Blog 7: Challenges abound

Hi, everyone. I am back. I worked on my novel and have made progress. Now that I am back at school, Challenges abound. Please read my blog and feel free to comment and share!

…as another school year begins.  I am teaching a new writing course, and while the thought of it once filled me with possibility and excitement, I now feel only angst and frustration.  So, over the past weekend, to refresh my mind, body, and soul, I signed up for a local yoga class.

As I have said in prior blog posts, God knows me better than I know myself.  He quietly nudges me and always leads me to the place I am supposed to be and to the person I am meant to meet.  He led me to a yoga instructor who simply had me focus on the intention of accepting my own personal truth and finding contentment there.   It couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. My typically yellow aura was black.

Our yogini began class by simply encouraging us to become aware of our inhalations and exhalations as we breathed to center and quiet our minds.   As we concentrated on our breath, she soothingly explained to us that while the physical practice of yoga, the asana, or third limb, is important, it is the awareness of one’s self during one’s practice that is most important in yoga.  It’s accepting one’s own limitations on any given day and learning to work through a challenge or to realize to simply pull back and take a breath. Every day the physical body and mind will be in a different state, and both will present new challenges to us.

She also reminded us that while we may choose to practice yoga in a group, it is a solitary practice, and each of us needs to meet ourselves where we are at any given moment.  After all it is our practice, and it is the present moment that matters–not the past, not the future, for one is gone, and the other will take care of itself.  It’s when we surrender to self and accept who, what, and where we are presently that enlightenment and contentment will inevitably follow.

As I let her words wash over me, I breathed into each pose and carefully noticed the ease or difficulty, and I accepted how I was feeling. My mind began to quiet.  I focused on my practice and let go of  everything that wasn’t serving me in that moment.  After the class, I felt renewed and regenerated.  I decided that I must bring this practice and new-found awareness with me to my classroom each and every day.

Now, you might be thinking that yoga and my writing classroom are mutually exclusive, but you would be wrong.  Many of the same principles apply.

Much of what she said related to my students.  As a teacher, I work with humans each day, so no two days are ever the same because my students are never the same day  in and day out.   This is, as they say,  both a blessing and a curse, especially if those humans are thirteen or fourteen.  It’s a fair bet that most days will present many challenges. For me, the daily personal challenge is to be able to meet and accept my students where they are and to find contentment in that. This is a difficult posture for me–especially when it comes to their reluctance toward writing.

While I enjoy teaching all aspects of English Language Arts, teaching writing is something I love simply because I love to do it.  Yet, when adolescents are tasked with putting pen to paper, the challenge is real. Even though we are writing in a group, it is a lonely process for the majority of them because generating ideas and organizing them seems as insurmountable as climbing Mount Everest. Many equate writing with rigor and constraint as they must adhere to each teacher’s rules if they are to earn a decent grade. So clearly, it’s the destination or finish line that matters to them, not the journey. They don’t trust that I will guide them through their own practice.

Each year as I present each writing lesson, my students are turned off before I ever get the chance to turn them on.  They only feel anxiety and fear as they look at a blank page, and for some, no matter how much I guide and cajole, this mindset will never change.   They will never feel the ease of writing or be willing to work at the process and steadily improve. Therefore, my lessons on expository and persuasive writing are mostly met with sighs and eye-rolling. I get it; essay writing is a necessary evil, but it’s certainly not something most students enjoy doing.  In our middle school, we do not have block scheduling; therefore, the structure and size of a class does not always lend itself to one-on-one time with my students.  Too often, I don’t meet a student’s writing until I am grading it.  If a paper is returned with a less than perfect score, many students view themselves as failures, and thus, writing is dead to them.

As a result, for eighteen years,  I have longed to have a class where students liked and were anxious to write. I believed that if  writers were in a relaxed setting where they were free to show up to the page as the writer they were on any given day, they’d enjoy discovering their own truths and their own unfettered journey toward self-expression. Ultimately, they would come to love writing as much as I do.

So, this past July, when my principal called me and asked me to teach Writing Workshop, a.k.a. creative writing, I naturally jumped at the chance.   I was so excited and  full of ideas, and he genuinely seemed interested in them.

During the course of our conversation, we decided that the four sections of creative writing should be on a blue/gold rotation, which means every other day, I would meet with two sections of my creative writing classes, and this cycle would continue throughout the year.  This schedule would work well, for there would be no more than sixteen students in each of the four sections.  I thought this would be ideal in terms of conferencing.  Additionally, I strongly suggested that it not be grade-driven in order to allow students to explore genres without the constraints of arbitrary grading.  He agreed. Lastly,  I  inquired whether students could switch out if they did not wish to participate in this elective class. He assured me that students would be given this option.

When we hung up, I felt so blissful.  Finally, I was given the opportunity I always wanted! I felt I deserved this.   All summer, I had proven to myself and to the world that I am indeed a proficient, creative writer and not just a person who talks about it.  I had started my blog, and I was steadily working on my novel-in-progress.   Hence,  my principal’s unsolicited, fateful call convinced me that the universe had recognized I was emitting a high frequency. Yes, indeed, the universe had aligned with my positive energy and was providing me with the boost I would need when I returned to school in September: a class which would feed my soul.   This course was going to be everything I always dreamed a writing course could be.  Ugh, not quite.

With a mind full of images of the perfect creative writing course, I gleefully drafted an overview of the course and envisioned all it would be.  My welcome letter encouraged independence and choice.  I conjured up a class where all of my students loved writing and begged for more.  Ours would be a Utopian society where everyday we’d be eager and excited to create, and together, we would learn so much about ourselves and each other as we explored words and ideas.

Armed and ready with creativity and desire, on the first day of school, I met with my first two Writing Workshop classes, and all of my expectations were immediately dashed. My students were not at all happy to be in my room, most notably the boys who essentially filled each class.  The boys outnumbered the girls.  I knew this might be a problem.

From past experience, I had come to know that many boys, not all, mind you, are not very fond of writing at all. Many boys do not like reading either.  I am not sexist;  I am a realist, for it applies to many girls as well.  Somewhere in the course of their experiences, their love of words was strangled, and other extracurricular activities have taken precedent over their love of reading and writing.  They may have loved it in elementary school, but by middle school, they ditched their books for their cellular phones, their bikes, or their video games.   These facts became glaring apparent as I polled each of my classes to ascertain the number of committed readers and writers I actually had.  I soon discovered that the majority of the boys wanted out immediately, and to my horror, many of the girls were ready to make a hasty exit as well.

Even though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I had been stricken with that summer sickness that teachers frequently catch when they are away from their classrooms for too long. I glorified the type of writer who would waltz into my class and romanticized about what he/she would be willing and able to do.  In the past, many of my students complained that we never wrote anything fun in English, just boring essays.  So to me, now that they were afforded the opportunity to write for fun, which eighth grader in his right mind would ever choose to leave this class?  Uh, many, and they were unfortunately in my creative writing classes! Yet, I refused to see it.

Still clinging to my delusional mindset, I encouraged any disenchanted students to visit the counseling office to switch out.  This proved to be a disastrous decision as I sadly watched three-quarters of my class jump up and march triumphantly out of the room.

I could feel my soul sag like a deflated balloon. While I felt disappointed, I held tightly to my dream, believing I would end up with the students who wanted to be there,  Alas, this was not to be the case. I soon came to understand that the only change in this course were my own unrealistic expectations, for I would soon be dealt a restorative dose of reality, but not until I was ravaged by my own delirium.

Needless to say, by the close of the second day of school, my principal was sitting in my classroom resolute in his conviction that though the majority of the students placed into my classes clearly wanted out, he would not allow ANY of them to leave without a very good reason.   He could not run classes with four students as these classes were two/fifths of my teaching load.  In addition, switching students would create a scheduling nightmare for him.  So, like it or not, every student was part of this class for the duration of what now looked like a very long year for me and for them.

How did it all go so wrong so quickly, you ask?  If I had not missed the obvious I would have realized that the universe wasn’t out to get me–the computer was! Since the course was quickly developed in the middle of the summer, each of the four sections which became Writing Workshop  was composed of  a random grouping of students that had begun its genesis as a study hall but later morphed into one of my Writing Workshop classes.   Since rosters were computer-generated, students were haphazardly placed into this elective whether they wanted to be there or not.  Once classes were formed,  no one had the foresight to go back and ensure that the students placed into these classes were students who would willingly embrace the idea of actually being in them.  So, the long and short of it was that students were essentially stuck in a course that required them to write creatively when the vast majority wanted nothing more than to  talk to their friends and do homework during a study hall period.  Instead, they were now stuck with me, an over-zealous writing maniac who encouraged the vast majority of them to quit before they had ever been given the opportunity to try.

And worst of all for me, I, alone, had to find a way to make this class work with students who were now, with good reason, reluctant, resistant, resentful, and rebellious.  Yet, how in the world could I ever hope to achieve this after I had decimated the morale of the class before the first week of school was over?

Come back Monday and find out…

Author: Jayne Magdalen Traver

I have been writing all my life in one form or another. I have been an English teacher for the past 22 years, and writing, whether it be teaching literary analysis, argumentation or creative elements, has always been a main focus in my classroom. I have come to realize that teaching literature and writing have prepared me to write my own novel, but like most endeavors, it's been easier said than done. Here, in this blog space, I hope to gain insight into my own strengths and weaknesses in writing to finally become the writer I am destined to be.

2 thoughts on “Blog 7: Challenges abound”

  1. The good news is that you have returned to yoga! I find it more an exercise of my mind than my body at times. I struggled initially, hiding in the back of the room afraid to be looked at and judged. No way that happens with the experienced yoga practitioner, it is the newbies that look at the people in the room and decide based on the outfits or the gear that they bring with them that the regulars will be perfect while us newbies struggle in the back of the room wearing outfits that look like we just cleaned the garage, with stomach rolls hanging out while we awkwardly attempt a flat foot downward dog or praying our yoga pants don’t split during warrior pose. I have grown to love the heat of the Bikram yoga the quieting of my mind and the ability to focus and not give up when a position is hard or uncomfortable. I have often relaxed my mind so much that I fall asleep during the final savasana.
    I was excited for your new class when you told me about it and I feel dejected by what has happened. It was a sad way to bring students into the class but you did not do the haphazard scheduling. I pictured you as a female Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society leaping onto the desks, engaging in the most stubborn to release their inner writer and releasing demons from students caught in their teenage angst. There was curtains on the windows, bean bag chairs and most importantly a cool soundtrack playing in the background. I can only hope that things turn around whether through spending a class throwing ideas out to write short papers on, to having an author visit who encourages the students, to group projects. Josh was one of the boys in your class and LOVED being involved in the Authors Unlimited, a program that brings students to St Joseph’s college to spend a day with an author. He spent the day with an author who said he hated reading and his teachers always pushed him to read and he pushed back refusing until one day his favorite teacher introduced him to a book that opened up his world. This author has gone on to write many books. Josh himself hated to read because he was delayed in it but the Wimpy Kids books opened up his reading world. I hope that you reach your students to aspire to try their creative wings and soar. I have faith in you as a person and as a teacher!


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