Tag Archives: public schools

Of a Long Teacher Work Day on which Only a Third of the Work Gets Done

Today we were given a teacher work day on this last day before spring break. Awesome for students because they get an extra day off. Awesome for teachers, at least in our district, because the work day didn’t even fall at the end of a grading period, but rather, a couple of weeks before. So maybe, if a teacher played her or his cards right, one might even expect a little time, potentially eight hours, for something called “planning,” or for what some circles of educators call “creating curriculum,” or for a still more unusual animal identified as “collaborating with colleagues.” Sounds like absolute teacher nirvana. Sign me up!

I spent eight hours today looking at student work.  Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to have the time to do it.  But, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, there was just so much of it, that at the end of an eight and a half hour day, I found myself finished with about a third of the student work that had piled up. What I did not do:  I did not, at the end of that eight and a half hours, put it all in boxes to cart home with me over spring break.  No.  I left the unfinished business in my classroom.  It will be there when I get back.  The only way in which I will be “doing work” during spring break might be in a moment like this one–where I am reflecting on my work life because I want to, because it might be valuable for me to do so, personally valuable, or valuable to others who share the same kind of experience or who are interested in the day-to-day lives of teaching professionals.

My work day, while productive, was disappointing.  I feel bad–insofar as I got through one mountain of stuff and left another larger mountain of stuff to come back to a week and some days later.  Yes, I could have avoided the whole problem by not assigning the work in the first place, but then I’d feel bad for not asking my students to do what I think they really ought to be doing to make strides as readers and writers and thinkers.  Teaching in this day of the underfunded public school so often seems to be about choosing what to feel bad about.  You can’t feel good about everything; in this climate and in these conditions, it’s simply impossible unless you are a mindless Pollyanna.  I can feel good about a lot of things.  I think I have a positive relationship with most of my students.  I like my school.  I love my subject matter.  I love the craft and art of good teaching.  I really respect and enjoy my colleagues. But our situation in public schools is dire. Skeleton crews in buildings.  Programs cut.  Schools closing.  Overcrowded classrooms next door to empty classrooms.  No new hires.  Billions of dollars in budget shortfall.  Head start cut. School days cut.  Expectations higher than ever. Amidst all of this horrible news, today’s work day was a blessing–a blessing for which I could not take full advantage because I was so inundated.  Input favorite expletive here.

Here’s another thing to feel bad about.  I’m six years away from being able to retire and it will be a sad day to leave the profession in a shambles.  I try to think about how things may get better.  I am hard pressed to imagine a scenario that would positively turn things around in the short term.  I try to imagine the state of public education getting any worse than it is now, and I shudder.  In my bleakest moments, I think of the end of public schooling and what a disaster that would be for our democracy.  I think of the hundreds of kids who cannot be reached and cannot be helped simply because our system is so strained and resources are simply just not available to them.  It’s ugly, friends.  It’s ugly.  And yet, there is still, for me, so much joy in this work.

So, this is, ultimately, what I choose to feel bad about.  I feel bad about not getting as much done today as I would have liked.  I don’t feel bad about not taking the work home with me.  I feel good about that. I cannot change the current state of affairs, so I can’t feel bad about that either, about what I can’t control–but because I’m writing here in this blog about my experiences as an educator, I hope that this might go a very small way toward raising awareness and adding to the other voices of educators who are kind of tired of being picked on, and of parents who are frightened about the educational prospects for their children.  I can feel good about using my voice in this way, shouting the barbaric yawp, so to speak.  Meanwhile, I’ve got nine days to rejuvenate my soul and my brain, to prepare myself for the final stretch, the relatively break-less run toward summer break, the days of which I am not counting.  I can feel good about that.

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Of A Twelve Step Program for Young Cell Phone Addicts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Of Neighborhood Schools and the Threat of Losing One

No decision has been made yet, but a couple of weeks ago now a letter went out from the North Clackamas School District leadership that the closure and consolidation of my son’s elementary school, my elementary school 40 some years ago, is on the table for next fall.  Half of the kids at his school would go to other schools down the road, but the other half, the students enrolled in the Spanish Bi-lingual Immersion Program, would bus 10 minutes further down the road to the only other school in the district offering a similar program. Enrollment is down, they say, and my son’s school, in terms of its student population, is running far short of its capacity.  It’s expensive, apparently, to keep the building itself, the physical plant, running at less than its full capacity.  We are to understand that this makes fiscal and logistical sense, that it’s the least disruptive and most efficient choice, that the program won’t expire or be compromised.  At first I thought, well, IF they can keep the same kids together, preserve teacher jobs and avoid class sizes from getting any larger than they already are, about 32 first graders, what harm could there be in a move like this?

I’m afraid on further reflection I see all kinds of harm.

The program in which my son is enrolled is what we call a magnet; district kids from outside the neighborhood and some kids out of the district can apply for acceptance into the Spanish Immersion Bi-lingual Program–but my wife and I deliberately moved into the attendance area of the school even before our boy was officially offered a spot–because we wanted to live close to the school. There was something important, we thought, not just about the convenience of living close by, and not just about the quality of the program, but about the concept of the neighborhood school itself.

Beyond a purely sentimental attachment, neighborhood schools are meaningful places; they can bring communities together, create cohesion and unity, foster a sense of home as being not just the place where children live, but where children learn and engage with their environment. Neighborhood schools have a history, a tradition, and a cultural identity all their own–all tending toward giving young people a sense of stability and belonging.  Especially in a suburban environment like ours where homes are spread out and the business district is full of big box stores and strip malls, a neighborhood school becomes the very center and heart of the community–no other such place exists close by.  It just seems to me like folly to close a successful and effective elementary school, separating kids who have begun this educational journey together into three different far flung buildings, in the name of efficiency.

Our superintendent and other folks in the district leadership held a community meeting at the school and the board of directors held another one in a different location the next evening.  We are told that the closure of the school is not a foregone conclusion.  But a half a million dollars must be saved.  Actually, six million dollars must be saved–and the closure of our elementary school is 1/12th of the potential solution to the problem.  I can’t help but think there must be other ways to find the money, and I worry that a move toward efficiency now may have some far reaching consequences for our community down the road, that we may never get our school back, and that my son and his classmates will miss out on something that seems to me almost the equivalent of a good program taught by effective teachers: a sense of ownership and belonging and continuity that only a neighborhood school can provide.

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Of Furlough Days

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I’ve been laid off today with all of the employees of my school district, and, by proxy, all of the students in my school district. The school doors are locked. Do not enter. Sorry, we are temporarily closed. We do not have enough money in the coffers to pay for a full school year, so we’re cutting days and cutting pay and cutting another 6 hours of educational experience for the children in our community. There are, I think, 8 furlough days scheduled for this school year and talk of 10 to 14 for next year.

Many students might be happy to have another day off–but I’m sure there’s a great number, too, feeling a bit slighted.  I think most people, especially parents of the younger ones, are inconvenienced and annoyed by this state of affairs, and some might be outraged, but there’s a pervasive feeling of helplessness about it. What can we do?  People go to the state capital with signs.  Some people write letters to their legislators. Others talk of having teach-ins in public places to raise awareness.  I’m writing a little blog entry.  Not sure what effect any of this has.  If the money is not there, it’s not there, right?  I’m no economist. I am not knowledgable enough about how governments receive and spend their money to offer any kind of explanation or solution. I don’t know whether or not they have mismanaged or misappropriated school funds, about whether there are less deserving programs receiving money that should go to schools, about whether there is a path toward additional revenue that our elected officials are ignoring or refusing to try.  Would a sales tax solve the funding woes in Oregon’s public school system?  Would voters ever go for that?  Ultimately, the community has to decide how important  it is to educate our young ones, and then, I suppose, elect people into office who can find a way to pay for it.

Are students performing less well, are they dumber, or less educated overall for the want of 8 to 14 more days of school? It’s hard to say.  What’s undeniable, though, is that something is being sacrificed: the reading of another book, the introduction of another important concept or entire unit in math, an entire decade of history glossed over or missed altogether, an important aspect of second language grammar they will need for their progress next year, and, perhaps most importantly, the experience of coming together in a room with peers from their community to talk about, read about, and create or discover important things.  For teachers, it looks something like this–last year we had not a single day for staff development. While the federal and state department of education, our leaders in our district, and our administrative team are talking about new reforms, new assessments, high stakes testing, adopting the Common Core Standards, in short, more and higher expectations, we are being provided with precious little resources to be able to rise to the occasion. So we do the best we can with what we have and hope for better days.

But here’s something to think about, at least on the federal level:

20110611_WOC883

What I was surprised to discover, however, after thinking about these shocking numbers for quite a while now, is that in actual fact, the United States Government spends more on education than they do on the military!*  That doesn’t, by any means, make the incredible imbalance in military spending okay; it does mean that you can’t say, if you’re just thinking about numbers of dollars, that the U.S. underspends other nations on education.  But while we outspend everybody on the planet on this account also, and while, according to the University of Southern California, we have an impressive 99% literacy rate, we are in something like 9th or 10th place worldwide in science and math.  And you have to be living under a rock not to know, that despite our good work, there are–what Jonathan Kozol called–savage inequalities in our school system country-wide and within states.  I believe that it’s true, generally speaking, that our most impoverished communities have the worst schools. I also know there are exceptions–Deborah Meier has done phenomenal work in these kinds of schools, as have others.  So, perhaps, it’s not at all about how much money is spent–but about how governments and school districts spend the money they have.  But maybe far more important than that, what kind of programs are in place for kids, what kind of teachers are in the classroom, and what kind of learning communities are being built inside schools?

I’ll include this graphic here because it’s surprising and important, but also because it’s one of the prettiest info graphics I’ve ever seen.

us-schools-vs-international3

I feel so fortunate and lucky to work in this district, at this high school, with this staff, and with these administrators.  In my entire career I have worked in this same place and over my entire career I have found it to be a respectful, collegial, lively, safe, and invigorating place to work.  Our student population is as diverse now I suppose as any other suburban high school population–in some ways more diverse culturally than in the gentrified neighborhoods of Portland.  And I have found in that student population a consistently high number of really superb examples of humanity.  Each furlough day, to me, is just another day on which this incredible community cannot do the work it needs to do, the work of growing the hearts and minds of the young people who will inherit the wonders and challenges of our future.

 

*This 809.6 billion dollars on Education is not all Federal money.  My understanding is that this figure is a composite of Federal, State, and Local funds.  So, yeah, this is how much $ government agencies spend a year on education–but the Federal budget alone pays for the Military.  Something else to consider, perhaps.

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Of 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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Filed under Culture, Education, Teaching