I finally got the time to sit down and read most of the much-anticipated book, Retracing the Journey.  Leila Christenbury’s account of going back to high school after being a college professor was the one book this year that put things into perspective for me.  A lot of what I have been learning in the past two years has been great in theory; this book, however, really allows me a confident view into what works and what doesn’t.

After I read the first three chapters last week, I thought I was about to read a feel-good book–maybe like another we have read this semester that didn’t go over well–about teaching disinterested students.  Although I felt the book starts off almost a little to Utopian for me, I found that this was not the case whatsoever.  Christenbury provides a real-life view of her experience of going back into the classroom; her classes at Trailer 11 are not unlike the class that I am observing right now (minus the trailer, of course).

The note cards that she gives the kids to write their opinions of the upcoming semester are mostly positive and show excitement on their behalf.  When it comes down to the work, however, the students aren’t exactly “making good” on their so-called excitement.  This reminded me of the survey assignment in ENG 505.  Dr. Kennedy had us give the students that we are observing in our respective placements.  The surveys were, at most points (in my experience), surprisingly positive; however, when it comes down to doing the work and handing in assignments at the deadline, the students fall short.  A lot of the students in my host teacher’s class are having a hard time receiving grades above a ‘C’.

I was also really interested in the way that Dr. Christenbury has exposed the troubles of relying on student choice.  A lot of the techniques and practices that we have been learning about rely heavily on the students being able to make their own choices on what to read, and et cetera.  In Retracing the Journey, however, we find that giving students full reign becomes hard to deal with.We see in this text that long-term planning becomes almost impossible when the class is run like this.  Still, it seems that this is a worthwhile challenge.

The book does reiterate the problems and pressures that come along with high-stakes testing.  I felt that Christenbury exposes a very important point that is important for us to understand.  She writes:

In the middle of all my concern about my relationship to my students and about student response to deadlines and work ethic and how the class was going, came time for part one of the state standardized test.  […]  For students, passing all of these tests also had a bearing on graduation and, in some districts, on whether students would be required to take year-end exams. (53)

The tricky part here is figuring out how to create these intimate learning environments, that we have found are so beneficial, and managing the Regents exam.  How are we supposed to create a learning community and administer the regents?  There is also the fact, as Dr. Christenbury mentions, that the students want to stop working after the second part of the test is over.  So let me get this straight, no learning goes on after the Regents?  This just leads me to another group of questions:  How am I supposed to create an Atwell-like environment, or something of the sort, if I have to stop what I am doing to teach to the test?  I know that we’ve discussed this: specifically how the students will pass without doing “the review” if we are doing our jobs, but what if our school makes us do review?  Is there a way to, for lack of a better word, disguise it?  Are we not disguising it just by teaching them in general?  If they learn what I want them to, then won’t they be able to pass the tests on their own?  Oh, the problems with high-stakes testing…

This post is getting long, however, I want to point out the importance of YA titles in this book.  This was another important facet for me to read about because I am a firm believer in using YA texts in the high-school classroom.  It seems that all of the assignments that Christenbury did with YA books went over quite well. I’m not surprised.

That’s it for now.  More to come on this book, I’m sure.

Ray H.

Does anyone else feel that they were reading Dr. Stearns’ unwritten book?  I sure did.


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