I had earned an A on every English assignment I had turned in since 7th grade. (My streak would have started sooner, but I failed a 7th-grade project about Judy Garland; her life depressed me so much that I just could not finish the paper.) Yet, despite my apparent success, I was invisible to my teachers for most of high school.
It’s absurd to me now, but somehow I made it to junior year without giving a single thought to what I might do after graduation. My father, less clueless about the requirements of adulthood, enrolled me in an SAT prep class taught by the school’s AP Literature teacher. I had never seen those shiny honors kids—or their teacher. But now Mrs. Pelton saw me.
Because she did, I took her AP Literature class my senior year. Mrs. Pelton gave me my first C—but she also showed me the depth of my abilities. She proved to me that I could achieve at the same level as those shiny students—all headed to Stanford, M.I.T., and other places where I thought only “other people” went. The following August, with Mrs. Pelton’s encouragement and recommendation, I started at Barnard College at Columbia University, where I got a lot more Cs. Instead of giving up on college and myself, I stayed after class, hounded professors during office hours, took a remedial composition class, and learned how to write.
When I finally became a teacher, I swore that I would see the potential in every kid who came through my door. I would see more in them than they could see in themselves—and push them accordingly.
Many of us imagine that students in AP classes have it all: parental support, obvious intelligence, outright ambition. This stereotype may hold true in some classrooms. But not in mine, and I’m proud of that.
When I earned the right to teach the junior honors English class, I converted it to AP Language and filled it with any kid willing to do the work. There was Cat M., a girl who only wore black and was one of eight kids living in a trailer with her alcoholic stepfather. There was Johnny E., a boy who looked a lot like a girl and would not stop reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance long enough to pass any of his classes. And there were a lot more, each with their own reason for never imagining that an AP class was right for them. Not everyone in my school agreed with my open enrollment policy, suggesting it diluted the strength of the course. But when many of my students passed the test and earned college credit, the administration left me alone.
How I Teach
Over time, my teaching strategies have evolved, but I have always maintained some basic principles:
• Learning happens at different speeds and in different ways for all of us. I give students myriad ways to fulfill and then re-do assignments. I want them to learn and to take responsibility for that learning—not just to earn a grade and call it a day. I try to construct an environment that places value on the intrinsic rewards of study and personal growth. We want to get better, not just get an “A.”
• It is always best to answer a question with a question. We need to teach students to teach themselves. It is one thing to tell students to “look it up,” but it is another to ask them to work through complex ideas, to make sense of arguments, and to find their own answers to “why, how, and why not?” Why did Abraham Lincoln write only ten sentences for his Gettysburg Address? What would he have lost, or gained, if he had been more verbose? It is not so important that we get these answers right, but that we learn to ask these sorts of questions in the first place.
• Problem solving is an inherently collaborative process. We must ask students to work together and to work in permanent groups that can mature over time. Not only does this raise the rigor of the work, but helps to integrate all types of students into the class community. When we rely on each other, we see more in each other than what our surfaces suggest.
• No student’s work is without merit or without flaw. We use the work to make us better than when we started, and that can only happen when we speak honestly about both our successes and failures.
• I never believe that what I am doing is good enough. I keep reading, thinking, and asking my own questions and encouraging my students to do the same.
What this has meant for my students is, obviously, different for each of them. I hope they view the world more critically and can explain why they believe in something—instead of just stomping their feet or raising their voice. I hope they ask questions and keep reading and thinking. I imagine that they begin to see fewer boundaries and more ways to get past them. I hope none of them sees college as “for other kids"; nor do I want a single one of them to go unprepared to face the academic challenges. I collect college graduation invitations and pin them to my wall, especially from those students who would not have gone to college or who would not have done as well without our work together.
Why I Teach
As I consider why I keep teaching after all of these years, why I still get worked up about a word or phrase or essay I have read and cannot wait to share with my class, I go back to my own time as an invisible student. I recall what it meant to me when Mrs. Pelton put her hand on my shoulder and asked why I hadn’t taken the honors English class.
I remember how she conferenced with me through every paper and asked me to clarify every idea, to examine every sentence. She still believed in me even when I couldn’t for all the world understand anything about Crime and Punishment. And, in the end, she told me to dream big and helped to send me three thousand miles away to New York City to fly on my own.
She encouraged me to see myself as she did, and I teach AP to pay her back—a bit every day, one kid at a time.