The brown envelope had been hanging on my board taunting my AP Lit students and I for days—staring us down, fully aware of the contents it kept concealed. So many pleas of “Can we take a peek! No one has to know” from the students in the room had begun to wear me down. I was equally eager to finally meet the text our friends from Conestoga High in Pennsylvania had sent our way as part of our mentor text exchange.
And maybe I was also a little bit apprehensive…my students and I would be encountering a piece of nonfiction prose together, for the first time, at the same time. I would have no way to prepare and we would all be working in real time. I’m pretty sure that my students reveled in this thought and after I shook off the nerves, so did I. Reading, writing, and thinking cannot be something that we inflict on our students without practicing ourselves…and what better way to practice than all together…let’s just say, I was confident by my fingers were still crossed.
The only thing that helped was that I knew Tricia and her AP Language students at Conestoga High would soon be encountering a poem that we had sent—all seeing the text for the first time, together. All a bit out of their comfort zones as they examined this poem we had sent their way.
As the day approached, apprehension further faded into anticipation and what happened in the midst of the reading made it all so much more worthwhile than I could have ever predicted.
The decision was made so quickly.
My friend and fellow Fellow, Tricia Ebarvia, turned to me after a conversation with Bob Probst at the Boothbay Literacy Retreat, and said, “I have an idea!” It was for a mentor text exchange between our classrooms, and the plan she’d devised was perfect for the two of us.
I have a passion and deep appreciation for poetry and Tricia’s expertise was nestled in the realm of prose. So, of course, I would send poetry to her classroom and she would send nonfiction prose to mine—and we would be unaware of the text that had been sent until we opened the envelope with our students in the classroom. This would be different than your average in school text exchange, though, because Tricia teaches in Pennsylvania and I teach in Louisiana. Our texts would have to be mailed (which honestly kind of added to the intrigue and excitement of it all). We decided that we would exchange texts between her AP Language class and my AP Literature class like this on a monthly basis.
A schedule was set and envelopes were mailed. This was actually going to happen.
As Ellie opened the envelope, the rest of us waited a bit impatiently. There had already been some grumbling about “another nonfiction piece” as this particular group of students had taken AP Language last year and spent their days in that course swimming in the deep end of nonfiction. I reassured them. Knowing Tricia as I do, I was fully confident that the text she had selected would be surprisingly fun to play with and to analyze—I was confident that it would not only pique their curiosity but intrigue their intellect and mine.
When Ellie retrieved the set of copies from the folder inside the envelope, it quickly became apparent that the text was very short. A lone paragraph. Four sentences, to be precise
(The text happened to be the first paragraph from the article “The Arc of Justice and the Long Run” by Rebecca Solnit).
Papers were distributed and we set to work…each of us, teacher and students, at the same time, in the same space…reading, thinking, writing, rereading, and so on. It was fun and all were engaged, and I’m also pretty sure there was some curiosity over what my ability was to work on something like this in front of them without a ton of time or extra resources…to encounter a text I hadn’t selected and to work with it in the same exact way that I ask them to do on a regular basis.
As we ventured into discussion, it didn’t take me long to realize that my kids absolutely loved not just the piece but the whole process. It was cool to feel a part of something bigger than themselves and their school. It was cool that another teacher had sent them a text that their own teacher had never seen before. And the piece itself captured them and inspired gorgeous conversation.
Students posed questions to each other; they wondered about the images/examples provided in the piece and spent a long time talking about the shape of an arc (they were shocked at how many math connections they made during their reading and our discussion—there was talk of getting too far down the wrong path beause of wrong window settings on calculators and the lack of slope at the top of an arc, and more); they talked deeply about the justice and hope brought up in the piece (and today of all days, that was a really great discussion to be having); students noted the progressively increasing sentence lengths throughout the piece and pondered why Solnit might have opted to do this, only to settle on a thematic connection; and at the end of the discussion, one of my students said, “I love this! It’s like a poem, but not a poem…which is my favorite kind of poem…I don’t have to think so much about the form of it.” They loved that Solnit left many of the ideas in the piece disconnected without forcing it on them –they appreciated her trust in them as readers to make the connections themselves.
Each of us enjoyed the camaraderie and surprise of it all and not a single one of us can wait patiently for what next month will bring.
It was a single class. On a day with a shortened schedule—45 minutes of time. It was a break from the literature we had been reading. A day away from the schedule we had been keeping as we push forward in a literary study. A day that was entirely off topic and entirely worth every second spent together in this new space. And I am left wondering how I can build even deeper continuing connections between this text and what we are currently working on together.
This is what happens when teachers are able to escape the confines of their classrooms and their schools in order to meet other teachers, other thinkers who work in other places. This is what happens when as teachers, we don’t just seek a clever pin-able idea, but instead we seek a community of learning…and then we act on the inspiration found there with confidence granted by the fellowship. This is what happens when we take on an idea having no idea how it will go, but we venture into this territory because we have the comfort of colleagues, even one who is 1200 miles away, and because we trust in our students. This is what happens when we step away from our plans and what feels comfortable and submit to the anxious excitement of trying something completely new—to the anxious excitement of learning beside our students.