Student Notes, part 2

My junior classes are finishing Huckleberry Finn soon, and last week one student showed me something she found in the copy of the book that I’d checked out to her.

There were a series of notes sprinkled throughout–little motivational conversations left by a former student, intended to cheer up whatever random readers might come across it in the future.

It took me a bit, but I now remember the girl who put those notes in there a few years ago. Her plan to spread some joy worked–at least one student has appreciated her efforts.

Here is the note she left at the end of the book. It says, “It’s been an incredible journey and I’m glad I was able to share it with you! I hope my little notes of encouragement helped you finish the book by making the task a little more fun! All I ask in return is that you keep this note and all of the others in place so future readers can have the same experience you did! Have a wonderful rest of your high school career and remember to follow your dreams and make an adventure, like our friend Huck, here did. [heart] Alexis, 2014”

Further proof that I work at the coolest school in the world!

alexis

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Two Nice Student Notes

One class recently finished a unit on Romanticism. After a couple of days on Transcendentalism, I sent them out into our quad to take notes on as much “nature” as they could find there, with directions to imitate the style of Thoreau. The last section of the notes focused on drawing life lessons from these observations, like Thoreau did in Walden.

One girl turned in her notes with this awesome little addendum at the end. Clearly, she got the point. I drew the smiley face.

note1

Another girl turned hers in with this attachment:

note2

Yes, It Was An Ambush

The latest article causing a self-righteous kerfuffle in the ever-outraged teacher blogosphere is this one: a group of students met with a Texas state senator to discuss school vouchers, and the exchange became combative.

The usual suspects are scolding the senator for his tone, and praising the students for being so well prepared for the meeting. However, this one line in the article makes me very worried: “They were given articles to review about private school vouchers before meeting with the senator.”

I have some questions about this:

  • Which articles were given to the students?
  • Were they taught to analyze and evaluate those sources, or just to absorb the ideas in them?
  • Were materials representing both sides of the issue provided?
  • Were the students encouraged to question the motives of their own teachers in this situation or not?

But I think we all know the answers. And thus we see the death of critical thinking.

A PTA mom quoted in the article said that the event was not an ambush, but clearly, it was.

Literacy Victories!

One of the best things I get to be part of as a teacher is introducing young people to great books they love. Granted, 99% of what I do in this department falls on deaf ears, but those glorious moments of success–few and far between though they are–really do make it all worth it.

Here are a few recent ones:

Last semester for a book project, one girl chose to read The Handmaid’s Tale from a list of options I gave. She loved it and, when they all had to do presentations on their books, she was overjoyed to learn that it’s being made into a series on Hulu.

Cormac McCarthy is always a safe bet. I often recommend his books to students, and they tend to love him. So many kids read his various books last semester that some classes had spontaneous compare/contrast discussions where they picked up on stylistic and thematic trends across his works. They did this on their own.

Earlier this month I had classes take notes on a documentary about Moby Dick. At the end of class when they turned their notes in, one girl was so excited about it that she had already put the ebook on her phone and said that she’d start reading it that weekend. This wasn’t assigned–she just wanted to read Moby Dick on her own. For fun.

Why This Teacher Isn’t Afraid of Betsy DeVos

Some opinions are universal. “Bacon tastes good.” “Adam Sandler movies are stupid.” “Oxygen is totally the best atmospheric gas for human respiration.”

Among teachers, another example would be, “Betsy DeVos would be bad as Secretary of Education.” But I don’t agree.

I’m not pro-DeVos, I’m just not anti-DeVos.

As is usually the case, many of the arguments against her are spurious. One meme I saw criticized her for her personal donations to Christian schools. That was it–the menacing specter of Christian schools must clearly be a minus. And the bear thing? Besides being exaggerated by a hostile press, if everybody who’d ever choked under pressure and said something dumb were disqualified for public service, nobody would ever be able to do anything, including me, and including you.

“DeVos will destroy public education!” my colleagues say. I spent last year saying that the similar argument for Trump (“Electing Trump is our last chance to save American from total destruction!”) is likewise misguided: if something–be it education or America itself–is in such sorry shape that one person can easily save or destroy it, then we truly are already doomed. If Betsy DeVos is capable of destroying public education, then public education certainly needs to be destroyed. Let’s scrap this rubble heap and rise from the ashes.

Not that I really think such will be the case. Her administration will not damage public education…but neither will hers or anyone else’s help it.

About a decade ago, during some other school issue-related kerfuffle, I heard a teacher complain about how the right wing wanted to end the Department of Education. She ranted and raved a while, then stopped and shyly asked a group of us, “When was the Department of Education started?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this august, esteemed institution harkens all the way back to the days of…Jimmy Carter.

To put it another way, the Department of Education is younger than Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.

This government boondoggle actually does have some significant power to plague teachers with pointless paperwork, but that’s about it.

So, whether DeVos gets in or not, I really couldn’t care less. Somehow, I expect that my classroom will proceed just the same.

 

Some Funny Student Writing

Last month I taught a lesson on parallelism as a rhetorical writing tool. At the end, I assigned students to come up with some examples of their own, based on templates I gave them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • There should be a woman in tears, running from the past; a man in love, chasing the girl; and a person in agony, awaiting the end.
  • It is not nice to play with dead bodies, to talk with them, or to dance with them.
  • Kermit the frog abuses his fame, ignores his children, and denies his dependence on PCP.
  • There should be a cat in labor, birthing the kittens; a dog in heat, attracting the males; and a centipede in solitude, contemplating the electoral college.
  • Obama created life, destroyed the housing market, and ate my parents.
  • Mr. Huston was a huge fan of showing the “relevant” episodes of The Simpsons, spoiling the Star Wars episodes, and disappointing the sociopaths of fourth period with bad jokes :)

Forcing Students To Revise Their Writing

My college classes this last semester had some of the best writers I’ve ever had in English 101. I felt very lucky to get to work with them. But there was one thing about those two classes that irked me to no end throughout our first two big essay units: no matter what I did, they wouldn’t revise their work.

I marked specific things on their papers and told them what to do to improve them, but much of that advice was ignored on subsequent drafts. And when I gave general feedback about writing style and missing elements, nothing in the next draft reflected that at all.

Few things are as frustrating for an English teacher as seeing their careful commentary on student work completely ignored by those students.

I even integrated some basic revision exercises into our classwork to remind them of (introduce them to?) the mechanics and mindset of revision. I labored the point that first drafts are never good enough–that strenuous attention to perfecting work is a must in any endeavor.

Finally, after the midterm, I decided to launch a nuclear attack on the subject, and after returning the first draft of their third essay project, I gave them these directions:

For the revised draft due next week, you must take the first draft and revise it as follows:

Choose any two or three of the five articles given below. Incorporate an analysis and discussion of each of them (as per the original directions) into your existing essay draft. HOWEVER, you may not add any new paragraphs–that total must not change–nor can you just add new sentences to the ends of existing paragraphs. The new material must be smoothly integrated into the existing essay–the commentary from the first draft must be revised to also address the new material.

There must be new material in *every* paragraph of this revised draft.

BUT, this new draft must also be no longer than the original first draft–this means that some material from the first draft must be condensed and/or eliminated, and what you add will have to be succinct.

Yes, that’s a cheap, sneaky way to micromanage their progress, and I hated doing it, but it did get results. The next drafts were substantially different, and they were even better. Now I just have to hope that as they go through future classes, and the rest of their lives, they keep the lesson in mind and continue living it.

Why We Teach

Talking to a few colleagues a while back, I learned that we all had a common inspiration behind our decision to enter the teaching profession. Sure, we’d all had some great teachers ourselves when we were young, some uplifting role models in the Dead Poets Society / Stand and Deliver / Mr. Holland’s Opus vein, but each of us also had had some incompetent buffoons in front of our classrooms who only inspired us all to say, “I can do better than that.”

On The Ironic Fallacy of “Diversity” In Education

I just posted a review of Anthony Esolen’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, which I was inspired to read by coming across this excellent essay of his over the summer. I can’t speak highly enough of his translation or of his essay; I feel compelled to share with you at least a three-paragraph excerpt from the essay here. Professor Esolen gives a powerful critique of one modern fad in education, and of its proponents, who would erase the classics and enshrine the contemporary, all in the name of “diversity.”

The material I teach in the first year of DWC spans four millennia, from ancient Babylon to the end of the Renaissance. This year’s entries were originally written in Babylonian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, old French, Italian, German, Spanish, and English. We are in Jerusalem with David, on the coast of half-Christian England with the poet of Beowulf, in Rome with Cicero, in Madrid with Calderón, in exile with the Florentine Dante, and in London with Shakespeare. We have studied the Parthenon and Saint Peter’s, Giotto and the stained glass windows of Chartres, Arthurian romance and the poetic philosophizing of Lucretius. It is utterly preposterous to say that we are anything but multicultural. We study cultures, and there are a lot of them, and they diverge far from ours and from one another. A Viking chieftain is not a Roman senator or a Christian friar. Xerxes is not Francis Xavier.

But I know that none of that really counts. One of the student protesters, abashed, has written in our newspaper that even though a Viking is admittedly “diverse” from anybody we may meet on the street now, studying the Vikings does not serve “the larger purpose” of diversity. And thus has he unwittingly given up the ballgame.

He and the students are not really interested in studying cultures other than ours. What counts for them as “diversity” is governed entirely by a monotonous and predictable list of current political concerns. If you read a short story written in English by a Latina author living up the road in Worcester, that counts as “diverse,” but if you read a romance written in Spanish by a Spanish author living in Spain four hundred years ago, that does not count as “diverse.” It probably does not even count as Hispanic. If you pore over the verb system of Old Icelandic so that you can stumble around in the sagas of Snorri Sturluson, that does not count, despite the fact that the sagas are utterly different from any form of literature now written. But if you collect a few editorials written by Toni Morrison, that does count, despite the fact that they are written in English and that you have read hundreds of such.

 

My Speech To The School Board

At our school board’s meeting on Thursday, the controversial sex ed opt-in/opt-out issue was on the agenda, and I went there to speak. My remarks actually elicited a surprisingly mixed reaction from the room, but I’m proud of it. As soon as I heard about this meeting, I felt compelled to say this, and I stand by it:

Good evening. I’d like to thank the school board, district leaders, and every parent and community member here for all their service and sacrifice for the good of our community’s children. Everyone here works hard, and even if I disagree with some of you, you all deserve appreciation and respect.

I’m both a parent and teacher myself. I’ve been with CCSD for 16 years now. I also have a child who has graduated from CCSD, four more who are currently enrolled, and two others who will be here in a few years. I might be one of the most most invested stakeholders here tonight, and I do have thoughts about the sex education issue, but I’m not here to argue for or against any position being discussed.

My message tonight isn’t about the issues, it’s about us. There will be a lot of serious disagreement here tonight, and that’s OK, but if we’re really going to help the youth of this community, we need to show them that we can be united despite our differences. Too often, these discussions are hindered by hostility. My plea is to all who will speak or listen tonight—let’s be civil to those who disagree with us. Everybody here is trying to help, everybody here is doing the best they can, everybody here has the interests of children at heart. Let’s not assume the worst of each other.

Imagine if we all tried to understand before being understood. Whatever the best decision here is, civility and empathy are the most likely ways to find it and actually get it enacted—kindness is in everyone’s best interest. I’d like to ask everyone here tonight to refrain from insulting anyone whose opinion differs from theirs, either verbally or just mentally. We can disagree, and we can and should debate, but we shouldn’t debase anyone’s humanity while doing so. Thank you.

Why Don’t Students Like School?

UntitledAs I prepare to start another school year, it might be helpful to review my notes on one of the best education books I’ve ever read, Why Don’t Students Like School?

 

1.  People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.

a.  Be sure there are problems to be solved

b.  Respect students’ cognitive limits

c.  Hook students on questions that will lead to the factual answers a lesson provides.  Don’t rely on trivial connections to their interests.

d.  Puzzle/dazzle students to get interest AND later to help review material, even during ongoing learning.

e.  Alter student work to match individuals’ ability; don’t give everyone the same thing.

f.  Change things up to redirect lost attention.

g.  Keep track of what works and what doesn’t

 

2.  Factual knowledge precedes skill.

a.  Teach the touchstones of Western Civilization’s culture.

b.  Teach the core concepts of each discipline deeply over time.

c.  Be sure that the knowledge base is mostly in place when you require critical thinking.

d.  Shallow knowledge is better than no knowledge at all.

e.  Students must read A LOT.

f.  Make opportunities for incidental, ancillary knowledge acquisition.

g.  “Start early” (level the playing field for students with poor home environments–somehow!)

h.  Avoid lots of lists–knowledge must be meaningful.

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Reviewed: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

pushout_finalA review in 30 bullet points:

  • In 2005, I read David Shipler’s then-new book The Working Poor, where he used people’s narratives to build a case that the American economy was rigged against those who were poor. The beam in his eye, though, is that nearly all of his dozens of stories read like this: “So-and-so dropped out of high school, got pregnant a few times, and keeps getting arrested for drugs and shoplifting and now she can’t even get a dignified job that pays a living wage, people, it’s a nightmare for this poor victim George Bush is evil!” (His hilarious myopia was perfectly exposed here.)
  • Monique Morris uses the same storytelling strategy to make the case for systemic discrimination against black girls in American schools in Pushout, and she does it by making the exact same mistakes David Shipler made a decade ago. A typical example might look like this: “One student repeatedly cussed out the teacher in front of the class and got into fights and suddenly the random oppressors are giving her grief hey everybody this racist system is broken!
  • Of the many stories in this book, zero ever suggest that any trouble a student ever finds herself in is her own fault, not to any degree. Such a message of null responsibility seems dangerous to give to youth, and unethical for a scholar to promote.
  • Morris constantly alludes to “attitude” and “loudness” among black girls (why is such stereotyping OK for her?), and ascribes these traits to a conscious rebellion against a racist system. Again, this is never defended, nor is any alternative explanation ever explored much less refuted (an inexcusable lapse for a scholar!).
  • The girls’ stories are always treated as objectively factual, with nary a shred of skepticism from the author evident. Not to say that the girls are prevaricating–though why wouldn’t they try to look good for a sympathetic interviewer?–but who’s to say that their perceptions of their experiences are perfect? Why is no space ever given for others involved to explain any shortcomings in the girls’ memories? Or is only one side of the story valid? Only one view is privileged here? (Has Morris never seen Rashomon?)
  • A more accurate–and more honest–assessment of the girls in this book would include a more well-rounded picture of their lives. Do they have two parents at home? Did the adults in the family finish high school? Do their families work and obey the law? If the answers to the above are “no” for most of the girls portrayed in this book, that would seem significant–why hide it? If the answers are yes, that would strengthen Morris’s case, so why not advertise it? Her silence on the subject seems telling. (Or are the “no” answers also the result of racist oppression, in a conveniently permanent self-fulfilling loop of begging the question?)
  • Though Morris often throws out statistics like “X% of all suspended students are Black girls,” she never says how much of the total black female student population that percentage represents. A more useful number would be something like “X% of all black girls in America have been suspended.” A large number there would be indicative of a problem, but as it is, she’s looking at a very narrow area of the whole picture. Such obfuscated reporting is disingenuous.
  • The fact is, the vast majority of black girls are never suspended, never in trouble, and never drop out. The vast majority of black girls in America (and I say this after having taught school at several sites around a large and ethnically diverse city for 16 years) do not match the simplified description of them given by Morris. She derides “caricatures of Black femininity,” but constantly indulges in them herself.
  • Her failure to note all of this, much less deal with it, leads me to wonder why she focuses on such a tiny portion of the population; a minority of a minority, really. I suppose it’s because that’s the only way she can make her case for systemic discrimination.

  • Morris never examines, much less proves, her belief that there even is systemic discrimination. Perhaps she feels this book wasn’t the place for it. Perhaps it’s just received wisdom for her, a commonplace article of faith. At any rate, in light of the above point, there’s an enormous flaw in her theory that she needs to deal with: if there is, in fact, systemic discrimination against black girls in America’s schools, then it must be counted as a spectacular failure, for the vast majority of black girls escape the clutches of its machinations completely unscathed. This would seem to be true for all the other trendy brands of proposed “systemic discrimination” out there, also.
  • The author herself is a black woman. I’m curious what her experiences with this “racist” educational system were. Was she ever suspended? Was she ever in confrontational arguments with teachers? Was she “pushed out” by hostile school personnel? Or was she encouraged by the scores of teachers who live to advocate for minorities? Was she given extra attention and opportunities because she was black and female? And did she herself come from an intact, two-parent, law-abiding family? I wonder what the answers to these questions would say about her thesis.
  • I see from her bio in the book’s jacket that she has an advanced college degree and is married with two children. Looks like she could be a great mentor to these girls. I hope she shared with them how she became who she is today.

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“The Changing of the Guard”

I don’t really like much “warm-fuzzy” teacher stuff (which makes it hard for my mom to shop my birthday), but I love this episode of The Twilight Zone. I don’t think most casual viewers realize just how sentimental that show often got. This episode is basically It’s a Wonderful Life, for teachers. Especially as an English teacher, I love the idea that what we do actually matters.

First is the best copy I could find on YouTube, which still isn’t great, though I’m sure you can find it on Netflix and Hulu–it’s the last episode of season 3. Below that is a very cool all-female-student remake a school did. Enjoy.