By Joel Garza, Upper School English Teacher
My class, for years, for better or worse, has been mine. I’m not sure how to think about this autonomy. On certain days, this autonomy can lead a teacher to be complacent—leaning on this student to keeping the discussion alive, allowing that student to say nothing (yet docking her points in a gradebook for her complacency). On some days, like many teachers, I needed somebody to tell me that I was coasting. On other days, I needed somebody to know how well things were going in my classes. I’ve also had far too many successes that went… I dunno… underappreciated, or completely unknown. This trimester, my junior poetry seminar has worked because I have assembled for me and my students an authentic audience, and we have all been mindful of that audience, both online and IRL.
Lit Genius allows my students to read critically in and for a community. The Genius site rewards students “IQ points” for annotating a text. Sometimes, it’s a comment that they want preserved from our conversation; sometimes, it’s a comment that they make before class. Since there’s an IQ to earn, my students could see rewards for their efforts and see their progress compared with their classmates. After a couple of weeks, I asked them what should earn more points–defining a difficult vocabulary word or making an incisive thematic observation? Well, they replied, without knowing a word, you might not be able to make an incisive observation. My students began to appreciate their roles in deepening the understanding of others, and without quite being aware of it, they began to to think critically about which of their skills needed sharpening. (One student told me, “I don’t want to always be the one upvoting somebody else’s comment.”) In turn, by “following” my students’ activity on Lit Genius, I can offer very precise skills-based suggestions: “Thanks, J. You seem to have meter down. Look closely tomorrow at Lowell’s use of slant rhyme–I’m interested to see what you think about it.” Please have your students poke around in and comment on our work! Simultaneous with this public curating of our class discussion, I’ve experienced great success in building community on my campus through poetry.
As a father of three little kids, I’ve been invited by lower school teachers to join their classes as a “mystery reader”. At story time each day, the kids don’t who will show up to read, and their faces light up to see a new person each day. So I stole the idea, reaching out to my entire campus for mystery guests to show up and read to my juniors. The response was overwhelming–all departments, all divisions, teachers, learning specialists, coaches, administrators, etc. Fourth-grade teachers teared up to see how mature their former students had grown; coaches delighted in the chance to discuss what James Wright gets right about athletics; trusted colleagues on other campuses Skyped in their readings; and even renowned poet Joshua Mehigan jumped in to help. Now I have an expanding playlist that not only reminds me of the trust that I have built among my colleagues but also helps reinforce for my students the importance of narrative voice for each literary work.
At the risk of resorting to HS-English-teacher stereotype, allow me to quote Whitman: “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” Open up your classrooms. Or at the very least, step through my open door, look around, listen, and let me know how we can help each other out.