Tag Archives: homework

#303: The American English Teacher Strategizes for Kids Who Don’t Read


He assigns the pages
and when class convenes
he understands in short order
that only a few kids have bothered
to do the reading.
The age old dilemma of
the high school English teacher:
what can be done if kids won’t read,
not can’t, but won’t or don’t?

Reading everything in class,
either out loud or in silence
will get the reading part
of the job done, but it takes
forever, can be dull, leaves nothing
left over for discussion or
any kind of deeper analysis,
no time for paydirt, for fun.

There’s the ubiquitous
threat of a quiz or a test which
either lights a fire under their seats
or, more likely, just punishes most
everyone and rewards a few.
This English teacher is loath
to purposefully use assessment
as a “gotcha” move, punitive
and ineffectual. So then what?

Yesterday, one of his students made a
suggestion: We’ll do the reading during
one class, then we’ll talk about it
the next! What he was angling for,
essentially, is simply a world without
homework. And the American English teacher
finds himself, often, saying in response
to this proposal: Why the hell not?

Read less, read better.
Read better, like it more.
Like it more, read more.
Read more, do it willingly
as homework in later grades.
This seems like it could be
a formula for success, one that
in his 29th year of teaching,
he has suspected would work
all along, but only ever half-
heartedly employed as a practice.

Meanwhile, the American
English teacher assigns his
students an art project with
some directed text search
for the key developments
of chapters 4 and 5. Are they
able to do the work if they
haven’t read? Only if they
do the work now and work hard.
Are they at a serious advantage
if they actually did the reading
ahead of time? Certainly.
Is it possible that everyone
wins in this situation? Yes.
Is there anything wrong with that?
He doesn’t think so.
The students work diligently
throughout the period
and have good conversations.
But there’s still the nag
in the teacher’s heart that
somehow he’s handling them
with kid gloves. Imagine,
he thinks, handling kids with
kid gloves. O, the horror:
teaching within the tragic
gap between what is possible
and what is a reality.


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Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching

#83: The American High School English Teacher Tries To Do Second Grade Math


Show your work, the instructions say, in tens and ones.
Okay. Fair enough. What’s the problem?

35 – 18 = ____

When I was a kid learning to do the math,
we were taught to borrow from the tens column
which made a problem like this easier to do; it
made one hard problem with two big numbers
into two easier problems with smaller numbers and
everything worked out nicely.
You ended up, without too many mental gymnastics,
a neat and tidy correct answer:  17.

But now, you must show  your work in tens and ones.

I could not figure it out.  I learned, only after
an email to the teacher and specific instructions sent home,
that you create a graphic representation for each number,
say, three slash marks for 30 and next to that, five circles for 5;
underneath that you make one slash mark for 10 and eight circles for 8.
You cross out one 10 from three tens and you get 20, but you know,
you can’t take 8 ones away from 5, so you have to do that borrowing thing
by graphically crossing out another 10 slash mark
and then replacing that by putting 10 more circles over there with the
5 over the 8.  Okay, now we’ve got something like 15 circles over 8.
Subtract or cross out  8 from 15 and you’ve got 7!  Ad that loner 10 to the 7
and you’ve got 17.

By the end of that first evening, before I got the remedial second grade
math help I needed, the symbolic part, flustering even his double
masters degree dad, gets the boy 
saying the words every parent,
but especially one who happens to be an educator, dreads,
that homework sucks 
and math, in particular, is stupid,
and additionally,
the boy is weeping and throwing a tantrum.

I’m doing my best to be encouraging and supportive
but it’s really difficult because I’m having a real
hard time with the new math where the young ones
are expected to make the abstract concrete
by drawing pictures for every move in a problem
they can probably do in their head while they cry
and begin learning to hate school.

I am there to do some cheerleading.
Maybe it helps the boy to see his father
struggling with the problem; maybe the boy
feels validated when his dad says he’ll
write the teacher an email asking to be
taught some second grade math so that
he can help his son;  and maybe he learns
the really difficult lesson that so many
of my high schoolers never picked up:
hold to the difficult, Rilke says, learn
to love the questions themselves.
The math will be solved when it’s
ready to be solved and soon, maybe
we’ll live our way into the answers.
So we move the second grader from
addition and subtraction of double digit
numbers to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
and we see how that flies.


Filed under Education, Parenting, Poetry, Teaching