What’s Your Superpower?
I graded 500 papers a week for almost 30 years. I corrected punctuation, capitalization, grammar, spelling, syntax, and organization for book reports, compositions, essays, quizzes, tests, poems, and short stories from 150 to 200 kids a day for the best part of 30 years at some of the most dangerous schools in America and loved it, couldn’t wait to get to work for 28 of those action packed years until I, admittedly, burnt out in the last year and 9 months, almost 12 years ago, now.
My philosophy of teaching was based on my communication skills, but I knew I could not speak to every individual student everyday. So, I assigned so much work that I was going to get at least 2 or 3 papers a week from everybody, even the gangbangers. And, the grades combined with the notes and red corrections guaranteed an, ongoing, unique communication between me and my students. That included my 20-25% hardcore miscreants who refused to turn in assignments in their other classes.
Teaching kids whose lives are so traumatized that they should be labeled PTSD is a shouting screaming match, initially, a test of wills. Of course, there is always the option of simply putting them out, pushing them down to the next rung on their downward staircase. At my best, I was blessed with a voice that could cow down assemblies of over 1000 screaming, out of control youngsters because screaming was my forte. I could shout louder and farther, and that’s how I kept order. I was even notorious for quieting crowds in the thousands as the Public Address announcer at inner city basketball and football games.
My reputation preceded me, so I rarely had to get physical, but when I did, I made sure it was quick and awesome to the pubescent onlookers, who would invariably “put extras on it” which spared me displaying my Vietnam sharpened skills very much. The prickly kids who were hiding their virtual illiteracy and functional illiteracy with anti-literacy are the challenge to inner city schools. Who can quiet homeboy and homegirl down long enough to teach the rest of the students. The kids who can’t read fear humiliation and they are sophisticated enough to keep classes disrupted. Even 5 minutes of silence makes these kids anxious. They blurt out for fear they will be called upon to read or answer a question.
At first, I would bellow out admonitions in my overkill voice which tended to cower them and any would-be ne’r-do-wells down for the rest of the hour.
But, after a decade or so, I began to develop polyps on my vocal cords, and I realized that I had to retire my overkill voice and develop finesse. The disruptions were masked protests of disinterest, calls for a specific attention that Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men could not satisfy. So, I wrote my own book, CRIPS, and the gang kids loved it. They would even steal it, which was a backhanded compliment because they were known to deface all books but never steal one.
After CRIPS was published in 1986, I was able to get most of my students to finish reading a complete book, which was a remarkable achievement because even most of the students who graduate from inner city schools have not done it, as proven by their SAT scores and scores on community college entrance exams relegating them to English no credit classes in the Fall following graduation despite their high schools being “accredited”.
Of course, my English department peers derided my rights of passage tome because they hated gang members and considered any effort to reach out to them by acknowledging the validity of portions of their culture treasonous. The head of the English department refused to buy even a classroom set, although first year teachers flummoxed with force feeding the curriculum had reported almost miraculous success with the same students when I donated classroom sets to them.
I went on sabbatical to make the film, but upon my return my English department persisted in their intransigence even after Warner Bros. made the movie, SOUTH CENTRAL from my novel and I debuted it at my school. The film (which is laden with profanity although the book has none) went on to become a classic and remains a favorite on TV until today. I chose not to pursue filmmaking because I preferred being an English teacher.
And, since I knew most of my students would drop out in 10th grade and the ones who survived would be 2 to 4 years behind their peers in English, I decided to base my instruction on poetry. I could get a profound haiku from students that I could never get a decent paragraph from. They learned to write sonnets in iambic pentameter, then, begged for freedom to write free verse. I whetted their appetites with Langston Hughes, and the Harlem Renaissance bards, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and that lot. Maya Angelou, Gwen Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, and utilitarian samples from my own poetry provoked them to study, appreciate, memorize, and even create their own approximations of the masters. Weekly poetry slams usually got 100% participation, whereas, almost nobody enjoyed reading Shakespeare, Emerson, or Thoreau. As much as I appreciated Tennyson, Poe, and Frost, they turned most of my 10th and 11th graders off.I, purposely, sabotaged the system that causes most students in the inner city to hate reading and English class by using poetry as a doorway that led them to the freedom that comes with reading, writing, and loving words