Brief Vita Areas of Expertise Opening Page
Excerpt from Teaching Adolescents to Write
Naked and Fearless
"I wouldn't expect too much if I were you, this is a poor county."
The ease with which many of my new colleagues spoke these words both disturbed
me and comforted me. I wondered if perhaps I should lower my expectations. My
colleagues were offering me acceptance if I achieved little, or nothing. The
pressure was off, mediocrity seemed an acceptable standard. There was a certain
comfort in this train of thought, and with this comfort came the doubt that if I
tried to accomplish too much, I may come off looking foolish and burning myself
out before I ever got started. On my first day of work I had reached a place in
the road that a man named Frost had told me about. I took his advice, and thus
far, that has made all the difference.
It was during my second year of teaching that I became cognizant of my own developing philosophy regarding education: That a teacher's successes and failures are predetermined by the expectations they have of their students. Seems like common sense, but I've learned that high expectations are not always a welcome philosophy.
I was hired by a principal who saw a need for change in a school that had been stagnating for years. At the time I was fresh out of college, and ready to accept the first job that was offered to me. The drop out rate at this school was one of the highest in the state and assessment test scores were amongst the lowest. Teacher salaries were at the rock bottom of the pay scale, yet those who occupied positions with the school board and superintendent's office received some of the highest salaries in the state. The county was predominantly a welfare community where child abuse, spousal abuse, and domestic violence was an every day fact of life. And yet there were these students, these teenagers who were wonderfully creative, eager to learn, and responsive to new ideas.
In the teaching profession, life is much easier if you decide to make no waves. If you choose to keep your head down, teach to the script, and keep your students occupied with innocuous worksheets, chances are you will attain job security. But, you will also have had a career dull as spit. Although dull is certainly the easiest way to teach, it is not the highest and best use for a teacher. Effective teachers do not have to be entertaining or charismatic every second of the day. But, they should have a good idea of individual capabilities and they should try their damnest to get students to live up to their talents. The effort might involve coaxing, coddling, scolding, or getting out of the way. The moment and the students should dictate what happens next. What would you do in the following situation?
Scene from a classroom
William's leg was bouncing rapidly under the table. His eyes were unfocused and a little wild. It was obvious from the smell that he hadn't bathed in sometime. His usually dirty blonde hair was matted, his t-shirt yellow with dark stains. The ripped blue jeans were too short, revealing that he only wore one sock on his left foot. His right fist was clenching and unclenching. I called Marissa, a reliable, quiet freshman who sat up front to my desk.
I spoke quietly. "Go tell Mrs. Huxley that William hasn't taken his medication."
Marissa knew, as did all the students, that William was "exceptional" and that he had medication he was supposed to be taking. She nodded her head and was gone.
Mrs. Huxley was the counselor. First period had not officially begun yet, and I wanted to get William out of my class before someone set him off. Mrs. Huxley would come and get William, and then call grandma. From what I knew from Mrs. Huxley, William lived with grandma, a kindly old lady who put three bullets into her daughter's head for lighting her (the daughter's) son on fire. Again. I liked grandma, and wanted to help William when I could. Today, I wouldn't be able to.
The bell rang and I surveyed the class. Austin, the 17 year-old freshman was eyeing William. I stepped out in front of my podium from which I take roll and stared hard at Austin. It only took a moment for him to look at me. I mouthed the word 'don't' and shook my head slowly. Austin's hand moved slowly to his pocket, and I knew he was putting whatever he was going to throw back in there.
Christa, who sat halfway back on the first row suddenly began sobbing. Kelly who sat on the opposite side of the room quickly got up from her desk and moved towards Christa.
"SIT DOWN, KELLY!" My first words to the class.
Kelly stopped in her tracks and stared at me in shock. I couldn't help smiling. For three months now this had become a routine. Christa would fight with her boyfriend, sob in my class, and Kelly would take that as a sign to leave her seat, and rush to Christa's side. The first time I had allowed it. The second time (the very next day) I had sent them both to the rest room (from which they did not return for the entire period). Now I was unsympathetic.
"Kelly, sit down. Christa, save it!"
Several of the other girls began snickering and Kelly exploded back to her seat, "I hate this class!"
Christa began sobbing louder just as Marissa came back in. Marissa took one look at her and rolled her eyes. She looked at me, nodded once, and took her seat. I glanced at William. He looked as if he were ready to blast off.
Just as I was ready to address the class and get things started, Melanie let out a blood-stopping scream. Several other girls screamed in response, but Melanie's was in earnest. She jumped from her seat and began slapping at her feet, legs, back, head and shoulders.
I rushed down the row of desks screaming WHAT, WHAT!, and looked for anything that might possibly be killing Melanie. While she was dancing and slapping herself one arm began jerking forward with an extended finger long enough for me to follow its line to the half-smashed remains of a twitching daddy long legs, that would not be long in this world. I grabbed a piece of binder paper from Logan's desk and wiped the twitching scene from the cracked tile floor beside Melanie's desk. I noticed that Melanie was wearing flip-flops. Flip-flops were against the dress code.
"That's why flip flops are against the dress code, Melanie," I said as her slap dancing began to subside.
There was a gentle knock on my door and Mrs. Huxley came in smiling. She went straight to William, looked closely into his eyes, then knelt down close beside him. She gathered his books, his bookbag, touched him gently on the shoulder nodding and smiling all the time, and guided him out of the room. I had to marvel. If anybody else would have touched William, he'd of likely bitten off their fingers.
So, what would you do? Hand out disciplinary referrals, do a little screaming, get students' minds back on conjunctions, assign extra work as punishment, throw your hands up in despair? Here's the end of the story:
Melanie, who was pretty much a good student most of the time, had reclaimed her desk. She was staring at her desk top, her face flushed. I could tell that she was embarrassed. I smiled at her from the front of the class and nodded my head. "Spiders."
Her eyes closed, but her eyebrows lifted slightly and a visible shiver ran through her. She had given me an idea. I had planned an activity to work on subordinate clauses and conjunctions for the day, but I was always looking for openings when I thought students might be primed for something a little off the beaten path. Today we would awaken some monsters.
Deven, a pale, slight boy who was dyslexic, interrupted my thoughts. "What we doin' today, Mr. K.?"
"Monsters, Deven." The class quieted, and all eyes turned towards me.
"Monsters?" Christa was interested.
"Yeah, Christa, real mean ones." Now they were paying attention. I had only the vaguest notion of what I was doing at this point. Somewhere I had read about an activity where students created monsters and then drew pictures, and I was trying to recall how that had worked. Descriptive writing, yeah it might work.
"I want you to get out a piece of paper and write a one page description of the scariest monster you can imagine." I paused as the zippers, book bags, and binders began and ended their unique ruckus. "Mean monsters, okay? I want the writing to be crystal clear so that when someone else reads your description they can visualize your monster. I want lots of good adjectives."
"Does grammar count?" Leon, who was too young to be such a dedicated grade grubber, would no doubt write me a boringly flawless essay on the Lock Ness, or Bigfoot, regardless of whether grammar counted or not.
"Yes, Leon, in your case I want to see several fragments done intentionally for effect."
Leon stared at me for a moment, then his eyes slanted up as he sorted through my words, looking for the appropriate file to reference them and allow comprehension. I stared at him patiently, knowing he would find it. He nodded one time to himself, his eyes coming back to me. "Very funny, Mr. K."
I watched the class as the morning's chaos visibly dissipated, and they became lost in their words. They were mine again for a short time. I wondered what type of monster William would have described were he present.
The human touch
When you teach naked, you look at students and curriculum through a humanistic lens. The vision of student potential is what keeps you hurdling forward.
When I first started out as a teacher, I used to try to cram all the information in curriculum guides, state-mandated tests, and answer-coded textbooks into the heads of my students. "This is boring, but we have to do it," was my mantra. The positive aspect of teaching to the test is that expectations are low and goals are attainable. Any student who possesses an I.Q. over 65 and practices test-taking skills can manage to pass a standardized high school graduation test. The 99% pass rates for driver's license exams in most states is proof enough that passing an exam does not by itself signify learning.
A student comes to class with certain talents and dispositions. Job one for a teacher is getting to know what a student can and cannot do and serving as leader of the class. An effective leader cannot be a wimp or a laggard. An effective leader must have a destination in mind, a plan of action, and enough courage to see it through.
Job two is getting students to turn on their brains and making learning interesting. While some teachers readily abandon the idea of student engagement with the onset of the state assessment, most standardized tests purport to assess real learning, anyway. A student who loves writing and who writes with panache will do infinitely better on any standardized exam than one who loathes writing and attempts to mold his/her writing to fit a particular pre-fabricated design.
We have our medals and ribbons to show that the naked approach works. Year after year, some of the highest pass rates on the Advanced Placement exam for English in the nation come from Kunkel's classroom. When he was a secondary teacher, Baines' students won numerous writing awards and their articles and stories appeared (and are still appearing) in journals, newspapers, and magazines around the country.
In this book, we have tried to provide you with a sense of what it feels like to teach naked. At the beginning of the year, you decide what you want students to be able to do by the end of the year. Then, you create the experiences that will help students get there. Whether it is pondering childhood or alien cultures; producing screenplays or novels; exploring 16 different kinds of writing or creating the life of a fictional character, the secret to successful teaching is engaging students through the emotions and intellect. Grading, like the learning experiences detailed in this book, is dependent on a variety of factors-the classroom environment, the assignment, your perception of the student's talents and weaknesses, other students in class.
So, how does someone who teaches naked grade students? It is difficult to generalize about assessment other than to say this: An assessment should identify specific weaknesses, praise strengths, and help foster an environment where students are unafraid to take wild risks. Assessment should help push students into what Vygotsky called "the zone of proximal development." The zone is the playground where you want students to play.
When we evaluate student progress, we usually analyze products, presentations, and performances. Sometimes we create elaborate evaluation matrices with specific guidelines that we hand out prior to making an assignment. Sometimes we demand spontaneous shotgun responses that we evaluate holistically based upon execution (did the student pull off what he/she was trying to do?) and the quality of ideas (is the student trying to break some new ground with this effort?). Sometimes-and this is very important-we offer students our comments without a grade attached. Whenever we have them, we reach into our files to share samples of student work that we consider brilliant. Students like seeing the work of those who came before them and it gives them an idea of what it takes to reach the A-level benchmark. We don't use a bell curve and we don't give out too many As. We reserve the use of the A for when we think a student has maximized his/her performance on a particular assignment. Because it is rare that everyone in class maximizes their performance on the same assignment, we usually end up giving a range of grades.
If you teach naked, you can expect to get some disapproving looks from the department chair and you can expect to have some meetings with parents and administrators now and then. Whatever the occasion, we hope you will always welcome the chance to voice your platform-that your students possess vast potential and that you simply want to give them and the rest of the world a chance to glimpse at the kinds of accomplishments of which they are capable.
When we taught the classes described in these chapters, it was an adventure for us as much as for our students. We taught with minds racing, eyes wide open, and hearts attuned to the moment at hand. Of course, we weren't always successful and our lessons were not always pretty, but no one ever questioned our sincerity or our results.
Naked teaching is more than an idea. An idea is something that you have, maybe in a fit of inspiration. Naked teaching is more like a vision. You don't have it; it has you. When you teach naked, you no longer have to spend the energy trying to become an effective teacher. The teacher becomes you.