Tag Archives: English teachers

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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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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The Imaginary Commencement Address

Greetings, class of 2012! You’ve worked hard and you’ve finally arrived at this momentous day, which, just like yesterday was, and the day before yesterday, and just like tomorrow will be and the day after tomorrow will be again, the first day of the rest of your life.  But yesterday you weren’t graduating from high school, and tomorrow you will have already graduated, so this day is in fact set apart, appropriately, as a special day, a day on which you participate in a singular right of passage away from childhood and into adulthood, whatever that means. It sounds kind of scary, actually.

I’d like to begin by thanking you all for not inviting me to speak at graduation.  I appreciate that.  It really takes the pressure off. But even though I have not been invited to speak, I will speak anyway, at least in imagination and spirit, because I CAN, and because I have a few things to say.

I greeted many of you four years ago in English 9. You were silly.  You were nutty.  Some of you were interested in learning.  Some of you were not.  Some of you worked hard.  Some of you didn’t.  Most of you are here today, but others of you could not join us this evening.  That should give us some pause.  (Pause). But you were a sweet group.  I mean to say, even though as freshmen, and even more so as sophomores, you were sometimes frustrating to work with (remember that time I got so angry I walked out of the classroom,  and that other time I slammed my open hand on a desk to get your attention and hurt myself?), you were, on the whole, nice, kind, caring. I really appreciate that.  To me, being a decent human being weighs on the scale much more significantly than good grades and academic prowess.  So I will remember you for being decent human beings.  We had fun together. Thank you.

Others of you I did not meet until your junior year.  You came into American Literature or IB Junior English knowing nothing about me–and we got on pretty well.  We studied witches, the Declaration of Independence, the roaring 20s, Coyote, poetry, monster-making, alcoholism, Chile’s dark past, America’s dark past, and love during the Mexican Revolution–and through the Exhibition Project (which you all loved) and the Individual Oral Presentation (which you all loved), you made your voices and your learning heard above the roof tops of the world.  Good work, people.

And I was fortunate enough to have about 37 of you in my IB Senior English class and my good buddy and Evil Twin Mr. Hawking had another 25 to 30 of you.  I think we studied some things in the context of that particular curriculum that might be appropriate to highlight here, on this occasion–in case you missed it the first time, or, in case you were not in those classrooms.  Let’s think of the next few minutes as a “review for the test,” so to speak.  The test we’re talking about is a long one.  It begins right this second.  And it ends–well, it ends–at the end–hopefully a really long time from now. I want you to do well on the test, so listen up.

We studied literature about the Vietnam war and we learned this:

Wars suck.  If you can help it, don’t fight them.  Instead, fight to prevent them. How do you do that?  Live peacefully in your families and in your neighborhoods.  I believe in the ripple effect that good living can have on everything and everyone that surrounds us.  I don’t mean pure living.  I mean good–good in that no one gets hurt, physically or emotionally; that everything and everyone that comes into direct contact with you is left in a better shape, condition, or state than it or he or she was before your paths crossed.  Live peacefully in and with your own mind.  You have to believe in the possibility of a world without war.  You have to start there.  And know this: that you can believe all of this and fall short of the mark over and over.  You will fail.  As I have.  And then what? We do what we can to make things better, to make amends, to forgive and be forgiven, to avoid past mistakes and destructive patterns.  In a 2011 joint venture between Vietnam and the U.S., 32 million dollars was invested for an Agent Orange clean up in Central Vietnam, nearly forty years after the end of the war. It’s never too late, people. And for those of you who serve: thank you, first of all.  And secondly, help us imagine collectively and then realize an armed forces whose primary job is to help relieve suffering and not to inflict it.

We studied literature about American slavery and the Troubles in Ireland, and we learned that history matters. It teaches us primarily not about the way things were, but WHY things are the way they are.  And if you don’t understand that, you’re living in the dark. History also teaches us this one abiding truth that, if we allow it to, can guide our lives:  nothing worth achieving comes easily.

And we studied post World War II existentialist drama and we came away with this: Live your own dream, not someone else’s.  Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your cell phones and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself.  Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology.  Don’t be a tool.  There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts.  Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

And from Beckett we learned that it’s okay to wait, but we have to be careful, because all of what we believe we are waiting for might already be here. And this is the trap, right, that Beckett was describing: in grade school we wait for junior high (which is absolutely crazy when you think about it), in junior high we  wait for high school, and in high school we  wait for college and the concurrent and/or subsequent unemployment.  And once we’re in college or unemployed we wait for a job, a family, a kid, and then we wait for the kid to go through grade school, middle school, high school, college, job, marriage, grandkids, and . . .  Good grief. Stop waiting for life to begin.  Your life has already begun.  You’re in it.  Live it. Be here now.  Tomorrow will come, I guarantee it.

Notice I didn’t say anything about writing a great essay or analyzing text. Don’t get me wrong, here.  It’s not that I don’t think these things are important–but they are not the end–they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it.  Learning to use your mind well–and I think that has been or should have been the goal of the last 13 years of your school experience–will help you create a more peaceful world, will help you understand and make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own dreams, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you.

With love, deep appreciation for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2012.

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No Grades? No Carrots or Sticks? Then What?

Not cookies and pokes in the ribs, I presume.  No, we can’t just replace one set of rewards and punishments for a different set, although, most people would rather have a cookie than a carrot and would like even less to be poked in the ribs than slapped with a stick.  I don’t know about that one.  Pokes and slaps seem equally unpleasant to me.  How about cookies or ten minutes on the rack?  Yeah, that’s better.  It’s better on the one end and worse at the other, but still really really bad no matter which way you go, because, as I’ve already established, rewards and punishments are bad in education–as they are bad in most other arenas: child-rearing, workplace motivation, innovative thinking, creativity, and relationships.  And, please, for crying out loud, don’t take my word for it; do some reading, look at the data, visit a school, or talk to some kids.  This is all a long preamble to answer the question, if no carrots and sticks, no grades, then what?

Full disclosure:  this is a thought experiment.  I cannot claim to have solved this issue in actual practice–only to have come to a conclusion philosophically, long ago, that grades, high ones as carrots, low ones as sticks, do not work, are, in fact, detrimental. I award grades because it’s part of my job expectation–and I suppose, although I have not tried it, that if I refused to award them I might be disciplined somehow–ten minutes on the rack, maybe, or worse.  So, my goal might be to come up with an alternative that would satisfy me philosophically and satisfy administrators, parents, and students that they weren’t somehow being short-changed because the carrots and sticks disappeared, but rather, felt like they had been finally presented with something like the way education ought to go, forever and ever, amen.

There was a comment to my last blog entry from another blogger named momshieb, and it was brilliant.  Here’s what she said about grade schoolers, but I believe it applies to all schoolers: “In a school with no grades, kids would recognize and measure their own progress because they would take pride in what they are achieving. They would NOT do the “bare minimum” because they wouldn’t know what that is. When children are studying or thinking or creating because they are curious or interested, they keep going until they are satisfied. When children are not being presented with external judgements about everything that they do, they stop trying to do just enough to please the judges.”  So this is just more strong argument against grades and what might happen in their absence–which seems to me obviously and infinitely better than the hoop-jumping and grade-grubbing that goes on when kids and their parents are addicted to external motivators.  And parents are often the most culpable parties.  I can count on maybe one hand how many parents have called me over the course of my entire career to ask what their children are actually learning in my classroom and not about what they’re getting.

One of the things teachers can do immediately, even if they have to award grades in order to avoid the rack, is to do everything they can to deemphasize grades.  They shouldn’t talk about them.  They shouldn’t  dangle them.  They shouldn’t use them as a threat or as a treat. They should avoid putting point values  on assignment sheets.  After awhile students will stop asking.  They start thinking instead about what they’re doing and why, about the learning, and ultimately, they will do the work because it is meaningful work.  And if they can’t find meaning in the work, teachers can help them as long as they are looking. If they want to “pretend” to find meaning and fake their way through, they might be successful, but are nevertheless TOOLS, and this behavior will some day catch up with them.  No skin off their educator’s nose.  Another group of students will refuse to look for meaning, will be unmotivated no matter what kind of dancing monkey you place in front of them, will not do anything that is asked of them.  And these are the ONLY kids, without serious intervention that is beyond what a classroom teacher can do, who will either FAIL or be forever IN PROGRESS. Our public schools do not serve these kids well and something should be done about it–but that’s another topic and another blog. But here’s another possible perspective on those kids who will not play.  Perhaps, they find no meaning in what they’re being asked to do because there is, after all, no meaning to to be found there.  I suspect that classes in which grades and points are heavily emphasized are classes for which meaning and purpose might not be clear or even existent for students and their teachers.  Recalcitrance in these situations is likely a kind of silent protest against a dumb curriculum.

I know my colleagues often worry about rigor, they are loath to think that students might think their class is “easy.” If grades go away, and a whole range of work then becomes acceptable for a PASS, from the mediocre to the truly brilliant, why should students at the top end work hard, and why wouldn’t kids doing mediocre work just become satisfied with their own status quo? First of all, we have to accept as a given the inherent differences between individuals, differences in interest level and in readiness for particular kinds of academic work.  Kids who truly love and excel in a particular discipline will continue to do so whether grades are given to them or not, and kids who hate a  particular discipline may warm up to it or at least feel less threatened by it if the fear of failing is removed and they are allowed to work towards excellence in their own way.  We never let them off the hook and we don’t poke them in the ribs.

So would it be possible, though, Mr. School Smarty Pants, to eliminate grades altogether?  In short, yes.  Read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards or The Schools Our Children Deserve.  He’s done his homework in a big way, and he can give you names of schools that are doing it and he can tell you that it has had no adverse effect on the futures of children–that colleges accept them, businesses hire them, and people love them. No negative effects.  What are the positives? The ultimate goal is that they become intrinsically motivated, curious, healthy, balanced, joyful, critical thinking, independent, interdependent, fearless young humans.  They’re not afraid to fail because they know that’s where the learning happens and that they won’t be punished for it. Can you see it?  I think I can.

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Down and Out In A-9

A student, a high school senior re-taking a junior level class in American Literature, says to me, “Mr. Jarmer, you’re a pretty smart guy, so why don’t you help me get a new movement started. We’re starting a petition that will fix schools forever.”

“Oh, I’m intrigued,” I say. “Tell me about it!”

“Here’s the deal,” he says. “We want students, when they come in as freshmen, to say what they want to do for a living—and at that moment and from there on out, everything they do for four years in high school will be tailored to that specific career or job.”

I’m shocked and a little bit dismayed. I can tell he’s dead serious. I’m not exactly sure how to describe to him the short sightedness of a plan like that. I say something like this in response. “Do you honestly believe that all students, at 14 years old, have the experience and the intelligence and the wisdom to make a decision like this, a decision that will determine their educational path, that will close off other options, that will commit them to a particular job or educational future 4 or 5 years before it arrives? Why would you want to do that?”

And here’s the clincher, here’s the knife twisted into the heart. He says to me, “Well, because nothing, absolutely nothing I’ve done or experienced in school has been worthwhile to me. None of it has interested me. And none of it has prepared me for the job I’m going to do.” And, by the way, he knows for certain what that job is. The job is waiting for him, he says, immediately after he walks across the stage with that stupid, worthless diploma.

“What job is that?” I ask him.

“I’m going to be a logger.”

This was a pivotal moment in my classroom last week, and perhaps, although I’m loath to credit this particular student for it, a pivotal moment in my twenty-three years as a high school English teacher. This is a kid, for better or worse, mostly worse I figure, that has been in my classroom for three of his four years in high school. He doesn’t read. He hates to read and hates to write. He’s totally uninterested in the study of literature. Most often, he refuses to engage in any serious way, refuses to take any academic task seriously and dismisses outright most every aspect of the curriculum, and, on top of that, he’s distracting and rude to other students and doesn’t respect his teachers, at least not very much. Nothing I have given him over three years has meant a thing. That’s part of it. Here’s a kid with whom I have been totally unsuccessful. That’s depressing. To make myself feel a little bit better I consider the source. He has taken, throughout his high school career, such an intensely negative attitude toward everything academics has to offer, that he has essentially prohibited himself from benefiting from it. His mindset is completely antithetical to book learning. I see this as his responsibility, his fault, and then I dismiss him as a crackpot. He’s going to be a logger. I wanted to ask him how many logging towns he’s visited lately and how those prospects are looking. I wanted to give him a lecture about the power of literacy, saying that education IS power, that the mind is a terrible thing to waste, that if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it, that education is not only about the three r’s, but about learning how to be human, that even loggers need to have that, and if they don’t, they’ll be dysfunctional or depressed and drunk all the time in front of their televisions or their computers, and that literature, and learning how to express oneself in writing and speaking, not only will make you more human, but might put food on your table and a roof over your head, and, in the event that the logging thing falls through, or, in the event that, while logging, you lose a limb, these skills and experiences might open up other possibilities for your life. I didn’t say any of these things.

I think a little bit further on the conversation. Hours later it haunts me, and then I feel a surprising wave of respect and admiration for this kid I don’t like very much. I’m doubtful that he’ll pursue it, but in that moment he seemed legitimately and sincerely motivated, to want to advocate for future students who would follow after him, and in that moment, he was as articulate as I’ve ever heard him. And I’m mad at him because he helps me to understand something I already know but don’t like to admit: I realize that this boy is verbalizing something that maybe a full half of the high school boys in my charge must be experiencing and feeling. And I specify “boys,” because it’s true that most of my struggling students are boys, most of my disengaged, disinterested, disruptive students are boys. And then I realize that he’s absolutely right, not that students should carve out an inflexible path for their futures at 14, but that whatever we’re presenting to boys like this one, it’s not working, it’s not helping, it’s not what they need, and they feel, at the end of their twelve years in public education as they leave prepared for nothing in particular and barely literate, that we’ve wasted 12 years of their lives. And maybe we have.

I haven’t wrapped my head around the implications. I feel like I’m on to something here for my own classroom practice and for the school reform movement in general. It’s not new. John Dewey figured out all of this stuff in the 19th century, this importance of connecting education to experience. We weren’t listening then and only in progressive circles are we listening now, but we’ve been powerless to affect systemic and significant change. We’ve been buried in a bureaucratic and top-down emphasis on standards and standardized testing and threats to teacher unions and threats to public education itself and the idea that every kid needs the same thing at the same time in the same way and it’s just crazy. And even classroom teachers like myself who have the very best of intentions and who love their subject matter are glacially slow to realize that the stuff that they love may not be the be-all and end-all thing for every kid, or even necessary. Don’t get me wrong. I believe all that stuff above in the imaginary lecture I wanted to give to this student. But the paths to this conclusion have to be various and individually tailored. And that might be possible if teachers of public school secondary English classes did not have responsibility for two hundred-plus students, and if schools were not so heinously and inequitably segregated and tracked, and if politicians who never stepped foot in a classroom would get the hell out of the way, and if parents were perfect, or at least better, or at least engaged and involved, and if poverty didn’t exist, and alcoholism, and drug-addiction, and teen pregnancy, and attention-deficit disorder, and apathy, and anti-intellectualism, and video games, and, and, and, and. . .

My head is exploding with the things I know and the things I don’t want to admit I know or the things think I am powerless to do anything about. Down and out in A9, my classroom, in my 23rd year, hoping that by the time I retire, I figure some of this stuff out.

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