I am teaching two of the toughest classes I have experienced in my 18 year high school English career. Both are tracked as the lower of two college-level classes. They are filled with marginalized students. Traditional school fails these students.
I started the year with zeal and passion. I was going to find a way to teach each and every one of those students. Then life happened. Just before school began, my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As school began, I was shuttling between school and the hospital. School and the hospice. Then on Sept. 23, she died. Kathleen Anne Schussler was 71.
Her death shook my world. It’s an example of how life happens. At school I was distracted and emotional. On most days, I held it together with thread. My students and fellow teachers were amazing, but my zeal and passion ebbed and waned. I did my best. Time passed.
As midterms approached, I surveyed my students and realized I was serving them more of the same. Certainly, I was making progress: we read our own books every day; we write in notebooks a lot; and we talk on most days. Yet, they were resisting, and rightfully so. What I was serving still looked and tasted the same.
Over the summer, I read How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell. Her simplified claim is for each of us to turn to a slow, outdoors-driven life that feeds the soul. She wants us to cut the self off from the capitalist churn, what she calls the “attention economy.” According to Odell, our push for growth (personal, financial, etc.) is tied to the destruction of self, community, and the earth.
The most useful part of her thinking for me was the idea of what she calls a “third space,” a place where we can refuse to participate in the norm. As I was rethinking my classes to prepare for the second half of the year, I wondered how I might turn my classroom into a third space.
According to Odell, refusal is an act, it doesn’t just happen. We must consciously refuse to participate in those things we feel are not helping us become better people. Key to Odell’s definition is the concept of paying attention. “What we pay attention to and what we do not – renders our reality in a very serious sense,” (120) she writes.
I dreamed of what a third space in school might look like: a place where student and teacher consciously resist the things that hold us back: electronic devices, standard curriculum, testing, and conformity. I put pencil to notebook and started my list of how to start the shift.
Things that were essential to my third space:
- Training students to pay attention by teaching them the art of slow looking.
- Dedicating time each week for students to silently and independently work through a reflective text.
- Designing classes better aligned with the time of day, as my school uses a rotating, 7-day drop block schedule.
- Choosing materials more aligned with their interests.
- Adding a variety of voices to the mix of texts we consume.
- Creating an atmosphere that is device (including earbuds!!!!!) free.
- Creating an atmosphere of respect, where each student has a voice.
I then asked my students what they wanted from a new space. According to student surveys, these things were important:
- More discussions of all sizes and shapes (debates, groups, partner, and whole class all appeared in various surveys).
- More rigor (this shocked me).
- More reading time (we have 10 minutes daily and 40 minutes once per 7-day cycle).
- Creative writing opportunities.
- Reading about more current events.
- Studying song lyrics, film, and art.
So the journey begins. As I write this, I am working on how to do all this and more. I will use this space to share my experiences in the hope that just one other teacher might make the effort to consciously defy convention.