Knowing the Why
It was my first department meeting at my new school in the school district neighboring where I had spent the last eleven years. I was being informed that, per tradition, my junior English classes would be copying poems on to t-shirts for a full week of class in order to wear them with the rest of the juniors in honor of National Poetry Month. As I sat there, thinking about the curriculum I had been working with, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why?”
Ten heads whipped around to look at me with surprise and a little annoyance, when one voice said, “Because that’s what we do here.”
It had been an honest question, especially because the project was something that would take up so much class time with no clear objective. I wasn’t trying to cause trouble; I was trying to understand.
In asking more questions of individuals, I learned that the common goal was for students to “appreciate poetry.” When I asked if anyone else had created one of these shirts so I could see an example, a few half finished projects were pulled from a closet—things students had abandoned. But not one of these teachers, who had been there for several years, had created what they had asked students to do.
This moment, combined with many others of a similar character, really caused trouble for me. I asked myself Do I do what everyone else is doing, or do I do what I feel is right? Being new to the situation, I thought I should at least try and work this project into a meaningful objective. At the very least, I was compelled to create a poetry t-shirt to see what my students would be doing and to have a model for them.
Like I would be asking my students to do, I took a plain white t-shirt, and covered it with several forms of poetry from different literary eras. It took me twelve hours to fill the shirt. And it was not fun. Have you ever tried to write on a t-shirt with a Sharpie marker?
I encouraged students to read a lot of poetry and pick pieces they liked, and I allowed for a portion of the required poems to be music lyrics. Yet, despite the mild interest these suggestions generated, I couldn’t figure out a way to assess “appreciation of poetry” or any other viable objective that contributed to my student understanding of American Literature. Instead, I gave completion points for the assignment, rather than points based on how many poems students had in particular categories as most of my peers did.
The following year, when I again questioned this assignment, I was told my students would feel “left out” if they were not participating. So, I talked with my students about it in the most positive language I could muster, as I am also not one to sabotage the choices others make. My students agreed that they did not want to do the assignment though there were few exceptions. In the end, those who did want to make a shirt were welcome to come to my room, look through my poetry books, borrow my Sharpies, and fully participate with their other classmates.
I have had several of these experiences in my current environment, and my wobbling has forced me to really examine the stance I want to take as a teacher. While I want my peers to like and respect me, I also want to know why I am doing what I do in my classroom, I believed in this position, but I was reluctant to share it or to challenge popular opinion.
It wasn’t until I read Anthony Muhammad’s Transforming School Culture in a lawn chair at a campground outside Ketchum, Idaho that I realized why I had such resistance from my peers. He argued that Fundamentalists, those who resist change, are usually at odds with Believers, people who trust their students can succeed at whatever we ask of them.
I wanted his solution to be for me to keep quietly questioning the status quo while doing what I felt was right with my students, but he argues that believers must speak up. To change school culture, “the Believers simply have to become more active and aware of the day-to-day assaults on the very belief system to which they adhere. They have strong cases for their stance; research and ethics support their goal of success for every student” (40).
Because I shy away from conflict as much as possible, I really struggle with what I now feel is a responsibility—engaging in conversations that keep asking why and learning as much as I can to make arguments that connect our understanding of why we do what we do with clear criteria for student success. Though difficult, it is important to have these conversations to provide our students opportunities to learn and grow as critical thinkers. This kind of internalized and sophisticated work cannot be assessed by writing poems on a t-shirt.
Muhammad, Anthony. Transforming School Culture. Indiana: Solution Tree Press, 2009.