Well, Mr. Huston certainly thinks so.
Well, Mr. Huston certainly thinks so.
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.
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.
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:
What do Socrates, Aristotle, Confucius, Anne Sullivan, Maria Montessori, Booker T. Washington, and Abraham Lincoln all have in common? By the standards that many are using to excoriate Betsy DeVos, none of them are qualified to be Secretary of Education.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
As 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.
A review in 30 bullet points:
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.
Last week in the Las Vegas Sun:
According to new research by the Education Week Research Center, Nevada has one of the highest rates of teacher absences in the country.
As much as 49 percent of teachers in the Silver State miss 10 or more days during the school year, the second highest number of absences of any state. Hawaii comes in first, with 75 percent of its teachers taking 10 or more days off. The national average is around 25 percent.
Comments on the article and on Facebook consist of teachers defending themselves, but facts remain facts. Teachers around here do miss a lot of work. If you don’t believe it, observe any principal’s secretary–the one who coordinates substitutes–on a Friday, and witness the frenzy as vacant spots are desperately filled last minute from a pool of subs where demand vastly dwarfs supply.
Many times those secretaries have to call other teachers on campus and ask them to fill in for their missing colleague on their prep periods, closing the gap that way. I’ve taken plenty of those calls over the years. Hey, it’s an easy way for me to make an extra few bucks.
While the teachers are right–there is a lot of exposure to sickness in our line of work, for example–it’s also true that absences spike around weekends and holidays, and get worse near the end of the year. Odd coincidence if all is innocent.
Last semester, administrators at my school bought copies of this book about grading in the “differentiated” classroom for the staff and encouraged teachers to read it. “This is the direction we’re moving in,” we were told. I don’t know if this dictate comes from them or their own bosses far above us all, but based on my notes for this book, I’m worried about that direction.
Overall, this book seems like slick pseudo-professional propaganda for things like unlimited late work with no penalties, minimum F, and abolishing homework (or graded homework, at least). The author’s tone makes it clear that this is just science, people, not an attempt to make things easier for kids and harder for teachers. Let’s put it this way: if you really were trying to dumb down our system so that more students do well and we all magically look better, isn’t this exactly how you’d do it? Shouldn’t that make us wary?
Not to seem too cynical, I actually highlighted lots of good ideas in the book, but here’s the thing: all of them were reviews of simple, common sense teacher training that had nothing to do directly with the main thrust of the book. So why were those things here? You’d find that same material in any of a number of beginning education textbooks.
I suppose this truly is the direction into which we’re going. The signs are clear. Alas.
Though modern approaches tend to admit three and only focus on two, I find there are four modes of education.
First, the two universally agreed upon:
Also, technically acknowledged, but rarely addressed in the civic sphere, is:
3. Character. Though some readings or projects in the humanities might approach this, as a primary focus, character development is fraught with worry–is this a religious thing?–and vocally naming it is overtly avoided.