Teaching English at Mission High School (Kristina Rizga)

This is the second post (see here) drawn from journalist Kristina Rizga’s account of teaching and learning at San Francisco Unified School District’s Mission High School. Rizga is a journalist who spent four years observing and interviewing teachers and students at Mission High School in San Francisco. Her book, Mission High (New York: Nation Books, 2015) contains descriptions of both students and teachers inside and outside classrooms.* Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.

What distinguishes Rizga’s book from so many journalist and researcher accounts about high schools with largely minority and poor students are two facts: First, she spent four years–a life time to researchers–at the school. Few researchers or journalists ever spend more than a year in a high school. The second fact is that Rizga addresses a long-time paradox buried at the core of  U.S. schooling in an age of accountability-driven reform when federal and state mandates (No Child Left Behind) label many schools as failing. The paradox is straightforward. Mission High School had been tagged as a failing school–“low performing” is the jargon of the day–and had been a step away from being shut down through No Child Left Behind rules. Yet 84 percent of its graduates were accepted to college, attendance rates have risen above the district high school average and suspensions have fallen between 2008 and 2014 nearly 90 percent. As one student put it: “How can my school be flunking when I am succeeding?”  Indeed, the contradiction of a school labeled by authorities as failing, succeeding with students beyond what other district high schools achieve is the puzzle that Rizga unravels in this book.    

With Rizga’s permission, I offer here descriptions of lessons in math, social studies, and English. This post describes an English lesson taught by Pirette McKamey, a 25-year veteran of classroom teaching.

“I want to say something important about writing,” Pirette McKamey tells her English class one Tuesday afternoon in October 2012. “Writing is very, very hard, and it’s never finished. I’ve re-read some of my essays twenty times and I still go, ‘I can’t believe I made this mistake or that mistake.’ So, this is a long, difficult process.” Dressed in white cotton pants, a patterned shirt, and black leather loafers, she is standing in front of twenty-five seniors.

“I’m going to read Jamal’s essay as a model today,” says McKamey, who reads students’ work at the beginning of each class as a way to honor their craft and effort. “I like his essay because of the heft of its content. It also feels real. It was written with real engagement and honesty. That makes it worth reading.” In his essay Jamal has compared his life ambitions with the goals of two other people he has chosen from the many real and fictional people the students have studied in a five-week-long “quests” unit in which students considered the deeper meaning behind different types of individual journeys while developing their reading and writing skills. Jamal has picked Jackson Jackson, the main character from Sherman Alexie’s short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” and Haiti’s former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A month later Jamal uses this essay as a foundation to develop a ten-page research paper entitled “Black on Black Violence,” which examines the root causes of homicides in his community.

“‘A successful quest requires support, yearning, and perseverance’,” McKamey begins, reading Jamal’s words. “‘Everyone experiences some kind of a quest in their lifetime. Some take longer than others, some are more important than others, and some are not even intentional, but are a part of our everyday life. Some quests are very internal and personal. Others are external, rooted in collective memories and yearnings.’” As she reaches the end, five minutes later, she looks up from the paper and asks, “What did you like about the essay?”

“I love how Jamal brought three parts and three very different people together,” Alex jumps in.

“I liked that a lot too,” McKamey responds. “What else?”

“His connections and transitions from one person to the next were really good,” says Ana a little more hesitantly, glancing at the teacher for affirmation.

“That’s true,” McKamey replies.

“I felt passion and enthusiasm in his essay,” Roberto comments. “Passion that fuels a bigger purpose is the theme that drives the essay—in making music, in searching for your past, in wanting more freedom for your country.”

“Exactly,” she responds. “That’s a really good observation.”

As the discussion winds down, Max Anders—the student teacher McKamey is coaching this year—passes out a handout titled “Punctuating Titles: Underlines or Quotation Marks?” Meanwhile, McKamey explains to me that when she and Anders graded everyone’s essays yesterday, they noticed one common mistake: despite previous practice, students still weren’t always sure which titles needed to be underlined, italicized, or put in quotation marks. Anders has created a short guide using real examples from student work and a worksheet for students to practice some of these skills.

Students then get to work while both teachers walk around to answer questions.

After a brief punctuation lesson from McKamey, Anders steps up to the front of the room. “Last class we learned about the Vietnam War, and we focused on Vietnamese history,” he says. “Today we will continue by reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the American perspective.” The students read a chapter titled “The Man I Killed.” When they’re done, Anders asks them to pick out a quote they found intriguing, to be analyzed collectively.

“Let me remind you what analysis is,” McKamey says, standing in front of the class. “When I was little, I remember I used a hammer and screwdriver to crack a golf ball open. I really wanted to see what was inside. As I cracked that glossy plastic open, I saw rubber bands. And I went, ‘Ha! I didn’t know there were rubber bands in golf balls. I wonder what’s inside other balls?’ It made me curious about the world. So, we are doing the same thing. We’ll analyze the author’s words to dig in deeper. That will allow us to engage with the text on the author’s terms.”

David raises his hand. He reads a line from the chapter:

He was a slim dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.

“What do you notice in this passage?” McKamey probes.

“The man the narrator killed is the same age as him,” Roberto comments.

“Exactly,” she replies. “Now you are one step deeper. What do I feel inside when I think of that?”

“Guilt, regret,” Ajanee jumps in.

“That’s right,” McKamey comments. “I personally would use the word compassion. But what you said is 100 percent correct. It’s just that all of us will use different words to analyze this. And what does that do when we realize that this man is the same age as us?”

“It makes me think that he’s young, likes girls, probably doesn’t want to fight in a war,” Robert says.

“Exactly. Now, take that even deeper.”

“It’s like he is killing himself?” Roberto asks.

“Perfect! Now you made a connection,” McKamey says, excitement in her voice. “That’s what this quote is really about. Now, why is O’Brien saying ‘star-shaped hole’? Why not ‘peanut-shaped hole?’”

“That’s very unusual,” Irving comments.

McKamey nods. She remains quiet for a minute, looking around the class.

Ajanee raises her hand and offers an answer, “The image in his mind is burned.”

“Exactly!” McKamey replies. “O’Brien wants us to keep that same image in mind that he had as a young soldier in his mind. It’s the kind of image you never forget. That’s what writing is really about.”

______________________________

*Full disclosure: for this book, Rizga and I had several conversations about the history of school reform past and present. I also visited Mission High School for one day, saw three lessons, and interviewed the principal.

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

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