8th Grade Language Arts Zone
Owen Middle School
After graduating High School in 1988 from both Ben Franklin and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, both public schools, I charged toward Knox College in Illinois prepared to write the “great novel” and solve all of the world’s ills. Somewhere between flannel shirts, the first Gulf War, and too many writing workshops with every other “great novel” writer looking to also solve the world’s ills, I figured out that unless I wanted to wait tables for the rest of my life I should start looking for some tangible skills that pay the bills. There’s a precedent in English Departments nationwide that unwittingly pushes English majors toward education because the assumption is made that if you have mastered English, then of course you can teach it. And so I unceremoniously enrolled in some education courses in order to get my teaching certificate so that I could be a writer who taught to “get by.”
Knox is a liberal arts college; in other words, I didn’t learn a darn thing that could practically assist me in the classroom. I did, however, get a fire lit under me. The early 90’s was a great time to be in college because what we now know as the “PC” movement, for lack of a better word, really shook up the bedrock of what we knew as truth: Columbus invaded America instead of discovering it, there was a lack of African-American and Women’s history in the curriculum, multiculturalism, to name a few of these popular concepts. I began to believe that solving the ills of the world wasn’t going to happen with a book, especially if two out of five people couldn’t read it; instead, I realized through education a teacher could make an impact on the future and begin to address the complex ills of poverty, racism, hate, socio-economic imbalance, all the issues that growing up in New Orleans holds right in your face. I no longer wanted to “get by” as a teacher; I wanted to change the world thirty students at a time. My liberal arts education did a fine job of enlightening my drive; I knew why I wanted to be teacher and after graduation I jumped off the ivory tower into the swimming pool of life and ever since I have been kicking furiously to keep my head above water.
SJ Green Middle School, in the center of one of New Orleans’ roughest housing projects, begins what I call my “organic” professional development because they don’t give you a piece of paper for all the education you receive from life. At SJ Green I learned that The Autobiography of Malcom X doesn’t mean squat to a 6th grade boy who can’t read, doesn’t know his father, hasn’t seen his mother in two months, and only gets a regular meal from the school cafeteria. Having the passion for being a teacher is one thing, knowing how to do it is another. Everything that year was a gigantic trial and error experience in classroom management, discipline, lesson planning, grading, and first year teacher survival without any kind of a mentor. I finished up the year and decided not to renew my contract, opting instead to work full-time for the New Orleans Sylvan Learning Centers as their Director of Education.
As much as I growl at the corporate world, I have to admit that learned a lot at Sylvan. I saw students as individuals with many different learning styles and understood that there are hundreds of ways to teach one skill. As an instructor I fell back into myself and stopped thinking that I had to carry the façade of what I expected a teacher to be, I discovered that I could be myself and my comfort, ease, and humor made the subject matter come alive. When I returned to the classroom in Poolesville, Maryland, after a brief sojourn into the world of restaurateur, I felt like I was stepping back into my own skin. I did not feel hindered by what I call the “myth of order” and realized that learning can be loud and fun.
Montgomery County in Maryland has a program to help “returning” teachers that is comparable to Germany’s Gestapo, but it sharpened me as a teacher. A representative of the PAR program could, and did, drop into your classroom unannounced at least twice a week for a review of your methodology and at the end of the year this PAR representative could recommend your termination. Yes, learning should be loud and fun, but it should also include clear daily objectives, an agenda to achieve those objectives, and an assessment to check and see if the objectives were met by each individual student; reflections on successes and failures should be mad and acted upon; all parts of the classroom should be utilized for the learning process, including the walls; and, finally, the teacher’s personality should stay the same but lessons should not fall into a routine.
Teaching at Owen Middle has been the culmination of fifteen years of growth. Initially I returned to the demographic I started out in fifteen years ago and successfully won their hearts and minds. The Buncombe County “initiative” teams targeted school identified students who are at-risk of dropping out before or early on in high school. In this program all my students made a 3 or 4 on their Reading EOG and all of my 8th graders were promoted to high school. I accomplished this by making Language Arts fun and interesting again, I taught strategies that opened up the process of reading, and I created a classroom environment students wanted to return to. I used technology whenever possible to present images, video, and audio clips to make the stories come alive. I reestablished their involvement in the school by including them in daily operations, from raising and lowering the flag to creating, organizing and performing two school-wide academic pep rallies for the 7th grade writing test and the EOGs. I was able to schedule more economical field trips, getting the students out and into the nature and history that surround them, after I earned my CDL this year. A hiking program was established, with financial assistance from Mast General Store, to increase physical endurance for the EOG and raise self esteem. After school I led the Yearbook club in producing OMS’s first all color Yearbook. Armed with the skills and pedagogy acquired through the years, I have learned to be myself do what comes natural: teach honestly from the heart.
With the onset of the current economic crisis, or whatever, that program was eliminated and I currently teach 8th grade language arts with the same zest and enthusiasm.