Retracing the Journey: Teaching and Learning in an American High School
reviewed by Clare N. Lowell - October 31, 2007
Title: Retracing the Journey: Teaching and Learning in an American High School
Author(s): Leila Christenbury
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807748056, Pages: 158, Year: 2007
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Every teacher has it at one point or another in his or her career: The Teaching Nightmare. There you are, defenseless in a class of uncontrollable, unreachable studentsnone of whom are listening to youall of whom exist only to make your 40 minutes with them as miserable as humanly possible. For most of us, its only a bad dream (usually experienced in the final few hours of fitful sleep the night before the first day of class). However, for Leila Christenbury, author of Retracing the Journey: Teaching and Learning in an American High School, it was her life for six months as an eleventh-grade English teacher at Live Oak High School.
Not that it started out that wayDr. Christenburys journey from veteran high school English teacher to professor of English Education at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University), President of NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English), editor of English Journal (NCTEs magazine), and back again to high school English teacher is, in many ways, a heartbreaking one. So enthusiastic was she with her initial return to the classroom that she submitted a wildly happy article to a professional journal about the experience, only to withdraw it a few weeks later. Something was going on in my classroom that was far different from the rosy, happy picture I had prematurely painted. This was a new ball game.
That ball game included more curve balls than a major league pitching duel. As resident guru of VCUs Teacher Ed, Christenburys expectations of life in a 21st century classroom far exceeded the reality of an apathetic student body steeped in issues of personal entitlement and empty promises of work that was earnestly pledged but never delivered. Parental obstruction only complicated matters as Christenbury attempted to cultivate fertile fields of commonly held beliefs, only to discover a disturbing disconnect between her values and theirs, resulting in a scorched-earth policy that held little promise for a rewarding educational harvest. I worked as hard as I have ever worked. And when the response from the majority of students was virtually flat, it seemed almost a cruel joke. A combination of school regulations, student attitudes and parental intervention can turn even the most well-intentioned effort sour, resulting in experiences that can only be described as harrowing. She likens herself to an Old Testament prophet who surveys the feckless misbehavior of the tribes and wants to condemn.
Ironically, these 22 juniors comprised an honors class, carrying honors credit, but having functioned as an entity for too long (for some of them, as long as 12 years in virtually every single classthe unintended consequence of scheduling constraints), theyd created a climate of palpable hostility among themselves. By this point in their academic career, these working-to-upper-middle-class youngsters19 girls and three boys, one with an IEP, all native English speakers, 15 Caucasian, six African-American, one second generation Indianwere pretty much sick of each other. Add to this the incessant chatter that never seemed to abate, the lack of any sort of genuine work ethic, the self-fulfilling prophesy of low personal expectation and our initially enthusiastically optimistic idealist is quite depressingly transformed into a disheartened, disillusioned academic who looks to her classroom for answers and, stuck there, sadly finds none.
Dr. Christenbuy references other veteran teachers whove retraced their beginnings in order to rediscover the elusive connection between The ivory tower and the trenches: Ann Fairbrother (2003) echoes Christenburys despair when she, too, experiences deep distress in her eager return to the classroom: in my first few weeks back, I knew viscerally that education is irrelevant except for the good grades that get you the good job (p. 27).
Christenburys experience was in sync with this belief: I underestimated the students and their needs and overestimated profoundly the power of the subject matter and its ability to make students care. In retrospect, she suspects that her students were simply overwhelmed and responded the way many youngsters do when confronted with what they perceive to be unrealistic expectationsthey resisted.
While most of the educational surprises were negative in nature, there was one area that came as a total academic shock to herher students complete facility and subsequent veneration for standardized testing. These Teflon scholars who eschewed all manner of genuine intellectual inquiry were, conversely, primed and ready for The Test, having negotiated the philosophical landscape of NCLB with the skill and agility of metaphorical mountain climbers. For once, they perceived these activities as real school stuff since now they were engaged in work that really mattered.
Christenbury explains this response by stating that, from the students perspective, the major purpose of the semesters course was a single one: to prepare for the state test. If students scored well, they received privileges, recognition and were exempted from finals. To their thinking, the state exam heralded not only the end of test prep, but the cessation of any measure of substantive learning, despite the fact that there were nine weeks left to the school year. When Christenbury announced her intentions to continue with the semesters work beyond the test, her students literally told her that it was illegal to so do. It was not. She persisted and was promptly informed by her students that, in doing so, she would commit an unforgivable perfidy from which she would never recover. Undaunted, she maintained her pedagogical principles and continued in her responsibilities. But this perceived betrayal would cost her the few acolytes she had left.
There is an honesty in Christenburys reflection that is as extraordinary as it is poignantwhich is only one reason why this is such a worthwhile read. In retrospect, it certainly would have been easier to cave to student expectation (or lack of it). Be it scruples or just plain stubbornness, however, she is steadfast in her dedication to task, and one can only admire such strength and determination, particularly in the face of such unabashed adolescent outrage.
And yet, despite her perceived failings, Christenbury engenders a sort of battlefield respectability by the end of the narrative. She has taken arms against the apathy of the learning-resistant, refusing to succumb to the mind-numbing weariness that so often accompanies the worn-out, done-in educator. Throughout the story, I kept wanting to console herto tell her that it wasnt her faultto reassure her that countless factors beyond her control (among them: an unfortunate mid-year start, a test-em-till-theyre-dead political environment, and a student empowerment culture akin to Lord of the Flies) had stacked the deck against her before she even walked in the door.
Ever the optimist, I kept hoping for a Freedom Writers/To Sir With Love/Stand and Deliver turn-around by the end of the bookthe kind of epiphantic transformation that movie-goers and student teachers love to witness. But there was none. Instead of leaving the theatre with a haunting melody that inspires and uplifts, Christenburys theme song might as well have been The Sadder-but-Wiser Girl For Me because, in the end, this really is a love storyher love of the profession, love of her students, and pure love of learning. And that is what keeps the really good educators, like Chistenbury, from throwing up their hands in disgust and walking out the door for the last time.
Christenbury herself characterizes the experience as bittersweet, pledging to continue the journey, wherever it leads.
She is, truly, a good soldier.
Fairbrother, A. (2003, November 26). A Teachers reality check. Education Week, 27.