I’m apparently doing too much these days. My classroom is chugging along, despite the massive end-of-the-year truancy problem that our school must somehow cope with. Yet, because I am administering a final exam that takes place over the course of three days, my students are easily irritable. One recent comment annoyed them to no end.
In trying to preserve our momentum through the end of the year, I recently told my students that they will be expected to come to class until our very last day on June 22. We will still have “normal” class after the finals (i.e. there will be assignments that–surprise!–affect grades). Upon hearing this, the students grew extremely upset. They threw up their arms, made “are-you-kidding-me?” scoffs, booed and hissed, scrunched up their eyebrows in disbelief, and attempted to start a class-wide debate over the issue with the goal of overturning my decision. Needless to say, it was quite the scene.
One student in particular, however, chose to express her dismay over the post-finals plan through a more direct and confrontational channel: an ultimatum. KN threatened to write a protest letter to Chancellor Michelle Rhee. When she gave her demand, she spoke with a look of serious confidence (note: I wish more of my students had this courage). She expected that the “Chancellor card” would trump everything and leave me cowering at her feet, begging for mercy. She was wrong.
I coolly took her up on her challenge. I told her that, if she wrote the email, I’d send it to the Chancellor on her behalf. So, over the course of a few mornings before the first bell, KN came in to draft her email. I asked questions and gave her suggestions. She eventually came to a final product. It wasn’t long or complicated or even well-supported, but I didn’t want to write anything for her (primarily because I wanted her to go through the letter writing process herself and jokingly because I didn’t want to strengthen the argument against my classroom decision!). Anyhow, I sent KN’s email to Chancellor Rhee:
Dear Chancellor Rhee,
Hi I am a sophomore at [a DCPS] Senior High School. My English teacher Mr. K is making us do too much work at the end of the school year. We have three exams in this class; this is too much. Then he expects for us to come to school after all this to learn about poems! Shouldn’t we be watching movies, having end of the year parties? I’m a pretty decent student. I’m on the honor roll and I’m usually on time. All I’m asking for is a break.
Do you agree with my teacher? What’s the point of coming to school after exams?
Within an hour, I received a response from the Chancellor:
Usually I’m on students’ sides on arguments but not on this one! Our job is to educate you to the best of our ability. This means that we need to maximize every instructional minute with you. Just because we’re close to the end of the year, that doesn’t mean the learning should be any less rigorous. I appreciate the fact that you wrote to me. If you’d like, I’m happy to discuss this with you in person.
The next morning, I printed out the email and nonchalantly handed it to KN and we began a brief conversation:
KN: What is this?
Mr. K: Chancellor Rhee responded.
KN: For real?! (brief pause.) Aww! This is tight, Mr. K! So cool. Wait… You sure you didn’t make this up?
Mr. K: Tricked ya!
KN: (smile turns into frown.) Mr. K, why you always gotta be playin’ like that?
Mr. K: Just kidding. It’s real.
Mr. K: It’s real. Read it again.
KN: (brief pause.) Look! It says she wouldn’t mind talking to me! This is tight! I feel special. I’m gonna keep readin’ it over and over.
Mr. K: So you’re going to work hard even after finals are over?
KN: No. (brief pause.) Sike naw! Maybe!
KN is a small-time celebrity in our school (more accurately, my first period classroom) now. A fellow student is begging KN to arrange a time to meet with Chancellor Rhee. Why? “I want a photo with her! It’s not like she’s that famous or anything, but still–she’s cool!” Who would’ve thought emailing Chancellor Rhee could bring so much joy to students?