Tag Archives: learning

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Generative Muscles

No one told me to get off the lawn! 

Edgehill Mansion

Some flora. Apparently, this tree on the right has a reputation for producing dangerously large pinecones 

Our digs for six nights

I began this blog post on the first full day of Writer’s Camp surrounded by writers in a quick half an hour session of generative writing practice–the large group version of what fellow camper Lauren Yaffe calls a writing buddy system: two or three or more people sit down in a room or at a table and they write together. Peg has a box of prompts in the event of blockage. I cheat, pick through the prompts, more just to see what she’s thrown in there than because I’m stuck. I think I know exactly what I want to write about, but getting at it might be the difficult part. I realize I may have to write about what I want to write about before I can write about it. Working my generative muscles.

Here we are at another new venue, Dominican University of California in San Rafael.  Another lovely Catholic institution welcomes our most un-Catholic proceedings. It’s very good of them.

So far, in the first 24 hours, we have snacked, eaten a meal, welcomed old friends and met new ones, enjoyed our first night of readings from seven fantastic poetry and prose writers, found a source for ice, and engaged in preliminary whiskey accompanied by loud and joyful conversation and laughter; we have slept in mostly very tall beds (I need a chair to step on in order to hit the hay); we slept late or meditated, and we ate breakfast with a lot of super young people on campus for other various programs; some of us have gone on short little jaunts into a nearby Trader Joe’s for supplies (I forgot shampoo and breath mints), and we have attended our first classes. An agent was here to talk to us about agenting, and we will have had, by the time dinner rolls around in about three hours, opportunities to nap, to learn about embodied narrative, narrative rhythm, and inventing what we desire–all very exciting stuff, especially that last bit. Tonight, there will be another 8 readers. This goes on for five days! It is glorious.

I’m reading tonight and that’s very exciting. Best, most appreciative and generous audience ever, as long as you do not exceed the ten minute time limit. People read from books they’ve published sometimes, but mostly folks like to try out new material on this most trusted group of friends. I think I’ll sport my disco bowtie, but I’m not 100% certain, and I think I should shave. I should probably also practice a bit. I may have to miss that class about narrative rhythm so that I can decide on the bowtie, shave, practice, maybe nap, and work my generative muscle, by which I mean: work on that poem that I wrote about writing about this morning. Speaking of poetry, even though I’m a fiction guy here in Wally World, I’ll be reading poetry tonight from a manuscript in progress and nearly finished which I’ve titled,  Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. I’m hoping to record it. If it turns out nicely, I may share, but no promises.

I feel so lucky and privileged to be here. Such abundance. A momentary stay from the general chaos. I’ll take it.  


Filed under Writing and Reading

Educational Fantasy #1: The Gradeless Classroom


This spring I have the good fortune of having a competent and enthusiastic teacher intern who is taking responsibility for a number of my classes. It has afforded me some time: some time to do especially good work for the students that remain solely my responsibility, some time to write a poem or two or thirty, some time to get my student growth goals done nearly a month before they are officially due, and some time to THINK, reflect, cogitate. This morning, for example, I thought to myself, as I remembered how many blog entries I have written about the things that are not right about public education, why don’t I, instead, write a series of entries describing fantasies I have regarding education in its best pie in the sky kind of light. In other words, why don’t I do a thought experiment: if things were perfect in the land of public education, how would things look, according to me, that is, and some of my friends? I don’t promise that this series will be especially academic or super serious or practical, but I hope at the very least it will be honest.

It is likely that much of what I propose will seem impossible to some. That’s okay. That would not surprise me. We are all creatures of habit and habits in the realm of educational practice and policy, as we have seen, die hard. But what would have become of us if people did not dream the impossible? See? Some of that shit actually got done. So here we go with Educational Fantasy #1.

I’ve written about this before at length, but it’s worth repeating in the super short formGrades suck. Despite the fact that I have graded students my entire career and continue to do so and even sometimes argue with myself and others about the validity of such antics, I still believe in my heart and soul that grades suck. So my first wish for an educational utopia is the gradeless classroom.

Again, don’t take my word for it. Read about it. Look it up. The research will tell you (at least some of it), (at least the research that I prefer), that grades create anxiety, that grades do not accurately measure, and that grades do not motivate.

What should motivate? Learning. Okay, how do you motivate kids to learn for learning’s sake and not for a grade? Well, if you eliminate grades, what’s left? Learning. Or no school. Most of us would prefer the former to the latter for our young people. Young people may have a different opinion.

I have had several experiences in my life as a student in a gradeless classroom, and you have probably had some as well, and maybe your kids have had some, even now. Let me tell you about a few of these.

Elementary School.  That’s right, at least in my experience as a little tike, I do not remember bringing home letter grades. My son, in his first 6 years of public schooling, has never brought home a letter grade. Don’t get me wrong, elementary school kids are measured, but they are not graded. Instead, teachers report progress toward certain standards or expectations for which kids are something like “in progress,” “meeting,” or “exceeding.” Did we learn stuff in grade school? I think we did. Were we, for the most part, motivated and relatively happy with school? I remember that we were. My son, except for a moment now and again where he complains about a “mean” adult or some level of grade school ennui, is, generally speaking, a pretty happy camper. And he’s learning gobs.

As far as I can tell, grades are introduced to young people in Middle School and continue onward forever and ever. Something wicked this way comes, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Pie in the sky, remember?

My second experience in a gradeless classroom was as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College. I took Modern English Literature from the late, great Vern Rutsala. The course was offered pass/no pass, an unusual move for a professor to take during that time, I think. I worked hard. I learned a lot. I read and discussed great books. I passed! It made no difference to me whatsoever that I did not receive a grade. It had no bearing on my perceptions of the value of the class or the rigor of the work, and it had no effect on the level of energy I exerted or invested in studying.

Most profoundly, perhaps, I was accepted, I enrolled, and I completed a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College, the most significant educational experience of my life-time thus far, without ever reporting or receiving a single grade.

And continuing through adulthood and professional life, I have taken countless courses and workshops and attended conferences taught or presented by all sorts of people and institutions, none of which attempted to give me a letter.

In a perfect world, middle school and high school and college students would not be graded in their classes. They would pass or not pass based on evidence of their learning, learning that is individually appropriate and growth oriented. Did the student learn? Did the little cherub grow? Can he move to the next phase or level of difficulty?

And if he didn’t or can’t? Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School.



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Filed under Education, Introductory, Teaching

The Great Student Growth Goal Debacle


Here’s a meaningless graph.


Here’s another meaningless graph.

Two years in a row now I have suffered through what I like to call The Great Student Growth Goal Debacle and I finally have to say something about it publicly. Cuz it’s driving me absolutely ass-bat crazy.

Good teachers set goals for themselves, but all teachers have always set goals for their bosses, the principals and vice principals who are charged with evaluating the effectiveness of the teachers working in their schools. These goals, traditionally, have been personal and loosely organized around broad categories like curriculum, student learning, student success, and professional development. I’ve had goals in the past as broad as the successful implementation of new curriculum, or the piloting of a new kind of assessment, or ways in which I would like to facilitate staff development or collaborate with my colleagues, or ways in which I would like to reinvigorate my practice. Sometimes these goals would include my participation in some kind of coursework or workshop which would have negligible or minimal influence on my daily practice, but every once in a while, like with my discovery of The Courage to Teach work inspired by Parker Palmer, a developmental experience would totally transform my work and my life. Such has been the tradition of teachers setting goals for the school year—an imperfect, hit-or-miss system, mostly fallible because (someone concluded) the evidence for growth could often be vague, sketchy, too personal, or worse: the goals often had no measurable impact on the kids under the teacher’s charge. How, specifically, did the teacher’s goal result in improved student learning or achievement? It’s an important question; no argument from me about that. But somewhere along the line, the Powers That Be decided that the nebulousness of teacher goal setting and the absolute dearth of quantifiable data on student learning as a result was a huge problem.

Enter the Student Growth Goal. Over the last two or three years we have moved to a system in which teachers write three big goals, two “student growth goals,” and one goal that focuses on professional development. For the student growth goals, one must generate some baseline data, a starting point after which some teaching will occur, followed by an ending point during which another assessment takes place that supposedly measures the same skill after the teaching. The baseline data is compared to the final assessment data and, voila! We now know how student learning has improved. Right? It makes a great deal of sense, but unfortunately, in the actual implementation and tracking and interpreting of the data that results in these kinds of student growth goals, a clear picture of student growth does NOT occur. Mostly what does occur is the gnashing of teeth and the pulling out of hair and the loss of sleep and the extreme exasperation one might feel about the complete waste of otherwise perfectly sound and bountiful teacher energy. Normally, this would be true for me and I would be now, like I was last year at this time, totally aggravated and stressed. I would not have time to be writing this essay. This year I have seniors, four groups of which will be taking their finals a full two weeks before the underclassmen. So I have time this year, not only to complete my damn student growth goals on time, but to reflect on the experience for my own and perhaps for other’s edification. And truth be told, it’s stressful this year anyway–not because I worry I won’t get them done, but because of how absolutely frustrated I am with the process and with the results.

I have concluded that I do not like student growth goals. There are several reasons why the practice of writing student growth goals, at least the way it is practiced now, is a bad one for teachers and a seriously flawed way to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

Student growth goals often measure a minute snapshot from a whole plethora of things a student might be learning or skills a student might be developing. Let’s take a look at the goal I wrote for my College Writing students: Elaboration of Evidence—the way a student is able, in an expository essay, to string together a logical chain of proofs for their claims. Granted, it’s an important part of being able to write effectively about any subject, but it is one particular aspect of a task that is infinitely more complex than this one trait, and certainly more nuanced and interesting. Why did I choose Evaluation of Evidence? Because it’s relatively easy to quantify—and that leads to the next problem with the process of writing student growth goals:

It rewards teachers, or at least encourages teachers, to write goals for which it would be virtually impossible NOT to show student growth. On the first day of class I asked my students to write an on-demand essay about how to write a good essay, making sure that their claims were clear and that they provided an elaboration of evidence for those claims. I cannot take credit for this assignment—the course was assigned to me in the eleventh hour and I was taking a helpful cue from a colleague. At any rate—it was the first day of class in September, I gave them a totally hum-drum writing prompt with vague or minimal instructions, I applied high standards to evaluating the work, which took forever by the way, and again, voila! They did terribly. It would be a walk in the park to show how much they had improved over the course of the entire semester. Not that it’s a bad goal. It’s a fairly admirable goal to show how students have improved in this particular writing skill. But it’s disingenuous to say the least to use this kind of baseline data as a starting point. It would be like the math teacher testing students on the Pythagorean Theory before she had even introduced the concept. Had I not had student growth goals hanging over my head, I wouldn’t have given that particular assignment, and I certainly wouldn’t have spent the kind of time on it that I did, diligently working my tail off to collect assessment data that would impact their grades only minimally (being a formative assessment) unless they outright just didn’t do it. So there’s this:

Student growth goal management and documentation is unwieldy and time consuming for such a tiny snap shot of a student’s “learning.” Scoring this formative assessment, I had to take a sick day in order to carefully work my way through a single class of 35 students writing terribly about how to write a good essay, only looking at this one evaluation trait.

Because teachers are not trained research technicians, a lot of this unwieldiness and wasted time is spent gathering and reporting bad data. The final data I collected at the end of first semester, four months ago, data that I am just now trying to make sense of, was fatally flawed: the expectations were different, the final paper included research and documentation, was turned in at the very end of the semester giving me a ridiculously inadequate time frame for grading, forcing me to award students a holistic score negotiated through self-evaluation and teacher moderation. Comparing the skill of Evaluation of Evidence from the first sample and this massive number in the grade book for the research paper was clearly an apples and oranges kind of deal. So today, I made some shit up by turning both the pre-assessment and the final assessment into grades, not to be recorded in the gradebook, mind you, but to be written down in side-by-side columns for easy quantification. Big, dumb, quantifiable grades. Letters and percentages. As a measure of student learning? Meaningless.

My second student growth goal fared no better. I spent a number of hours, maybe three or four, over the last week, gathering, accumulating, and interpreting equally bad, old, inconclusive data from assessments in IB English in order to fill out a form that will take another hour or more of my time so that I can report, for the student growth goals I wrote for my IB English students, that out of 40 kids, 16 improved, 10 stayed the same, 2 got worse, and 12 students, for whom I have no baseline data, ranged from inadequate to excellent on the trait of Appreciating the Writer’s Choices in a work of literature. First of all, this data is just stupid. It doesn’t take into account any of the answers to these common sense questions: Were students responding to the same piece of literature? No. Was there an effort to make sure that the piece they wrote about the second time was equal in difficulty or complexity to the first? No. Of the two students who did worse the second time, what did you do to make them worse at a skill they’d been practicing all semester? I don’t know. Why don’t you have baseline data for a full 12 of the 40 students in the sample? Because kids were absent, or they submitted the work late, or they didn’t follow instructions for submission into the google classroom, or because I’m not skilled at keeping 60 balls in the air at once. If this data were actually used to evaluate my teaching, I would need, in my 26th year as a high school English teacher, some remediation. Certainly, I am not a “distinguished” teacher. I may not even be, by this measure,“proficient!” And this feels about as bullshitty as it gets.

I know what they say, and I believe it, that good teaching makes a difference. But what’s good teaching, and what kind of difference does it make, and for how many kids, and can these differences ever really be measured objectively? Too many variables beyond the teacher’s control and beyond the impact of the teacher’s teaching can influence a student’s success on an assessment and in school generally. And that is primarily why, along with all the other issues I’ve raised above, that standardized test results, and student growth goals based on data (at least the kind that I’ve gathered) should never be used to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness. Isn’t it better to have goals that are meaningful but not quantifiable than to have goals that are objectively measurable but meaningless because the data is often faulty or fabricated or both? I am of the opinion that the best work teachers do and the best learning students experience defies quantification. And I am so thankful, ever so thankful, that I work where I do, in this particular school building in this particular district, because as far as I know, no teacher has ever been disciplined or reprimanded in any way as a result of showing negligible positive, or clearly negative results from their student growth goals. But I know for a fact that my school and my district are not typical and that for other teachers, this process may not just be aggravating, but diminishing, demoralizing, fear inducing, and livelihood threatening.  That’s terrifying to me.

No one has trained teachers how to do this kind of thing well, and that’s another huge part of the problem, let alone whether or not it’s even possible to do this kind of thing well given a student load of 160 to 200 kids. It’s just a thing that’s landed in our laps after it’s landed in our administrator’s laps after it’s landed in the laps of our administrator’s bosses. And no one questions the damn thing. We just do it poorly and move on.

The hours that I have spent writing down numbers in columns say nothing about what I’ve taught, how I’ve taught it, what students have learned, what learning actually IS, how students feel in my room, or what they will remember about literature, about writing, about me and about my interactions with them after they go. I’d argue that these things, ultimately, are the things that determine the effectiveness of a teacher. After that, I’ll tell you what you can do with student growth goals.


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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.


Filed under Culture, Education, Teaching

Of Furlough Days


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:


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.


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 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.


Filed under Education, Teaching, Writing and Reading

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.


Filed under Culture, Education, Teaching

Difficult Work: Oh, Let Me Count The Ways

Teaching is bloody difficult work. And don’t let anyone give you that romantic drivel about the three months teachers have off every year as an argument that teachers have some kind of cushy existence. I’ve seen the sticker, and even though it contains a kernel of guilty truthiness for me, I philosophically abhor the message: “The best thing about teaching is June, July and August.” The summer break is not part of our contracted work year; i.e. WE DON’T GET PAID FOR IT. What is done, though, conveniently enough for those of us who are not great at financial planning, is that the pay teachers receive for approximately 180 days a year is very nicely divided up equally into 12 installments, one for each month of the year. So it appears, and even feels like we’re getting paid for that time. But we are not. We are, through most of June, in July, in August, and through parts of December and March, for all intents and purposes, unemployed. There’s this, though: we know we’ve got a job when the unpaid vacation’s over. You won’t see teachers standing in the unemployment line during their summer breaks, unless they’ve been laid off, which is an ugly reality in our current economic crisis. Even with secure jobs, many teachers find it necessary to work on their months off teaching summer classes or building fences or remodeling bathrooms or painting houses. I don’t do this, as a general rule. I don’t need the money (a bald-faced lie), and without the time away from teaching I would likely go off my rocker. Right now, in fact, I’m paying someone to do the painting (the fact of the matter being, that I need the money to pay the painter, and the mortgage, and the rest of the bills, and the groceries, and the college fund for my five year old son).

Now that that’s out of the way, let me see if I can pin-point just a few characteristics of the work that make it bloody difficult. Let’s first talk about one of the greatest human mysteries, in general, yes, but especially in relation to teaching and learning: Motivation. Here’s a scenario first, a scenario that I experience, perhaps, 60 percent of my time spent inside of a high school English classroom. My students, more often than not, are trying to prevent me from doing my job. My job is to teach them English; their job, as they understand it, is to stop me from teaching them English. I tried to think about this. What other profession experiences this kind of resistance from their ‘clients’? Soldiers in a war–that was my most ready comparison. In the war with Iraq, the soldier’s job was to liberate the Iraqis, but there were Iraqis by the thousands trying to stop them. Thousands of Iraqis who would rather not be liberated, thank you very much. Similarly, there are thousands of students enrolled in public schools who would rather not be educated. And I don’t have any firearms. That makes the job difficult.

I think it’s an important question. What makes young people uninterested in something that can only be a good thing for them, if we accept the premise that public education is indeed a good thing for them? Part of it is ingrained in our youth culture. Let’s begin with some broad generalizations: Teenagers are resistant to authority. They are resistant to adults telling them what to do or what is good for them. They are resistant to working very hard on intellectual endeavors. They would much rather play. They would much rather be entertained or be entertaining. They would much rather watch t.v. or listen to music or text their friends or play video games. They just want to have fun. And somehow, they have traditionally found less compelling this business of learning to use their minds and develop skills of intellect. They are children still, for crying out loud, big children.

Now, I’m betting that many of my top students would find exception with all of the above, and rightfully so. I have students in my classrooms every year who’s intellectual curiosity and drive far exceeds what my own was when I was their age. They are brilliant thinkers and scholars and they are motivated intrinsically to learn as much as they can and develop their skills to the fullest extent. Sitting right beside them, however, are others who do very well in school but are clearly motivated by externals: approval or money or gifts or love from parents, grades, another bullet on the resume, college entrance requirements, etc. We call them “hoop jumpers.” I prefer the intrinsically motivated scholar, and, while I have grave doubts about the efficacy of the hoop-jumpers, I find them for the most part a pleasure enough to have in class. At least these students have found a reason to plug in. But the majority of my students are not like either of these, scholars or hoop jumpers.

For various and sundry reasons, the majority of my students are unmotivated in the extreme, distracted in the extreme, disadvantaged in the extreme, so much so (for an alarming number of them), that their failure in school, or at least their failure of taking full advantage of their education, is almost a forgone conclusion when they come to me as freshmen. I don’t believe it’s a foregone conclusion, but these are the setbacks many of them are dealing with: They can barely read. They can’t write. They have abysmal social skills. They do not trust or respect adults. They don’t respect their peers. They have drug and alcohol issues. They are homeless. They are learning disabled. At 14 they believe they have no memories of their childhoods. They are tired. They have ADHD. Their parents are divorced or divorcing. One of their parents is dying from cancer. They are unhealthy, morbidly obese or dangerously skinny. And looking at them, all 200 of them, it is nearly impossible to know which of these characteristics are true for any one of them, except for those characteristics that I can directly observe or those the special education department or a counselor or a parent or a student informs me of, and even over the course of a year, when one of a teacher’s primary goals is to “get to know students” (really, a kind of joke when you think carefully about it—not the goal but the logistics of accomplishing the goal), I couldn’t tell you with any kind of authority, except for the fact that Peter didn’t do any of the work, why he failed freshman language arts! If you are a caring individual, these things make teaching bloody difficult. I haven’t even scratched the surface.

Let me pose the super-duper million dollar question: What motivates students? And what do you do when students have none of that stuff?

Perhaps, I’ll attempt a response to this question in my next missive.


Filed under Teaching