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Writing & Published Work

Philadelphia Inquirer
April 9, 1995

Miracles in class precious and few

By Christina Alex

When I began a stint teaching eighth-grade English at Strath Haven Middle School, I was still a student myself.  With my love of reading and writing and little else, I figured the students would embrace my lessons, and I would know immediately when my point hit home with them.
I had a lot to learn.
My three classes contained about 70 students representing a diverse mix of
backgrounds, abilities and incomes.  By the end of the first week, I was exhausted from trying to plan lessons that would be interesting, informative and inspiring. 

Instant results were rare.  Students almost never rushed to take books from the
lending library in the room.  They didn’t seem to want to brainstorm with each other during recess to find just the right word for their next essay.  I had no idea whether anything I said connected with them, or if their minds were in my room at all.
So I settled for paying attention to the details of each day, trying to take pride in the small accomplishments.  Instead of waiting for a C student to suddenly become overtaken with the urge to write the great American novel, I marveled when she asked if she could make up a test.
After my precious poetry lesson bombed, an unexpected “Hi, Miss Alex,” from one of the boys as he walked by with his friends, motivated me to spend extra time planning for the next day.  The job often seemed like an exercise in futility.  Students were bored with my vocabulary reviews.  The few who could use help wouldn’t pay attention.
I announced a test a week in advance.  Most people failed.
I offered retests after school for three days.  Two people showed up – on the last day.  They hadn’t studied at all and received a lower grade than they had on the first test.
I felt inept.  Frustrated.
One student was a recovering drug addict – a wonderful writer and artist, incredibly creative and articulate.  The student did the work but never turned it in on time.  I finally received a paper that was beautifully done.  The problem was, it came two months late, and according to the established policy of the class, I had to take off so many points for lateness.  The student received a below-average grade.  If judged by ability and work, this student deserved an A.  But the student was failing and I didn’t know what to do except nag about missing assignments.
Every one in a while, I saw a miracle.  Jake – I’m withholding his real name – was a good kid but very antsy.  I often had to stop the lesson just to ask him to “please focus on the task at hand.’  He resisted English.  He’d rather play pool than write about it.  He did try, though, despite his frustration over not performing well.  The knowledge and ideas were there, but they had to be pried out. 
I used to avert my eyes and head to the other side of the room when I’d give him back his papers.  That way I wouldn’t have to see his face fall, or hear his moans of frustration over another C or D.
After about two months, I was surprised when Jake volunteered to read a poem he had written.  It was amazing.  It had rhyme, alliteration, personification and a refrain.
I never would have thought this kid – whose goal in life was to be a baseball player and who couldn’t focus on classroom discussion more than five minutes – was a poet.
From then on, I noticed a complete change in Jake’s attitude.  He volunteered insightful answers and became conscientious about doing good work on time.  He didn’t talk and fidget anymore.  As a teacher, you live for the surprises.
The hardest part is keeping an open mind when it seems like nothing is happening.  You worry that what you’re trying to teach goes in one ear and out the other.
A student’s progress is measured in tiny increments:  an extra-credit assignment here, an exceptional essay there, a paper turned in two days late rather than a week overdue.  What is needed is a redefining of success in our education system to stress the feasible rather than the impossible.
Scientists work for years to find cures for diseases, with many stops and starts along the way and often nothing to show for it until the very end.  They don’t know if they’ll accomplish anything, but the chance that they could save lives keeps them going.  And so it is with teachers.

In a world in which instant gratification is the goal, the satisfactions of teaching come at a far different tempo.  Diving into the work every day with enthusiasm and passion, regardless of the students’ moods or feedback, requires a saint.  Most teachers are mere humans, yet they are expected to perform miracles.  

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