Throwing Away Essays

Yesterday I read an essay by a college freshman that began with the paragraph below.

“Alright class, pick up your pencils and write me an essay about something that will bore you to death”. Those are the words that my sophomore high school english teacher told us one day when he had nothing planned for our class. The entire class was in shock, but that statement was only the beginning. Each one of us wrote our essays and when that sweet sound of the bell rang, we threw our papers onto his cluttered desk and ran off, escaping the torture of listening to the clock go “tick tock” for fifty-two minutes. Two class periods later, I witnessed something I never thought would happen. I watched my teacher throw a pile of paper into the trash, but it wasn’t just any pile of paper, it was our essays we wrote just two hours ago. It was at that moment when I felt that teachers really didn’t care about our creative minds and our writing talents. It was at that moment when I felt that writing was just a waste of time and that teachers made us write boring essays just to keep their job.

There are at least four big red flags here: the unprepared teacher, the callous nonchalance with which he or she appears to address students, the nonsense assignment itself, and the almost immediate disposal of nearly an hour’s worth of student work.

I get the impression from the student’s lack of surprise that this kind of thing was not uncommon.

I’m completely stunned. This is outrageous. I sent this paragraph to the principal of the school in question, to deal with or not as he or she sees fit. I won’t say what high school this student attended, but I will tell that it is one of the relatively newer, richer schools in the valley.

I’ve mentioned before a department meeting I attended about a decade ago where an older teacher freely admitted that she refused to read student essays. I think that’s a deal breaker, and anyone with such an attitude does not belong in the classroom.

Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and time consuming, but bottom line, it’s our job.

And using essay writing as time wasting filler and then simply discarding it is nothing less than education’s version of malpractice.

And the student’s “lesson” learned at the end of that paragraph…it’s just absolutely heartbreaking. I teach writing because I love it and I know it’s important. Too important and lovely to be screwed up like that.

I hope I can help this student have a redemptive experience with writing instruction and practice this semester.

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This must be that famous liberal tolerance I’ve heard so much about!

A month ago, I posted this simple announcement to a public Facebook group for teachers in my county: “There is a new private Facebook group for CCSD teachers on the right of the political spectrum. Message me if you’re interested.”

Among the comments I got were these:

  • “I’m just curious…what do teachers on the right of the political spectrum support? Unequal access to quality education? Removing free breakfast and lunch from schools, so that students can worry about being hungry instead of learning?”
  • “Maybe a different profession????”
  • “Is this where you guys rally to vote yourselves out of a job or figure out ways to turn in your students or their parents?”
  • “The request…is a slap in the face.”
  • “There are teachers there? Really?”
  • “You guys need your own page!!! I agree!”

In addition, one woman tracked down my salary information as listed elsewhere online, screenshot it, and posted it, with a threat that I was being watched.

I never replied to any of those comments, but I wonder if any of these people realize how ironic their complaints are–their hostility illustrates exactly why I wanted to make a place where conservative teachers could talk without being insulted.

Or maybe I should have just said, “Do you want more Trump? Because this is how you get more Trump.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Absent Teachers

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.

Annual Rituals

Ah, Spring.  Birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, allergy sufferers are sneezing.  Also, in another cycle of nature for this time of year, the local newspapers are piling on scary stories about the teachers’ union vs. the school district, where the outcome this time will certainly be massive teacher layoffs, horrific student deprivation in a barren campus wasteland, and the end of life on Earth as we know it.

I’m looking forward to summer as much as anyone, but I have to admit, this nauseating dog and pony show is enough to make a guy pine for November again.

It’s getting to be as predictable as Superbowl ads where GM hires some celebrity to tell us that Detroit is “making a comeback.”

School District Employee Writing FAIL

So, since it seems yours truly won’t be picked up for a regular summer school job this year, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks planning what else to do.  I emailed the substitute teaching department of my school district to inquire about subbing opportunities for summer school.  I fully expected to get a reply along the lines of, “That pool is full; we’re not currently accepting any new subs,” which would be understandable, but it couldn’t hurt to try. 

What I didn’t expect was to get a reply that managed to fit more writing errors into a single, fragmented sentence than your average remedial underclassman could if he tried.  I’m providing a screen shot of the email, because I think that if I just typed it, you wouldn’t believe that someone employed by a school district wrote it.  My original message is quoted in gray; the answer from the office is above it. 

My big question now: why are scores of my teacher friends being booted out of their classrooms when who knows how many anonymous, illiterate drones are taking up space in some cubicle somewhere?

Let’s Not Tell Students the Sky Is Falling

Two Saturdays ago the following letter of mine appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  In the ongoing budget kerfuffle, I worry that the rhetoric of some of my teacher colleagues has crossed the line into irresponsible territory.  Frankly, even the insinuation that money is the biggest factor in student achievement is bothersome.  Yes, there are things we need funding for, but why haven’t we gotten this fired up over the epidemic of failure in our schools? 

Astute readers will recognize that this letter canibalizes part of a post I put up here about a month ago. 

**********

As a fellow English teacher, I appreciated Elizabeth Strehl’s Wednesday letter in defense of education spending, but I can’t condone her statement that, “If the proposed budget cuts to education happen, our schools and therefore our children may never recover.”

Perhaps such education advocates are exaggerating to emphasize their point, but can’t these academic Chicken Littles see the danger of their hyperbole? If these budget cuts do pass, what message have we now sent to our students? Might young people pick up on the idea that their fate has been sealed and that further work is pointless? Might the economic situation be used by some as an excuse for failure?

Lobbying for schools is noble, but I hope the fatalism so prominent in this conversation won’t turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To all students out there: The ultimate force in your academic achievement isn’t the money coming from politicians, it’s the effort that comes from you. Don’t take our concern over the budget the wrong way. No matter what happens, we believe in you. Your future will always be yours to control.

Proficiency Testing Blues

This last week we administered our high school proficiency tests, a series of three multiple choice exams which must be passed in order to graduate.  There are tests for science, math, and reading.  I proctored the two-hour science test during regular classes on Monday morning, and the math and reading tests–three hours for each–on a special day set aside for them on Tuesday.  Some events:

  • One young man put his head down less than half an hour into the three hour math test.  I nudged him and asked if he was done.  He said no and put his head back down.  A few minutes later, I saw him texting on a cell phone, so I took his test away and said that it couldn’t count now, even though he’d already done a two hour section of the test the day before (as per test security rules which I explained before the test started).  He said he didn’t care, and calmly left for the dean’s office. 

 

  • You’d think an episode like that would have made the other students less likely to play with their phones during the test.  You’d be wrong.  Such is the totality of addiction, don’t you know.

 

  • A young woman came back from lunch announcing that as soon as she was done with her test, she was getting up and leaving. During the test, her attention span must have run out, as she and the three friends around her started whispering and throwing bits of paper at each other. I moved them to desks at different corners of the room, to which she grumbled that I was difficult and irritating. She sat down and refused to keep working. A few minutes later, she also started texting. She got what she apparently wanted–I took her test and she had to go to the dean.

  Continue reading

Ungrammatical School District Email

My employer, the Clark County School District, recently set up an online system for accessing certain private financial information electronically.  As a security measure, the system automatically sends you a notice when the account is accessed.  However, I found it disconcerting when I received the following message in my inbox:

This is an automated message to inform you accessed your Employee Self Service (ESS) profile on 02/25/2011 07:35:01 PM.

“To inform you accessed your?!”  What the heck?  It hardly builds confidence in an educational institution when their official messages sound like they were poorly translated from another language.  Yeesh.

Capital City of a Fallen World

Las Vegas revels in its nickname of “Sin City,” as it’s good for business these days, but that does, shall we say, have its down side. 

In the last week in Las Vegas:

  • An Air Force officer was shot in the back and killed outside his home.  His wife had her boyfriend do it so she could get the insurance money. 
  • Two young women were arrested for beating a 95-year-old woman to death so they could steal her purse and get money to bail a boyfriend out of jail. 
  • A 15-year-old girl was murdered in her home in the middle of the night when a drug-crazed home invader came looking for her father, who owed the attacker a drug debt. 

Here’s the girl’s picture:

Any one of those stories would be enough to seriously depress anyone.  But three in a week? 

While I’m recounting bad news that’s been on my mind, it’s been a bad year for teachers and students here in the valley.  In the last three months or so:

  • A middle school teacher was murdered behind a grocery store by her estranged husband.
  • A high school teacher was beaten to death while walking to work by a group of young people on a crime spree, looking for fun.
  • A high school music teacher was arrested for having sex with a student in a closet at his home. 
  • An elementary school principal was arrested for possession of methamphetamines
  • A high school teacher shot and killed himself on campus. 

I don’t think it’s being too sensitive to let this much tragedy get to you.  Students often seem confused why I seem to enjoy dark humor so much.  Can we say “defense mechanism,” boys and girls?

Merry Christmas, right?

Unconstitutional and Racist

The Clark County School District has a little discussed program called Minority-to-Majority which, according to one of the few references to it in school district documents, is “a transfer request for a student to attend a school where the student will bring both the sending and receiving schools’ minority average closer to the district-wide minority average (m-to-m transfer).”

Even the name of this program, let alone the primary definition of it, is profoundly racist. 

This would seem to be a stark violation of the landmark 2007 Supreme Court decision where any kind of racially based busing, even for the purpose of integration, was struck down as unconstitutional.  In the memorable words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” 

The program was started in 1999, long before the Supreme Curt decision, but how is it still in practice?  Has nobody challenged it?  Is it secretive enough that not enough people are aware of it? 

Defenders might assert that Minority-to-Majority has good intentions–that integration fosters diversity and gives transfer students more opportunities, etc., etc.  However, my practical experience shows that this does not work. 

I live in the zone for one of the “minority” schools in this program, and I work at the “majority” school where many of those students go.  In fact, most of the teenagers in my neighborhood seem to go to the school where I work.  These transfer students, by and large, hardly seem to benefit from the environmental change, producing disproportionate failure rates and disciplinary infractions, as far as I can objectively tell. 

Whether or not the program is successful, though, the fact remains that it is undeniably illegal and racist.  Such bald facts should give even the most sympathetic social engineer pause.

Me, Jim Rogers, and the New Superintendent

So I got a phone call from mutli-millionaire media mogul Jim Rogers yesterday.  He wanted to talk about the upcoming superintendent vacancy in our school district. 

I’ve been trying to get good ideas out there about the future of education around here, but not with much success.  I spoke at the school board meeting a few weeks ago, as I mentioned here (and video is now available at our school district web site; my segment is only two minutes near the very end of a very long meeting—I’m the fellow in the gray jacket, glasses, and Shakespeare tie). 

I’ve also put comments on a couple of newspaper articles online about the imminent search for a new super, and while those have generated some traffic for my blog, hardly anybody has actually shown public support by joining my Facebook group.  I can only surmise that even fewer have contacted the school board directly or will do so.  Too many of us, it seems, are comfortable enough with rampant failure that supporting a reformer is unattractive. 

After another article about it in the paper this morning, though, someone left a comment promoting me for the job.  That was nice to see—I didn’t leave the comment. 

After I spoke at the school board meeting two weeks ago, another man spoke, offering a petition with over 3000 names asking that Jim Rogers become the next super.  I read in the newspaper that weekend that Rogers, who had recently finished a controversial but productive period as chancellor of the state’s board of higher education, would consider doing it, and for free. 

I don’t know anything about Rogers’s politics or ideas for the superintendent job, but I do know that he speaks his mind and isn’t afraid of being unpopular or offending people.  He would do what he thinks is needed to fix things, not just maintain a broken status quo to further his own interests.  I respect that.

So I sent him a letter saying so, and included my list of ideas for the school district to consider.  I couldn’t find any contact information online, but I knew his biggest claim to fame is that he owns the local NBC affiliate and keeps a regular office there, so that’s where I sent my letter. 

He called my house yesterday morning and asked for me.  My wife answered the phone and said I wasn’t there.  Rogers introduced himself and asked her to thank me for my letter.  He said that he received it and that he “would see what I can do.”  That was it, but the fact that such a powerful person would call me just to acknowledge a letter was still pretty impressive.  To the best of my knowledge, that’s the first time a famous millionaire has ever called me.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens from here.

My Speech To The School Board

This what I said to the Clark County School Board at last night’s public meeting:

My name is Jamie Huston and I am here to ask you to let me serve as the next superintendent of our school district.  I was raised here myself and have two children in school now, with a third starting next year.  Like all of you, I have a great interest in the success of  our school district. 

But to solve our problems in student achievement and budgeting, we need to return to common sense.

As superintendent, I will vastly scale back the elephant in the room of this budget crisis, the rampant bureaucracy in our school district.  I will champion teachers and administrators in more effectively handling discipline.  I will end all the insidious ways that low expectations have crept into out policies and have hurt student achievement.

Some have told me that it’s tilting at windmills for a teacher to campaign for superintendent, but this is a chance to show our children that we have the courage and integrity to do what’s best.  We can select a new leader based on merit, not any other criteria.  If the American political ideal is a citizen legislator, then the educational ideal is a teacher-superintendent.

I have here for each of you a folder that better introduces me, including some of my ideas for fixing the budget and improving academic achievement [the folder included my resumé and my list of 21 ideas], and to show how serious I am about fixing the budget and serving our community, I’ll state publicly that I will perform my duties as superintendent for the same salary that I make as a teacher.  Thank you. 

 

It’s hard to say exactly how the speech was received.  Continue reading