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:
- 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.
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.
- Chapter 3: the first of the big red flags, this quote: “He or she has to understand each student’s ‘truth,’ and convince students that their perceptions are incorrect or incomplete, and that the ‘truth’ the teacher has is the one they should adopt.” (20) Creepy indoctrination much? A similar puppet-master mindset comes across later on page 129: “[grading on a curve is] an obsolete practice indicative of less enlightened times. We’ve progressed…” Fascistic rhetoric really shouldn’t have any place here.
- The top of page 24 uses the phrase “death bell” when the author means “death knell.” Similarly, the bottom of page 182 mentions “the big questions that get circumnavigated in our daily attempts,” when clearly the word he was looking for was “circumvented.” There are more examples. Such mistakes from an “expert” make me worry.
- Page 31: “Some students’ mindmaps of their analyses of Renaissance art rival the most cogent, written versions of their classmates.” Yes, but mustn’t everyone learn to write well?
- Chapter 7: a meandering, pointless mess of gobbledygook here.
- Page 90: grading is “a single symbol in a tiny box on a piece of thin paper that may or may not make it out from the crumpled darkness of the boom bag–and only if parents ask for it.” Isn’t that a bit of a straw man? Those always worry me. And do the reforms to grades suggested for report cards in chapter 14 really fix this? If not, why not?
- One problem with edu-expert books like this is that they tend to see each factor of teaching in a neat vacuum, separate from the rest. For instance, Wormeli often paints problems and offers solutions that either have already been solved by 504s and rubrics, or that couldn’t be solved in the ways he suggests because of 504s and rubrics! Chapter 7 has too many examples of this.
- The mindset behind Chapter 8 is almost entirely proven false by that one simple Woody Allen quote: “80% of success in life is showing up.”
- Chapter 8: “laziness is a myth…laziness doesn’t exist.” (104) Students aren’t immune to human nature. Nobody is immune to human nature.
- Page 108: “To purposely set up a compelling goal that everyone else can easily earn but they cannot seems to be a penalty of sorts.” It’s called life. Good grief. America’s young don’t need more bubble wrap.
- Chapter 9: “There is no solid evidence to support the current emphasis on students doing large amounts of, or even daily, homework.” (120) Besides all the evidence that might be given here, I might suggest Wormeli read up on Robert Marzano’s work, except that he must already know it well–he cites four of Marzano’s books in his own. Seems oddly convenient to ignore him now.
- Chapter 15 is a weird collection of ways for administrators to manipulate teachers into accepting the advice in this book. Page 185, for instance, suggests slipping an “expert” into the teachers lounge to casually strike up conversations in favor of these reforms. Seriously. The last of many red flags.
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:
- Knowledge. Understanding and remembering facts. A staple of elementary education and a necessary foundation for “higher order” thinking. (Once, while asking students to analyse Einstein’s quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” one young iconoclast noted that the saying doesn’t necessarily denigrate knowledge, but might tacitly accept it as a prerequisite to deeper creativity–after all, without knowledge, how can imagination actually be conceived and brought to practical fruition?)
- Skills. In the current Common Core era, this is king. Being able to apply knowledge and actually do something with it is the new name of the game. Fair enough. Outside of the classroom context, from basic independence to problem solving to leadership, life is about skills.
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.
Last week was teacher appreciation week, and our student council solicited letters of gratitude. I got several. This wasn’t the first year where many apologized for “irritating” me, but many thanked me for personally reaching out to them (something this introvert has worked hard on for years), and a few even specifically said that I’d helped them become better writers–ladies and gents, those take the cake!
Also, the awesome chicken place PDQ gave teachers a whole free meal last Tuesday, so that was awesome.
Today, though, as lunch started, I could feel my mood turning glum–the room was dark and cold (faulty air conditioning only allows my room to be roasting or freezing), and I was tired and stressed out.
So I just went out to my car and drove around the neighborhood for a little while. My school is in downtown Vegas, east of the north end of the Strip, where blocks of cozily coifed law offices sit next to blocks of dilapidated old buildings (many closed down) and quite a few newer gentrification projects.
The air was cool, the sun was bright, and the world was slow. It was a pleasant drive and I soon felt better. The rest of the day was fine.
There’s a popular trope among students (and many teachers) that the things people read should be “relatable,” meaning that stories should reflect the ideas, cultures, and even ethnicities of the readers. That, we are told, is what gets people interested, and helps them to enjoy and benefit from reading.
Hogwash. Balderdash. Baloney.
If the point of reading–of education in general–is only to wallow in a celebration of ourselves as we are, then what’s the point?
Some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had–and certainly the ones that have mattered the most and stuck with me the most–are those that challenged me by presenting things that were not relatable. (I still remember sitting in some waiting room about a dozen years ago and passing the time by perusing a copy of Latina Businesswoman Magazine; it was a joyous glimpse into another world.)
There might even be an almost inverse relationship between the power of a text and the degree to which it resembles the life of the reader.
The pandering instinct behind the push to present more relatable texts to students is only going to stunt their minds further. After all, even for the selfie generation, staring at themselves eventually becomes boring.
- Combining two big current trends in education: student grades are subjective and counterproductive…and teachers should be increasingly evaluated by them.
- At some point, some panel of school “experts” must have sat down and decided that the solution to America’s education problems was obviously to give teachers more regulations and paperwork. Was there a time in the past with higher achievement and more paperwork? I don’t remember Socrates having to file regular evidence collections and data reports.
- No matter what educrat “experts” claim, there is no Grand Unification Theory of education. No matter what they try to saddle us with, it will always come down to each of us implementing what works in our own ways. I read professional development stuff and suspect that our leaders are dreaming of a future filled with TeacherBot 5000s.
Whenever I’m talking to a class and my voice squeaks, I stop and say, “Hey, alright! Puberty! Finally.”
An old dichotomy has it that teachers are “the sage on the stage” or “the guide on the side,” (though I think it’s really a bit of both), but especially in the digital age, we’re also curators. For an English teacher in particular, a lot of our job now entails being a gatekeeper of media materials.
We’ve always taught students how to evaluate such things (as credible sources in a research unit, for example), but more and more I find myself actively showing young people how to be critical consumers of mass media. From web sites to classic movies to whatever’s on Netflix, the little tangents in class are now frequently spent in comparing and contrasting things, noting on what criteria various things succeed or fail, or modeling some other process of sifting the timeless from the ephemeral in the electronic world.
It doesn’t hurt (or help?) that practically any given day in my classes will consist of bits of various media squeezed in to help illustrate things, make connections, and extend ideas.
Today, for instance, my speech & debate class watched this video about vocal fry. Classes that are starting Huckleberry Finn just got a posting on our class web page about free audio resources online to help them understand the dialects. This was after our last class, where they annotated this article about free speech controversies in American schools, and which I supplemented with another post on our web page with ancillary resources, including this NPR interview with President Obama’s recent thoughts about banning unpopular speech in colleges (he’s against it).
The illustration at the top of that free speech article, though? I pointed out that that little boy looks like Danny in The Shining. Only a few kids got the reference. I briefly summarized the movie and recommended it, for those who like horror. Other great but obscure-to-kids-these-days movies I’ve name-checked and given a thumbs up to in recent classes: Animal House, The Sound of Music, The Iron Giant, Seven, Galaxy Quest…and Dude, Where’s My Car? (They don’t all have to be masterpieces.)
I see myself doing more, not less, of this in the future. With an ever-greater abundance of choices, with an ever-greater past body of work behind them, and with increasing consolidation and dumbing-down of mainstream media, such cultural literacy and evaluative skills will be more important to them than ever.
What this also means, though, is that teachers need to be constantly updating their own reserve of media resources. That’s the professional development of the 21st century.
A report in the local paper says that “It’s only a matter of time before all uniformed Las Vegas police officers are equipped with body-worn cameras.” I wish the same were true of teachers.
In my perfect, money-is-no-object world, every public school classroom would have a camera mounted in a corner where the whole room is visible, and an audio/video stream of every minute of the school day would be live streamed to and archived at the school district web site.
The reason is obvious, I’m sure. It protects everybody. As with the police, a record of any controversial events will almost always vindicate the authority figure. But any innocent party should want a public record. For a teacher, a recording could provide context to misunderstandings that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
It protects students, too. Besides that, it would make keeping up on work in the event of absences much easier.
For parents, it makes staying in the loop easier than ever. Any mom or dad could click on the schools’ website any Tuesday morning at 10 AM and see just what’s going on in Chemistry or Geometry.