First Person

I was frustrated with my toughest high school students. Then we went to a farm to scrub pumpkins.

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If you had asked me on a chilly, overcast Friday morning how I would have liked to spend the day, you would not have heard, Oh, I can’t wait to scrub down pumpkins with vinegar with 20 15-year-olds.

But that’s exactly how I spent one Friday last fall — and it was the best thing to happen to my relationship with my toughest students.

I had handpicked those students to be in a class I’d designed. I chose them because I knew they needed something that school wouldn’t or couldn’t offer otherwise them. I called the course Connect because my sole goal was to reconnect these kids with learning.

Designing and teaching this class was an interesting experiment. Small moments would made me glad to be a teacher — a perfectly worded sentence, or 100 percent engagement, even if it was only for 10 minutes. I also hit wall after wall, thinking that a lesson or a project would be just the ticket, only to see it fail miserably. These kids were tough nuts to crack.

But I was the one who cracked on that Friday.

We had not had a good week together. I was frustrated with them, and they were probably more frustrated with me. I didn’t think their work was living up to their potential. I didn’t think they were really trying. And I took it personally, so much so that on the morning of the field trip, I told my husband, “I don’t even want to go on this field trip because I don’t think they deserve it. They’re being so lazy right now.”

I felt like hovering by the space heater by my desk and tossing them a few worksheets to make a point. But I dragged myself to school, bad attitude and all, and hopped on a bus headed to the farm.

When we got off the bus, a couple of the farm workers asked the kids to scrub mold off of huge pumpkins piled in giant boxes around a field, using vinegar, water, and old towels. I was praying for a storm to come so we’d have an excuse to haul out of there. Meanwhile, the kids hopped off the bus like they were penny-pinchers on “The Price Is Right.”

They got right to work like old pros. And watching them, I couldn’t help but crawl out of my funk. I walked around asking them if they’d rather be warm inside writing an essay or out there scrubbing pumpkin mold, and they all laughed at the stupidity of my question.

It hit me then: These kids are not lazy.

They are a lot of things — unmotivated, frustrated, bored — at school, but they were anything but lazy. I was reminded of why I chose them to be in the class in the first place. I had promised them a new experience, but I had thrown that promise out the window the second they didn’t perform the way I thought they should. But why would they? I knew who they were from the very beginning; I was the one pretending.

As Americans, and as teachers, we are trained to think about education in a certain way. If we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit that sometimes the way we learn in school and the way we choose to learn outside of school are not only different, but polar opposites.

That means I have to ask myself some hard questions sometimes about why I do what I do in the classroom, and why I expect certain things from my kids.

The bottom line is that I want success, and a lifelong passion for learning, for every kid who walks into my classroom. Of the 20 kids in my Connect class, I want the kid who wants to be a veterinarian to write an unbelievable essay to get into vet school. I want the kid who wants to be a hair stylist to be the most requested stylist in the salon because she knows how to tell good stories and persuade clients to try styles she knows will make them look their best. I want the kid who wants to be an entrepreneur to refuse to sign a shoddy contract because he knows to what words really mean for him and his business.

The key, for me, is finding the best ways to translate the motivation those students showed for scrubbing and hauling pumpkins to the skills that will help them live the best life they can. That’s the grand experiment.

We ended that day on the farm with a nature walk on a path around a pond. The boys bounced around like Tigger, breaking sticks, hopping on logs, jumping through puddles. The girls led the tribe from the front, their laughter trickling back through the humid air to me as I followed from behind. The rain finally came while we walked, but the tree canopy above shielded us, so we felt only a mist as we paced through the woods together.

I told one of the kids ahead of me that it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: “Some people feel the rain, and others just get wet.” She didn’t really listen because she is 15, and I’m just the old teacher saying words to the sky, but I needed to say it then.

I needed to remind myself that learning is a beautiful mess. I made a promise to myself as we ended our lap around the pond and stepped out into the open air, that I will do my very best to feel the rain whenever I can. And I will spend my days letting them teach me how to do it.

This piece first appeared on Literacy & NCTE, the blog of the National Council of Teachers of English.

First Person

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.

First Person

I was a winner in an academically segregated school. Now, I’m driven to advocate for the other side

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star

You notice many things walking the halls of your middle school: Some kids are bigger than you, some are a different gender, some have a different hair color.

At my middle school, it was as easy to notice some kids were not getting the same education as me.

I attended Hamilton Middle School in Denver for three years as a young teenager, and I was in what was known as the IPM Program, or the International Preparatory Magnet program. Essentially, it was the program for kids who were going to succeed.

But naturally, when some children are selected to succeed, others aren’t. At my school, they were the “TAP kids,” or the students in the Traditional Academic Program.

We were divided neatly, I’d even say segregated, along these program lines to the point where we had different classes on different floors. It did not take a patient observer to realize the main floor, where many eighth-grade TAP classes were held, was less resourced than the upper floor, where I had my classes.

When I compared notes years later with a friend in TAP, we realized how much more writing I did in my classes. One example: An outside program once gave every student at the school a box of energy-efficient lightbulbs and shower heads — but only the IPM kids were required to write essays about how to use them to save energy.

From grading standards to locker quality to college encouragement, IPM was clearly the part of the school the Hamilton faculty was paying attention to.

In the years since I attended, Hamilton has changed its programs. George Washington High School, where the International Baccalaureate program has been a popular destination for Hamilton’s IPM students, has opened itself up more, too.

Still, I wonder what happened to my TAP peers, many of whom were my friends, and most of whom came from poorer families.

It’s hard for me to imagine that, after being tracked into the TAP program, most of those students ended up prepared to graduate from college. I wonder how that contributes to the state’s high school graduation rate — one of the lowest in the country.

Now, as a grown man and voting citizen of the great state of Colorado, I’m asking, what can I do for those kids who have fewer resources and for years endure schools that don’t care about them?

For one, I have an electoral fellowship this summer to help lobby for better education policies and support local school board candidates. I have also been working to oppose cuts to federal student aid and rollbacks of civil rights protections for transgender students being proposed or implemented by Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education.

But while those federal issues really matter, it’s the local issues that first inspired me.

We need to look carefully at schools separating their students as fully as my middle school did, and encourage leaders to push for an equitable, challenging education for all, instead of being selective and pushing some students to the wayside.

Marcos Descalzi is a third-year student at the University of Denver studying public policy and a Colorado SFER Action Network summer fellow.