Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I Am Ready To Step Up (spontaneous classroom eruption)

I take the unit exams away from them today in fifth period because they’re looking listless, tracking me as I move through the columns to address test questions instead of focusing, not re-reading, not re-checking, and I won’t have it. I take the tests back and stand in front of them, straightening and organizing the papers with great care and deliberation.

We will not work like this, I say. Maybe we’ll do something else today, take these tests tomorrow. Maybe next week. You don’t look ready.

They make this gross teenage noise that is almost naawww but with an aftertaste sound that is somehow Germanic, a linguistic etymology which tends to belie everything we know about these kids in front of me, not to mention the origin of language itself, but is generally used to convey an incredulous disbelief, this sound that is almost, but not quite, naawww.

You’re ready? I say. What are you ready for?

And then, so perfect it’s like I planted the line, homeboy in the back speaks up, loudly, clearly, using a complete sentence even though the lights surrounding the complete sentence sign are not illuminated, speaking the phrase we put on last year’s CST shirts, the one that’s emblazoned across our class-based academic performance awards: “I am ready to step up.”

I hand him his unit exam.

And wait.

"Mr. [TMAO]?"

I look over with a pleasantly quizzical look.

“I am ready to step up.” She gets a test.

Another hand goes up: “I am ready to step up.” He gets a test.

Now nearly every hand is in the air, delivering the line with increasing rigor and strength, taking their tests and working now for real. One kid chokes on the words; another giggles. They do not receive a test. These are serious words spoken by serious people, people who want to do serious work, I say. Another student tries to wait me out. I ignore her and her short-lived rebellion, and eventually the hand hits the air: “I am ready to step up.”

Ascendéte, Jaguar.

There’s something different about requesting the work as opposed to getting it handed to you; reaching out instead of accepting, acquiescing. Something strong and real about needing to vocalize a commitment before you’re allowed to work, this thing going on here that speaks to the idea that this isn’t punishment or some sad time we’re about to enter, but rather opportunity. Show what you know. Everything is a little amazing right now.

I pull a chair off to the corner and sit, watching them tear into plot structure, proper-common nouns, essay analysis, and compare-contrast evaluations, wondering how I can make this thing here live everyday, make these words a vibrant ethos, more fundamental even than the reverse print 3-in-1 posters that underscore every piece of work completed, every chance taken. The kids I work with are not ready to work for themselves. The previous seven academic years of under-teaching, under-expecting, under-providing, and disastrous deal-making have robbed them of the chance to work for themselves. Everything is conditional, and way too much of what they do is still for parents, or for peers, or for me. At least for now. We're on a linear progression, launched toward the time when maybe they can do it for themselves, a D.I.Y. infinitely more powerful than that evinced by my long-off friend Brian Sweet Potato who made his own studded belts with mail-order purchased supplies because Hot Topic didn't exist yet.

If it was just one of them and one of me, I'd say, one day you'll look around and realize holy-shit-I-want-this. I want to make sure you've got something in the tank for when that day comes.

Maybe we got a little closer today, to both those occurrences.


Anonymous Ian said...

i feel i could be reading this out of a chapter of a ny times bestseller.

you ever consider writing a book?

12:45 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Heh. Let's say TMAO already wrote a book. Now guess at the content. Without seeing your guess, I'm pretty sure you're way off.

11:14 AM  
Anonymous char said...

Great image of a real classroom. What is assessment after all but a picture of where a student is at the moment? Your students were ready to step up. It's so much better when they make the choice.

10:54 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Ian: I did write a book, and as Dan says, it's probably not about what you'd think it'd be about based on what this site is about. Life context.

I think it's a good book, though. There's some linkage over at the right.

I will admit, the idea of writing, formally, for publication, about all the time that has gone before is compelling. I get stopped at structure. It won't be a first year thing. It won't be a long career retrospective. It won't be a year in the life of a ghetto teacher. I don't know.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a fantastic story, thank you. i hope it was real.

7:32 AM  

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