Friday, December 17, 2010

"The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. . ."

Over the years I have had my share of classroom catastrophes--a  boy once threw a stapler at me because he did not like his grade; another tossed a chair because I would not tolerate some behavior that I now cannot remember. Yet another boy came to my summer-school classroom door, one hand on his hip the other arm high, his hand gripping the door frame, body atilt. He greeted me with sleepy eyes and a sly grin and proceeded to slide down the door frame to the floor, passed out in a druggy heap. Another boy suffered from such intense hypo? hyper? or some other sort of glycemia that his head would suddenly drop down onto the desk and. . . . lights out. The first time this happened, I myself nearly passed out, but the kids knew exactly what to do and mobilized instantly--one to the cafeteria for orange juice, the other to the restroom for a cool paper towel. 
But there are other kinds of classroom catastrophes that usually require the application of some sort of mysterious, institutional red sawdust. Though the girls usually know to run from the room should illness suddenly hit them, the boys seem to be less adept at that kind of multitasking. They tend to be paralyzed by their distress, unable to move. One boy, after a breakfast of orange juice and pineapple slices (hmm, was the battery acid canister empty that morning?)  suddenly flew to the front of the room, paused, feet planted, and threw up a stew of orange doused pineapple chunks right next to my desk. The rest of the kids, disgusted and on the verge of losing it themselves, squeezed into a corner of the room as if the mess were going to coagulate into some sort of  man-eating blob. Once another boy, who had eaten only chocolate the entire day, also decided to root himself to my desk, bend slightly forward, and dribble saliva while tepidly claiming he was going to be sick. I got that trash can under his face not a moment too soon to receive the chocolate stream that emanated from his nose and mouth. And I used to like chocolate! (Ah, who am I kidding, I still like it! Takes more than that to frighten me away).
Several years ago, I had a student who suffered from many learning challenges but was mainstreamed anyway (no pun intended, or maybe there is, you decide).  I was teaching a 10th-grade honors English class, where the kids had been mostly uninterested in anything I had to say, but during this particular class, they were riveted. I was going on and on about Macbeth and the Wyrd sisters as I was pushing them to contemplate the statement, “Nothing is but what is not.” They burned their eyes into me, they sealed their mouths shut, and honed their attention. I went on and on because I knew I had them now. Yup, they were getting it at last. After the bell, they filed out silently, and I was awestruck. I was good, but I had no idea that I was THAT good. What a day!
After the class I was about to grab a bite of lunch. . .
. . .when a student, who had come into the room after the class to work through lunch (as kids often did), asked me whether someone had peed. Peed? I whipped around and saw what looked like apple juice puddled in a chair and on the floor beneath that chair and thought, NO, NO WAY, NO ONE PEED, THAT'S JUST . . Wait a minute. . . Then I remembered who had been sitting there. Though I did not perform a taste test, I knew it had to be my learning-challenged student since that had been her seat. But I had no idea how or why or when that could have happened. Then some of the other students from that class came back into the room with their lunch in tow, and I tried my best to be delicate when I asked whether they had “noticed anything during class.” 
“NOTICED ANYTHING?” one girl replied. “ARE YOU KIDDING, ME? NOTICED ANYTHING?” She went on. . .(So and so) started peeing in her chair about 15 minutes into the class, and we were all staring at you in order to get you to see what was happening and to do something about it. But NOOOOOOO, you just went on and on and on, Macbeth this, Macbeth that, Nothing is nothing is nothing, blah blah blah.”

I laughed so hard, I almost. . . . .

Friday, November 12, 2010


Many of the English teachers I have worked with (well, tried to work with) have the capability of high-powered administrative assistants--they are organized, they know how to read, often they know their grammar, and they can manage the bureaucratic requirements effectively. This is not to cast aspersions on administrative assistants, and God knows, they often make much more money than teachers, but it is to say that that this skill set is the only part of what a high school teacher, particularly an English teacher, needs to have. 
Many teachers know they need to teach analytical thinking, but they, themselves, have limited analytical powers. That one has read and perhaps in the best of instances has recognized the subtleties of a text does not an English teacher make, I am sorry to say. 
Teachers are often required to limit themselves to the directives and the habits of mind ingrained in them by often callous and cynical bureaucracies. The public schools hire people they do not trust to do the jobs they do, so they construct all kinds of “support” designed to get ALL teachers to march in sync in the hope that someone will teach someone something. Most teachers tow the lines thrown at them in part because they believe that benefits and retirement are the ultimate reward. Teaching is an easy job if you can just do what you are told without question, and if you knew deep down that you probably could not get work elsewhere, you would probably put up with anything.
Yes, it’s true that the very worst teachers give all teachers a bad reputation, but it is the preponderance of merely adequate teachers that is the most dangerous to the profession. They are the reason people say they trust teachers but in truth don’t really respect them. So, the danger lies not in the worst teachers bringing down the reputation of the rest of the teachers; it lies in the best teachers being brought down by the merely adequate. 
There is no room for adequate in the teaching profession, just as there is no room for simply adequate surgeons. Excellence is the only option. And that is the problem with teacher evaluations: excellence, as I have said many times, lies in the art of teaching, which is too complicated to contemplate and impossible to objectively quantify. Let me enumerate what I see as some of the elements of the art of teaching:
  • the art of knowing and responding to what his/her individual students need
  • the art of knowing more than the student at all times and not being afraid to ask questions if he/she does not
  • the art of being a lifetime learner 
  • the art of being able both to improvise and stay on track
  • the art of balancing humor with “gravitas” or rigor
  • the art of the teacher’s sticking to a mission that both includes the curriculum and maintains a clear and solid moral imperative (by this I mean always keeping in mind why we teach, presuming it’s not just to lord it over kids or salve our egos as we hear ourselves speak) 
  • the art of a teacher’s ability to listen creatively so that the students can hear themselves in a better light than the light they originally tried to shed on a subject 
  • the art of a teacher’s being able to meet students where they are when they walk into the classroom and in turn get them well past where they started 
  • the art of a teacher’s making all students feel safe and potentially successful even when they are struggling
  • the art of a teacher’s being able to motivate students from the core rather than just from their reflexes--getting them to want to learn rather than simply fear the test
  • the art of getting students to analyze, synthesize, and extrapolate rather than rinse and repeat. 
Many administrators have been rewarded with promotions and kudos either to get them OUT of the classroom and out of harms way (we call this demoting up) or for maintaining the status quo. Yet these formerly adequate teachers must evaluate the very qualities that might have eluded them in their own teaching practice. Those in charge believe they can quantify the effectiveness of the entire endeavor  which is why test scores are starting to serve as the basis for all teaching goals. 

The sad truth is that a “good” evaluation usually translates to a teacher’s passing with a C, but for today’s problems, sorry to say, a C is just not good enough. An Austrian friend of mine once said that the philosophy when he went to school was this: A is God; B is teacher; C is student. If “C is teacher,” as it seems to be much of the time, then D is student, and we have enough D’s and F’s already on both sides of the desk.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Job InSecurity

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
1 Self Actualization Needs
(full potential)
 2 Esteem Needs
(self respect, personal worth, autonomy)
 3 Love and Belongingness Needs
(love, friendship, comradeship)
4 Safety Needs
(security; protection from harm)
5 Physiological Needs
(food, sleep, stimulation, activity)
I am now at a school where I taught many years ago, a religious school, where the hours are way more flexible, the pay commensurate, my colleagues brilliant and supportive, the students eager. I will not be asked to use class time to practice inane tactics for inane tests; I will not be asked to use class time to proctor inane tests; I will not be asked to attend meetings to discuss the bogus data generated by inane tests. 
My public school colleagues warned me that I was on the verge of giving up medical benefits for life and that I would stall my retirement contributions so that any eventual retirement income will be pitifully low. They gasped incredulously at the notion that I would give up my security. 
So, you ask, why did I even consider such a move? How could I give up such well-earned security? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe instead you should be asking why my public school colleagues stay. 
In his “Hierarchy of Needs” Abraham Maslow describes what we all need in order to survive. Here is his list from the most basic and physical to the most cerebral and emotional of needs. 
5. Physiological Motivation: Provide ample breaks for lunch and recuperation and pay salaries that allow workers to buy life's essentials.
Ample breaks? At my public school we had 20 minutes free at about 9:30 am (much of that time was spent in a bathroom line) and a half an hour for lunch at around 1pm. Ample pay? Teachers in my district have started to face serious pay and health benefit cuts, but even with a full salary, it was only with a second job that I could afford to buy a house. 
At my new school, I teach in what amount to 2 or 3-hour blocks and have large gaps of time for myself in my day. I take dance classes and go to doctors and deal with phone trees and run errands, and I still have plenty of time to grade and prepare and confer with my colleagues. My salary is also  commensurate with what I was earning in public school. 
4. Safety Needs: Provide a working environment which is safe, relative job security, and freedom from threats.
Classrooms filled to more than capacity by threatened and, therefore, threatening children; colleagues who embrace and support, even with their silence, the limited vision of a malfunctioning bureaucracy; a system that fosters teacher isolation instead of teacher collaboration; a system where students will not be ousted for being unreasonably hostile and defiant--these characteristics suggest that safety needs are not entirely met in public school. Even though I had arguably the best kids at my school, I still had to face the occasional “SHUT THE HELL UP, BITCH!” from anonymous students around the campus who did not take well to a teacher’s asking them why they were making so much noise right outside my classroom and not in class themselves. 
At my current school, all the adults regularly meet in a central office and work together to support the shared cause: educating the kids to the best of our ability.  That philosophy leaves little room for the miscommunication and lack of accountability that can lead to an unsafe environment.
3. Social Needs: Generate a feeling of acceptance, belonging, and  community by reinforcing team dynamics.
Scott Miller, a psychologist from Illinois, says this about his profession: “The enemy of excellence is proficiency” and in public school, where proficiency is the standard, and where excellence makes proficiency look like inadequacy (which in turn inspires backbiting, resistance, and hostility), any hope for acceptance, belonging, and community evaporates. Because they are given no reason to trust the knee-jerk educational fads and trends championed by those in authority, many public school teachers strive for control of their little fiefdoms and do not respond well when their practices are questioned or challenged.
At my current school the teachers do not have classrooms in which to roost and must travel to every class. My colleagues and I gather together in an office, where we all joke, work, share ideas and strategies, and feel like a cohesive group. This means interaction and community instead of isolation and alienation.
2. Esteem Motivators: Recognize achievements, assign important projects, and provide status to make employees feel valued and appreciated.
In public school teachers can neither be praised nor punished and can sometimes get lost in a system that perpetuates the status quo by overly valuing test scores and other ostensibly objective accountability criteria. The system’s inability to understand, perpetuate, and generate the art of teaching does not build esteem in its teaching force, but instead chips away at it. For employees to feel valued, they must do valuable work. Teachers do their most valuable work in the classroom, where success usually goes unrecognized and unappreciated because determining what constitutes success is too complicated. How does one really measure the ineffable and immeasurable ART of teaching anyway?
At my current school, thank you notes from administrators, classroom observations, and parent interactions help make teachers feel valued. That future employment is not guaranteed, that there is no real job security, keeps the evaluation process and teacher practices fresh. That I was handed a new computer on my first day didn’t hurt my feelings of self worth either.
1. Self-Actualization: Offer challenging and meaningful work   assignments which enable innovation, creativity, and progress according to long-term goals.
Preparing for standardized tests, which is currently at the center of the academic enterprise, is not challenging and meaningful work. How can one fulfill one’s potential in a realm that does not understand or support innovation and imagination, creativity and progress?
At my current school, teachers get time to sit and talk about literature, politics, culture, life; teachers share rubrics, paper topics, strategies and insights; teachers are encouraged to be flexible, to take chances, and not take anything TOO seriously; teachers are observed by people who share the same vision of good teaching. These are the practices that enable the kind of self-actualization that turns the skill of teaching into the art of teaching. 

Because I had terrific students and several friends, I had not really felt the toll public school was taking on me until I had what some would call the audacity to leave it. I can only hope that the newspapers and current documentaries that have been covering the immense issues facing public schools will inspire the kind of reform that would bridge at least some of the gap between what the public and private schools offer and accomplish. In the meantime, I aim to fulfill this hierarchy of needs because if my needs are met, my students’ needs will be met. Too bad the public school system remains unheedful of this simple equation.
If you still want to ask how I can turn away from the comfort of job security, I would like to ask how the comfort of job security can possibly be worth the risk of no risk at all.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Recycling, 101

I should be grading my last set of finals, but after emptying file cabinets and book shelves all day, I am coated in sweat and the equivalent of what my dad used to call “purse dust” (you know, the hair strands, lint, tissue, paper, receipt and wrapper scraps that cling to the mints that fall to the bottom of a woman’s purse). I suppose it’s apt for me to reflect on leaving behind my public school career, at least for a year. 
As usual, my classroom has not been swept in a week, the floor has not been mopped in months, and the only way my desk is cleaned is if I personally take my napkins and my Formula 409 to it.  If I ever see the large, square man they call the Plant Manager, he is usually strolling across the quad at a man of leisure’s pace, bluetooth in his ear, phone clipped to his belt. I never see him with a broom or dustpan, screwdriver, hammer, or any other tool of his supposed trade for that matter. Frankly, I almost never see him. So even though there may be a cause other than budget cuts for all the filth that has piled up in my room, after a full day of wading through the detritus of a career well spent, and after sneezing all day from the dust agitation, I am just pooped. Worst of all, I am not even close to finished packing up and getting out of there. 
Fortunately, a few of my extraordinary kids stuck around this afternoon to help me reduce what had originally been eight boxes of files to three by tossing all but two hard copies of every handout I have created and amassed over the years. Of course, since I teach in a music academy, we listened to musical numbers and did our share of dancing around the room-- “It’s Too Darned Hot” was a fitting fave-- but we still finished the task and by the time we finished, we were shin deep in paper. 
One of my kids, a conscientious planet lover who puts me to shame because of her pure-hearted devotion, piled her car trunk with the ton of paper we tossed. She’s going to take it to a recycling center near her home since the school (let’s just say if it could make money out of the wasted paper, we’d all be millionaires) keeps its recycling bins locked up and generally inaccessible. 

I can now rest comfortably knowing that paper bags will soon be made of essay topics on Thoreau and Shakespeare and Poe and Homer, I could go on; paper cups will soon be made of critical essays about Whitman, Anderson, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Spenser, Petrach, Shelley, Keats, again I could go on; and more paper will be made out of quizzes and finals and review sheets and short stories and poetry and plays. And one can only hope that all the benchmark tests and district directives and other bilge from on high will be turned into its most useful form: toilet paper. I must say, there’s something heartening about this recycling notion.
My kids will also be part of this great recycling in that they will take what I have tried to impart and turn it into part of their ever evolving perspectives. All week they have been openly reflecting as they try to hang on to the life and literature lessons they felt were invaluable, all in an effort to turn their grief about the end of things into something useful. 
The week has been tremendously sad with kids giving me photo tributes, flowers, cookies, lemons from which to make lemonade, Reese’s cups (they know my pedestrian tastes), unabashed love and tears, even a mock parking ticket on my car, citing me for “excessive grammar corrections.” They have come into the room to hang out and to sift through the remnants of my classroom decor. They took whatever was meaningful to them--postcards, statuettes, posters, paper trays, books-- and I was happy as hell to give it all to them.  They think my absence will leave a hole in their hearts and should only know the hole they will leave in mine. 
It’s not to say that my next job won’t be good, but I am leaving my current school at the top of my game, so to speak. That I have now been asked to work in a school where I will be treated with a modicum of dignity,  along with better hours and stellar, supportive colleagues, is no small thing, especially after the debacle that was this year in public school--everything from the consistent public drubbing by colleagues to hurtful pay cuts. All of it petty, and all of it dispiriting.  Right now, however, I am feeling valued all the way around and that is a good way both to leave one job and to start another.  
Unfortunately, as I have mentioned repeatedly in one way or another,  the district fosters in our ranks a cannibalistic survival instinct that can instantly turn the sublime into the ridiculous. . . .
As my 10th graders were furiously scratching out their last essay for me, in walks a teacher with whom I have a passing hello relationship. She said, with great surprise in her voice, “I hear you’re leaving” to which I nodded and looked appropriately sad as I waited for some sort of commiseration. I mean, why else would she have walked all the way out to my classroom? Right? 

Without missing a beat, she said, “Can I have your file cabinets?” 
Then during the next final, another teacher, this one I have seen only once or twice on the campus, came out to ask me whether what he had heard about my leaving was true. When I told him it was, he then asked, “Can I have your file cabinets?” 

Let the recycling begin!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

“'Did you ever get fed up?' I said. 'I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something?'” or SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEMS

In my last entry, I posted my version of the 95 theses that have me fed up and ready to start a new movement, or, in my case, move to a new job, away from the deeply embedded institutional complacency.
But, one of my peccadilloes, which is as much my strength as my weakness, is my need to offer solutions to any problems I see. I admit I suffer the limitations of an English teacher’s perspective, and I have a touch of pie-in-the-sky syndrome, but somewhere in this list is a way to fix things--again, at least, as I see it:

a culture that allows middling teachers to present mind-numbing, misguided in-services designed to pander to the promoters of standardized tests and the bogus data these tests generate

Observe teachers, know their strengths and weaknesses or establish a team of teachers to do this, and “differentiate” "professional development" (usually a misnomer!) around more general departmental “directives.” 
If the directive is to examine data--departments and administrators should take a HARD look at what teachers are asking of their students to see whether expectations are clear, whether the assignments are appropriately stimulating, rigorous, and relevant to the course of study, whether the students skills meet the  requirements of the assignment, and whether the teaching aligns with these requirements.
a culture that uses “data” as if  that data were sacrosanct, objective, and instructive, when it is most often skewed and misleading
The data needs to aims higher, so the teachers will aim higher. 
  1. All teachers should have to turn in a legitimate syllabus that shows what they are expecting to teach in their classes week to week and what students are expected to do.
  2. The department must take a look at the "scope and sequence" of the literature that should be taught from grade to grade and the kinds of assignments we are giving at various levels in each grade. 
  3. Go back to Solution 1 to determine if the teaching matches what's assigned and expected.  
a culture that blithely hires sows ears and spends all its resources trying to turn them into silk purses (at great expense to those who were silk purses to begin with)


  1. No more in-services that patronize teachers by teaching them how to do what they were supposedly hired to do. If you have to give a teacher a script, if you have to teach a teacher to break down a reading or an assignment, if you have to teach a teacher how to read or analyze a text, if you have to teach a teacher when to jettison poorly written, picture-filled text books in favor or more quality readings, then you need to be observing those teachers, writing them up, and getting them OUT!
  2. Learn where your strengths reside. This is where the rubber meets the road, as the expression goes: with the excellent teachers and use those teachers effectively.
  3. NURTURE GOOD TEACHERS by allowing for and working with their strengths. But you will have to KNOW them first (See Solution 1--again observe them and see what they are teaching, expecting and receiving from their students). 
a culture where enormous class size kills the ability to offer class variety 
Be brave! Offer tried and true rigorous courses to tried and true rigorous teachers, even if the classes are small. Show that you are pandering not to the lowest but aiming to teach everyone to aspire to becoming the best! 
a culture that doesn’t understand that enormous classes will mean that either the lowest or the highest performing kids will be left behind 
SOLUTION 5: See Solutions 1- 4.
a culture where so many kids who have no interest in education get to oppress, practically with impunity, anyone who dares take the enterprise seriously
1. Early in the term defiant students should be sent to the office immediately, not with lengthy notes that take a teacher’s time, but with a bright colored pass (like a library or nurse pass), and they must REGISTER as an offender with the counselor or dean and be put on a list. This way a paper trail can begin. If the student has been asked to “register” by several teachers, we will see the pattern immediately and know where to put our attention, just as we do for IEPs.
2. Determine how many students are really the problem. Is it a few in each class who move from class to class? Once true numbers are determined, solutions can be tailored. 
a culture where rude kids don’t know what rude means
SOLUTION 7: See Solution 6
a  culture that tolerates back-sniping teachers whose professional jealousies and unchecked inadequacies ruin any hope for collegiality and change
SOLUTION 8: An administrator must never allow a “witch-hunt,” where teachers can air out their personal feelings about any specific teacher to an entire department (or to any student for that matter). 

Here’s how to prevent this:
  1. GO BACK TO THE TEXT, as I tell my students. The teachers with the problem and the teachers being attacked should be asked to take out their work; then all should look at what they are doing in their classes, asking of their students, and getting from their students. Try to find the common ground based on what the teachers are producing or trying to produce in the classroom.
  2. Insist that teachers cut down tension and stay focused on the issues and NOT the personalities.
  3. If the problem turns out only to be personal, just as a meeting with parents must stay focused on teaching methods and reasons for students’ success and/or failure--and NOT on a teacher’s personality--personal condemnations should be prohibited.
a culture where standardized testing eats into so much class time it’s really testing the testing instead of  teaching and learning
JUST SAY NO TO STANDARDIZED TESTING. There are already outside contractors like the COLLEGE BOARD, who offer good enough standardized tests for all students. 
To further help our students, we must create our OWN benchmarks, but this goes back to Solutions 1-4: 
Presumably we provide these benchmarks in AP classes, and this same mentality should govern every class: we need good teachers, clear and consistent scope and sequence, and consistent and equivalent practices and rubrics for those practices, so that teachers can effectively grade one another’s papers and exams in each grade at each level by using the same standards.
a culture that is willfully blind to its tendency to defend and promote only the status quo
SOLUTION 10: See all above
a culture of mediocrity and enforced enervation
SOLUTION 11: See all above
a culture where isolation rather than collegiality is the route to survival
SOLUTION 12: See all above
a  culture bent on moving towards teacher accountability, a meaningless pursuit since teacher standards vary so widely 
Departments should create consistent department-wide rubrics based on clear goals that all teachers understand, that all teachers understand how to teach, and that all students understand.
a culture that believes self-esteem is generated by empty praise instead of hard work and genuine accomplishment
Consistent and equivalent syllabi, rubrics, classroom standards. The A grade must be as justifiable as the Fail!
a culture that can neither praise nor punish
  1. Recognize the only goal of any teaching institution is to NURTURE GOOD TEACHERS SO THEY AND THEIR STUDENTS CAN THRIVE, and notice and handle everything and everyone that obstructs that goal! (See all above!)
  2. "Differentiate” teacher professional development, which means presumably to treat all equally by attending to their different needs with the same goals in mind. 
  3. Let the students have a voice and INSIST on student evaluations that ask the hard questions about teaching practices (as in the 7 C' --a teacher's caring, controlling, clarifying, challenging, captivating, conferring, consolidating) to discover whether a teacher’s work is in line with the simple goals of teaching kids to read and write independently, analytically, and intelligently!
a  culture that, to borrow from the late coach John Wooden, mistakes activity for achievement
  1. Meet only when necessary; have a tangible and relevant goal that relates to students writing and reading independently, analytically, and intelligently; craft a clear plan for how to reach that goal; and make the focus of each meeting a clear step towards that goal.
  2. Teachers and students should never be asked to do busy work!
  3. See All Solutions Above 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"And you all know, security is mortals' chiefest enemy."

When I look at the pictures of the suffering sea birds in the Gulf, I see an apt metaphor. Being a good teacher in this school district forces one to feel like one of those sea birds covered in so much muck it’s impossible to fly. 
That pretty much sums up the reason for my impending departure from the district at the end of this term.
Naturally, I look around at the kids who were counting on me next year, and at the circle of chairs in my room, and I sob. I think about what I will leave behind--a solid reputation, a pretty good schedule, a strong purpose in life that allows me to sleep at night--and I sob. I think about the ease of slipping back into my routine, bumps and all, next year instead of trying something new, and I sob. I think about the few colleagues who understand me and see me as a valuable peer and good friend, and I sob. I think about losing the key to the gate near my classroom, which I finally got after years of begging, and I sob. I think about cleaning out my room and closing the door for the last time, and I sob. . . .
Then I think about what I might be missing next year:
a culture that allows middling teachers to present mind-numbing, misguided in-services designed to pander to the promoters of standardized tests and the bogus data these tests generate
a culture that uses “data” as if  that data were sacrosanct, objective, and instructive, when it is most often skewed and misleading
a culture that blithely hires sows ears and spends all its resources trying to turn them into silk purses (at great expense to those who were silk purses to begin with)
a culture where enormous class size kills the ability to offer class variety 
a culture that doesn’t understand that enormous classes will mean that either the lowest or the highest performing kids will be left behind 
a culture where so many kids who have no interest in education get to oppress, practically with impunity, anyone who dares take the enterprise seriously
a culture where rude kids don’t know what rude means
a  culture that tolerates back-sniping teachers whose professional jealousies and unchecked inadequacies ruin any hope for change
a culture where standardized testing eats into so much class time it’s really testing the testing instead of teaching and learning

a culture that is willfully blind to its tendency to defend and promote only the status quo
a culture of mediocrity and enforced enervation
a culture where isolation rather than collegiality is the route to survival
a  culture bent on moving towards teacher accountability, an ultimately meaningless pursuit since administrator and teacher standards vary so widely 
a culture that believes self-esteem is generated by empty praise instead of hard work and genuine accomplishment
a culture that can neither praise nor punish
a  culture that, to borrow from the late coach John Wooden, mistakes activity for achievement
Hmm, so why am I still sobbing?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rigor. . . . Mortis?

It’s prom night. Most of my seniors are absent, except my first-period Shakespeare students who had to turn in an annotated bibliography for the research paper due next week. I am expecting papers that compare Iago to Milton’s Satan, Iago to the Imaginary i (a math student’s impressive, if daunting, take), Othello to the nameless protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the play Othello to the libretto for Otello. I am expecting papers on Othello and the medieval Dance of Death; Othello and “blackness”; race as depicted and explored in Othello, Dutchman, and Invisible Man. I am expecting papers that compare and contrast the significance of women’s roles in tragedy and comedy as evinced in Othello, Hamlet, and 12th Night; papers that trace the development of the staging of Shakespeare’s plays; and papers that explore the roots and purposes of the music in Shakespeare’s plays. 
Though my last entry revealed the level of burnout we all face at this late date in the school year, particularly when we are still facing stacks of paper, I am actually looking forward to reading these. They will reveal what my students have accomplished after three or four years of having had the same teacher. For these students, the actual tools of scholarship are deeply ingrained--research skills, proper manuscript format, how to formulate analytical theses, how to select and analyze textual support, how to convey and respond to arguments--and now they get to have the scholar’s fun. They get to learn through research and hone their voices and their thoughts. Not only can they watch as the professional writers in the academic journals and other critical sources argue about nuances, but they are actually ready to participate in the arguments with their own points of view. This is the best any teacher can hope for.
So why, you ask, after building a Shakespeare class and a Creative Writing class (which I described at the start of my last entry), to reputable numbers--26 in the former, 36 in the latter, do I have to struggle yet again in order to keep the classes alive? Last year, we had an administrator who tried to close the Shakespeare class because the enrollment number of 26 was not high enough to meet the class “norms” (a bizarre word for class-size) that went up dramatically from the maximum 34 to anywhere from 36-43. I had to fight to keep the class open, and for my efforts, I can now look forward to reading those papers I mentioned. 
The Creative Writing class, a class that is often a class for slackers who usually don’t want to do anything but write the equivalent of "I’m alone, I’m alone, My cat, My cat," has become a serious academic class, where students generate myriad polished small pieces, two fully workshopped short stories (one 1500, one 3000 words), several poems in different poetic forms, and two author studies, where they read 1000 pages by an author of their choice and an entire collection of poetry by the poet of their choice and write New Yorker style reviews for each. All the work is designed to illuminate, support, and inspire the process of writing. Any student can go online to my class page to see exactly what is assigned all term, if clarity is what they need. But the question remains, Why’s no one signing up? What’s the problem here?
After I told my students that the classes that they seem to love might not be offered next year because numbers are so low (and frankly, I don’t see the wisdom in combining kids who selected Creative Writing with kids who selected Shakespeare as a possible solution for the low numbers; that feels like a lose-lose to me), they told me that they tagged everyone on Facebook and told them to sign up for what they described as important classes. They said several former students, now in college and some graduating, chimed in to say that these classes shaped them as thinkers, writers and as students in general. While that is nice and all, and it really does validate me enough to enable me to continue grading so much and feeling tired all the time, I still have to ask whether what should be sustaining these classes is ultimately what will kill them. 
Those who have never set foot into my class (or if they have it’s been for 10 minutes or so), say I am an “intimidating” teacher; this means some could say, I am the cause of my own problems. Am I the problem or are rigor and high standards actually the problem.  When students say, “I’m not sure I want to work that hard next year” when I ask them whether they have signed up for one of these classes, that indicates something more than just my perceived personality.
So here’s my next question: If rigor and high standards are the reason no one is signing up, why, then, does an administration, who proclaims the importance of rigor and the need for true college preparation, not wholeheartedly support keeping these classes alive at any cost? And by support, I am not talking lip-service. 

An even better question is why by their senior year in high school do students fear Shakespeare (and often poetry in general) and want to avoid such a course? The district demands all students be allowed "access" to rigorous courses. Doesn’t "access" to AP, to college, to a richer life in general begin in 9th grade? And doesn’t "access" really mean exposure to the rigors and high standards most students in more competitive schools (read schools where those in charge are not buried under mandates, mediocrity,  malaise) might be facing in most of their classes year after year? Does "access" mean reducing what we do in an English class to writing summaries and creating dioramas? 
I guess these are the real questions: Does the kind of education that will lead to a diverse and complex life matter? Is it it important that education afford one the ability to see the poetry in everything? If so, shouldn’t all students be given "access" to this kind of education, this kind of vision, starting in 9th grade? And if they are given this "access," will they still shy away from the rigors of a college prep. Creative Writing course?
      Maybe I have just answered all my other questions.