum. I knew the book we were going to read, but this was my first time creating a unit (for real, not for a grade), and it was going to be taught to the other two 8th grade classrooms by a substitute until a new permanent teacher could be found. I made the materials, but the unit wasn’t cohesive. My target tasks sounded okay, but I couldn’t really tell if they were appropriately aligned and rigorous. In the beginning, that was okay (or at least, I was told there were more pressing matters to think about). As long as we had material to teach, it didn’t seem as important they be rigorous because my classroom management was suffering, greatly.

All throughout my first year of teaching and grad school, I thought that giving demerits was challenging. It didn’t seem to matter if I was giving them out to a real 6th grader for talking while a classmate was speaking, or if I was roleplaying in class with my peers, giving demerits out to other graduate students playing the part of misbehaving students. I was told that with enough practice, the part of my brain responsible for giving out demerits would grow so accustomed to the act, that it would start feeling automatic. They called it “the behavior management cycle” at Sposato, and it goes as follows:

Yes, it’s simple and easy to remember. I’ve found myself, in the middle of a class I’m teaching, thinking back to this move-set. But it feels as if there is something about being human that is preventing me from being truly successful at the BMC, and thus at classroom management (by the way, when I say classroom management, I mean the way that my classroom is set up culturally, what happens when I set the expectation that all voices are off while I explain what we’re going to do next and two students decide to whisper to each other? What happens when a student hasn’t picked up her pencil, and we’re already three minutes into class, others diligently working on the do-now?).

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(I’m going to take a second here to say that I think my writing has gotten distracted…the reason why I brought up the BMC is because it’s what I was failing to do as a result of worrying so much about what I was teaching. Around November/December, after my fourth or fifth week of consistent feedback relating to my inconsistent demerit-giving, I started working extra-hard at when I was giving them out and to which students I was demeriting, and my classroom started to feel…stricter, less fun…I was getting better at demeriting, but it seemed like (at the time) that what was happening was my students thought I had gotten tired of them not listening to me, and now I was taking it out on them. This negative relationship grew until it peaked in January, when I sent out three boys from one of my classes at the same time, all for publicly challenging directions and my authority (which I think in many ways was justified, on their part – my directions weren’t clear and the task in front of them wasn’t crystal either). I had a meeting with my cohort leader and my DCI (my direct manager) about ways to try and fix the culture in that class. This brings me to Mrs. Campbell’s book, and the start of this blog) 

Ah, great, we’re back on the right track. So, this book. I found this book through a google search, and I haven’t been this excited to read a book in a long time. I think it’s going to answer a lot of the questions I have about teaching literature to middle school students. Campbell’s book is a defense of teaching short stories in middle school rather than full novels. She believes, accurately (for me, at least), that language arts teachers want all of their students to love literature and embrace the novels they assign, but the classroom reality is that many students are not ready or motivated to immerse themselves in an entire novel. According to Campbell, in order to reach and engage all students, teachers need to look beyond novels alone and embrace a richer variety of literature, namely, short stories. She shares her discovery of the power or short texts to support her students’ skills as readers, writers, and students of literature, as well shows how short texts engage a wise range of middle and high school students.

By the way, I gleaned ALL of that from just the back cover of her book. My hope is to write about reading this book, and my experience in attempting to implement some kind of curriculum involving short stories. I can’t promise that all my writing will be coherent, or consistent, or really any good. I also can’t promise that I won’t curse, embed memes, or get off topic from time to time. I don’t even know if anyone’s reading this, so I don’t know who I’m making these promises to. Maybe me?

I’m going to start reading now, and hope to post my first “reaction” post – initial thoughts, how I feel this relates to MCAS prepping, annotations, etc. – some time tonight or tomorrow.

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