Another interesting week in front of my classroom has come and gone – as have some of my eighty or so students. ‘Interesting’ being such an inadequate word.
This week’s scorecard of notable student activity, per my daily class notes sheet:
• 5 kids in/out of in school suspension
• 1 young man earning 5 days out of school suspension
• 1 young woman transferring to alternative school. Hopefully.
• 6 teen moms/dads with baby and/or baby’s father/mother issues
• 12 sleepers; kids who fall asleep often enough in class that I have to wake them up (I am something of a human alarm clock some days, and my general admonition to awakened students, “If you want to take a nap, get a room at the Days Inn” is not well received.)
• 5 kids who are on daily check in/check out point-system behavioral plans that require daily updates of their written goals. (One girl earned only half of her available points on the one specific goal of ‘refraining from using profanity in classroom.’ Sailors don’t blush in her presence, they check their thesauruses.)
But beyond that, and along with the usual inane student behavior and not getting as much getting done as I would like, I this week encountered something totally unique to my New Orleans teaching experience.
My junior year English class is working on writing persuasive essays – how to convince someone to do or change something – and I always find this particular topic to be either a huge hit or an epic fail, as modern vernacular would have it. The success of this particular unit segment is generally made possible by the generally argumentative ways of teenagers; engage them, give them a chance to vent, and it’s one of those easy sells; get a group of teenagers who are strutting their generally apathetic nature, and this assignment doesn’t fly so well.
My group this semester has a lot to say, and for their initial drafts, are saying it rather well.
This group dived right in (for the most part) and there is a surprisingly wide range of topics being covered. There are the obligatory boy’s arguing their respective cases for ‘best basketball player on the planet’ and a few dealing with fairly mundane family issues, but I also have students arguing against committing suicide, trying to get a parent to quit smoking, the virtues of one local college over the others, and a young woman earnestly and logically trying to convince her mom to help her get a car so she can better assist the family.
Good topics, invested kids, decent results so far. Not my typical experience here with kids and extensive writing assignments.
Thursday we began completing our first drafts, and one table of three girls called me over to look at their papers. The first two girls had fairly informal, family oriented items of note, and I was pleased with their progress. The third young woman hadn’t said much, but asked if I could take a look at her rough draft, by tentatively pushing her paper toward me and sheepishly asking, “If I am writing to a judge, I should start by saying ‘Your Honor’ or something, right? I can’t start mine like Laura did, ‘Hey, judge.” Laura (not her real name) was writing an essay to persuade her mom to help her get a car, and I had approved of the informal opening, ‘Hey, mom.’
I agreed that ‘Your honor’ would be a good start, adding that ‘Dear Judge Whomever’ would also be acceptable.
In my fourth year of teaching here in New Orleans, a student of mine interacting with a judge doesn’t even nudge the needle on the surprise meter; this week alone I had signed two forms from courts acknowledging excused absences for kids because of their court appearances. This kept my doctors notes/court appearance excused absence ratio for the semester at a relatively steady 4:2.
But this was different: the young woman is writing an essay to persuade a judge that she should have full custody of her son. It seems the family of the baby’s father is pushing for full custody over the shared custody arrangement currently in place.
The girl is barely seventeen.
I spent a few minutes with her brainstorming essay thesis statements, and she seemed satisfied and determined as I left to assist other students in the class. As class was nearing an end, I saw her crying softly, the other girls at her table comforting her, telling her ‘It’s good to get this stuff out.’
Day two of the persuasive paper project calls for brainstorming counter-arguments, then incorporating those into a second draft of the paper. The young woman had put in significant effort on the first draft, but was struggling with the counter arguments. In reading what she had on paper as her rationale for persuading the judge, she had outlined her reasoning in a very articulate way, and had avoided bad mouthing the ‘other side’ – not an easy thing to do for a young writer – or a teen mom trying to do the right thing.
I gave her some practical tips, and, informing her that it really wasn’t any of my business, but since she had brought it up, I inquired about whether or not she had an attorney. She smiled, nodded and said “I didn’t at first but I do now.” I suggested once she is finished with the paper, she show it to her attorney. She agreed, smiled, got back to her writing. She spent the rest of the class time writing, smiling more than I had seen.
A catharsis of sorts, I suppose. I was just an essay assignment.
I was relating the experience to a fellow English teacher at school, a woman with twenty-years’ experience that I have gotten to know well. “You know, this doesn’t show up in any manual I have read or any teaching materials I have seen.”
“It’s not in the school teacher’s handbook either – I checked. Twice.”
This time she laughed outright, shaking her head. “No, Mister Lucker. I’m sure it isn’t.”
“We just make it up as we go?”
“That’s it. We just roll with it best we can.”