Monthly Archives: February 2011

Hope Springs in Thermals: The Future of Education

We started playing around with malapropisms in class the other day when a student of mine asked me if I found it annoying when people say things like “it’s a doggy dog world.” Mostly, I’m amused rather than annoyed, I said. I understand that if a person has misheard a word or phrase that she has never had the opportunity to see in print, that it’s easy to make the mistake. Song lyrics are this way, too, and Jimi Hendrix comes to mind: “Excuse me, while I kiss this guy” remains my personal favorite. I told the class that, years ago, I had a student who was writing about a trip to a fancy restaurant with her family where she ordered “flaming yawn.” Always on the lookout for rich connections, all of this stirred the memory of another personal favorite, the origin for which might be my own head, but I can’t be sure. In my last blog, I briefly described the ugly state of public school financing and what havoc that might be wreaking on the experience of teachers and students, and I said I remained hopeful, and now I imagine all my little hopes about the future of education dancing around in the February chill wearing long underwear and throwing snowballs at each other. Hope springs in thermals, indeed.

Let me quote myself on the current financial crisis in education, and, in particular, my school district: “I remain hopeful that somehow we will figure it out. The alternative is bleak. Something has to give.” These, I realize, are big, broad, and excruciatingly vague things to say. I wanted to put it to the test. Am I really hopeful about our chances or am I just hopeful that I’m hopeful? Am I wearing rose-colored glasses? Or worse, am I nuts? What are the “alternatives”? What gives?

This might be Pollyanna speaking, but I have difficulty believing that the public at large will allow our school system to die—and that seems to be the alternative—that if we don’t find a way to finance education in America, the institution will crumble, public schooling as we know it will go away. And this has frightening ramifications, if you believe, as I do, that a free and equitable education for our citizenry is the key to holding on to a democracy, and is a right and not a privilege. My optimistic self says that, by and large, people believe this, and finally, perhaps, the joke about the military holding a bake sale to build more weapons may someday come to fruition. And the alternative to this optimism, I think, would simply eat at my soul and make life miserable for me and those around me, my family, my colleagues, my students. So do I have any evidence that things will get better? No, not so much. However, we’ve gone through these kinds of crises before and have come out on the other end during an economic recovery, although, it seems, it’s never been quite this bad. But there’s an anecdotal piece of evidence.

Here’s a more powerful one, perhaps: while recent events in Wisconsin are frightening, I am heartened by the numbers of people, 70,000 at the state capital yesterday, who are fighting against these oppressive, misguided and disingenuous government leaders. There’s some evidence. I don’t think Scott Walker agrees that public education is the key to holding on to a democracy. Maybe he doesn’t really want to live in a democracy. I think he will lose this battle. Meanwhile my hopes are outside in thermals throwing snowballs.

People will have to come to terms with some things. Class sizes will grow and grow. Academics, in consequence, will be diluted. Electives will be lost; music, athletics, clubs, safe buildings–lost. And then when the pain becomes untenable, something will give way and folks will demand the return of those things about public education they most value. It will likely get uglier before it gets better.

A teacher friend of mine said, “This is not what I signed up for.” Yeah, me neither. I didn’t sign up for six classes of 45 students each. Again, thinking of alternatives, I don’t have any. Teaching literature and writing are the things I know—and the other things I know are not shining out as bold new occupational possibilities. And, I am (shockingly, I find) in the last stretch of a thirty-year teaching career. No, I’m in it, I think, for the long haul. I have to be hopeful and I have to have a sense of humor and I have to do what I can to survive while trying to effect change–as a hedge against despair, and, because, while it may be next to impossible to get to know them well, let alone learn their names in a year’s time or give any kind of close attention to their work, those students need me. Ah, I feel better already. I am needed. And when it begins to suck as bad as it can possibly suck, they’ll need me even more then.

It may, after all, be a “doggy dog” world that doesn’t care about education and public schools. The snow has melted. On Thursday it was gone before noon. It was rather a “wet pavement day” than a snow day. But it did get cold again afterwards, unusually cold for our banana belt valley in late February, so my little hopes had to keep their thermals on just to go out on the porch to get the mail. I’ve got to keep those guys toasty.

* * *

Postscript: hey, does anybody have any questions? Are there topics or issues you’d like me to ramble about? If so, please send word. Sometimes it’s helpful to be given an “assignment.” No guarantees, but if it’s something that I know a little bit about, I’ll give it a whirl.


Filed under Teaching

Synchronous Mutability: Ch-ch-changes

Inspired by an allusion in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I recently shared with my juniors in I.B. English two different poems, both titled “Mutability”, one by Percy Shelley and the other by William Wordsworth, and then for fun I played the Bowie song about the same subject: “Changes.” It took them awhile to catch on, even though I believe Bowie’s verse form to be one of the most masterful in all of pop music, but by the time the chorus came along they were all singing, “Ch-ch-changes!” It was lovely and funny. And now I’m thinking about how synchronous all of that was—one of those ecstatic (and spooky) moments in teaching when the theme around some central work reverberates out into our lives; it has become crystal clear that, in the lives of these students, in the life of this school, and, on a personal note, in the life of their teacher, this year is all about change.  Some of it is good, some of it is heinous, and all of it difficult.

Oh, let me count the change. The school year began with a budget shortfall of millions of dollars, which, needless to say, brought about some change. My district cut 14 days from the school year.  Kids love this.  No, not all of them do—especially when they realize they’ve lost the equivalent of three weeks of school.  Teachers hate it, most all of them, for two very sound reasons.  For one, it meant, that on top of a pay freeze, they’d experience pay reductions, which, I understand, for families with two teachers at the head of the household, might mean as much as a thousand dollars in take-home pay every month.  For another, no one has said word one about fewer duties and responsibilities.  So, we’ve taken a freeze, a reduction, we’ve lost days with students, and we’ve still got to get them through this stuff—the curriculum, standardized tests, other external assessments, college applications, graduation, forecasting, the lunch line.  And, to make things worse, it’s only going to get worse.  My understanding is that our district can expect to lose 200 teachers next fall.  Our class sizes will climb to as high as 40 to 45 kids in a room designed to fit about 25 comfortably.  Here’s a radical change over the long haul: when I began in this profession there was language in the contract to limit the number of students in an English class to 125.  Most of my English colleagues presently are responsible for about 160 kids.  Next year, it looks like the number will be closer to 240.  Holy crap; it’s the first time I’ve done the math.  I wish I hadn’t done that math.

So our district is looking at larger class sizes, less money, fewer teachers, less pay for teachers, diminished or abolished programs, and perhaps a new, less expensive schedule (the 7 period day from 1992, for example, has been proposed, and, in this way, change would mean going absolutely ass-backwards–twenty years backwards).  Our district will experience all of this while still maintaining a meaningful and rigorous program for our students.  There will be no change in that department, apparently.

I don’t know what it will be like to work in this environment, but I don’t have high hopes and frankly, I’m a little freaked out by it all.  My job is secure, being, as I am, old and all, but younger or newer teachers are downright fearful and those of us who will be left behind to steer this sinking ship are also fearful—maybe even more so.  Terrified.  This is all bad.  I thought I mentioned something in that introductory paragraph about “good” change.

My wife, 5 year-old son, and I are all moving back home to Milwaukie, the town in which my wife and I grew up—something ten years ago I thought and said I would never do.  We believe this is a “good” thing, even though the inspiration for the move, in large part, was “bad.”  Six years ago, without child and both of us gainfully employed, we took advantage of the housing boom.  Now, with child and one primary income supplemented with part time private music instruction, the boom, it appears, has taken advantage of us.  We’ve become mortgage slaves.  None of this is good.  But there’s this, the school district I work for in Milwaukie, suffering as it is through this recession, is a good school district. The grade school my son will attend—a good school.  The groceries are cheaper.  I can ride my bike to work;  hell, I could walk.  And, as sure as I was that I would never want to go back there, that I could never leave my trendy urban SE Portland digs where things are  always “happening,” I remind myself that I took advantage of a most idyllic childhood in Milwaukie and could want nothing better for my son.  Well, maybe a little bit better.  Ultimately, hard times open up some opportunities.  These opportunities appear to be good opportunities.

And I have to say that, while terrified of what it might be like to have six groups of forty-five students in my classroom that somehow I’m supposed to teach to read and write effectively, not to mention manage, I remain hopeful that somehow we will figure it out.  The alternative is bleak indeed.  Something has to give.  There may need to be a blog entry about that somewhere.  No promises.

The last line from the Shelley poem:  “Naught endures but mutability.”  And here’s one from Wordsworth: “Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear/The longest date do melt like frosty rime. . .” I can get behind both of these ideas.  And Bowie sings, “Turn and face the strain.”  Okay, that too. We get through this as best as we can.  We face it with courage, compassion, humor, and with good company, and we might just come out the other side, you know, stronger, better, faster.


Filed under Teaching

Inaugural Blog

Here it goes, for better or worse.  The impulse strikes and I’ve set up a blog.  Whatever for? I’m a writer, first of all, and I suspect that I might have a few things to say about stuff for which I have interest and experience: teaching, writing, reading, playing music, listening to music, and being a dad.  That’s a wide range of stuff, I know, and I suspect that a successful blog may need a tighter focus.  What can I say? I see this as an experiment, a flirtation, a trial run, and not as a commitment.  There’s something appealing to me about this idea, that’s all.  I hope it might be instructive or entertaining for others.  Who knows?  At any rate, welcome to Michael Jarmer’s inaugural blog.


Filed under Introductory