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Teaching Without a Filter

Updated on March 30, 2016
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Dana has been an English teacher at both the high school and college level for 12 years. She is also a mom of twins and an advocate for IF.

If you don't come to class....

First of all, you are not going to learn what you need to learn in order to be successful in your other classes. In case you forgot, you are in my class so you can get help with reading.

Second of all, you are not going to pass. I am VERY easy to get along with. However, get you ass in a chair in my class.

Okay, I know all this new found freedom is super cool and all, but with that comes being a real live grown up. You know, the kind that does what they are supposed to when they are supposed to.

Here is the thing about college, you are probably paying for it, or someone is. I paid for my education and I went to class. Sometimes VERY hungover, but I went. This is going to cost money if you fail it. Lots of it.

So, just a little piece of advice, professors are way more willing to work with you and help you if you show up for class and try. If you haven't been in class in two months, that is not going to look so hot.

Life Motto

Politics are going to ruin education

This is not a new thing. In Kansas it is and will be a recurring theme. We are in a state of crisis. Every budget shortfall brings deeper cuts to education. The latest came from higher education. What distrubs me the most as a teacher is the sheer number of teachers running from the schools.

I am scared. As a teacher I left the public school system. Not because I wanted to, but because I had to. If you have been reading any of my blogs, you know that I am not conventional. I don't do the whole "sit and get" routine. I also answer any question I get asked to the best of my ability. I am honest with my students. I march to the beat of my own drum and it works for me. My students learn and they score well on tests. Those things are important. It seems the testing is super important.

Now in Kansas, I am a liability in the high school classroom. The legislature is trying and is fairly close to making it criminal to teach certain things. Teachers and school boards are going to lose total control over what is being taught. I am a liability because I am not afraid of the word "sex". I know how many times the "n" word is in Huck Finn. The answer is 287. Thank you to whomever counted that for me. I can't teach Chris Crutcher because he is "too harsh and too real". He is also one of my favorites and students love his books. They can relate.

What is happening means that teachers don't have the ability to create a reading unit using a theme. Let's try this as an example. If I want to teach using the themes of labeling people, I am going to right away grab Hawthorne's Scarlett Letter. What better character to begin with than Hester Prynne? She wears her label right on her chest in the form of her A. Now, wait just a minute, how do you teach that now in Kansas? You can't talk about adultry (I was actually told that once) the ultraconservatives will come after you in the night. Not just the night, in the day too. Well, I taught it my way anyway. I talked about the label and what it meant. Kansas hadn't quite gone so far over to the dark side at the point. I wasn't going to go to jail just yet.

So, Hawthorne is dense and wordy. It takes some time, and students need time to process what they are reading. They also need to be able to talk about what they are reading. Study guides for books like this are hard. They need to be student driven. Kansas doens't want things to be student driven. Our legislature is worried that we might teach them to think for themselves. If we do that, they might question authority! Oh no! Through the whole novel my discussions were student led and student driven. It worked, they got it, I don't think they love Hawthrone, but they understand him.

Now, if you really want kids to understand the classics, make them relevant to their lives now. Pair them with a current novel. I have not gotten the chance to do this pairing. I couldn't. If I could have, Hawthorne and Speak by Laurie Halse Andersen go together amazing. Neither main character stands up for herself despite her labels. Both grow and change. Speak give students a chance to identify with high school students. They see themselves in those pages. Then they start to make connections to the classic.

I couldn't teach that novel because it dealt with rape. I had a student use a cutting as a speech piece and it was one of the most amazing things I have coached. Be careful, in Kansas you might go to jail soon if parents don't like it.

I teach because I love it. I handle topics in the classroom using novels and stories. My classroom is a safe place where students can ask questions. They can ask an adult and get a real answer. Maybe just maybe it will make them think twice on Friday night. There is much more to English class that nouns, verbs, and main ideas. Those novels are meant to teach us something about society. Kansas legislators have decided that knowledge is dangerous. So they are going to take it out of our students hands if they get their way. I am scared for the teachers in this state. I am scared for the students in this state. Something has to change, quickly. If this trend continues, there will be no schools to educate our kids.

When everyone knows how to teach...

Everyone has been to school, so everyone knows how to teach. It can't be that hard can it? Mainstreaming is the only way to have it all be fair. These things were part of a discussion last night.

What was most frustrating about this discussion, was simply this, the person with the loudest opinion has little knowledge of what it is like to work with struggling students. The others in the discussion were asking questions about a specific situation and I was trying my best to answer.

The comments were very frustrating simply because not every single situation is the same and not every student is the same. Not all schools have the same access to certain things. What works for one may not work in another. They may not even have the same types of personnel.

Special Education comes under fire so often and hurtful attitudes about how it is handled make it that much worse. My problem is this. The families involved in the SPED process have so many things to deal with. They do not need to have people with terrible attitudes telling them that if this happens this with happen. I cannot even repeat some of the things that were said simply because they infuriate me so much.

Those that have never been in a classroom as a teacher need to remember that those of us that stand up there everyday in order to make sure that kids are learning something are the experts. I am not going to tell an engineer how to design something, a doctor how to do surgery, or a lawyer how to practice. I know nothing about those things. I do know how to teach. It takes a special person to do what we do, and then get kicked in the teeth by nearly every one in America for doing what we do.

So this is my shout out, those of that are still teaching at any level, thank you. Thank you for loving the kids, and all the kids. Thank you for loving them when they are not so lovable (and there are days when they are not), for believing in them when they won't believe in themselves, for pushing them to be their very best, for sticking up for them, for parenting them when no one else will, and for teaching.

You see America, teaching is more than teaching kids how to read, write, and add. We sometimes end up teaching them some pretty big life lessons. We are sometimes there for some pretty bug life things. Sometimes their teacher is the only person in their little lives that loves them. Remember that.

Helping the College Student learn to read....part 1

Well, now isn't that a big ol' topic. Why, yes it is. Yet, it is a fact of life. I can't help but wonder why so many students are coming out of high school without a grasp on simple reading skills. I totally understand the students that have an SLD or another reason. I am talking about the students that are not born into poverty situations, come from homes with educated parents, and have been given the opportunity.

How many students are there really? Well, nationally statistics vary widely. It is a variance from 28% to as much as 40% according to National Conference of State Legislatures. The sheer number of incoming freshman that need at least one remedial class is amazing. That being said, when they get there, what do we do?

I teach them to read. Not to read the words themselves, I do that too when I have to. The concepts. The concepts that we have failed to help our students master in the lower elementary grades. Yes, I said it. I am not kidding, some of the material I am working with is 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade level. They are struggling with it. You know what this tells me? It tells me that we are throwing so much at kids that they fail to master anything. They kinda get a lot, but don't master.

Mastery. This is a concept that so many teachers want to understand and want to be able to use, however, it is not a reality in our world full of standards and tests. Funny story, those same tests want us to teach for mastery of the concept. Ok, so we can only do that if we teach to the test. Well, when we as teachers are forced to teach to the test, the concept gets lost.

Now the college freshman that somehow made it through high school without really understanding what the hell they were reading ends up with me. Now they get to learn the concepts and master them. How? Well, in my own way and in theirs. Play to their strengths and to my own.

I keep saying that all kids are different and they learn different. I mean that. I really do. You have to make a struggling student feel like they have some control over their learning. When they feel that, they learn better and work harder.

Reading comprehension can be hard and frustrating. What seems simple to some, makes others want to scream.

So, I am going to break this idea down in lots of parts. It has been tackled so many ways and by so many people. Let's try a whole new way and see what happens.

Teaching to the "Misfits"

I vividly recall my first teaching assignment. Speech and Drama in Southwest Nebraska. I grew up in Northern Colorado, where labels were abundant. Every student was in a group, they could move between groups as they saw fit, however, they were assigned to a group by their peers. My teachers and the administration never seemed to buy into the labels. The “theatre kids” were different. They dressed different, acted different, thought different, and some of them were good friends of mine. I remember thinking; “I know nothing about speech and drama.” Yet, there I was.

Upon teaching those first seven years, I was confronted with every imaginable label. I loved them all regardless. I still love them all. I also taught German the first six years and then gained a Freshman English class. That was the class and still is the class that I think about when I think of kids that get labeled unfairly. That group of kids was a diverse group. I had twenty-six students in that class, and right about half of them qualified for some sort of special education service. They were the kids that couldn’t pull up their pants, had skulls on their shirts, heard my “no boobs, no tushies” speech more than they cared for. There were also about five gifted students in that class. I constantly heard from other faculty that I should not do this or that with them, simply because it was out of their reach. I should give up and just baby-sit.

Having someone put my kids down is not something that goes over very well with me. I believe that all kids have it in them to be successful, given the right environment and the right tools. So I told the other faculty that. I made enemies. I didn’t care. My administrator was behind me. My co-teacher was behind me. I believed in me.

I told my students, that I wasn’t going to let them make excuses for themselves, feel sorry for themselves, or see themselves the way others saw them. They got to be who the wanted to be. They didn’t believe me. I am a little thing and don’t look scary, until I am. Then one day, they believed in me, and themselves.

We started the semester with personal narratives. We read Frederick Douglass The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave as we journaled and wrote our own narrative lives. Through this process, I got a feel for their reading levels and writing levels. I did find out I had as low as 4th grade and as high as 12th grade. Writing came naturally to some and others struggled. It also gave me the opportunity to teach grammar in a way that did not involve worksheets. The discussion that we had about the labels slaves were given simply because they were black was amazing. I was so impressed at this group of “misfits”. I knew it was in there somewhere.

We then moved on to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. This is the novel I got hammered on for teaching to this group. I had a teacher tell me that a group with that many struggling readers could not possible read such a difficult text. I think she forgot that the readability level is fourth or fifth grade. It was a great book for them. I tied it to Douglass and to the discrimination that some of them felt daily. This was all about grounding them in the literary experience. It was awesome. Watching this group of kids bloom and come alive in class was so rewarding. They had an environment that was non-confrontational and where they were free to be themselves. If that meant they were a rock star in their head, then so be it. Some of these kids had barely passed eighth grade English and we had been told that they were going to beat us up. No one beat me up. Instead, they learned to love reading, writing, and they learned to trust a teacher. They still trust me with some of lives hardest issues, and that was years ago.

After Lee, with Board permission, I taught Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk. All I had to do was tell them it was challenged and every single one of them read it. Kids that had not read a book on their own since fourth or fifth grade. They loved it. Again, we tied into the labels that were in the novel and they identified with the characters in the book. This particular novel is so full of labels that they jump off of the page at you from the moment that you open the novel. One of my students told me that he felt like his life was that way. I later walked down the hall and heard another teacher telling a class with some of these same kids that they were good for nothing in life but flipping burgers at McDonald’s. I hurt for them, and that made me work that much harder to look past the labels that they may have walked into my room carrying. During this unit, I pulled in several different tasks. I made them journal about prejudices they had encountered, things that they could do to help those in need, they drew, they wrote, they sang, they did so many different things that were simply amazing. The talent that was in that room stunned me. I was also stunned by the way the kids were doing in my class, by the way their parents were reacting to their grades, the way I was teaching, and the way their high school career was starting out.

As the year progressed, these kids became my kids. I knew their fears, their triumphs and when they fell. They are still my kids. They are the kids who make teachers cringe when their names appear on a roster. I do a cartwheel, not literally of course. I love them. They work for me, we have an understanding. They know that I nag them like no other because I love them and I know what they are capable of. They worry when I stop complaining at them. Through all of this, I have gotten a label myself.

It is something that is difficult for me. I grew up in a rather unassuming home and school, so this label is not something I care for. I am not into labeling anyone simply based on the clothes on their back or the color of their hair. Goodness knows, some of my own friends look fairly scary. It seems that some of my peers have taken to juvenile measures of eye rolling, sighing, and put downs about me and my classes of “misfits.” They just don’t seem to understand how I am getting them to actually work. I believe they think I am just giving them good grades. In reality, they are working their tails off in their own ways. I am just playing to their strengths.

Teaching is about being unassuming. Assume something about a child and they are going to prove you wrong, nearly every time. Give a child the chance to learn and excel. Just because they have a Mohawk, a skull on their shirt, or might have done something you don’t agree with last night does not mean they are a bad person. They just walk to the beat of their own drum. I like the beat of my own drum and who cares if our beats don’t make music to everyone else. It sounds fabulous to me.

Advice for freshman...

I was a freshman once. It was awhile ago, yet here I am teaching freshman level classes. With your new found freedom comes responsibility. I am not dumb enough to think you are not going to go out before a huge test, nor am I going to tell you not to. Let's face it, I did it.

What I am going to tell you are these things:

1. Go to class. I don't care if you smell like a vodka bottle. I want your butt in my class. It shows me you care about your education. I will laugh at how you feel, and tell you a Gatorade before bed would have helped a whole lot. That and a cheese sandwich.

2. Ask for help. College is hard. If high school was easy for you, chances are you will have no clue how to study. Guess what, you have to now. Guess what it not fun when you have no idea how. Don't be afraid to make friends with an instructor and ask for help. We are here to help you. Even if it isn't with Composition.

3. Protect yourself. In all things. I mean it. Protect your heart, your body, and your mind. One minute of passion can have long lasting effects. Use the condom. Make sure both people actually say yes. Don't ever settle for less than you deserve. If you are in a relationship that sucks, get out.

4. Call home. Just do it. Your family misses you, and I bet you miss them.

5. Learn to do your own laundry. Don't haul it all home for your mom to do every weekend. She works hard enough. Do it yourself. This also means you are going to learn to collect quarters.

6. Have fun and make new friends. The friends you make now will end up being you forever friends. You will go through more in the next four years with them than you ever thought possible. Cherish that. Along the way and between your classes, have some fun.

Enjoy the time you are here. You will miss it. It will be work and there will be days when you want to quit. Don't. Hang on, you will make it out. When you do, look back and laugh at the dumb stuff you did.


What would happen if we did away with labels? This morning I was teaching and we were talking about an article that I had assigned to read, and we were talking about people being happy being part of a group. As we were talking about this, the concept of labels came up.

Every single person is labeled. Every single student comes with a label. ADHD, SPD, ODD, HAL, gifted, middle of the road, athletes, basketball player, drama kid, and the list goes on. Teachers are guilty of looking at their roster in August and seeing "that student". I dreaded faculty meetings where I had to hear about how so and so had "that kid" again. All I could ever think was, "maybe if you would have put in a little extra effort into seeing what was inside, you would have had some better luck."

Just me who does that? No, I know better. There are thousands of teachers out there who go the extra little bit and get to know their kids, and I mean really get to know them. Get past what the outer cover looks like. Once teachers are willing to do this, our classrooms improve drastically.

However, teachers are willing to do this and we have administrators that do not want us to. We have great teachers who know how successful they can be and how successful their students can be, but principals who want to see the traditional "sit and get".

For all that talk about 21st Century Learning, Cooperative Learning, and all the other new buzzwords; they do not really understand that all of that means nothing if students never have a meaningful connection.

Think about it. Go back to high school and middle school, well not really, middle school was awful. In your mind, think about the teachers that really made a difference in your world. They knew who you were, they talked to you, and it was about more than just English. They could talk to you about real world things and you listened. They gave you a voice as a person. Funny how that made all the difference in the world.

Often times, it was this same teacher who believed in you more than you believed in yourself. That teacher fought for you when you wouldn't fight for yourself. Now, it is these teachers who are being forced out of our high school, or who are just leaving. They don't label kids, they want them all to be great. In small, rural America we run into a problem. Only the "good" or certain kids are allowed to be great. We have to have a division of class.

Labels. I have one. I am the teacher without a filter. I am the teacher who believes in all of my kids. If we want to have a future in education, this needs to be the direction was are all headed. We all need to believe and really believe, not just say we do.

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© 2016 Dana


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