New teacher diaries

In the big picture, learning comes in many shades

He always came late. He sat in the back of the classroom. Alone, alert, quiet and reflective, he pulled out his pens and books. But his pens did not write our class notes. His books were not our books. Instead, he began to draw.

In the first few days, I admit I didn’t notice what, exactly, my student Frank was up to. I’m a new teacher with a full classload at a new public high school in the South Bronx.

“Miss, you need to be harder,” some students advise. “Miss, you’re way too hard,” other students insist.

“Every teacher needs to figure it out for herself,” my principal reminds me.

Through it all, Frank sat sternly, almost stiffly, in the back of our classroom. Again and again, he would spread a blank page across his desk. His intensity and focus, in the early days, led me to think he was quietly on task. But a few swoops past Frank’s desk revealed a student concerned only about his art.

As I pulled drawings off Frank’s desk and encouraged him, once again, to get on task, I had to admit that even his simplest sketches were full of verve and perspective. I soon realized this was a talented kid with a whole vocabulary of his own and a language that, while foreign to me in my ELA classroom, could be just as powerful. The question became: How could I tap into that power on Frank’s own terms to accomplish our goals?

Our reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” held the answer. While other kids worked on argumentative essays in response to the play, Frank remained engrossed in his own separate world. So I took a chance and cut him a deal: Draw your response to the play. Then sit down with me and explain your art.

I couldn’t do this again at any point in the year, I explained, but for this unit I would. “Consider this your first artistic commission,” I said.

Frank responded enthusiastically. But when several weeks passed and he remained hunched in the back of my classroom, increasingly with his earphones on, increasingly focused on his drawings, increasingly disassociated from either his classmates or me, I wondered if I had made a stupid mistake.

Time passed. I called on him to no avail. He refused to work with other students and failed to turn in basic assignments, much less major projects. “Let me choose to fail!” he insisted.

But I held out, somehow, that in this one unit his artistic response to “A Raisin in the Sun” could make up for it all. I asked Frank for updates. He said he was working on “shading.” I took him at his word. And I worried.

The day before the December break, Frank walked into my room. “I did your art project,” he said shyly, spreading a sheaf of papers across my desk. “These are the main characters from ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’”

He had drawn each at the moment of his or her greatest trial or triumph — Mama receiving her check, Ruth disclosing her pregnancy, Walter standing up for his family, Beneatha trying on her intricate African gown.

“They still feel all this joy and hope, even though they live under so much oppression,” Frank said, pointing to the crinkly details he had added around Mama’s eyes, the wide smile he had drawn across Beneatha’s face.

We talked for a while that afternoon about oppression and hope, about stagnancy and change. “We know discrimination is still a problem,” I said. “What can we do to make things better?”

“You mean people like you and me?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “People like you and me.”

Frank thought for a while. I took the time to study his drawings further — the care he had taken with the delicate folds of the African gown, the triumphant stance of a character’s legs.

“Art,” he finally said. “Art can make a difference.”

Teachers, I know, can make a difference, too. Since the break, Frank now sits toward the front of the classroom. He has kept his drawing pens away and has started engaging in class. I’m not saying he’s now my star student, but he’s trying. And in the back of our classroom is a wall that he’s slowly making his own. We call it “Frank’s Gallery.”

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