Teaching Outside the Lines

Somewhere along the way, I realized I taught kids, not curriculum, which means I’d be a square-peg in today’s Common Core round-hole.

The kids I taught were fondly known as Retreads, from having failed and retaken so many classes. I loved their energy and insights.  Most other English teachers were happy they didn’t have my classes, administrators were happy because they didn’t have to persuade said teachers to teach said classes, and I was happy because I was pretty much left alone.  

However, one afternoon as I was prepping for the following day, I got a call from the Vice Principal of Attendance and Discipline. She was on a first name basis with most of my students.

Glad I caught you.  Do you have a minute?  she inquired.


Are you taking attendance in your Mass Media classes?

Of course I’m taking roll.

Mass Media was a favorite class, designed specifically for the Retreads.  I had taken one look at the curriculum, which was little more than Shut Up ‘n Color pablum, tossed it in the curricular file and asked the kids what they needed to learn.  They were 18 years old, hanging on to school by a thread and many already had their own personal Probation Officer. The kids knew full well what they needed in order to survive.

The class put together a list of life topics, which made it easy to develop an appropriate curriculum utilizing basic psychology and sociology as the doors through which the kids could improve their reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking skills.

That said, they wouldn’t have recognized a gerund, intransitive verb or denouement if one jumped up and bit them on the nose, much less known how any of them function in grammar or literature. These kids would not have done well with Common Core standards.

We opened with Relationships, not that I have even a marginal expertise in the subject (see Dating Category). The kids first read the original Cinderella, courtesy of the Brothers Grimm, in which each of the stepsisters cut off her toes and heel in order to squeeze her bloody, mutilated foot into the glass slipper.  I would not recommend that anyone read this particular version to princess-enthralled little girls.

The kids then compared and contrasted the Grimm version with the sanitized Disney Cinderella, and ended with watching the R-rated Pretty Woman.  I could have been fired for showing the movie, even though it seems pretty tame by today’s standards. Then again, I could have been fired more than once, so in the grand scope of things, it probably wasn’t that big of a deal.

The girls quickly figured out and shared what modern-day Cinderellas give up/cut off of themselves in order to catch their Prince Charmings while the boys were equally vocal in sharing what happens when they fall into the Princely trap of assuming responsibly for keeping his Princess happily ensconced on her pedestal.  It was an eye opener for both genders. One young woman sought help and got out of an abusive relationship after the unit was completed.

In another unit, the students researched gangs like the Mafia and KKK.  These kids were incredibly perceptive: leaders got power; followers got to contribute and have their contribution valued.  They observed that dynamic is also a definition of family, which every one of us needs regardless of how we define our family members. The kids concluded a person couldn’t successfully leave one family without first finding a replacement family. Sociologists would have been hard pressed to be as succinct and on point as these students.

The discussion grew into a lively, loud debate around local gangs, whether it was better to stay or leave, because anyone leaving would be killed.  They knew this for a fact; many had been born into multi-generational gangs. Two young men later returned to say goodbye to me. Each shared that he wanted a new life so had enlisted in the military, his new family, knowing there would be no return to the old family or old life.

But, back to attendance and the Vice Principal.  The morning after our phone chat, the kids were in small groups, discussing, debating and involved in the assignment at hand when one of the kids nudged me and nodded towards the door.

Ms. C. is here.

I turned to see the vice principal standing in the open doorway, just watching, so I walked over to greet her while the class continued their discussions.

Hi! Can I help you?  I asked.

They’re all here.  It was a statement and I didn’t know quite what to do with it.

Well, yes.  They’re supposed to be here.

No. She looked puzzled. They’re all here and they’re all working.

ah, yes. It’s class. What else would you expect?

She just looked at me.

No, you don’t understand. This is the only class they attend.

10 thoughts on “Teaching Outside the Lines

  1. Hi, I really am moved with how you treat your students. Most of the time they’re casted off society or belittled by others because they couldn’t perform like the others in school. You, being their teacher will surely pay-off someday. I hope that you’ll continue with the good work you’re doing because you’re leaving a huge impact. 🙂


      • Oh. From where I’m from, though I’m not generalizing, there is a lack of passionate teachers as you. But uhm, can I ask if you have retired or simply gone out of the academe to find greener pastures?


  2. I am retired, except for very occasional consulting, and I did leave the classroom earlier than I could have because there were other doors that opened within education…(bridging mental and social health services into schools and, post Columbine, school safety). — hang around and I’m pretty sure these areas will eventually find their way into a posting ~

    I would have to say that, when I was in the classroom, the majority (certainly not all) of the teachers were passionate about kids and teaching, but then, we were treated as professionals and could adapt lessons to meet the needs of the kids. In watching my grandkids and their learning experiences, I sometimes wonder if the current trends that (1) demand that teachers must take an insane number of classes to get/maintain their credentials and (2) set such minutely structured standards that can reduce teaching to “if it’s Tuesday, it must be pronouns,” approach, simply drain the any passion from teachers and the profession.


  3. Yes, Carla, your passion enhanced student’s learning and improved many lives. Thank you. We were passionate then, with admin supporting some of our silliness, and us when we were challenged. I’m grateful I am retired and not facing the choking common core regimentation. We could adapt lessons to meet students’ needs then, not at all now.
    I could hear concerns, stop the syntax and diction lessons and open a class discussion on a news event, or a campus concern. The “Required Tuesday Lesson” postponed for another day or two–students’ needs came first.
    Ahhh, back to daily newspaper.


  4. I think we were all fortunate — as were our students — that we were teaching pre-regimentation and all so willing so share lesson plans, insights, and keep the creativity and passion flowing. Most of our students have done quite well as adults, even given the challenges of the neighborhoods so parents, teachers and preachers must have done a few things correctly…


  5. If any young ‘feeling-hopeless-because-of-rigid-mandated-curriculum ‘ teachers read this post, hang in there. By that I do not mean slavish obedience to the new rigors of conformity in education (every day every teacher on the same page in all of California; the US.) First, use mandated titles (theirs) in bold type at the the top of the lesson (yours.) Many overworked administrators will feel reassured and read no further.
    True, I exaggerate.


    • But not by much…I remember when we had to write the day’s “agenda” on the board. I wrote something generic and it never changed the entire year. No one noticed…


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