Tag Archives: classroom overcrowding

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Kids These Days

temper-tantrum

In my neck of the woods (Portland, Oregon) there has been some media attention paid recently to a terrible new development inside elementary school classrooms: violently disruptive children. The problem is exacerbated by an interpretation of State Law that says that a teacher can never touch a student unless that student is in imminent danger. I may have it a bit backwards or not fully correct, but I think this means that if a kid threatens to jump out a second story window, the teacher can stop the kid physically, but  if the kid threatens to throw another kid out the window, that teacher can do nothing physically to remove the threatening kid away from the threatened, or, out of the fucking room. So the reports go something like this–on a daily basis in Oregon elementary schools, kids are cursing at other kids and at their teachers, they are throwing furniture, throwing scissors, throwing chairs through windows, they are punching teachers in the stomach, they are kicking, scratching, and biting teachers, they are running wildly around the room and down the halls, they are screaming bloody murder, threatening self harm and harm to others inside crowded classrooms of over 30 children, and the teacher, if they feel other students are in danger, must do this: a classroom clear. They must move every kid EXCEPT THE OFFENDING KID out of the classroom to a safe place. You read that correctly. And, if they can remove the offending kid, they must do it in a non-physical manner, something my elementary school colleagues call “herding.”

I would like to tell you that this stuff does not happen in my school district. I cannot tell you that. In fact, at union meetings I have heard teachers talking about these very things and in one investigative report done by KGW, a local television news outlet, our district is represented in a panel of teachers. It boggles the mind. I have to say that if this were my experience as a classroom teacher, I would immediately be looking for another line of work. I’m not sure how my colleagues have the capacity to deal with this kind of disruption and danger and stress. The gig is stressful enough, as I have written about here many times, without adding to it this element of physical and emotional danger.

Questions arise: First, WTF? Then, in no particular order: who wrote this stupid law and why is it there? Why are 30 kids removed from a room when one kid causes a safety issue? How did we arrive at a place where adults cannot, acting in good conscience and to protect themselves and others, touch a child? Why don’t we have security measures that would immediately remove dangerous children from classrooms? Why don’t we have counseling staff who can deal with kids in crisis? How much educational time is lost as a result of these kinds of events? How are other kids damaged and traumatized by seeing one of their 7 year old peers flip a gasket or a beloved teacher in danger? What happens when these dangerous kindergartners are teenagers? I’m going to use a phrase that I hate because I seem to be out of steam for anything more articulate: I can’t even.

A few of these questions I might be able to answer, I fear, somewhat unsatisfactorily. In 2011, House Bill 2939 was passed prohibiting teachers from touching students unless the student was in danger of “imminent, serious bodily injury.” It was designed to prevent the restraining or isolation of special needs students in response to an increase of these kinds of reports. Okay. Of course, we would hope there would be laws protecting special needs children from abusive treatment. But clearly, the interpretation of this law seems to have tied our hands behind our back. How does this happen? It feels not too far afield to suspect that we have cast our definition of what constitutes as “special needs” pretty widely to include a whole host of aberrant behavior unrelated to any medical or psychological “special need” diagnosis. Doesn’t the kid who screams obscenities at his teacher and runs with scissors have special needs? I would say yes. But these are needs that cannot be met in a classroom with one adult and 32 eight year olds.

So the law and our paranoid response to it provides answers to some of our questions. It seems to me that the other factors that prevent us from addressing this serious problem are those of awareness, will, and money. The panel of teachers in the KGW report say that until parents get involved, nothing will change. They say most folks are unaware this occurs in grade schools. One teacher on that panel said that this has become so normalized in the school experiences of our kids that students don’t even go home and talk about it. I would venture to guess that once the community becomes aware of the problem, the will might be found to change the system, and with the will from a serious number of constituents, the political and then financial support for smaller class sizes and more counseling services for students in need will be forthcoming–and laws can be better written and better understood so as to protect and support the rights of kids to a quality education AND a teacher’s right to safeguard their classrooms and their students. In a world. One can hope. And one can do stuff. Tell people. Share that news report. Wear a Red for Ed t-shirt. Go to the State Capital Building on February 18. Write a blog post. Anything.

I’d like to talk about my own experience now to wrap things up. A facebook friend of mine posted that KGW report today, and it was one of those moments on social media where I felt compelled to say something, something that would compare my experience to my colleagues at the Elementary school and perhaps shed a little bit of secondary ed perspective on the thing. This is what I posted:

I have rarely, if ever, felt physically unsafe in my classroom. However, students these days more often seem disrespectful of the process and are more likely to be disruptive. It bugs me. Sometimes I think to myself that it’s just me, older, less patient. Other times I know that the culture has changed and young people seem less ready than ever, and needy for something I’m not prepared to give them.

No student has ever thrown a chair at me, hit me, kicked me, or bit me. Students have called me names on a few occasions, maybe walked out of the room in anger. These events are so rare that I cannot specifically name one. However, once in my career a student in my room started strangling another student. I touched that kid. I pulled his arms away from the other kid’s throat and I physically and personally escorted him down to student management. This was a long time ago. Also, long ago, a student threw a coin across the room and it hit a girl in the forehead. That kid was gone in a heartbeat. Two or three years ago, while a group of students waited in the hall for me to let them into my classroom, one student of mine, out of nowhere, without provocation, punched another kid really hard in the stomach. Again, I escorted the offender to student management and the other boy quietly recovered in the classroom. In 30 years, these are the three violent acts that have occurred in my room. And in that 30 years, in and around our building at large, every year, a small number of brawls and fistfights–in the hallways, in the lunchroom, in someone else’s classroom, somewhere on campus. These incidents notwithstanding, my school has seemed on the whole to be a safe school and I have never feared for my physical well being while at work.

But my social media comment above points to a different kind of danger. First semester, I wrote not a single behavior referral until the very last day, and that behavior was plagiarism. Nearly a third of my freshmen failed first semester English. About 8 of those students, who were mathematically close to a D grade, were given an Incomplete and a chance to make a corrective move in the next week or so. Yesterday, on the first day of the semester, I asked my 9th graders to write a letter to me about how they’re doing, how they felt about first semester, and what their goals were for second semester. In almost 45 minutes, most students could not (or would not) write more than a paragraph, a few students wrote three or four sentences, and a healthy handful (about a third, the same number of kids who failed first semester) wrote nothing at all. Many of my youngest students (14 or 15 years old) will not take academic work seriously. If they take grades seriously, they expect them, feel entitled to them, blame the teacher if grades are not to their satisfaction. Many others are above (beneath or beyond) even trying. They don’t want to work at anything. Some of them are capable, but won’t bother to use correct conventions in writing. Some of them don’t know how to write a complete sentence. Many are dismissive of reading or refuse to read, take absolute pride in not doing homework. In some classes, I am in constant competition for their attention. I compete with their phones and I compete with their friends and I compete with their utter disregard for the seriousness of learning, and sometimes I spend more time waiting for them or managing them than I do with any substantive material or content. And now and then, (thank the Universe, not this year) I have students who are not just easily distracted, uninterested, and apathetic, but downright evil. They deliberately try to hurt others and undermine the process in sneaky, devious, quiet, but nevertheless destructive ways. I spent the last two years with a gaggle of these. All of the above are experiences or moments when, while I am not in physical danger, I feel in constant emotional peril. It is exhausting. It is demoralizing. It is sometimes difficult to sense that I am making any positive headway with them at all. I often feel unequipped to protect myself and protect the students that are squarely on my side from the damage these other kids can do. And while I sometimes think, as I have said above, that it’s me, not them, I have to trust that indeed things have changed in the schoolhouse, in our community, in the culture at large. I don’t know exactly what it is, and, as I am in my penultimate year, feel I am running short of time to figure it out and fix it. Even if I had another 30 years, I feel the problem may not be solvable. I have left my phone charging in my bedroom for the better part of four or five hours now, and I realized moments ago that I have purposefully neglected to watch the State of the Union speech. And with that left turn for an ending, I’m going to do something domestic in the kitchen.

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Of English Teacher Math: Teaching 200 Students How To Write

Here are some numbers to consider for the end of the semester.  I asked 140 IB English students to turn in their logs, into which they have composed over the last 4 weeks anywhere between 20 and 30 pages of response to the readings we’ve done out of The Best American Essays of the Century. Let’s just take the lower number for shits and giggles, do a little math, and say that my IB English students turned in at least 2,800 pages of writing for me to peek at.  I also asked that same group of 140 students to write their own 1000 word essay on a topic of their choice inspired by one or more of the mentor texts from the anthology. Let’s say, that at 12 point Times and double spaced, that’s about a 3 page paper. So there’s an additional 420 pages of student work they have gifted me.  And let’s say, for a final exam, students will be writing a draft of what will become an oral presentation in the first weeks of second semester about their growth as writers during our first semester course in Creative Non-fiction.  I imagine that over the course of an 87 minute final exam that these go-getters will be able to carve up another 140,000 words, or another 420 pages of text, which brings my whopping total number of pages of student work that I must now DO SOMETHING WITH up to an impressive, daunting, fever-inducing, gut-wrenching, weep-worthy 3,640 pages!  And guess what?  Those 140 students producing all of that beautiful prose represent only 4 of my 6 classes.  What are the 60 kids in those other two classes doing for a final? Well, of course, they’re writing!  And grades are due in about a week’s time.

Hello, my name is Michael Jarmer, and I’m a complete idiot for assigning so much written work at the end of the semester.

No.  I can’t let that stand.  I would only be an idiot if I read every single word and every single page and tried to comment on all of it.  That would be ludicrous.  That would be physically, logistically, humanly impossible.  That would drive me certifiably insane and wreck my life.  So I am writing this little blog entry today to articulate finally a philosophy of teaching writing that might help my students or their parents or anyone who’s interested understand why I do what I do. It might also help colleagues in the profession, especially teachers of English, survive the math that has become the central most difficult aspect of working in an underfunded public school system.

I believe in the deepest possible way, at the core of my core, that human beings become better writers by reading and writing.  Beyond anything I could ever tell a student about their writing in the margins with my little red pen, their learning about what great writers do (and what they as emerging writers can do) will ONLY come through close attention to the very best writing they can find, and through repeated, concentrated, sustained, uber-conscious efforts to practice those moves.

You may have some questions.

What do English teachers do, then, and why do we need them? We’re tour guides, essentially.  And we all know how great the tour can be in the hands of a really great guide.  We try to be really good at that.  We model inquisitiveness and curiosity and enthusiasm about the written word. We introduce readings to young people that they would not likely ever find left to their own devices.  And we trust students to find their own way after we’ve led them down the path. There are some English teachers who cart papers home with them every weekend.  I’m not one of them.

What about bad writing or persistent errors that never get corrected?  There may be some of those.  Oh well.  When the writing REALLY matters, however, and when the reading is careful and close, those errors will diminish over time. I don’t know that in my own personal experience as a writer I ever improved as the result of some punishment meted out (in the guise of a depleted grade or a smattering of red marks) for errors I made in my writing.

What about bad writing that ends up earning a passing grade or better? This may also happen from time to time, or even often.  But this is what we have to understand.  Writing is hard.  Writing well is really hard.  Some students, to say nothing about their intelligence, struggle mightily with the written word.  We take them where they are and we push them as far forward as we can with lots of practice, experiences with masters of the craft, and lots of encouragement.

Doesn’t this make it easier for students to cheat? Because I did not read every page of those 2,800 pages in their response journals, it is highly possible that some students copied their entries verbatim directly out of another student’s log.  First of all, what a pain in the ass that would be.  And how embarrassing, too, to say to a friend, in essence, I’m a tool, I can’t do my own work, would you let me “borrow” your log?  And how embarrassing for the friend, to give in to that kind of pressure, to lower herself by giving her hard work away.  For what?  Out of what impulse?  Guilt?  Kindness? Desperation for approval?  All are shams.  The parties who collude in the cheating–they both lose.  They are both cheating themselves out of learning.  They’ve been punished already by the stunting of their brains, whether I’m able to catch them or not.  Plagiarizing an essay is exceedingly more difficult.  I make them write these babies in class.

Would I do things differently if I did not have nearly 200 students on my roster? Hell, yes.  It’s not that I believe that teacher feedback is never useful, only that it’s not the most useful, and in our current climate nearly impossible. The kind of feedback from teachers that is most helpful to a writer is the kind of feedback that’s most like a conversation.  Once upon a time I taught 125 students.  I could sit down with them and talk.  I could write them a note and I often did.  I’ve never been a fan of line-editing student work, but sitting down with a student one on one and addressing a few key issues in their writing was a real boon; or being able to write individual letters to students where I could get beyond technical issues and talk about big ideas–that was phenomenal.

My school had a visit last week from an Oregon State Legislator who represents our district.  It’s the first time that’s ever happened, at least in my sometimes fuzzy memory over 24 years of teaching.  And he wanted to chat with us about our current state of the school.  Teachers in my building shared thoughtful and sometimes carefully prepared descriptions of their professional lives.  He listened respectfully.  Most everything that was said made me sad.  And nothing he could say to us provided much comfort or hope.  I didn’t speak, but others spoke eloquently for me about concerns I share.  But what I’ve explored in this rather long blog entry, I think, is really about this:  I’ve managed to make some sound pedagogical decisions about how to grow stronger writers, but I also know in my heart that I’m not giving them the attention they deserve. I understand, coupled with the idea that students get better at reading and writing primarily by reading and writing, that if I had the time to look at their work more closely and have meaningful conversations with them about that work, things would be much better, perhaps infinitely so.   Class size matters.  Student load matters. It matters, if not immediately and measurably in student performance, most definitely and palpably in the work environment or conditions for the teacher.  I don’t read all or even half of what my students write because it would not be humane to expect me to do so.

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