Tag Archives: English teachers

#348: On the Last Day of National Poetry Month, the American English Teacher Writes Several Minimalist Poems About Things He Finds in the Staff Lounge

Coffee

Made a single cup;
fuel needed after waking
at 4 in the morning.

Vinegar

There’s a bottle of balsamic
on the table, waiting to be
drizzled over someone’s
leftovers for lunch.

100 Hits

Here’s a copy of
Billboard’s Hottest
Hot 100 Hits, a gift to
the staff lounge
from an intern of mine
from two years ago.
His name was Chuck.

History Adoption

In an era that finds
the textbook mostly
obsolete, several choices
are on display on a table
in the staff lounge.

Vending Machines

Chips, candy, and soda.
Only one sugarless choice:
seltzer. These machines
keep humming.

Crap

There’s some crap in here
no one uses and no one wants:
desk organizers, empty binders,
old VHS tapes that Melanie left,
a 2016 copy of U.S. News &
World Report, the “Find the Best
Colleges for You” edition.

Who? 

Who will throw out the crap?
Who will clean the microwave?
It belongs to nobody.
It’s nobody’s business.

The Lounge

The principal before
the one before the one
we have now, maybe
15 years ago, bought
two burgundy love seats,
a matching chair, and
a coffee table that looks
like a box in order to
beautify the lounge
and make it  more
comfortable.

Dr. Rex Putnam Award

Candidate summaries. Please,
DO NOT REMOVE.

We Love You

in gigantic letters
taped up on the wall
from last year’s teacher
appreciation week,
maybe even from the
year before. It’s so hard
to keep track of the love.
We have to remind ourselves
by looking at this wall
every day.

 

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#185: The American English Teacher Crosses Off All The Items From His To-Do List

To-Do

He does it.
He crosses off
all the items from
his to-do list.
Many of the things
he crosses off
were things he
actually did, others,
not so much.
But he wants
them off the list
so he crosses them
out. Some of those
unfinished-crossed-off
items will end up on
other to-do lists.
Some others will
simply disappear
forever, and good
riddance, he thinks,

good riddance.

But then, almost
immediately after
the great cross-off,
he feels another list
coming on, almost
as if the first list
was never touched,
or as if the items on
that list, just before
a line attempted their
total erasure, had
spawned a host
of new angry items
calling out for
immediate teacher
attention. He
feels sick. He calls
in sick so as to have
eight free hours
after which he
might once again
be able to cross off
all the items from
his new to-do list.

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#184: The American English Teacher Makes A To-Do List

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The number and the analogy may have been different,
but I swear I said to at least two of my colleagues today,
“Do you ever feel like a web browser with 2,879 tabs open?”
And both of these colleagues said the same thing:
“All. The. Time.”
If I could make a catalogue of all the issues
that seem pressing to me on a minute-by-minute
basis over the course of my teacher work day,
there may indeed be 2,879 items in that list.
To test the theory, I took 20 minutes of my prep
period, got out my notebook, and wrote at the top
of a blank page: To Do. When I was finished,
I had two pages and they looked (please excuse
my scrawl) like this:

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And I’m starting to realize of late, as if for the
first time in my career, not only is it true that
teachers (especially English teachers)
have 2,879 things to think about and do,
but that, finally, that’s not okay. It’s absurd, in fact.
The teaching gig has become a kind of a
mad juggling act, trying to keep in the air
and not drop a hundred different things at once
while trying to do a credible job,
while trying to meet expectations that seem
almost superhuman or messianic,
while trying to be all things to all people,
while coming to terms with the fact that
as the work gets harder, the expectations
become higher, and as teachers coming into
the field seem to me better prepared,
smarter, more progressive, more caring,
more effective than they have ever been,
the difficulty of the work they’re expected
to tackle has increased to a level that far surpasses
what their preparedness, their intelligence,
their pedagogical acumen, and their kindness
has equipped them to do.
And I fear this response even while
I know in my heart of hearts it’s not true:
Michael, you’re just getting old, tired, burning out;
it only seems twenty times more difficult
because you’re twenty times closer to
retirement than you used to be.
No, I say, hell no. It is not my imagination
and it is not my age and I am not burning
out. I only sometimes despair that I will
never see a day when education works
the way I know it could work, when
teaching and learning are at the core
and the system is built to support
this herculean humanitarian effort,
when theory and practice come together,
when the mantra transcends this line
from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: 

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

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#39: On the End of the School Year

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On the End of the School Year

It’s always a cluster,
unnatural and awkward
in every way,
but mostly for teachers,
or maybe just for
teachers like yourself,
English teachers with too many students,
too much grading,
not enough time to get it done,
or, at least, to do it well,
speeding through, losing sleep,
desperate to get every last thing
into an impossibly shorter school year,
making unsound but necessary omissions,
trying to calm or placate
stressed out students
in constant states of anxiety
about the things that matter least,
always plagued with the sense
you suspect is more than a sense
but actual fact
that you’re not doing it right–
perhaps for the twenty-fourth time,
you’re not doing it right
again.

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Why I Am Totally Bugged By This Video

http://www.upworthy.com/student-freaks-out-in-front-of-his-class-and-says-what-were-all-thinking-about-our-education-system-3

The video making the rounds Thursday on facebook was of a young man who stands up in the middle of his classroom and goes on a little tirade against his teacher, accusing her, essentially, of malpractice, of making no effort to teach, of handing the kids packet after packet, worksheet after worksheet.  He implores her to actually teach, to give up the busy-work in favor of something that will really reach her students, something that will “touch their frickin’ hearts”–I think those are his words.  Meanwhile, his teacher is heard (and seen very briefly sitting behind her desk) repeatedly asking him to leave the room and telling him that he is wasting her time.  When he has had his say, finally, he does leave. There seems to be very little reaction, in support or no, from his classmates.  One girl sitting by the door where he makes his final exit appears not to even acknowledge what is happening. The video ends before any reaction from the class as a whole can be recorded.  Some words are spoken right before the video ends that are difficult to make out.

I have several issues with this video–not with the video itself, but with the way it is being used on the internet in social network forums to say “something about the state of our educational system.”  This video actually says very little about the state of our system.  What does it actually speak about?  Well, for starters, because the video gives us absolutely no context for the rant, it mostly tells us about how this particular kid feels about this particular classroom.  That’s mostly it.  And maybe it tells us how this particular teacher handles such a disruption: not very well, poorly, in fact.  To draw blanket conclusions about schools in our nation based on this one and a half minute worth of angry student rant is blatant misrepresentation and tom-foolery. It’s not a serious criticism of what it (or the person sharing it on the web) purports to be criticizing.

First of all, the video cannot validate the kid’s criticism of his teacher.  It provides no evidence that she is guilty of that which he accuses her. Now, if what this kid says is true, that this is a classroom in which students are handed packet after packet for mostly seat work independent of any real instruction, coaching, or interaction, then his rant and his sense of outrage is totally understandable and his behavior justified and admirable.  But again, this is an indictment then of the teacher in this classroom and of the administration that hired her and then allowed her to keep teaching. It’s an indictment of absolutely nothing else.

The publisher of the video, a website that I find often to be inspiring and thoughtful, http://www.upworthy.com, posts this puzzling commentary from contributer Adam Mordecai after the video clip:  “This was not an indictment of his teacher; to me, this was an indictment of the entire teach-to-the-test standardization that has been forced on our teachers and has broken our country’s education system.” Well, amen to that anti-standardization sentiment–but I don’t know, in my personal experience as a high school English teacher for the last 24 years, a single teacher who has bastardized his or her teaching wisdom to this extent because he or she has been forced to “teach-to-the-test.” Additionally, this short video gives us NO indication that these poor classroom practices have anything whatsoever to do with standardized tests and curriculum.  And the dangerous implication is that the standardized movement has somehow reduced all of our classrooms to this kind of practice.  It’s fundamentally untrue.

The standardized testing movement has not forced teachers to engage in poor classroom practices. It has simply stolen class time away from both teachers and students.  Kids and their teachers are giving up  the benefits of maybe two weeks of instruction or classroom experience in a testing year in their English classes alone.  And when students don’t pass the reading test, for example, they’re asked to take it again, and again, and again, which pulls them out of the classroom for another week of class time for each retest when they could be in a classroom learning about and practicing the skills the reading test is purportedly measuring!

Good teachers, despite the pressures to raise test scores on standardized tests, will continue to do their best work to engage and challenge students.  Bad teachers, as they have and always will do if given the freedom to do so, will provide students with packets and worksheets and seat work.  Don’t allow video clips like this one to make you believe, first of all, that the kid, no matter how articulate he is (not extremely in this case), is always in the right, but secondly, and more importantly, that this is in any way indicative of the whole.

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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 A Twelve Step Program for Young Cell Phone Addicts

I’m serious.  There’s not a day that goes by any more when I don’t tell a student or several students, sometimes repeatedly in a single period, to put their cell phones away.  And lately there hasn’t been a week that’s passed without a serious discussion around the lunch table about the need for some sort of school wide policy about phones.  My school does not have such a policy; it is up to teacher discretion–and that causes some serious angst–because not all teachers handle it the same way, and that inconsistency makes it more difficult for teachers to establish a no-tolerance expectation.

Some teachers confiscate immediately.  Some teachers warn and then confiscate. Some teachers ignore the problem altogether–and either this causes them serious anxiety as they are exceedingly bugged but feel helpless to do anything about it, or they have become, as a survival technique or coping mechanism, totally oblivious to the problem.  It’s a battle many teachers don’t want to fight. Some teachers harass and harangue or appeal to students’ better selves by using a thing called reason. The messages are: I see you doing that, I’m bugged, it’s rude, it’s impeding your success in this moment, so put it away.  This tends to be my mode of operation, a strategy which, woefully, doesn’t work very well, at least in the long term.  They look at me, sometimes sheepishly, they apologize, sometimes sincerely, they put the offending thing away, and then 15 minutes later they’re back at it.  Even less effective, but sometimes amusing, is a habit I have developed lately of simply inserting the phrase “put away the phone” at random intervals during the lesson, sometimes mid-sentence.  “Ezra Pound was one of the first and most famous, put away the phone, translators of ancient Chinese poetry.” I can’t ignore it–because that would be wrong.  And I can’t make myself into a confiscator because. . .because. . .(I’m stalling because this is complicated).

I don’t confiscate because I’m indignant about the idea that I would even have to do such a thing with high school juniors who are several months away from adulthood. I’m incensed that this has become ipso facto part of my job description. I don’t confiscate because it is not my style or my way to be a hard guy.  I don’t confiscate because, if it becomes a struggle–as it often does when students feel a sense of entitlement around their devices or they have come to believe that using their phones at any and all times of day is a basic human right–the resultant adrenaline rush, the anger, the power struggle, these things make me feel shitty and throw off my entire teaching game.

Cell phones didn’t used to be such an issue.  Only a few years ago, the biggest problem, and it happened infrequently, was an inappropriate ringy dingy in an inopportune moment.  Easy problem to fix.  Don’t answer it. Turn off the ringer. Solved. But today, with the advent of the smart phone and all its glories, students are receiving incoming digital information in the way of tweets, facebook posts, instagram messages, and texts–incessantly. They are being bombarded by this stuff 24/7, in every waking moment, and they are loath to pull themselves away, incapable of resisting, obsessed with any little blip on the screen that might amuse them or flatter them or titilate–while I’m trying to teach them about ancient Chinese poetry.  They are addicted, plain and simple.  They need a twelve step program.  They need interventions.  They need a detox.

Here’s what the sharing at the meeting might sound like.  Feel free, if this is your problem, or your kid’s problem, or your spouse’s problem, to use it as a script.

Hello, my name is _____________and I am a Smart Phone Addict.  I admit I am powerless over my cell phone and that it has made my life unmanageable.  My cell phone owns my dumb ass. I spend more time looking at a screen than looking at faces of real people who are in rooms with me.  Even on dates, I am more present with my phone than I am with my date. I am constantly distracted.  I can’t seem to concentrate on any one thing for any length of time–but I can look at my phone for hours at a stretch, anticipating every notification alert with a kind of euphoria that I can’t feel any other way.  While waiting for a message, I like to stroke the phone, tenderly, as if my loving attention will bring other notifications faster.  I sleep with it under my pillow.  The quality of my sleep is suffering, my grades are suffering, real face to face conversations about any substantive topics never occur, my English teacher is always angry at me. I have come to believe that a Power greater than myself could help relieve my suffering.  I have made a decision to turn my will and my life over to God as I understand God. (Or, for the atheists: I have made a decision to control my own behavior through conscientious, deliberate practice).  I have made a searching and fearless moral inventory and find that nothing about the Smart Phone makes me smarter.  Nothing about the cell phone makes me a better person or helps me live a better life. I am ready for God as I know God (atheists: I am ready) to remove all my defects and shortcomings.  I’ve made a list of people I’ve harmed, insulted, ignored, dismissed, and angered by my incessant cell phone usage.  I will make direct amends with these people whenever it is safe to do so.  Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps (even atheists can do this),  I will carry this message to other Smart Phone Addicts and practice these principles in all my affairs.  Thank you, brothers and sisters.

That’s what I’d like to hear from some of my young charges who seem to be incapable of turning off their phones.  I would so much like them to open their eyes to the fact that all the kids around them who are NOT engaged in Smart Phone Addict behaviors are twenty times more successful in almost every conceivable way.  In the best of all possible worlds, I would like young people to come to these conclusions and CHANGE, rather than devise some punitive measure (anything from a giant cell phone compactor to a less draconian cell phone ban) to force them to comply. But maybe that’s pie in the sky rose colored glasses.  Goodnight.  I have to get the iPad away from my son so he can take a bath.

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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:

20110611_WOC883

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.

us-schools-vs-international3

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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Filed under Education, Teaching, Writing and Reading