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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: When is a Frog Just a Frog?

jpg_Cartoon-Frog-Word

So the school year, thus far, is cooking right along. I like my 9th graders. And that’s no little thing to say. For the most part, they are positive, respectful, willing, and mostly ready for prime time. There are some exceptions, of course, as always, and, of the three groups of 9th graders in my charge, one of those groups is proving to be more of a challenge. Let’s just say, there’s lots of energy in the room, and a lot of that energy isn’t moving in the direction I’d like it to go. But there doesn’t seem to be a single mean soul in the lot. That’s huge. In other good news, I’m hosting an intern from Lewis and Clark College this year. He seems like a great guy and he’s turning me on to a bunch of new music. We’re playing records together during our prep period and as kids come into class. Today’s selection: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard with the Mile High Club.

But the beginning of the school year has not been without it’s drama and difficulty. First, some teachers are dealing with some extreme class sizes. I have social studies colleagues, in particular, who are dealing with upwards of 40 kids in a classroom, one class in a physical space that was designed to house 25 students safely. A math teacher colleague had to teach one of her groups in the lecture hall. She since has experienced some relief. I don’t know if my social studies colleagues are being similarly relieved. Additionally, there were some safety issues: on the very first day of the school year, there was a fight between two brothers that broke out in the cafeteria (I think). In the second week of school there was a lockout. No drill. A lockout. This means that there was the potential of a threat outside of the school building. Business as usual, except for that all the exterior doors are locked and the teachers lock the classroom doors. That lasted ten or fifteen minutes before the all-clear. But again, during a lockout everything just keeps percolating as usual except for the locked doors. And then, a bit of controversy: Pepe the Frog made an appearance at the first assembly in a slideshow promoting a Monday Meme dress-up day for Homecoming.

I’m not a huge purveyor of the meme cultural phenomena. Vaguely, I remember in weeks or months past, hearing or reading on my periphery about the use of this particular image of Pepe the Frog in association with hate speech practitioners and alt-right conspiracy theorists. But it was not, as you might say, on my front burner. I saw the frog (just the frog) on the slide promoting Monday Meme Day and it struck not a single alarming chord. And yet, on Monday of this week, our Leadership Teacher came on the intercom to offer to the entire staff and student body a sincere apology for using the image in the assembly as she reiterated our school policy against hate speech or hate symbolism of any kind and toward tolerance and acceptance for all. Along with this was an admonition to students NOT to sport the infamous frog in any way, shape, or form.

Okay. The announcement came while I had my seniors in the classroom. Most of them seemed incensed, totally taken aback with what seemed to them to be the wild notion that a simple cartoon frog could be a symbol of racism and hatred. They all seemed to understand that that was not its original purpose. It was as if none of them had been aware of the appropriation. Any graphic, any cartoon, any meme can be, and probably has been misappropriated by someone, they said. Consider the recent Thomas the Tank Engine picture where the trains are all wearing KKK hoods. They seemed not to have any inkling that this frog image, somehow, inexplicably, had been used in this way to the extent that it had, any more so than Thomas the Tank Engine. Out of curiosity, today, I asked my 9th graders if any of them had awareness that Pepe had recently become a staple image of various hate groups. A handful of kids were aware–surprisingly, a greater number of 9th graders than in that particular 12th grade group. The upperclassmen in charge of the slide show to begin with also claimed to have NO awareness of how the frog had turned somewhat evil in recent years. Fine. To the kids in my 12th grade and 9th grade classes who were dismissive of the significance and the seriousness of the announcement, I would like to have said: just because you’re not aware of its use as a hate symbol does not mean that it has not been used that way. And it’s possible that you simply do not understand how often and to what extent it has been appropriated. And once a symbol has been appropriated towards evil uses, if that use is pervasive enough, the original intent be damned (right?), it’s now a hate symbol and cannot be tolerated. After all, it made the list of hate symbols curated by the Anti-Defamation League.

This was my first thinking on the subject. But then, I’ve been thinking about it some more. Would we ban an image, any image, of Charlie Brown, say, if enough white supremacists and nazi sympathizers had mutated it or co-opted it for their evil purposes? Would it then be that ANY image of Charlie Brown, whether it contained a racist, sexist, homophobic message or not, should be banned from public spaces and especially in schools? That sounds ridiculous to me. In part, because it’s Charlie f-ing Brown. How is Pepe, who was originally drawn as a kind of chill-dude-feel-good frog, any different? Has his image moved beyond the point where we are able to even ask: what’s the intent? what’s the message? Is Pepe on the same level now as the swastika? It seems preposterous to think that somehow Pepe is now on that same level. One of my colleagues was talking about the insidious way the frog, just the frog, can be a kind of code between evil like-minds. I don’t know, man. I am decidedly undecided. All I can do right now is ask the questions. My understanding (and it might be an incomplete understanding) is that teachers, not offended students, brought to our Leadership Teacher’s attention the association of the frog with hate speech. To my knowledge, no student at that assembly was shocked by the frog. Does that even matter? Our job, precarious as it may seem, may be to protect even the one kid in a thousand who was offended or threatened but too frightened to speak up. Meanwhile, it seems clear to me: Pepe as a nazi is bad; Pepe as original green frog? The very picture of innocuous. Whereas: swastika? Always bad. At this time, this is the best I can do.

 

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: It’s Raining and I’m Flying By the Seat of My Pants!

Yesterday I made a video blog so I could test my new microphone, and during part of my little talk there I kind of bemoaned the fact that it had been so long since my last entry, months, in fact. Afterwards, I was struck by this single observation: It took me three and a half minutes to make that video. I tried afterwards to see if I could do a better job, but the two takes I took after the initial one were disappointing. The one in which I flew by the seat of my pants was leagues better. I thought to myself, what if I flew by the seat of my pants more often? First take. No edits. No do-overs. So I tried it again today. This could become a thing.

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Michael Tests the Mic

So, I got a new USB microphone. It’s the Yeti Pro from Blue Designs, and it’s pretty much the inspiration for this, the first blog entry I’ve made since July. Sorry that I’ve been so long away. I hope you missed me just a little. I decided to shoot a video and I talk here extemporaneously about microphones, about the new school year, the meaning of the word penultimate, drumming in a 80’s cover band called The Nu Wavers, and bizarrely, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas in September. If you’re wondering about the location, I’m in the trailer, but I’m not camping. It’s a weekday night, the kitchen’s torn apart, my study is a mess, and I’m retreating to the T@B 400 to test the mic. Enjoy.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: February 15, 2018

Photo on 2-15-18 at 7.49 PM

Today I wrapped up three full days of sitting with my senior IB English students, listening to their oral commentaries on a poem by Seamus Heaney and holding discussions with them about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I sat with almost 25 students, just me and the kid, one at a time, for 20 full minutes a piece. Each time I do this activity, as exhausting as it can be and sometimes frustrating, I am struck nearly dumb with gratitude for the opportunity. It is rare that, as teachers, we have the luxury of time, not to mention the resources that make it possible to hire a substitute so classes can continue in our absence, to sit down with a single student and listen deeply to their learning. It is, likely, the most authentic kind of assessment I’ve ever administered, and one that honors student voices while simultaneously holding them to a rigorous standard. It is intense, intimate, and hopefully an inviting experience. Some students are nervous and do strange things. They talk super fast. Or they stammer a lot. Or certain things they know suddenly slip their minds: What was the name of that character, you know, the main one? Did this detail come before or after that other one? Why, despite the fact that I know this is a work of non-fiction, do I insist on calling it a novel over and over again? Or why did I call this thing a paragraph when I know it to be a stanza? Why did I just call Seamus Heaney Shameless Hainley? How do sentences work again? And then other students speak with an eloquence you’ve never been able to hear in the context of the classroom: That quiet student who likens Virginia Woolf’s speech to a chemistry experiment. A couple of students who are so excited about the material that they seem almost giddy talking about their favorite scenes and favorite ideas: who knew that Woolf’s description of the androgynous mind could have such a profound impact on an 18 year old woman’s consciousness? One student was so meticulous and thoughtful about each sentence she uttered, every one of her thoughts seemed weighty and perfectly formed. And this time through, without exception, every student spoke for 20 minutes. And I listened as deeply as I could and asked open and honest questions to the best of my ability. It was exhausting and glorious.

Two weekends earlier, at the close of one semester and at the opening of the next, I was in San Antonio, Texas for five days with Parker J. Palmer and The Center for Courage and Renewal, learning further about The Courage Way, on a path to becoming a facilitator of professional formation work. Much of that practice is also about deep listening, to self and to others, hearing and listening ourselves into speech, always respectful of silence as a guest and fellow traveler. This seems a little woo woo, doesn’t it. Well, it’s not for everybody, and I remember Parker talking about wanting it, perhaps, to sound more woo woo than it actually is–because anyone with a complete aversion to woo woo would probably not end up receptive to the work, incapable of listening deeply, untrustworthy of the inner teacher, suspicious of the silences in which our greatest wisdom often resides.

Part of my job over the course of this training program is to discover ways of making this kind of work manifest in my professional life and in my community. Over the last few days I felt it working already as I sat with my students, listening to them speak, allowing them to hear themselves, inviting silences from time to time, allowing the inner teacher in each young person to come out to play. The only drawback: it was primarily an academic exercise, and ultimately, it was my job as their teacher and as a teacher in the International Baccalaureate program, to evaluate their performance. Not really the optimum circumstances for true formation work. And always, in the back of my mind, and in light of yesterday’s horrific and all-too-familiar news of yet another mass shooting inside of a school, I knew that many of their hearts were breaking, as was mine. And yet we didn’t speak a word about that. We proceeded with the task at hand. We talked seriously about literature. It wouldn’t have been the time or place to check in with each of them about how they were doing with the news, what their thoughts were on the subject, how they were coping, how they wanted to change the world. I wish there could have been space for that. I wish there could be a space where some caring adult could sit down with every single kid and allow them to speak. We might learn something.

The study of English Language Arts lends itself better perhaps than any other discipline to this, but somehow, in every discipline, I think, we must learn to better balance the academic work we do in schools with the soul work we know is necessary for fostering in our students a move toward deeper integrity, agency and trust. Inner work needs to be on the syllabus and in the curriculum. I think our lives may very well depend upon it: our lives, the lives of our students and children, the life of our nation.

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School House Rock ‘n’ Sock

rock-em-sock-em

Almost two months ago now, in the throes and excitement and the optimism of a new school year, I found myself writing with my students and posting the results as blog entries here on the Michael Jarmer blog page. I was a happy camper then. Those were truly salad days in September. Fast forward to November 11, two days ago, I make the following post on the social media network I fondly call Face Plant:

On this Veteran’s Day holiday I put in 6 hours toward grading papers and I’m nowhere close to being done. The only relief today was the time I spent uncontrollably laughing at a student’s use of the word “ballstastically” in her otherwise lovely paper about the joys of reading. Ballstastic, indeed.

This to point out, yes, the wonderful discovery of a new inappropriate word, but also to illustrate how impossible it has become to do my job in the time allotted me to do it in the context of the work week. I haven’t posted this on Face Plant, but let’s just pretend, shall we:

On this Thursday, November 13, I called in sick in order to grade papers.  It turned out to be a snow day.  No school.  No snow, either, but that’s no matter; somewhere in our district, up in the hills, perhaps, it was dangerous to drive a school bus or a car, and they closed down the district.  At any rate, I spent another 6 hours grading papers today and I’m nowhere close to being done.  This is not ballstastic.  Not at all.  I have decided that something has to be good to be ballstastic.  Not good.  Or, as Orwell put it in 1984, doubleplusungood.

The good news is that I only have about 90 papers yet to read, papers that I’ve been sitting on for weeks.  Listen, I tried to stagger the work.  One set of the reading journals I call “logs” came in, and then another, and then another, and then three more other sets of logs, all staggered, by the way.  But by the time I got to the bottom of the log jam, the papers started to roll in.  One set, then another set, and then four more sets, all staggered, but all coming in before I am able to vanquish the logs.  Meanwhile, during my preparation period in the context of the work day, there’s this thing called planning to be done: what am I going to do with kids for 87 minutes in six total sections of three different classes?  So, when and where will all of this grading get done, Mr. Smarty-pants?  Why, at home, of course, on my own time.

But here’s a thing you should probably know about me, and maybe you do if you’ve been hanging around the blog for any length of time.  I am one of those teachers who has become, out of necessity and survival, unwilling to work a 60 hour work week. I am often unwilling to work a 50 hour work week.  This means I have made certain compromises over the years as my class sizes and other responsibilities kept growing. I never stopped assigning work because the work, I’ve always believed, is good work. But I stopped giving detailed responses. I stopped reading student writing closely.  I dipped in and out.  I checked for a few choice things to give them feedback on, such as, this thesis is unclear, or wow, I don’t see any text evidence, or boy, you need to work on your spelling, or, hey, you can’t do that with a comma.  And sometimes I did what I am only slightly ashamed to call “fake grading.” In essence, I’d say to a student, “you’ve done this thing.  It appears that you have followed the instructions.  Doing the work, in and of itself, was a good, instructive experience for you. 100%.”  I became aggressively protective of my time at home as a husband, a dad, a writer, and a musician.  Teaching is not my life.  It is a significant part of my life that I don’t think I would trade for any other career, but it is not the only thing I live for.

Still, I resent the compromises I’ve had to make and have sort of bitterly come to the conclusion that the job a teacher absolutely should be doing, the job that I would really love to be doing, is next to impossible in the current climate–with massive class sizes and common core, with data-driven, student-growth teacher goals and site councils, with standardized tests and the consistent and obscenely absurd underfunding of schools–impossible.

So why am I now spending 12 extra hours over two days away from the school house with a promise of another 6 or 8 tomorrow?  That’s a really good question. What’s changed? I’m teaching freshmen for the first time in many years and many of them can’t write.  That’s part of it. I want them all to be capable of entering  IB English as juniors if they want to, and even if they don’t, I want them to have the skills. That’s part of it.  I’m trying proficiency grading with freshmen. This means that if a student’s work doesn’t meet standards, rather than slapping a D on it, end of story, instead the teacher asks the student to do it again. And again. And again. This takes longer. A lot longer. This is also part of the story.

But this might be the chief inspiration toward this madness. I’m partnering  with a couple of professionals who are much more hard core than I am–and I both love them and hate them for this.  Both, earlier in their profession than I am, both, idealistic and compassionate, both, stupendously positive forces for young people, but both suffering tremendously under this same load. It’s stupid and it’s my problem, but I can’t NOT do what they’re doing. I’m going to say the first part of this sentence over again: it’s stupid and it’s my problem. It’s both the blessing and the curse of refusing to teach in isolation like some of my colleagues continue to do.  It’s good work we’re doing and we’re proud of it, but it is absolutely, positively unsustainable.

People of Earth, citizens of Oregon and of these United States of America.  Stop pretending that simply raising the bar will achieve great results. Stop comparing apples to oranges by pretending the United States is remotely like Finland. Stop beating up on educators and walk instead a mile in their shoes.  Please sit down with 200 pieces of writing from 200 different teenagers and in less than 5 or 10 minutes per student try to give each of them meaningful feedback in writing as opposed to circling numbers on a rubric.  And don’t say you’re serious about or that you support education until you have figured out a way to create a work environment for educators that either provides the resources and time on the job to do that job, or that pays teachers for a 60 hour work week. Otherwise School House Rock becomes School House Rock ‘n’ Sock–which is nowhere close to ballstastic, but rather, doubleplusungood.

 

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#66: The American English Teacher Doesn’t Want His Student To See Him Using Facebook

No Facebook

So, the student stops by the house
of his English teacher
to pick up a younger member of his family who’s
taking music lessons from the English teacher’s wife,
and he comes into the study to say hello
and the English teacher minimizes his Facebook page
so that the student doesn’t know
that this is one of the ways his English teacher
spends his time at home.
Afterward, the English teacher writes a poem
about it because it strikes him, somehow,
as a very strange thing that he’s done, this minimizing
of Facebook, or because it makes him feel odd,
like he’s almost been caught doing something bad, or, at least,
caught doing something he’s self-conscious about,
something he doesn’t want his students, or this
particular student, to think he does all the time.
The English teacher can’t quite settle the dilemma,
doesn’t quite know how or what to think about the issue,
but eventually comes to feel all right about the whole thing,
liberated as he now feels from the earlier worry of the day
that he would never find another idea for a new poem.

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