Tag Archives: education

#74: The American English Teacher is Worried about the Burnout of His Colleagues

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Perhaps, they love teaching and learning.
And while they may not love children
just because they’re children,
they love the idea of helping young
people reach their full potential,
navigate the waters of young adulthood,
use their minds well, think about important
things, become more humanely human.
It’s all noble, noble, and good.
And yet, something is amiss,
something is afoul, something is rotten
in the state of the classroom
when good teachers–when the best
teachers–consider leaving the profession
or at least leaving the public high school
because they are demoralized, defeated,
angry, and tired. Especially those coming
late to the profession, who may have
everything together except for the fortitude
of a twenty-something, these folks,
who can never retire, really, not in the usual
sense, find the forces against them
greater than their capacity to soldier on,
from the gigantic class sizes, a culture
often antithetical to intellectual work,
the impossibility of knowing students
in a way that could really make an impact
on their learning and their lives, to
the top-down and corporate driven
standards and standardized tests,
one set after another, always different
but always the same, interrupting and
displacing what good teachers do best.

And of course the best teachers
often find these things under their skin,
preventing them from sleep–
and it’s not because they’re obsessive
but because they care deeply.
But at some point they decide
perhaps that they care more
about their own health and sanity
than about the schoolhouse.
And this makes perfect sense–
but losing our best teachers is bad for schools
and bad for kids and bad for democracy.
And it’s bad for me–I will miss them
when and if they go, those who have
enriched my life and my teaching
beyond all reckoning, whose energy
and spirit and humor have prevented
in me the very burn they experience now
that makes them want to leave.

I’m not burned-out, in part, because,
despite all the issues that make
the job more difficult than it should be,
sometimes impossibly so,
I like the work far more often
than I hate the work, am happy more
often than I am despondent, and
because I have made compromises
to protect myself; but also in part
because I can see the light at the end
of the proverbial tunnel, am getting
close to this strange thing called
retirement of which the elders often speak,
and perhaps, if and when my
colleagues move off before I do,
these are the things that will
keep me going until my final
and penultimate
high school graduation.

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Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching

Of Being Tired of Writing About Teaching

I think, at least for now, I’ve exhausted my brain and my “pen” regarding teaching, issues of public schooling, educational crisis, education reform. I know I will come back to it. It’s inevitable. But for the time being I feel like anything I have to say now will be a repeat of something I have said earlier and I run the risk of sounding like a broken record. To sum up: teaching hard, class-sizes too big, public schools good, underfunding public schools bad, standardized testing bad, intrinsic motivation good, extrinsic motivation not as good, cell phones bad, closing schools bad, fire bad, Frankenstein good.  See, already in my summing up I have started to drift away from the topic.

So what else is on my mind?  What’s worth blogging about? Feel free to chime in or to cast your vote.

I’m going to stop beginning every one of my blog entry titles with the word “of.” Of is so on or about yesterday. I want to write about writing.  I want to write, in particular, about what to do with my first novel, which is, in this very moment, sitting in a box. I want to write about reading.  I’m excited about the new book by David Shields called How Literature Saved My Life and I think I could write a blog entry or two about how that has been true in my life as well.  Maybe there’s a meditation on a key book or two.  Hell, I might even write a review. I want to write about music.  Maybe I’ll write about what I said I wouldn’t write about, my band and its endeavors.  Hell, I might even write a review of the new They Might Be Giants record, or the new David Bowie (which I do not yet possess), or the new Eels (which I do not yet possess)  Maybe I’ll write about records I would like to possess.

I’m afraid, but I would like to write about religion–and, being afraid, that’s probably the sign that I should write about religion.

You get the picture.  It’s time to transition.  It’s time for a change-up.  It’s time for a new conversation.  I don’t know if this is true or not, that topic consistency might be a selling point for a blog site, the thing that makes people keep coming back, but I think I’m going to risk losing a reader here and there in order to sufficiently entertain my own bad self.  I hope you all stay along for the ride.

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Filed under Education, Introductory, Publishing, Teaching, Writing and Reading

Of a Long Teacher Work Day on which Only a Third of the Work Gets Done

Today we were given a teacher work day on this last day before spring break. Awesome for students because they get an extra day off. Awesome for teachers, at least in our district, because the work day didn’t even fall at the end of a grading period, but rather, a couple of weeks before. So maybe, if a teacher played her or his cards right, one might even expect a little time, potentially eight hours, for something called “planning,” or for what some circles of educators call “creating curriculum,” or for a still more unusual animal identified as “collaborating with colleagues.” Sounds like absolute teacher nirvana. Sign me up!

I spent eight hours today looking at student work.  Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to have the time to do it.  But, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, there was just so much of it, that at the end of an eight and a half hour day, I found myself finished with about a third of the student work that had piled up. What I did not do:  I did not, at the end of that eight and a half hours, put it all in boxes to cart home with me over spring break.  No.  I left the unfinished business in my classroom.  It will be there when I get back.  The only way in which I will be “doing work” during spring break might be in a moment like this one–where I am reflecting on my work life because I want to, because it might be valuable for me to do so, personally valuable, or valuable to others who share the same kind of experience or who are interested in the day-to-day lives of teaching professionals.

My work day, while productive, was disappointing.  I feel bad–insofar as I got through one mountain of stuff and left another larger mountain of stuff to come back to a week and some days later.  Yes, I could have avoided the whole problem by not assigning the work in the first place, but then I’d feel bad for not asking my students to do what I think they really ought to be doing to make strides as readers and writers and thinkers.  Teaching in this day of the underfunded public school so often seems to be about choosing what to feel bad about.  You can’t feel good about everything; in this climate and in these conditions, it’s simply impossible unless you are a mindless Pollyanna.  I can feel good about a lot of things.  I think I have a positive relationship with most of my students.  I like my school.  I love my subject matter.  I love the craft and art of good teaching.  I really respect and enjoy my colleagues. But our situation in public schools is dire. Skeleton crews in buildings.  Programs cut.  Schools closing.  Overcrowded classrooms next door to empty classrooms.  No new hires.  Billions of dollars in budget shortfall.  Head start cut. School days cut.  Expectations higher than ever. Amidst all of this horrible news, today’s work day was a blessing–a blessing for which I could not take full advantage because I was so inundated.  Input favorite expletive here.

Here’s another thing to feel bad about.  I’m six years away from being able to retire and it will be a sad day to leave the profession in a shambles.  I try to think about how things may get better.  I am hard pressed to imagine a scenario that would positively turn things around in the short term.  I try to imagine the state of public education getting any worse than it is now, and I shudder.  In my bleakest moments, I think of the end of public schooling and what a disaster that would be for our democracy.  I think of the hundreds of kids who cannot be reached and cannot be helped simply because our system is so strained and resources are simply just not available to them.  It’s ugly, friends.  It’s ugly.  And yet, there is still, for me, so much joy in this work.

So, this is, ultimately, what I choose to feel bad about.  I feel bad about not getting as much done today as I would have liked.  I don’t feel bad about not taking the work home with me.  I feel good about that. I cannot change the current state of affairs, so I can’t feel bad about that either, about what I can’t control–but because I’m writing here in this blog about my experiences as an educator, I hope that this might go a very small way toward raising awareness and adding to the other voices of educators who are kind of tired of being picked on, and of parents who are frightened about the educational prospects for their children.  I can feel good about using my voice in this way, shouting the barbaric yawp, so to speak.  Meanwhile, I’ve got nine days to rejuvenate my soul and my brain, to prepare myself for the final stretch, the relatively break-less run toward summer break, the days of which I am not counting.  I can feel good about that.

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Of Furlough Days

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I’ve been laid off today with all of the employees of my school district, and, by proxy, all of the students in my school district. The school doors are locked. Do not enter. Sorry, we are temporarily closed. We do not have enough money in the coffers to pay for a full school year, so we’re cutting days and cutting pay and cutting another 6 hours of educational experience for the children in our community. There are, I think, 8 furlough days scheduled for this school year and talk of 10 to 14 for next year.

Many students might be happy to have another day off–but I’m sure there’s a great number, too, feeling a bit slighted.  I think most people, especially parents of the younger ones, are inconvenienced and annoyed by this state of affairs, and some might be outraged, but there’s a pervasive feeling of helplessness about it. What can we do?  People go to the state capital with signs.  Some people write letters to their legislators. Others talk of having teach-ins in public places to raise awareness.  I’m writing a little blog entry.  Not sure what effect any of this has.  If the money is not there, it’s not there, right?  I’m no economist. I am not knowledgable enough about how governments receive and spend their money to offer any kind of explanation or solution. I don’t know whether or not they have mismanaged or misappropriated school funds, about whether there are less deserving programs receiving money that should go to schools, about whether there is a path toward additional revenue that our elected officials are ignoring or refusing to try.  Would a sales tax solve the funding woes in Oregon’s public school system?  Would voters ever go for that?  Ultimately, the community has to decide how important  it is to educate our young ones, and then, I suppose, elect people into office who can find a way to pay for it.

Are students performing less well, are they dumber, or less educated overall for the want of 8 to 14 more days of school? It’s hard to say.  What’s undeniable, though, is that something is being sacrificed: the reading of another book, the introduction of another important concept or entire unit in math, an entire decade of history glossed over or missed altogether, an important aspect of second language grammar they will need for their progress next year, and, perhaps most importantly, the experience of coming together in a room with peers from their community to talk about, read about, and create or discover important things.  For teachers, it looks something like this–last year we had not a single day for staff development. While the federal and state department of education, our leaders in our district, and our administrative team are talking about new reforms, new assessments, high stakes testing, adopting the Common Core Standards, in short, more and higher expectations, we are being provided with precious little resources to be able to rise to the occasion. So we do the best we can with what we have and hope for better days.

But here’s something to think about, at least on the federal level:

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What I was surprised to discover, however, after thinking about these shocking numbers for quite a while now, is that in actual fact, the United States Government spends more on education than they do on the military!*  That doesn’t, by any means, make the incredible imbalance in military spending okay; it does mean that you can’t say, if you’re just thinking about numbers of dollars, that the U.S. underspends other nations on education.  But while we outspend everybody on the planet on this account also, and while, according to the University of Southern California, we have an impressive 99% literacy rate, we are in something like 9th or 10th place worldwide in science and math.  And you have to be living under a rock not to know, that despite our good work, there are–what Jonathan Kozol called–savage inequalities in our school system country-wide and within states.  I believe that it’s true, generally speaking, that our most impoverished communities have the worst schools. I also know there are exceptions–Deborah Meier has done phenomenal work in these kinds of schools, as have others.  So, perhaps, it’s not at all about how much money is spent–but about how governments and school districts spend the money they have.  But maybe far more important than that, what kind of programs are in place for kids, what kind of teachers are in the classroom, and what kind of learning communities are being built inside schools?

I’ll include this graphic here because it’s surprising and important, but also because it’s one of the prettiest info graphics I’ve ever seen.

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I feel so fortunate and lucky to work in this district, at this high school, with this staff, and with these administrators.  In my entire career I have worked in this same place and over my entire career I have found it to be a respectful, collegial, lively, safe, and invigorating place to work.  Our student population is as diverse now I suppose as any other suburban high school population–in some ways more diverse culturally than in the gentrified neighborhoods of Portland.  And I have found in that student population a consistently high number of really superb examples of humanity.  Each furlough day, to me, is just another day on which this incredible community cannot do the work it needs to do, the work of growing the hearts and minds of the young people who will inherit the wonders and challenges of our future.

 

*This 809.6 billion dollars on Education is not all Federal money.  My understanding is that this figure is a composite of Federal, State, and Local funds.  So, yeah, this is how much $ government agencies spend a year on education–but the Federal budget alone pays for the Military.  Something else to consider, perhaps.

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Of Moral Perfection

This is the assignment I gave to my students this week in American Literature. I wrote it on the board. “For homework, arrive at moral perfection. You have one week.” A few of them looked at it right away and were puzzled and slightly amused, but as we worked through the lesson of the day, a short introduction to Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography by way of a passage titled “Arriving at Moral Perfection,” they started to get kind of squirrelly, started to suspect something was actually up. We read about Franklin’s project toward self improvement, his settling on 13 virtues at which he would consciously practice, and for which he would record in a little chart he made in a book a black dot whenever he transgressed any of them.  He planned to spend all year doing this, in thirteen week-long courses, each week focusing on a particular one of the thirteen virtues, but all the while keeping track of transgressions in all of the others in his little virtue book.

This is either a very admirable task for someone who is conscientiously working on self improvement or a kind of early documentation of obsessive compulsive disorder; students are not quite sure which.  Students are amused by the seemingly impossible nature of some of the virtues:  Silence–speak not but what may benefit yourself or others; avoid trifling conversation.  Okay, how often, they think, do people in our culture engage in meaningless or trivial conversation?  Most of the time.  Who can keep mum absolutely unless it is to benefit someone somewhere?  None of us.  And students are particularly amused by number 12: Chastity–use venery (sex) only for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or to the injury of yourself or others.  At this point, as the result of the giggling about the health aspect of venery, I find it somewhat obligatory to offer the recent findings on sexual behavior on a person’s health, that it does, in fact, work the heart in an aerobic fashion, and studies show it makes people happier.  What’s difficult is discussing how one may become “dull” or “weak” as the result of it.  We kind of skip over that one.  In their imaginations, though, and perhaps in their own experience, they may be perfectly aware about the ways sex can be injurious.

So once we work our way through this short excerpt in our textbook, and we’ve figured out  some of this new vocabulary (temperance, frugality, humility, resolution, industry, tranquility), we’ve had a few laughs at Franklin’s fastidiousness, and we’ve made some predictions about how his little project will go (our textbook’s excerpt is heavily truncated; we don’t get to the part where he tells us what a failure it has been), I pass out the homework assignment.  It is a pretty faithful replica of Franklin’s weekly virtue chart, seven days across the top, and thirteen virtues listed on the left, each with it’s own row for the week, a box for every day. The instructions: Check with yourself at the end of each day in the following week and make a black mark or a tally of some kind for each time you’ve made an infraction in one of Franklin’s virtues.  At this point they are in a bit of a panic.  I find it hard to stop giggling.  Even though the instructions tell them to keep this chart private, that there may be things here they will not want to share, they are asking me if they have to turn it in.  I clarify, no, especially with regards to temperance and chastity, I do not want to know; instead, I tell them what it is I actually want to see from them in a week’s time.

After having made a good faith, serious effort to keep track of their daily faults, I want them to write a reflection–a reflection, not a confession.  I want them to write about what the experience was like, whether or not it taught them something, whether or not they find, as did Benjamin Franklin, that while moral perfection may be mostly a pipe dream, the deliberate, conscious effort to think about our behavior and our ethics may be worth the energy. The practice may not make us perfect, but it might make us better, or at least, more awake to the nature of our characters.

And then a student asks me, are you doing it, too?  And then a few of them demand, Jarmer, you have to do this, too.

The homework assignment officially begins on the first day of the week. Tomorrow.  And as I make it a general practice never to ask my students to do a thing that I myself would not be willing to do, I think I’m ready for the challenge. Game on.

For a sneak peak at what’s ahead over the next seven days, here is the complete list of Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues with some personal annotations :

  1. Temperance:  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.  I’m okay with the first bit.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.  I think this one might be somewhat possible, kind of.
  3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.  My desk at work is a mess.  My office is a mess.  This will need attention.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.  I can do this.  This week, I will do this.  It’s a new week.
  5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; that is, waste nothing.  Okay.  Sounds reasonable enough.
  6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.  Well.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; speak accordingly. I can’t trash talk my colleagues or my students?
  8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.  I’m good on this one.
  9. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think you deserve.  I’m a pretty fair guy, I think.  I’m a lefty, but I think reason guides my politics and extremism of any kind scares me.  I’ll be all right here.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.  There’s that messy office.  There may be a bit of a consistency problem here between the home and the workplace, between body and habitation.
  11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles or accidents common or unavoidable.  Could be a problem.  I tend to get hotheaded over minutiae. Fatherhood tests me on this one daily.
  12. Chastity:  Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation. Hmm.  I know, if it occurs, it won’t be for offspring.  Health then. Here’s to health.
  13. Humility:  Imitate Jesus and Socrates.  I think I can be humble, but these two cats set the bar pretty high.

There it is.  No problem.  Let’s see what happens with a week of close attention. Wish me luck.  I think I may need it, even though, clearly, none of the above has anything to do with chance.

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Filed under Culture, Education, Self Reflection, Teaching

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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Of School Reform and The Common Core

So here we are in the midst of another school reform movement.  Here’s a funny thing.  I’ve worked as a high school English teacher for about twenty-four years now, and while I consider myself progressive, forward thinking, willing to try new things, and while I feel confident that, in actual practice, I do progressive, forward thinking, new things in my classroom with my students, I feel, paradoxically, that in the 24 years I’ve been teaching almost nothing of real consequence has changed in Education—despite the fact that at every step of the way there was some reform movement on the front burner.

Oh, let me count the reforms (fair warning: this will be tedious):  Over my twenty-four year career, we have been introduced to and/or implemented block schedule, site-based management, project-based education, schools within schools, houses, I.T.I.P., sheltered instruction operation protocol, professional learning communities, authentic assessment, Oregon state standards, Oregon state standards revisited, the CIM, the CAM, senior seminar, the capstone experience, career to work, language objectives, learning targets, multiple intelligences, international baccalaureate, and now, drum roll, please, The Common Core, adopted by something like 45 of the 50 states in the union.

Out of all of these hobby-horse reforms (some more hobby-horse than others and none of them meaningless on theoretical merits), only one or two of them have seriously impacted my practice and most all of them have come and gone and come and gone and come again.

Schools tend to be both perpetually in reform mode and perpetually frozen in time.  Save for some clear philosophical distinctions between what I do as a teacher and what the teachers who taught me did as teachers, the experience of teaching or taking a high school English class is essentially the same as it ever was, only more difficult.  Not that those philosophical differences between myself and my predecessors are small potatoes—I think of them as significant—significant, but not new.  I know that there were secondary teachers during the late seventies and early eighties who would agree philosophically with almost every thing I do now—and probably did some of those things themselves. But in the end, it’s not so much about what teachers DO as it is about what they believe, which influences what they do.  Can all students learn?  Can all students improve?  Should students have some autonomy, as often as is possible, to steer their own learning? Should students be encouraged to discover their own knowledge rather than regurgitate their teacher’s? Is schooling life-affirming and soul-enhancing? Is schooling a respectful, validating, joyful experience? Does the schooling experience grow positive and productive citizenry? If you can answer all of these questions in the affirmative, it seems to me you’ve got your answer to school reform.

All of this hullabaloo to measure and evaluate seems at total cross purposes with the above important questions.  We’re always trying to evaluate, grade, assess, measure, weigh, compare, compete and publish those results, and once we figure out how to do these things, then the job seems to be about how often we can do them. The more often the better. And all of this momentum toward measurement comes from OUTSIDE the school.  I have never known a teacher to beg for a standardized test.  I have never known a teacher who professed any amount of faith or trust in the value of a standardized test. What I do know is how much time with students actually exploring meaningful work is lost to administering tests I have no role in creating, the content of which I have no foreknowledge, and that have absolutely zero connection to my curriculum.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the guv’ment, and the district bosses who are beholden to the guv’ment, don’t trust teachers to teach up the kids in our community.  They don’t trust principals to hire effective people.  Actually, I do know better, and what seems to be true I think is actually true:  We’re not trusted at the school level.  And testing is the most expedient way for the powers that be to check up on our progress, even if the meaning or value of that check-up is nebulous.  Nobody once considered just stopping by, looking into a room or two, talking to kids and parents, asking some teachers to explain what they’re doing.  That would be too hard.

Instead, let’s get a bunch of college professors and politicians together to hammer out The Common Core—this new group of nationally selected standards by which ALL students in participating states will be measured.  In fairness, The Common Core website says the standards were created by “teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country together with state leaders.” Beyond this, the authorship of these standards and exactly how they were decided upon is a relative mystery.

What’s “new” about these standards?  Well, in English education, not a whole lot.  They’re standards for skills rather than for content knowledge, skills around reading, writing, speaking and listening.  None of these skills are skills that any thinking professional would dismiss as unimportant or trivial. But there are a ton of them, more than any one thinking professional could keep inside his or her thinker, and more than any one busy professional could ever accomplish in a school year.  And they’re rigorous as all get-out—as if the authors of these lovely little standards had NO idea about what the populations of our classrooms look like in terms of diversity in readiness and skill level.  They make the same mistake that every other standards movement in the history of standards movements makes: expect the same thing from all students in the same way over the same amount of time–as if they were all, dare I say it, the same.  Here’s more work.  Here’s more difficult work.  And the added resources to help you with that, or the relief from massive student loads?  I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.

On the whole, if anything has changed in Education over twenty-four years, it’s that teachers have come into the profession, not less, but more highly skilled, knowledgeable, prepared, and professional than ever before—at least that seems true to me here in Oregon, or here in my district in a suburb of Portland.  It is a wonder that the most qualified teaching force in the history of the public school system is not qualified to make determinations about the effectiveness of and the best path toward improving our schools, our programs, the learning of our students, and ultimately, whether or not those students have the skills necessary to be worthy of a high school diploma.

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