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.

7 Comments

Filed under Teaching

7 responses to “Synchronous Mutability: Ch-ch-changes

  1. Drew

    Well put, my friend. Personally, I am not very optimistic about the coming years. In the past I have always shared in Bowie’s idea of “face the strain”; but, I am having great difficulty doing that today. I don’t know what it will be like in the coming years, but my imagination takes me down horrific corridors. It is not what I signed up for.

    I did enjoy reading this very much. Thanks! By the way, there is a widget you can insert on your blog that allows readers to subscribe to it.

  2. Thanks, Drew! I have inserted a widget.

  3. That could very well be the best second blog post and first non-test blog post I’ve come across in a long while. Thank you…and I agree and I wish you well in our old digs.

    — Your somewhat anonymous sound guy from the early 80s

  4. Thank you, Sir Anonymous Sound Guy!

  5. Laura Pelofske

    This sounds very scary. I personally remember being student #36 in a classroom and almost not being able to take the class, but we managed to get permission. We were so crammed in those little classrooms! I’ve long admired your creativity and ability to adapt to each unique classroom full of kids to get the most out of them. Your involvement of the students in their own learning process was something I treasured and rarely experienced otherwise.

    Milwaukie is not a bad place to be! There are some good houses out there. Plus, you’re still 10 minutes from “happening.”

  6. Mark Morley

    Holy crap! I had no idea that schools were making cuts this deep. Is it like this all over Oregon right now, or is Milwaukie in particularly bad shape for some reason?
    I was always a good student and performed well academically. In college I loved the huge class sizes (500-1000 was not uncommon) because I liked the anonymity. But I realize now, that even for someone like me who performed well in a faceless environment, there were serious costs. In my case it was a failure to connect with someone who could help me to evaluate myself–my interests, abilities, achievements and liabilities–and pursue vocational pathways accordingly. I don’t have anything other than anecdotal “proof” to support my conjecture, but I think sometimes all it requires is someone to be there at the right moment to celebrate a young person’s achievement and to explore, perhaps, a budding but unexamined interest, and new possibilities are opened for that individual–possibilities that are aligned with deep-seated interests and emotional energy.
    Enlarging classes to 40 or 45 students makes it that much harder for teachers to be that catalyst. Yet with increasing isolation of young people from their elders, due to technological distractions, changes in family size and work obligations, and other challenges, teachers are becoming increasingly vital in this role at the same time their influence is diminishing. It amazes me how many problems we create for our young people without fully comprehending the burdens that we thereby place on our educators with the vague assumption that they can and will solve them. That, or be damned for failing to do so.
    Thanks for writing this blog, Michael. It has made me think about education in fresh terms and makes me appreciate, more than ever, the efforts of our dedicated educators.

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