Tag Archives: difficult work

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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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: November 29, 2017

Photo on 8-21-13 at 11.50 AM

This is an old picture of me, but appropriate today, I think.

I am feeling under the weather. But I am not so far gone as to have to call in sick. I need to keep resting, continue with my abstinence from adult beverages for a couple more days, try not to worry.

I got some paperwork from the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System, a request for benefit estimates for a possible “ultimate” year, which, possibly, might be next year, hence, the title of this blog series. Even though the years-of-experience ticker on the member website says I won’t be eligible until July of 2020, next year will most def be my 30th year as a public servant in our glorious school system, in one district, in one school the entire time. So I’m a little confused. Because I’ve only been thinking about it in the last couple of years, and only until recently somewhat seriously, I realize there are things I don’t understand.  For example, I don’t know what it means to “buy back” months or years of experience. All I know about that right now is that doing such a thing, “buying back,” would allow me to retire when it seems appropriate that I be able to–after 30 years. I don’t know exactly what or why I’d be “buying back.” And I have no idea how that would influence my bottom line–so I’ve got some work to do. I’m going to fill out this form and ship it off and see what happens.

I’m not ready to stop working. I’m not ready to stop teaching, even. But I think I will be ready after 30 years to at least step away from the high school classroom, or at least, to step back for another perspective, a perspective that is not responsible for all 170 to 200 kids that stream through that classroom door on a quasi-daily basis. I’m gaming to work with adults, or, to work with kids in a completely different way, a way that does not include grading them. You know, if I didn’t have to GRADE human beings and their intellectual output, I could work another decade–maybe. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Teaching is hard. I’ve made to-do lists that were pages long. I did that today. I’ve had this image bouncing around in my head since our last day of staff development right after those conferences I wrote about last time, the image of juggling plates. So today I made a list, not so much a to-do list, but a list of various plates I’m currently juggling. Wanna see?

I am juggling the plates of what seems like a half a dozen new school-wide improvement initiatives: 10/10 attendance, hall sweeps, notebook checks, guardian angels, the Danielson framework, student growth goals and the resultant necessity of gathering data, professional learning cohorts or communities or whatever that letter stands for, and affinity groups, teaching for equity and justice.

I am juggling the plates of 50 essays about a poem by Seamus Heaney, 100 quest narratives and their accompanying reflections, a few dozen late or incomplete final assessments on To Kill A Mockingbird, two letters of recommendation, the supervision of an extended essay on Beowulf from an IB diploma candidate, and some posters featuring the inner workings of the mind of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. And I am juggling the plate of a commitment to do work at work and not at home.

I am juggling the plate of a thousand and one meetings: one yesterday across town that I missed, one this morning, one this afternoon, one this evening that I missed, and one tomorrow morning. And while I’m juggling the meeting plates I do not claim that any of these plates should not be in the air, ad nothing to my juggling endeavors, are worthless or meaningless. No, they are all necessary plates to juggle, important plates to juggle, only impossible, with the student work plates and the school improvement plates, impossible to keep in the air.

So I am feeling under the weather. I’m taking medication for high blood pressure. I am writing this and listening to groovy music by George Harrison’s son, Dhani. I am working out some demons. I am trying to put down some of these plates. I am trying to envision a day when I can continue to do meaningful, life-giving work without the feeling that I am, in the words of an old teacher-ed professor of mine, merely an intellectual worker bee. I have sent in an application for a facilitator training program around Courage and Renewal work, which you can read about elsewhere in my blog archives. And I am sending a form to the people at PERS. The future looks bright, I want to say, despite the current darkness. And despite the plate juggling. It’s dangerous but joyous work, this teaching and aging. Onward!

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: August 29, 2017

putnam

One of my favorite words in the English language is the word “penultimate.” It’s a great word. And this school year I will likely overuse it. Consider yourself forewarned.

Today began the (sort of) first day of the (maybe) penultimate school year of my teaching career. I say “sort of” in light of the fact that this typical first day for teachers (the week before students arrive) was preceded by one full day of staff development the week before, and then almost three days of professional development the week before that. So today was “sort of” my first day back after this exceedingly short summer, shortened by snow day make-ups on the front end and lots of bonus development on the other end. And I say “maybe” penultimate because it probably is but may not be; hence, the ambiguity.

But let me first tell you a little bit about how this day began, and you’ll have to help me to believe that it’s indicative of nothing, because it was, sorry to say, a shitty first day, or at least, a shitty beginning to a first day.

To wit: I have made a personal commitment to bicycle commute as much as I can this year without sacrificing my morning meditation ritual. To facilitate that new commitment I set my alarm clock a whole 20 minutes earlier from where it has been set for as many years as I can remember (2), and I sprung out of bed this morning to enthusiastically meet my new commitment. But when I got downstairs I could first smell and then I saw the horrendous mess our old dog made in the middle of the night–all over the hardwood floors.  Needless to say, I skipped morning meditation. Instead, I cleaned up runny dog shit and mopped floors while cursing.

I made it out the door on time and I did manage to climb on top of the bicycle. I didn’t bike nearly as much this summer as I wanted to. The ride up those two hills was kind of painful. Luckily, and for this reason NOT bicycle commuting is pretty much inexcusable, it’s only about a ten minute ride to work. Mercy of mercies.

I am happy to report that there was no shit to clean up at the school house, so the day could only improve. And mostly, it did. Here’s a list.

  • We met nine new teachers to our building this morning. I think it’s been ten years since we brought on as many new teachers. We had some fun watching one of our administrators play Jimmy Fallon’s Would You Rather game with the newbies.
  • Our principal reviewed for us the various driving forces of our work, namely, the the vision, the mission, the WHY, the HOW, and the WHAT. She told us an interesting story about growing up in Alaska, the point of which, I think, was to illustrate to us how she arrived at her own personal WHY for the work that she does, and how that manifests itself in her commitment to us and to students. It was one of the few times she has ever spoken about her life in this kind of public way. I appreciated that.
  • Another one of our administrators brought us (and all of the new kids) up to speed about why the NIKE corporation is helping us and how. There was the grant. There was the implementation of a thing called AVID. There was a rebranding and new art that turned an ominous armored horseman wielding a lance and charging forward into battle into the more protective metaphor of a simple shield, using the now ubiquitous solidarity slogan of I AM before the abbreviation of our school name. It’s clear now why they preferred the abbreviation to the full deal. As we are named after a dude and not a place, it’s easier perhaps for everyone to identify as RP. I am RP. I am not, necessarily, figuratively or literally, a dude named Rex Putnam.
  • And finally, our Jimmy Fallon administrator came back on to lead us into a deep discussion of what is perceived by our leadership and most of the teachers in the building as one of our biggest problems as a school: student absenteeism. How does it affect us, as teachers? How does it impact student success? Why does it occur? What causes it? What can we do about it? All worthwhile points for discussion and inquiry. No closure possible. No closure expected. All of us are likely frustrated by a general sense about this serious problem that we lack agency to make a difference. Too many variables out of our control. We have our classrooms, our spaces, our attitudes, the way that we express to our charges that we want them there, that we will do our best for them, that we care about their lives.
  • And then back to our rooms for a half day of individual preparation. For me, that meant getting my computer back, getting my speakers hooked up, listening to music, cleaning, moving the tables and chairs into place after getting them unstuck from the freshly and beautifully waxed floors, looking at a syllabus or two, recycling some old crap, having a little lunch with a couple of colleagues, helping my teacher friend across the hall adjust her crazy desk, learning about the Hood to Coast relay race from another teacher friend, uncovering the mysteries of two missing English teachers (one totally explicable and the other totally not), and then finally, getting back on my bicycle for a ride home in 100 degree heat. I’m not joking about that. It was 100 degrees out.

I will call that a day.

The first day. Sort of.

Of the penultimate school year of my teaching career. Maybe.

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Letter to a Colleague in Her Second Year of Teaching

 

class-size

Dear Friend,

I don’t pretend to be able to advise you, but I can tell you what I have done to ensure that I do not become a casualty of the oftentimes insurmountable and sometimes impossible demands of the profession. In your second year of teaching, if you find yourself in a perpetual state of exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, always behind, despite the fact you might be working at home every single day of the week and many more hours on the weekend, and if you find yourself on top of all that feeling under-appreciated and sometimes deliberately undermined by the people you are trying to help, perhaps you might try this:

Stop it.

Take care of yourself.

If there are things you love doing, activities or hobbies that feed your soul, make sure you’re doing them. If there are people that you love to be with, make sure you are spending time with them. Is there a book you’d love to read? Read it. Would you like to write a book or a poem? Do that. Listen to music. Dance. Learn how to play an instrument, or give yourself permission to start practicing an instrument you know and have neglected. Write a song. Go to the movies. Plant a garden. Craft something beautiful, whatever that may be. Go on hikes in the woods. Do things you love and do them often.

Realize, that in order to do these things, you will have to work less or not at all at home. You will feel guilty about it and that guilt will haunt you for awhile. Eventually though, doing that thing you love, being with those people you love, reading or writing for yourself, listening, dancing, playing, or allowing yourself to do or experience whatever brings you joy, these things will make you feel happy. And I’d argue that a happy teacher that protects herself and her time away from the job is infinitely more effective than an embittered and exhausted teacher who is always grading papers at home to provide substantive feedback that students often won’t follow. Your job then is about trying to make each moment you spend in the schoolhouse, with and without students, your very best work.

These kinds of things sustained me for 26 years, or, more accurately, after I figured it out in the first five or six years of my career, they have sustained me until now. Will they sustain me for another four years? Lately I have had some doubts about this. I have fought against cynicism and struggled against the idea that my last years in the profession have to be hard. I’m trying to think about ways to achieve some extra tenacity and to enhance those things and discover new things that will sustain me. I try to be reflective about and remember what drew me to teaching in the very first place, and I am savoring the joyful moments I have with my charges and with my colleagues whenever they occur–and they do still occur–on a daily basis. I am confident I will be successful one way or another and I will make it 4 more years. And in large part, I will be able to sustain myself because I am protecting my time away so that I might drum, sing, dance, write, read, and be with my friends and family. You, my friend, however, have a longer road to travel–28 more years; and that’s kind of scary if you are feeling in your second year the way I have felt in my 25th and 26th.

You might find you have to leave, either to do something else completely or to find a place where you might be able to affect some significant change. What’s clear to me is how much you care absolutely about the work of a teacher. It’s also clear to me that it would be a shame to lose you. Our young people need you and your colleagues need you. No one would blame you, though, for making the decision to bail that so many young people in the profession are making. Everybody understands that the odds are stacked against you, that teaching in this day and in this climate is a Sisyphean labor. But maybe, as counter-intuitive as it might be, if you take care of yourself first, you might find that you have the energy and the drive to work inside the profession toward a day when public school teachers are not asked to do the impossible, are not expected to be super human, are compensated fairly for the work that they do. You may see that day, and it would have been worth the wait.

Until then, I encourage you to hang on–but understand completely if you cannot.

Sincerely,

 

 

Michael Jarmer

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#142: This School Year Has Not Been, Thus Far,

snake_dove

On this second day of National Poetry Writing Month, compliments of the prompt for the first day on the http://www.napowrimo.net website, a poem of negation, a poem that describes a thing in terms of what it is not:

This School Year Has Not Been, Thus Far, 

soft and cuddly,
a baby blanket;
warm and inviting,
the embrace of a friend;
easy, easy like
a Sunday morning
or any number of
other schmaltzy
but irresistible
Lionel Richie tunes;
a slow dance with
Gillian Anderson;
a romp, a joy ride,
a ticket to paradise,
a frolic, a jaunt,
a walk in the park.
Three quarters
of the way through,
it can only get better,
I tell myself,
hopefully, not only
through its cessation,
its culminating
conclusion, but
rather, through its rally,
its redemption, its
hidden possibility,
its potential to be
not quite the sucker
puncher it has proven
to be thus far.

Because the alternative
to hope is despair
and I don’t play that game;
I am armed to
the teeth against it
and I refuse to go out
kicking and screaming.

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Of Fatherhood: The Most Difficult Job Ever Invented

Outside of motherhood, that is.  The way I see it, the three most difficult jobs ever invented, in this order, are motherhood, fatherhood, and teaching in an underfunded public school.  I’ve taken on two out of three.  I find fatherhood exceedingly difficult and this perturbs me.  Whose big idea was it in the first place, inventing fathers?  They’re inefficient.  They’re inconsistent. They don’t know what they’re doing most of the time. They’re trapped in patterns of behavior or responses to behavior that betray their better selves and butt up against what they believe.  They allow 7 year olds to the get the better of them. Some fathers have three college degrees and still–the 7 year olds get the better of them. They can be even-keeled, relatively mellow individuals, and be put often in a state of utter frustration, moral or emotional devastation, and sometimes blind fury–by a 7 year old.

Why is this?  Why can’t it be easier? And here’s the creepy part of it.  Growing up in the world, having been a 7 year old once themselves, perhaps, having become teens, young adults, and  men, accumulating years and years and years of being fathered and watching fathers, either they don’t remember or they never see the kind of difficulty I’m speaking about.  And no one ever discusses it.  Not once did I ever hear my father or my older brothers say about fatherhood, “Man, this is hard, maybe the hardest thing ever.”  I think, if someone would have said that to me, I would have listened, and maybe I would have done some studying over the subject. It’s like a kind of conspiracy–one that was perhaps crucial to the evolution and survival of the species, because, if fathers talked openly to other potential fathers about how difficult the job is, no one would ever take it up. That would be the end of us.  I guess I’m glad my grandfather never had the opportunity to tell my dad how difficult fatherhood had been for him before he keeled over mowing the lawn and died. I might not be here today to have such difficulty being a father.

I recently blogged about a project I’m participating in with my students to follow Benjamin Franklin’s lead to become, by conscious, deliberate effort, morally perfect.  It’s not going well for me.  And TRANQUILITY, number 11 on Franklin’s list, is the virtue that I find most severely lacking this week, especially in relation to–actually only in relation to–fatherhood.  I want to go one day without losing my cool with the resident 7 year old.  One day would be good.  It’d be a start. Listen, I am not a hot head.  Rarely do I get hot headed.  Only in the realm of fatherhood and in the presence of the resident 7 year old do I get hot headed.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t regret becoming a father.  Regret is a fool’s game. And despite the fact that my son is, for the most part, the only one I get physically and verbally angry at, I love him more than any other human being I have ever loved.  When it is good, I can find myself weepy with happiness at his beauty, his wit, his curiosity about the world, his budding bilingualism, his artistic streak, his lovely singing, his rare but heart melting tenderness. When it is  good, it’s really good (and first, I must confess, that it is good 80% of the time, and I’m sure that compared to many fathers on the planet I’ve got nothing to complain about); but when it is not good, it is bad, bad enough to bring a grown and relatively happy man to despair.  That despair is temporary; it passes–but it is about the most awful feeling I know and I wish there was a cure.  To my credit, perhaps, the reason I despair sometimes is simply because I give a shit.  I don’t want to be so lackadaisical about fathering as to become permissive, or to relegate my parenting to television and video games, or to simply walk away from the oppositional and sometimes nasty resident 7 year old, or to be oblivious, uncaring or dismissive about my own anger .  At bottom, and most terrifying, is the fear that the lesson won’t take, that he’ll become resentful, that the opposition will grow, that his teenage years will be just as difficult if not more so. This is a trap, too, I know, and I try diligently not to fall into it.

I have worked with teenagers every day of my real working life now for about 25 years.  It happens that sometimes they get under my skin, make me lose sleep, disturb my tranquility, make me angry, but it is rare, especially in comparison to the challenges presented by the resident 7 year old.  So, I take that as a sign that every year fatherhood will get easier and easier.  But I don’t have to live with the teenagers under my charge–so maybe it would be totally different and equally difficult if we were under the same roof on a permanent basis.  That’s not a happy thought.  It’s all relative, right? And most of it is dependent upon the kid and the family and the happiness quotient of both.  In the end, I imagine that all of this is the stuff that every parent and every father deals with to lesser or greater degrees, but most don’t talk about it, they keep it mum, they don’t let on, they put on the peachy-keen mask.  Parenting is hard, fatherhood is hard.  As is everything that is worthwhile doing, I suppose. I know I can’t be the perfect parent.  I just want to be better.  But I want it to get easier, too, which is, in a way, lame.  I’d prefer it to get easier than to have to develop new skills for the difficult stuff. Somebody, tell me it gets easier, or, tell me I will get better at this most challenging work.

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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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