Monthly Archives: December 2017

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 9, 2017

I realize now that it might be possible to misunderstand the title of this blog series. I just want to make clear right out of the gate that our narrator is not talking about his penultimate year on the planet. Nope. He’s pretty healthy, save for some high blood pressure (which he is working to alleviate), so he certainly has more than another year to live! Phew! Glad we got that out of the way. No, with “penultimate,” he’s referring (why am I writing about myself in the third person?) to the possible or potential year before his last year as a teacher in a public high school classroom. In other words, he may retire soon. And he’s being deliberately wishy-washy and vague. Is he sure? Mostly. Can he envision putting it off? Yes. If the circumstances are right, he could see very well putting it off. Maybe the title of the series should be Diary of an English Teacher in His Possible Penultimate Year. Peter Percival’s Pet Pig Named Porky Loved Pie. Anyone?

All right then. This is what I really want to talk about today.  I had a conversation yesterday with a student that blew my mind, and not in a good way. Here it is, quite simply. In my English 10 class, we’re reading Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey. A student, at the end of the class, turned the book over and looked at the back cover. He saw something there that surprised him; no, he was shocked. He came up to me and he said, “Mr. Jarmer, is this book really worth $16?” I answered in the affirmative without a lot of thought. He couldn’t really be surprised by this, could he? Then he said, “Do you mean, Mr. Jarmer, that if I lose this book, I will have to pay $16 to replace it?” Again, I answer in the affirmative. He’s incredulous. “No way. There’s no way this book is worth $16.” Afterwards, I tell him some secrets, such as, if he were to buy a brand new hard cover first edition from the bookstore, he’d pay upwards of $30 or $40. His jaw drops. “Who would pay $40 for a book?” Well, I say, I have. Many, many times. Sometimes a lot more. I tell him how much I spent on my Folio editions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He appears to be absolutely blown away by my stupidity. And I am absolutely blown away by his . . . underestimation of what a book might be worth.

I realized some things. There are billions of young people out there who have never ever in their life purchased a book. So of course, how would they know the value of a book, monetarily speaking? Not only are there billions of young people out there who have never bought a book, there are other multitudes of young people who have never checked a book out of the library, have never attempted to read a book that was not assigned to them. And there are scads of young people, I know, who manage through years of schooling somehow to avoid reading ANY of the books that have been assigned to them, who might be even proud of the fact. So there is an epidemic, I think, among young people, of book ignorance and book devaluation. Not only have they avoided reading anything of substance, they have no idea and no interest in finding out what a book is worth. And I’m not really talking about kids whose level of literacy precludes them from reading. I’m talking about the literate illiterate. Kids who can but don’t.

It’s painful to think about what they are missing. They’re not all lost causes, though. I read as a young person what was assigned to me, but I was not a reader. After my homework was done, I spent all my free time listening to music, playing music, and if I read I was reading about music, and I spent a lot of time with the high school theater department. I did not read books. I did not really become a reader until I was about 19. But then I became a fiend for reading. Not a voracious reader (I was slow), but an enthusiastic, close reader. And that’s when I began also to take myself seriously as a writer. But as an adult, I had friends who were perfectly literate who only started reading seriously in their 30s. So again, this boy who couldn’t believe that a book was worth $16 may one day start reading.

I feel kind of shitty. I see it, as part of my gig, that I must try to inspire students to read, to instill a desire to read. How do you DO that? Well, in part, you do it by modeling (you can’t help it) your own enthusiasm about the words on the page. That works to a degree, maybe even to a large degree. But I know that one of the other ways, maybe a more effective way, to inspire readers is by giving them choices about WHAT they read. This is a no brainer. They will want to read more when given opportunities to find the kinds of books that speak to them. Why do I feel shitty? It’s been a long, long time since I found myself in a situation where I felt free to give students choices. The curriculum has become less flexible. The scope and sequence of most of the classes I teach require certain books to be taught. When the district spends thousands of dollars to adopt a new text, there’s an obligation to teach that text. When the district emphasizes and/or mandates the sound idea that teachers not work in isolation, that they plan together and create common assessments, to look at data that will inform their teaching, there’s just simply less room for student choice. Or at least that’s how it feels. I don’t think that it’s true. If more of my colleagues were committed to student choice, it’d be an easy fix. I feel a little bit alone. I feel a little bit sad that my teaching is maybe not as progressive as it once was. When I was a new teacher they basically just gave me a room and said GO! A part of me pines for that kind of freedom again.

Meanwhile, the question is: $16 for a bloody book? And my response, falling on deaf ears: the worth of a book is immeasurable, invaluable, priceless. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

In closing, and in a completely different vein, because teaching kids to love reading is not the only thing I’m thinking about today, the furnace is down. It’s cold in the house. We got the obligatory Yuletide tree, and today would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. First birthday without Mom. First Christmas and New Year without Mom. My mother, who read very little until her later years, and who preferred raunchy romances, even in her 80s, over anything literary, nevertheless, encouraged me as a reader and writer. Cheers to the memory of Mom and to the promises and riches of reading.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 5, 2017

Photo on 12-5-17 at 4.01 PM

And now for something completely different.

I’ve been doing this “Penultimate Year” series now since August, and typically post about once a month, but today the urge to scribble arrived for the second consecutive day.

Today, the day after my birthday, felt more like a birthday. I mean, I celebrated a little bit last night after that last blog entry with a martini (I know, on a Monday!) and then I put together some new vinyl storage boxes for my ever expanding record collection and by the time I went to bed after spinning the new Rostam album and reading a chapter in Virginia Woolf, I felt pretty groovy. Writing works that way for me. It’s therapeutic. If something is weighing me down, I turn to words and sentences and paragraphs. Had I not written about yesterday’s woes, there would have been no martini, no record boxes, no music, no reading. But I like to write as well when there’s something to celebrate. As I was saying, today felt more like a birthday.

I’ll work backwards. My fourth period sophomores today were really sweet human beings. They can be silly, but they are respectful and kind to me and to others, often are appreciative of my efforts, seem genuinely more engaged in the process, happier and less cynical, and today they sat quietly and read for about 40 straight minutes. Somehow the cat got out of the bag, and they sang me a rousing round of happy birthday. A few of them are struggling academically, but none of them are using that as an excuse to derail the rest of us and they know, I hope, that if they need help, they can get it.

My third period prep was spent mostly prepping, but I had the opportunity to sit down with a union representative as part of a “listening tour” in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations, and I got to talk with a colleague from the district about the good, the bad, and the ugly. That felt validating. It felt good to tell her how really consistently awesome it feels to work in this building and with this staff, but it was also helpful, having scribbled my fury the night before, to clearly articulate the challenges: not enough time, never enough time, the battle between preparation and grading, and finally, how difficult it is to work when students are actively trying to prevent you from working, or how difficult it is to feel responsible for young people who refuse to take any responsibility for themselves.

My second period and first period I will talk about together. In these two classes of IB Senior English, I feel that if this were my job, my only job, working with kids like these on material like this, I could work until I died. There’s so much joy, so much good humor, so much interest, so much intellectual fire, so much willingness to grapple with big, difficult ideas, that it almost always feels like play to me. We read a selection from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for starters. What could be more fun than that? And then we dove into the genius of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where we talked in one period about this exquisite and close reading our narrator does of a novel by one of her contemporaries, only to realize at the end (spoiler alert) that she was just making it up the entire time! There’s no such contemporary! There’s no such novel! Why did she do that?!! And of course we discover that it’s absolutely intentional and absolutely a perfect choice for her purposes. In the other period the reveal was made right out of the gate, but it didn’t make the conversation any less lively or engaged. And in both periods, reading out loud the opening passage of the last chapter, I felt the goose bumps rise (and like to think that this was a collective experience) when Woolf speculates most presciently and profoundly about the unity of mind that occurs when the female part of the male brain, and the male part of the female brain are in harmony and peace with one another. The androgynous mind, the incandescent mind: necessary for a work of genius–along with the money and a room of one’s own.

It’s pure joy to work with this group. It’s not that none of them have issues. It’s not that none of them are struggling. A few of them are frustrating because of poor attendance or a sloppy work ethic, but they walk around with a more mature version, a less disruptive version of what their younger counterparts exhibit. And I can handle these kids with more equanimity, even though I still lose sleep about them sometimes. Generally speaking, I feel so much gratitude to be able teach this course and feel a little bit guilty that all my colleagues don’t have this privilege, and sad when sometimes a colleague of mine, for a variety of reasons, loses a likewise beloved class. I know I would be at a loss if I couldn’t teach my Seamus Heaney, my Virginia Woolf, my Toni Morrison, my Hamlet, my Beckett, and with such a receptive, respectful, lovely group of kids. One of them walked into class today, having last seen me on Friday during our last meeting, and he said, Jarmer, man, I missed you. I think he was being sincere. My heart was full.

And Beth Russell, the greatest substitute teacher that ever was, gave me a birthday jar of pepper jelly, and Bev Whiting, the nicest human being to ever inhabit a library, wished me a happy birthday a day late. And when I got home, there was a new pair of Slackies in the mailbox–you know, slacks that feel like jammies. After yesterday’s shitty day, today was nearly perfect. I am well. Everything is good.

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 4, 2017

Photo on 12-4-17 at 7.26 PM

It’s a Monday and it’s my birthday. None of my students knew and I didn’t bother to tell them. It was a rough day. Last night, I stayed up too late. This morning, and all day really, I was suffering as a result. My cold’s getting better, I think, or, at least, no worse. But what made the day especially challenging, on top of the fatigue, was the growing realization that my students are not ready for prime time, cannot or will not do certain things that seem to me kind of no brainers, hence: they were really difficult to teach today.

I’d like my sophomores to take more responsibility for their own learning. I’d like my sophomores to be able to have conversations with each other about important things. I’d like them to be interested in what they’re doing. I’d like them to be present, to engage fully, to work hard, to monitor their own behavior. They want none of the above. Let me restate: most of them want none of the above. Most of them are either unwilling or unable to do any of these things. As long as I’ve been doing this gig, I feel like I’ve never really mastered how to teach them to do this stuff. It’s like this: they need to be taught how to be: how to be civil, how to be interested in other human beings, when to speak and when to shut their mouths and listen carefully; they even need to be taught (apparently) when it’s the appropriate time to go to the bathroom. And again, I’m not speaking about all of them, but I am speaking about a large enough number of them so as to make three periods in a row with sophomores today feel almost like a wasted day. Is it just that they’re 15 or 16 years old? I know that, partly, yes, that’s the culprit. In large part it’s also a “boy” thing. If I think about every single kid that was making my life difficult today, with a few exceptions, I’m thinking about a boy. They can’t sit still. They can’t take direction. They don’t read. They don’t do homework. They don’t take responsibility. They’re totally self-absorbed. You call them on a disruptive behavior and they look at you like you’re crazy. What!? they say. Or, that wasn’t me. Or, you’re treating me unfairly. It is infuriating. I have to remind myself again and again, (almost impossible to do in the moment), that they will grow out of it and most of them will be okay, will grow into those characteristics I listed above, and that I should just lighten the hell up. They’ll make it.

But many will not.

Over the last few weeks, my department mates and I have been agonizing over what to do about our seniors who enter their last year of high school short the English credits they need for graduation. If they haven’t taken a credit recovery class, summer school or some such band-aid approach, kids who have failed one or more English classes over the course of their high school years find themselves taking LOTS of English as seniors–sometimes two classes at once. And because we are loath to put seniors in classes with freshmen and sophomores, and because we have a limited list of things to take for seniors, they end up inappropriately placed, for example, in College Writing (WR 121). Sure, let’s take kids with a history of failing English classes and put them in a college level English course! It’s ridiculous, especially if the teacher of this class is concerned about maintaining his level of expectation for all the kids in the room, not diluting in any way. The kids placed in this class to make up for lost credits will most likely fail and it will bring them no closer to graduating. The English department dilemma, we thought, was about WHAT courses we’re offering, but I think we should have been talking about WHY so many kids are failing.

I have sophomore boys who come to class habitually late. They come without having done any homework. They come without pencils. They come without pens. Even if they have a pencil or a pen, they come without any paper to write on and they don’t have their composition notebooks. They don’t have the book we’re reading. They have no sense of agency or purpose. They see no value in the process. They see no potential in themselves to change direction. And these are the habits they bring with them through their schooling and these are the kids who will be short of earning enough credits to graduate.

I asked one such student today, in exasperation, trying not to be didactic or sarcastic, if he knew why we were here. He said what he thought I wanted him to say, and just maybe, he believed it: we’re here to get an education. Okay, there’s a start. I asked him if he felt like he was getting an education. He said, not here. Not in English. Okay, fair enough. And I’m thinking, I wonder, you without pen or pencil, you without notebook or paper, you without book, you who are mostly absent and when you’re not absent you’re late, I wonder why you don’t feel like you’re getting an education here. At some point, he or his buddy said something like this: we don’t learn anything in English! We just read and write and talk! Never mind that the teacher has given you a list of thought provoking essential questions. Never mind that the teacher has tried to be super explicit about why we do what we do, about the value of story, about the necessity of hearing from other perspectives, about empathy, about the urgency of being able to articulate critical thought in speech and in writing, about the dangers to us in the absence of these things. This boy was absent that day, I guess. I delivered the little mini-lecture, and he was somewhat receptive. But it’s hard to imagine him turning things around, even though I know that that’s part of my job.

At the lunchroom table today, my friends Richard and Jack and Brad and I were talking about these things and wondering if we sounded like a bunch of grumpy old men. Yeah, we probably sounded like that. We asked the question, are we in a groove or in a rut? Are kids any different today than they have ever been, or is it JUST US? How good do you have to be to love every kid and to communicate to every kid that you are on their side and believe they can be successful? How do we balance, or should we balance, kids feeling good about themselves with the fact that hard work and persistence and failure are the very stuff of learning and of life. Our superintendent and our vice principal are very keen to talk about drop outs as “push outs” instead, shouldering all the responsibility for failing students squarely on the backs of teachers and the institutions for which they work. For many of us, this does not sit well. It’s too much to bear. It’s true that there are many students who are not served well by our schools. They need something else. They need something we are not prepared or equipped to give them. But there is no other alternative and here we are, between a rock and a hard place, all things to all people, trying to do what’s right, trying to keep it together, wondering why Johnny can’t or won’t read, wearing our hearts on our sleeves, rejecting and resisting burnout with every fiber of our being.

All right. That’s out. Time to celebrate my birthday.

 

 

 

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