"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Where I'm From, NHCC Edition: Up North

I started classes last week and I've been pondering this blog post since that first day. I'm teaching two sections of the combined developmental/general composition (990/1200/1201) and they really are everything I hoped they would be in terms of stretching my teaching experience. My students are a wonderful mix of ethnic groups and experiences; refugees, some recent, some brought over as children; immigrants, recent and not; all ages. Their first writing assignment was "A Short History of My Reading and Writing Life," while responding to Anne Lamott's "Shitty First Drafts" and Marie Foley's "Unteaching the Five-Paragraph Essay." I don't know why I expected resistance from them in that assignment, that I expected to read how much they hated reading and writing, how boring it was--probably because that's been my experience with my more privileged students--but that wasn't the case. My students miss class for court dates and I know they're more likely to be fighting for custody of their children than they are appearing for an underage DUI. My students don't have their education as their first priority--and that's not a lever I can use, like I could with my more privileged students--education is only one part of their lives. They had wonderful stories to tell (that will make for excellent seeds for their first writing project) and even that little glimpse into who they are--I tell them that their weekly Think Pieces are my favorite part of the week and I'm absolutely not kidding.

We're starting our Writing Project 1 (Literacy History Narrative) with a "Where I'm From" poem, something I've never taught before. In fact, I've never taught literacy narratives before--so this is all new to me. But there's something here that I didn't expect: what I'm learning is that when I asked my students to identify where they're from on the first day of class, I learned that there's the Cities and its environs and "Up North." I'm from Up North a couple of them said, because they knew that their classmates wouldn't know where they came from. It's a thing here, I'm learning, to say you're from Up North, as if there isn't anything of importance outside the metro area. Maybe there isn't or maybe it's just a foreign concept to live outside an urban area. I don't know--but it really is a thing here. I know that when we talk about politics, we talk about the Metro area and "greater Minnesota," but actually living here, I'm starting to see how that mentality is being shaped and how it's actually playing out. Intellectually, it's fascinating--especially as it's a completely different mentality from teaching at Concordia, where most of my students came from rural areas.

The learning curve is steep for me here, in a good way. Last Wednesday wasn't a great day in my 1200/1201 class, where one student told me in the middle of class that he had no intention of buying the books and no intention of reading them. Another student was arrogant to the point of serious disrespect. I left that class wondering what I'd gotten myself into. Intellectually, I know that resistance in composition classes is often bred of fear--and so that's a good thing to remember. But Monday redeemed everything, made me remember why I'm a teacher and why I don't know that I could be as happy doing anything else.

One of my girls in my 1200/1201 class hung back after our 990 (after the 1200/1201, we have our developmental class, which is 50 minutes with just the ten students who are in 990/1200), and I'd reminded them of the reading assignment for Wednesday, which is the introduction and first two chapters of Mary Pipher's book about refugees in Lincoln, Nebraska, The Middle of Everywhere. She said she'd read the book over the weekend--she didn't mean to read the whole thing, but before she knew it, she was done. It was so interesting, she said. That makes my little teacher heart go pitty-pat, I said--so many of their first Think Pieces identified that they started to hate reading when teachers forced them to read books they didn't want to read. And here I am, requiring them to read a book I think is interesting, that fits into what we're talking about, and I hope against hope that they find it valuable--but it really means a lot for them to say that out loud.

(In my literature class later that day, one of my guys walked out (we'd discussed Edgar Allan Poe) and said, "I used to think Poe was so boring! And now I think he's amazing!")

Yesterday, in my TR class (different section from the MW), we were discussing definitions of literacy and I mentioned my niece, who just started Spanish immersion kindergarten and was finding it difficult on a lot of levels, both in language and not knowing anybody, and one of my students said she had a cousin in Chinese immersion who would come home and try to speak Chinese to them, but her family couldn't understand her. She'd try to speak Chinese to her grandparents, but they don't speak it anymore.

I can't wait for their "Where I'm From" poems--and I straight-up can't wait for their literacy narratives. This is going to be amazing.

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