Tag Archives: grading

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: June 12, 2018

Please excuse my absence. After 30 poems over the 30 days of April, one needs a little rest. But on top of all that, I’ve been having a transformative experience. On Sunday, May 20, I came down from the mountaintop. My hair turned white and now looks blown back by a great force of energy (see photographic evidence). I have seen the fiery bushes and received the tablets. I will present them now to my people.

I’m only being silly in part (in large part, yes, but nevertheless, in part). I am no Moses. And Pendle Hill is no mountain, despite its prodigious distinction as the intentional Quaker community which, during the 70’s and early 80’s, gave rise to the work of Parker J. Palmer. And he is no god, certainly, but he is (and his work is) exceptional to say the very least. I can think of no single figure in the literature of educational philosophy and practice that has made anywhere near the impact that Palmer has made on my career and on my life, frankly.  And I’ve been able to be with the guy for about 10 days between the retreat in January at the Oblate Center in Texas and the experience this May at Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia as part of my facilitator preparation program for The Center for Courage and Renewal. So I have been dying to write a blog post about this experience and this work, but it has taken me some time to digest and compost and winnow and recover from April’s poetry festival and my time at Pendle Hill.

I have written about this subject before here in the land of Blog. I will try not to repeat myself. We call it “Courage Work” for short. The elevator speech for work that defies elevator speeches is this: we try to live with integrity, and that integrity can only come when who we are interacts with and is in harmony with what we do, when soul meets role. It’s inner work, but it requires community. We do not go it alone. So at the center of the work is the paradox of finding solitude within a community, a community whose sole (soul) responsibility is to honor the stories and inner teachers of each of its members–without judgement, advice, rescue, or fixing of any kind.

The work that I am preparing to do may take any number of forms: sessions that last a few hours or a day, a full-on weekend retreat, or a series of seasonal retreats wherein the same group reconvenes four times over the course of a year. My clients might be teachers, they might be other professionals in the helping professions, they might be neighbors, they might be young people. What began as a program specifically with K-12 teachers in mind has expanded over the last 20 years or so to include school leaders, psychologists, physicians and nurses, elder care professionals, and clergy, but what strikes me about this work is its potential universality: if you are interested in living more consciously, more reflectively, more deeply in touch with who you are and more deeply connected with a community, then this work should be extremely relevant. It’s interesting to me to see if a process geared toward groups of professionals might be tested in new places and with more heterogeneous groups. Neighborhood Courage. Courage for Kids. What transformations might be possible for folks who have traditionally been out of reach of the Center for Courage and Renewal? These possibilities have been racing through my penultimate-year teacher-noggen over this entire nine months. And where will I do this work? Also a mystery. Do I stay on and integrate these principles and practices in my school building and in my district? Do I contract with some other institution familiar with and supportive of Courage and Renewal work? Do I build a retreat center in my backyard?  Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I’m wrapping up my 29th year as a public high school English teacher. After the seniors have flown the coup, I gave my first remaining final Friday to a group of sophomores. Three to go, today and tomorrow. Friday morning I felt a kind of giddiness. It wasn’t the caffeine. And it wasn’t excitement about sending the rest of my kiddos home for the summer. It wasn’t about my own summer break. Maybe it was about all of these things, but it felt more amorphous–simply a deep, abiding gladness, a sense of gratitude to this place, these kids, these people I work with, and my principal–who retires this year. Super happy for her, and sad for our loss of her. She’s worked really hard and shown some super fine leadership, the kind only possible from a principal who started out with a couple of decades in the classroom as a master teacher. I have huge respect for her and will miss her. In a little goodbye ceremony on Friday there were lots of laughs and a good number of tears, a big bbq, and the festivities continued after school hours at a teacher friend’s house on a big covered deck in the rain.

I’m finishing this blog entry, having graded everything I could grade from my first finals yesterday, while my 7th period sophomores are taking their final essay exam. It’s my most difficult class, only because a number of them are anything but serious about academics, but today, for the most part, they are quiet and working hard on their essay on the novel Frankenstein. One little guy, super frustrating, is playing video games on his phone, claims his final is finished, pulls it out of his bag as proof, and I have to remind him that he wasn’t supposed to work on it at home. Here’s a kid who is absent mostly, does nothing when he’s present, and then miraculously shows up weeks late with work completed. Of course, I have no way of verifying that it’s his work and doubt that it is. Another guy shows up a half an hour late to the final. Also super frustrating, because here is a kid with a good mind and decent skills who believes he can’t think and can’t write. Instead of completing part one of the final the last time we were together, he writes a note to me, sincere, well-written, impassioned, basically begging me to fail him for the semester, saying he’d rather take the class over again to learn what he was supposed to learn during his sophomore year than feel like I allowed him to squeak by. Ironically, he comes into the final at 64%. Some energy toward doing his best work could conceivably bring him to a C. But he’s convinced he can’t write. He’s convinced he’ll never be a good student. His please-fail-me letter belies both of those claims. Now, though, it appears that instead of giving up, he’s giving it the old boy-scout effort. He’s writing and I’m happy. I think I will have to defy his wish for failure.

One of the things my experience with The Center for Courage and Renewal has done for me is to make me question most things I do as a teacher of English Language Arts, except in cases when I can defy a student’s wish to fail. It has changed my work, certainly, made me a more reflective practitioner, made me more authentically human and more authentically ME in my work, but I long for a classroom that somehow transcends evaluating, sorting, fixing, ranking, testing, grading and competing, the way every Courage experience I’ve ever had has transcended these evils. How could the classroom be not those things and equally rigorous and valuable? Could it be, that in my 29th year in the teaching profession, that I have finally come to understand the true purpose of education, or at least, the true purpose of an English Language Arts education, and that maybe I’ve been doing it backwards all along?

Better late than never.

I know I’m being hard on myself. I know that I’ve done good work. For the most part, I’ve done the best I can. But I also know there’s another way, one that through all the years of my long career I’ve been grasping at and reaching for, always just out of reach for a variety of both good and stupid reasons. I would like to lay my finger on it, to experience it, to arrive, at least in brief, before I walk away. I’m on the verge of something.

I can feel it.

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#305: The Offending Journal

the offending journal redacted

I’ve seen students copy all kinds
of stuff from one another,
sometimes going as far as
copying down word for word
pages upon pages of a buddy’s
journal responses, the act of
copying all that text more work
than actually doing the work,
only with the added “benefit”
of not learning anything.

But I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

A student is transferring to another school,
would like to improve his grade before the transfer
so he has a better shot at passing the semester.
He turns in his past-due response journal.
For some reason the top of the cover
has been cut off but he has written me a note
of explanation: “my notebook was ripping
from top so I cut it off.” Okay, fair enough.
I start reading his journal and even though
much of it seems familiar to me, I am
exceedingly pleased in the moment.
It’s the best work the kid has done to date.
But then I get to his last entry and I see
my own writing there, my comments.
I’ve read his journal before. Then I realize:
the last time I read it, it belonged to a different kid.

So this guy, trying to put his best foot
forward at the new school, but not really
willing to break a sweat in the process,
doesn’t copy, he just steals, literally steals
another student’s journal. Cuts off the cover
with the student’s name on it, writes his
name on the page underneath. Doesn’t
notice before he consummates the crime
that my comments are there, that in them,
I address the other student by name.
Brazen? Brave? Bold? Or just stupid?
All of the above.
This is my final impression of a kid
that I will likely never see again.
I liked him. The last time I saw him,
right after he had given me the journal
but before I had a chance to look at it,
I wished him well and said goodbye.
My good wishes and an F follow him away.

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#222: Why I Am Happy

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Poet and teacher of mine from a long way back, Peter Sears, taught me about a thing called poetry by corruption, whereby you, the writer, take a poem that you like and just simply and with impunity steal things from it, or, steal it wholesale except for some words or phrases you’ve blanked out from the original and then replaced with your own stuff. It’s only legal because it’s a good exercise to teach us about the choices poets make and it’s a way to pay homage and attention to a poem we love. The only rule: don’t try this at home unless you’re willing to give credit to the original poem. The following is a corruption of one of my favorites by William Stafford.

Why I Am Happy

(from William Stafford)

Now has come, an easy time, I am done
grading sophomore essays, and there is
a lake somewhere so blue and so far
no more student work can find me.
A wind comes, saying, you’re not there yet.

In a few more days will come student
notebooks and portfolios and senior
final exams into my attention. For now,
a lull, unusual, like the one
I hear every summer, when I, too,
laugh and cry for every turn of the world.

Grading goes on and on
but that lake goes on and on even farther;

and I know where it is.

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#217: Poem on the 26th of the Month of April

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My head is empty of poems;
instead it’s full
of Shakespeare,
trying to hold on to
my lines even though
the run is over.
I found myself
running some of
them today for
no other reason
than to see if I
could do it. My mind
is full of The Flaming Lips
because I’ve been
listening to them again
almost non-stop
and that’s why I’ve
made no progress
toward the G section
of the collection.
My head is full of
excitement about
drumming again.
And it’s full of dread,
too, because of
how behind I am
in my grading
as a result of that show
that sucked up
all my spare time
and for which I
have no regrets
because I am sure
that the sacrifices
I made in teaching
to make room to do
a Shakespeare play
more likely than not
made me a better teacher.
Sometimes I believe
(or know) that grading
is the least important
part of what I do and
that acting, drumming
and writing poems, all
those things that are
best for me, are also
the best things I could
be doing for my students.

 

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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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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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#136: Again, The Last Teacher Out The Door

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Every year,
this is what it’s like.
I can’t get my grades
in on time because
instead of a multiple-
guess scantron test
I ask my students
to make things or
write things,
things which I must
then look at and think
about; and there’s
never enough time
to look and think
properly, so I turn
up the music and I
look at things and think
about things and I
dance. And finally
when I submit my
grades a half an hour
late, students are
still attempting to
send me more things
to look at and think
about and I just can’t.
Eyes buggy from
looking at a computer
all day, legs tired from
dancing, heart aching
a little bit for students
suffering or failing
and colleagues leaving,
I make a lame attempt
to clean up my room,
I pack up the things
I need for the summer,
and I get on my bike
and ride, the last guy out,
leaving behind
a mess for the end
of August.

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