Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The War Against Thinking - Standards

School should be a place for thought. That seems obvious. Thinking should be the main thing going on in schools. As Daniel Willingham points out in his book, Why Don't Students Like School?, students learn about what they think about, so we should be trying to get them to engage in thinking as often as possible.

Let me say this again: school should be a place for thought.

 It should be a community of thinkers. The adults should model thinking for the students. The students should be practicing thinking, and trying out their thoughts on their teachers and on each other.

How would I define thinking? I would define thinking as working with ideas: assimilating them, playing with them, comparing them, creating something new with them, struggling with them, engaging in them, debating them, synthesizing them, exploring them. The list of verbs could go on. And of course ideas can be mathematical, scientific, literary, creative, strategic, historical, defining, emotional, metaphorical... The list of adjectives could go on.

That's what school should be for: working with ideas. Thinking.

But you wouldn't know that, based on a lot of what is being done in and to schools these days. These days, we seem to spend a lot of time asking adults and children to not think, to help them avoid thinking. We want things to be nailed down, settled, fired in a kiln into their final shape so that we can avoid having to really think about them. Many people give lip service to thinking, but don't really like it when it occurs.

If we think teachers are supposed to be thinking and modeling thinking for their students, look at how little teachers are asked to think...

The system doesn't want teachers to think about what they are going to teach. For the past couple of decades we have been engaged in what has been called the "standards movement," which has recently come to its fullest fruition as the Common Core State Standards. Standards are supposed to create clarity: every student should be able to do or know these things. There are many issues surrounding standards, including the fact that fixed standards created by committee will never be able to keep up with the changing nature of reality, but what I'd like to focus on is how much, or how little, standards ask teachers to think.

Look at standards as a whole. If I look at the Florida Sunshine State Standards, which I should use until the end of this 2013-14 school year, or at the Common Core State Standards, which have now been renamed the Florida Standards (even though my standards as a middle school Language Arts teacher haven't changed at all), they represent the sum total of what a student should know and be able to do by the end of the school year.

If I cover those standards, I have taught my students what they need to know. Put checks in those boxes and I'm done. I don't have to think; I just need to cover skills. What's wrong with that? you might ask. Isn't it good that we have a consistent educational product we're offering?

From one particular angle, yes: if you are viewing standards as an antidote to the teacher who keeps the kids busy all year with word searches and crossword puzzles and mazes without worrying about what the kids are learning, then yes, standards might give that teacher a better sense of direction. On the other hand, isn't Mr. Wordsearch, unless he is given some guidance, likely to teach the standards with the same shallow level of instruction he devoted to keeping the kids busy. "Here's a worksheet with a Venn Diagram! We've covered comparison/contrast!"

But let's look at standards from a different place-- from that ancient, almost unimaginable era: The Time Before Standards.

My teaching career began in earnest in 1993, the same year the Sunshine State Standards began their development--they weren't put into place until 1996. So I began my career without the guidance of a set of standards. As I have written else where, I was dealing with a very challenging group of students who tended to destroy, among other things, textbooks. So I had to invent the wheel. My mantra as a teacher became, I suppose, the mantra of the standards committees themselves: "What to I want them to be able to DO?"

I had to do some hard thinking. I looked through my literature and writing textbooks. I looked through my college books and notebooks, and at books about reading and writing I'd read on my own. (The internet hadn't really become a force in my life yet.) I looked at my own history as a reader and writer and thought about the experiences that had shaped me. I began to synthesize all of these ideas into an ever-changing, ever evolving list of things I wanted my students to be able to do. Sometimes when they couldn't do one thing well, such as write a short story, I realized I needed to go back and teach something else, like integrating descriptions into the plot, or actually planning out a coherent back-story and plot-line with a conflict. I wasn't teaching a dead list of standards, but an evolving one, based on my deep understanding of my subject and on my own students' needs.

In other words, I was thinking. I was thinking really hard. I was thinking about my subject, and about my students. It was hard work. I don't think it was perfect, but I think that trial by fire of really thinking about what I taught, without being handed a set of standards on a silver platter, made me into not just a better teacher, but a completely different kind of teacher than the one I might have been had I just taught standards.

Even when they era of standards arrived a couple years later, I was always looking beneath the surface of the standards, thinking about what kinds of thinking and writing and doing things my students would need to do to meet that standard. If the standard said, "Students will write in various modes... including writing comparisons," the standard itself didn't tell me the various pitfalls of trying to get students to do it well. I quickly learned that many of my students wrote what I call Ping-Pong Writing: "McDonald's is like this. Wendy's is like this. McDonald's is like this. Wendy's is like this. McDonald's is like this. Wendy's is like this." Back and forth. I realized that if they were going to write comparisons that were actually enjoyable to read, I'd need to teach them about sentence variety. Now there is probably a standard about teaching sentence variety, but it is only by thinking about what I was teaching that I linked sentence variety to comparison writing, a place where it especially matters and therefore a place ideal for having students think about both issues in tandem. If I were covering standards, sentence variety might have been a workbook page I taught during some other part of the year, disconnected from any real writing.

The other issue with standards, as far as thinking goes, is that teachers and administrators often assume the that the standards cover everything that is necessary for students to learn, and that if it's not in the standards, it shouldn't be taught-- the perhaps the better word would be "covered." But standards represent the "best thinking" of a committee somewhere, a limited number of people. They do not represent an absolute ideal of what should be taught. I don't know of any standards that mention screenplay or script writing as a form students should attempt, or better yet master, yet many of my students are deeply interested in writing plays and screenplays and chose that form of writing if I offer it as an option. I also know from personal experience that writing scripts is not a "fluff" skill, but one I have seen used in the "real" world of work by friends, relatives, and acquaintances alike for civic and work purposes such as training videos, fundraiser or stewardship promotion, public awareness of issues, and tributes. Allowing my students to write and produce scripts fosters engagement, but to do it well, they need to be taught how. But script writing is not featured as standard, so unless I think beyond the standards, I won't teach it.

The Common Core Standards skimp on poetry by leaving instruction in the reading and writing of poetry to the discretion of the teacher. Of course, that kind of skimping on a type of writing relegates it to something that will seldom be taught. But for a teacher who is really thinking, poetry offers all kinds of intriguing connections to other areas of literacy-- even advertising and argument (or persuasion-- more on that debate later). My wife presented on the benefits of teaching poetry at an NCTE Ignite session last year. The title of the overall session was "Minding the Gaps"-- the gaps being the things that aren't covered by the Common Core Standards. All of the short presentations in the IGNITE session asked teachers to think-- by going beyond the standards.

The vague Common Core poetry standard requires teachers to think hard of they are going to teach poetry at all. The more specific standards are, the less they encourage teacher (or student) thought. And the more that specific standards are tied to high stakes testing, the teacher is asked to think even less. Teaching to the test is probably the kind of teaching that requires the lest amount of thought, yet it is the kind of teaching that has been increasingly promoted and forced on teachers for the past two decades.

Perhaps that is why Harold Howe II, the former US Commissioner of Education, suggested that if we must have national standards they should be "as vague as possible." Vague standards require teachers to think hard about what they are teaching, about their subject areas, and about their students. Vague standards are harder to test, because tests, by their nature, tend to evaluate very specific skills.

The idea of what should be taught and learned isn't just an issue for teachers to think about. Ask students to talk about what they should be learning and why, and you'll really get them thinking as well. Saying, "Here's what you need to learn. Learn it," will not.

Standards stifle rather than inspire teachers' thinking. To think, teachers must go beneath the surface of the standards, or into the gaps in the standards, or beyond the standards completely.

In the end, the most important ideas I have developed about teaching my subject have come, not from the standards, which tend to be very literal and uninspiring, but from my own thinking, talking to other people, reading, and writing. The biggest, most important things I want to teach my students are not found in any standards I have seen. That words are tools to help you build a better life. That the right words at the right time can change your life. That words help shape your thoughts and your thoughts shape how you see the world, and in fact shape your whole life.

But what about having some kind of consistency in our schools? Without standards, will it be "Anything goes?" Well, there weren't standards when I was in school, and I've survived just fine. But if we are concerned about the lack of standards, what if we met with colleagues, not to engage in group-think, but to discuss and debate an ever evolving set of standards that interacts with our students' needs? What if we actually encouraged teachers to think instead of handing them a to-do list and asking them to cover it unthinkingly?

Standards are the primary way in which we discourage teachers from thinking-- but there are plenty more. I'll get to some more of them next time.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Teacher of the Year, Ten Years On

"Well... This is surreal. But fantastic."

Those were the ad-libbed opening words of my speech ten years ago this week when I became my district's Teacher of the Year.

I recently pulled out VHS tapes of my winning TOTY banquet and speech, and of my fairwell speech, to transfer them to DVD. Both tapes were a kind of time capsule-- both technologically and personally. Aside from how I looked ten years ago-- more like Mr. Fitz, with more hair and fewer lines on my cartoonish face-- what struck me is what I talked about.

I'd like relay some of what I said those two nights back in 2004 and 2005, along with some commentary from the perspective of ten years on.

Here's my speech from 2004, the year I won, (when I was the 2005 teacher of the year; don't ask-- it's complicated):

If someone had told me ten years ago, when I was having a school year like no other, that I'd be up here tonight, I probably would have laughed. I am quite certain that my students tomorrow will insure I will stay humble despite this honor. When I received the Teacher of the Year award for my school, one of my students looked at me and said, "You are too mean to be Teacher of the Year!" 

After thanking numerous people, I continued:

I'd also like to thank my students-- even the ones who drive me crazy. Without them, I wouldn't be here. 

My first year of teaching, I came perilously close to quitting. I contemplated it frequently, because despite my best efforts, it didn't seem like I was getting anywhere with my students. And then someone said the right words at the right time to me: "If you're doing your best, then tell yourself you're doing a good job."

Those words enabled me to continue, and I sometimes say those very words to my students: "Tell yourself you're doing a good job."

Each year I have my students write essays based on Marlo Thomas's book The Right Words at the Right Time... It's a book of essays by all different kids of people: Whoopi Goldberg, Rudi Giuliani,Sally Ride, Jay Leno, Mia Hamm... just dozens and dozens of people who wrote essays about a time someone gave them the right words at the right time. It might have been a person who gave the words, or a song, or even a children's book. Jay Leno wrote about "Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel." We read some of these essays in class as models, and I asked my students to write their own essays about the right words at the right time. 

Some of my students took to it right away, and surprised me be how honestly they wrote about hurts they'd experienced that someone was able to heal them from. Others, I am sad to say, couldn't think of anything to write. I asked those students, "No one has ever complimented you or given you a piece of advice? No children's books or song lyrics have ever helped you get through a tough time?" And some of them said "No," and that No speaks volumes to me. 

How do you go through life without someone complimenting you, boosting you up, giving you good advice? For some students, teachers represent the only compliments, the only good advice, they ever get. Even for our students who already have a lot of "right words" coming their way, teachers can add a few choice ones. At its best, teaching is the art of giving students the right words at the right time, and tonight has been the right words at the right time for me.

By next following year when I said goodbye to the experience, words found or spoken at the right time became even more important:

We had Chinese dinner two nights ago and I had a fortune cookie. I'm not superstitious, in fact I'm not even that fond of fortune cookies, but this one was a little uncanny: it said, "You will be honored by your peers."

After again thanking numerous people, I talked about some of my experiences being Teacher of the Year.

I got to attend the "Read with Stars Gala" for the Volusia Literacy Council--in between hurricanes-- at the hotel across the street, and for the first time got to meet other cartoonists, including Bruce Beattie from the News-Journal, Dana Summers, who draws The Middletons, and Chris Browne, who draws Hagar the Horrible and looks just like Hagar the Horrible. I'd never met real cartoonists before and they probably thought I was a real nerd. "Hi! I draw cartoons too!"

I got to attend and speak at a Florida Future Educators Association event. I spoke to a group of middle and high school students who want to be teachers. I asked them, "How many of you want to teach high school?" About half of them raised their hands. "How many of you want to teach elementary school?" Again, about half of them raised their hands. "How many of you want to teach middle school?"

And they looked at me said, "Are you crazy?"

And I said, "Yes."

But my favorite experiences were speaking at young authors' conferences at elementary schools around the district, where I could see the potential for greatness even among the youngest of authors. One girl at an Palm Terrace Elementary was a budding O. Henry. She had already nailed the twist ending to the point that I almost fell out of my chair when I read her story. She wrote about dressing up real nice to go to a restaurant, I think for her birthday, and she wrote about the restaurant they went to, about the atmosphere there, and the wonderful service, and how she and her family ate lobster, shrimp, and rolls. She created an idyllic scene that made my mouth water. I wanted to go to this restaurant. And then I turned to the last page of her little book, and she had ended her story with, "And then I threw up." 

That was it. The end. 

But it was vividly illustrated. 

I discovered that going into a school and entertaining children for a half hour was way easier than actually teaching them. It's easy to get them to like you when you aren't having to grade them and discipline them and motivate them day to day. But of course, most of the time, those things are the real work of teaching, and you all know it. 

I had the privilege of reading all of your Teacher of the Year packets-- all 800 pages of them. It was longer than reading Anna Karenina. I've been reading Anna Karenina. Since July. I'm still in the 500's. Your packets I read in just two weeks. And don't tell Tolstoy, but your  packets were actually more fun to read. Most of you don't have long Russian names, and no one threw themselves under a train at the end. 

Nonetheless, I was exhausted when I finished, and not just because it was a lot of reading. I starting thinking about everything you all do as teachers, all the mentoring, teaching, coaching, workshops, school and community involvement activities. I got tired just thinking about it. All the caring and expertise and knowledge you are pouring into the children of our communities has got to be making a huge difference for Volusia County. I was truly, deeply impressed. 

As a group you impressed me by doing the things that all teachers do, but what impressed me even more were all the individual things you did that were totally different from each other. No two of you were alike. We have a teacher who is also a certified bus driver. A teacher who has book recommendations placed onto the outsides of grocery bags for people to read when they take home their milk and eggs. And a teacher who, like Maria Von Trapp in a class room, pulls out her guitar in class to sing math chants. 

The list is endless.  You all have similar demands put on you, but you all meet them in unique and individual ways. An award like this would be meaningless if you were all the alike, all identical, all-- dare I say it?--standardized?

As I teach my 8th grade students to write this year, and, yes, to get them ready for the FCAT Writing on Tuesday, I warn them that when they write, their essays will all sound the same unless they find a way to make them stand out. When they wrote essays about a best friend, I got a lot of this: "My friend is fun. My friend is funny. We do fun stuff together. She makes me laugh. She is fun." But other essays said things like, "My friend and I go to the Target sock department and try on funny socks-- socks with rainbows, hearts, and smiley faces." And, "My friend made me laugh so hard chocolate thick shake came out my nose." 

It is the unusual and specific and sometimes even the quirky and strange that make you stand out, whether you are a student or a teacher. Some people want to take the human element out of teaching with scripted programs that move in lock step and tell the teacher exactly what to say. 

I'm hoping they fail. 

Go back to your school and be unique and quirky and different-- just like your students. That's how you got to be teacher of the year in the first place. 

This year has certainly not been standardized. It has been unique and quirky and different as a year. Seeing your face six feet high on the side of a bus is not something you get used to easily. 

The day after I won last year, one of my colleagues, Danny Tompkins, stopped by and asked me if I was happy about it. And I said, "Danny, I would have to be an idiot not to be happy." 

And so at the risk of sounding like Bobby McFarren: Be happy. You deserve it. 

When I gave those two speeches, I had no idea how much my theme of the first speech, The Right Words at the Right Time, would eventually become the actual substance of my second speech. My appeal to teachers to be quirky and different, and my mention of scripted programs couldn't have been more timely. In the ten years since I finished my year as teacher of the year, I feel like the pressure on teachers to be standardized has never been greater.

The need for us to be unique has stayed just as important as it ever was.

My Teacher of the Year packet was full of specific activities I did for and with my classes: planning a theme for the year, planning out how to unroll reading and writing skills within that theme, finding the best texts for my students to read (and sometimes writing them myself when what I found didn't fit the bill), finding or creating engaging writing activities that got even reluctant writers writing, inventing a story called Genre Jumpers to teach proofreading and grammar skills...

Most of those activities are things that the powers that be don't want you doing now. They don't want you to plan your year with creativity, leaving holes for multiple teachable moments and student input; now they want you to follow a curriculum map with fidelity. They don't want you to find materials or create materials. They want you to stick to the program or textbook or workbook and to use them with "fidelity" as "common formative and summative assessments." They don't want you to engage your students; they want you to make sure that your students are doing the same thing as all the other students in your school or district.

But I know some of us, many of us are, are still unique anyway. Not for awards, but for the students.

I hope the Standardistos and scripted programs fail.

I hope the creative teachers win. Because when they win, their students do, too.

Thank you, and goodnight. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Groundhog Day for Teachers

I watch the 1993 movie Groundhog Day every year on...Groundhog Day. I know I am not alone in this ritual.

But Groundhog Day is more than a movie for many of us. It is a touchstone of sorts, albeit a very funny one. And as a teacher, Groundhog Day may be one of several things (books, people, events, students, movies, and songs, among others) that allowed me to get through my first year of teaching. Well, my second first year of teaching. I had one year at a high school before being laid off the week before my wife and I got married. After two years of substituting and holding down about eight part time jobs, I finally landed a second job at a very rural school in August of 1993, a few months after Groundhog Day came out. It was like starting my career all over again, and the reboot wasn't pretty. 

I had a group of ninth grade students who informed me that they had gotten a teacher to quit or get fired every year since Kindergarten-- and they had decided that I was next. They almost succeeded in getting me to quit. Anyone who thinks that every child in America is waiting for Superman, is ready and eager to learn if only a committed teacher would come along, should be forced to relive that year. I asked their previous teacher, "How did you handle them last year?" 

"I went home and cried every night."

"Oh," I said. "I've been doing that, but it hasn't really helped." 

This group of students had an arsenal of anti-teacher weapons that included stink bombs, hogs urine (used in hunting, but also sprinkled liberally around my classroom on more than one occasion), and, one day, a severed chicken head left on my floor. I was spit on; my grade book was stolen and thrown in a boys' room toilet; my license plate was taken off my car and thrown into a ditch. I fell into a fairly serious bout of depression. I would wake up feeling sick to my stomach. On more than one occasion I arrived at school, opened my car door, and threw up in the parking lot. And then went into the building to attempt to teach for the day. 

Don't get me wrong-- there were some good students there, too. They were part of what kept me going. One of those students is now the parent of one of the students at my current school, and has turned out to be a delightful grown-up person. But boy, it was tough. How could I keep going, day after day after day after day after day?

And then I saw Groundhog Day on VHS. I had missed it in theaters.

Groundhog Day is not a "teacher movie." Not remotely. But I immediately identified with Phil Connors, who for some inexplicable reason, is forced to relive the same humdrum day on the job over and over again. Some people have estimated he relives it three thousand times, while others estimate he relives it for thousands of years, until he finally gets that one day right. Isn't every day for a teacher somewhat the same as Groundhog Day? Same students all year, same class periods, same procedures? And like Phil, you begin to realize that you can't really change other people-- you can only change you

I suppose it's a cliche by now, but I don't care: I had just stumbled on the then-new Seven Habits of Highly Effective People at the time, and I realized that Groundhog Day was in part about being "Proactive." I realized that I had to stop reacting, and start acting. 

I could use the sameness of the days to my advantage, to experiment, to try to get to know these very strange students in my charge, to try new things, to attempt to keep my sense of humor. I suppose that like Phil, I discovered you can't trick people into responding to you. You end up getting rebuffed repeatedly, as Phil finds out in his initial attempts to woo Rita, his producer. 

What Phil discovers is that you can't change other people: only change yourself, but one of the best ways to change yourself is to start helping other people. 

One of my favorite scenes in the movie takes place on Phil's last Groundhog Day, when he finally gets the day right. He is coming down the sidewalk checking his watch. He begins running. He arrives under a tree just in time to catch a boy falling from one of its limbs. The kid runs off as soon as Phil places him safely on the ground, and Phil yells after him, "You have never thanked me!" 

We only see this event once, but Phil has obviously saved this boy numerous times on numerous identical Groundhog Days. Isn't that kind of what teaching is like? Not a lot of gratitude, and we have to keep catching them when they make the same stupid mistakes over and over again. 

But eventually they learn, and we finally get to move onto February third, and a new set of lessons. 

Groundhog Day helped me keep my sense of perspective and my sense of humor, and, I suppose, my teaching career. I'd like to say it was like a teacher movie where I triumphantly won over the hearts and minds of all those students. It wasn't like that. But I survived to teach another day, and another, and another, and another. Twenty-one years later, I'm still at it. Some classes still frustrate me, but I no longer throw up in the parking lot or come home and cry.

And all these years later, no matter what school I teach at, what grade levels, students, or materials I teach, on some level I am teaching that same day over and over again, and hoping I get better at it. 

"So put your tiny hand in mine, 
There aint no hill or mountain we can't climb..."

Happy Groundhog Day.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Teacher Bergeron: How to Handicap Great Teachers

I once had a visitor to my classroom--someone I wanted to send a message to about the standardization of teachers. I had my class read the short story "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, I'm not "subtle" but I am "effective." Effective, that is, at making a point. Not necessarily on a teacher evaluation system.

If you haven't read "Harrison Bergeron," go and read it now. The link is above. Well, if you don't want to, I'll tell you that it's about a future (2081 to be precise) when everyone is made equal to everybody else using sash-weights to equalize strength, noise-transmitters to shatter thoughts and equalize intelligence, and ugly masks to equalize looks. Harrison himself is a 14 year old rebel: a seven foot tall genius, with a face like a Greek god, mighty strength, dancing skills, and the ability to defy gravity. To counteract these traits, he is draped in scrap metal, disfigured by mask-like facial accessories, and fitted with a large-sized set of headphones transmitting loud random noises to scramble his thoughts. All of the "handicapping" in the story is under the jurisdiction of the United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers.

Harrison is not a teacher-- so how does his plight relate to that of teachers? 

Well, imagine you are a teacher. For the good of your students, and to make your job more satisfying and meaningful both to you and to your students, you actually want to exercise some of your particular strengths as a teacher. For the good of your students, you want to actually think about what you teach and how your students learn to find the sweet spot where the two things meet. For the good of your students, you want to find ways to make your subject and its attendant skills and knowledge attractive and appealing to your students. 

You might think that we'd want teachers to exercise their particular strengths, use their intellects, and work to make learning seem attractive. It appears that this is not the case. 

If you have particular strengths as a teacher, they want to weigh you down. The Diana Moon Glampers of the education world will strap a textbook or workbook to you and tell you to stay within the four corners of the book. Those textbooks can be heavy. 

If you really want to think for yourself as a teacher, about how to order the activities and assignments in your room, about what those activities and assignments should actually be, the Glampers will strap a headset over your ears. This headset will blast into your head every hour of every day, reminding you to follow the curriculum map, to stick to the pacing guide, to do what everyone else in your Professional Learning Community is doing, to teach in the same order and in the same way as everyone else teaching your grade level and subject. 

If you have ways of making your subject particularly attractive to your students, things like coming up with reading or writing assignments or projects or learning experiences that you know will particularly engage your particular students or get them to think certain ways or see things in a new light-- look out. They will put a mask on you to hide those attractive ideas. These masks go by names like Common Formative Assessments and Common Summative Assessments and Standardized Assessments. Every student in every class must be approached by the same face. 

You go to make a move as a teacher, and find textbooks and maps and pacing guides weighing you down. You can't just think about your students and how to help them. The minute you take a step in that direction, it's like your ankles are shackled to the ankles of everyone else in your PLC-- and you aren't supposed to make a move without them. You stand in front of your class, but you are not really teaching--you are going through the motions of teaching, weighed down, masked, and unable to think straight. 

And supposedly getting some kind of results that you are supposedly responsible for. 

Of course, some of us have done what Harrison did. We've torn off the scrap metal, ripped off the mask, and torn out the headset so that we can use our strengths, share our enjoyment of our subject, and think for ourselves. 

In the end, Harrison got shot down from the ceiling by Diana Moon Glampers, but those of us who really want to teach rather than go through the motions can hope to escape such a fate. The person who visited my classroom got my un-subtle message, and gave me the blessing to do what I do for students-- even though "Harrison Bergeron" isn't on our curriculum map. 

There are brave people out there who are willing to be the anti-Glampers, who are willing to Just Let Us Teach

Of course Harrison tore off his handicaps for his own aggrandizement. Maybe that's why he couldn't win. We need to tear off our handicaps for our students. 

I can't think of a worse example to set for children than to show them that it's okay to let other people weigh you down and make you less than you are. 

We need to show them how to be free. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

For the New Year: Why We Should All Try to Be More Like Public School Teachers

The America Public School teacher is one of the most maligned, looked-down on members of society these days.  People stereotype us as everything from lazy and money-grubbing to incompetent, under-educated, and not very bright.

This kind of stereotyping is the kind of nasty, negative culture that seems to be blossoming in American culture, and as the new year gets started, in the spirit of defying the zeitgeist, I'd like to suggest something really counter-cultural.

I know that not all public school teachers are cut from the same cloth, or even have the same philosophies of teaching or styles of teaching. These differences are, in fact what make teachers individually effective, no matter how hard they try to standardize us. But I do think there are certain qualities a public (as opposed to private) school teacher should strive to have that our society as a whole could stand to learn from.

Our society has become intolerant of differences, isolated and insular within our little groups. We tend to hang out with people who are similar to ourselves, religiously, politically, and racially. We live in income-defined neighborhoods and gated communities.  Even online, where one might expect to find mixed salad of views, two things tend to happen. When people who differ from each other do meet up, their interactions and comments tend to be nasty, negative, and unproductive. Or they never meet up, thanks the the "internet bubble" which tends to suggest places to go online where we can find our own views supported.

In contrast, a public school classroom is a place of differences: different income levels, nationalities, religions and non-religions, races, and political views (often the views of the people at home). As a public school teacher, I work hard to make sure everyone feels accepted in my classroom, that our debates about issues are courteous and based on real reasons and logic, and don't degenerate into nasty comments and personal attacks. I try to create a space where differences are an asset, not a liability. When our Presbyterian-raised daughter was in middle school, and a student in my class, I remember seeing her walking down the hall, laughing and chatting with her Muslim friend and her Jewish friend. A public school creates a space for such friendships to happen, and I found the site both holy on some level that transcends any specific faith, but also a visual representation of what living in a democracy is all about.

As I noted above, our society has become nasty in its level of discourse. Middle-schoolers, and I supposed students of all ages, are not immune to the nastiness. Children can have a natural tendency to be nasty to each other, but I sometimes wonder of our current obsession with anti-bullying measures is ironic in the face of the public bullying our children often see modeled by adults in our society, from politicians and celebrities to pundits and their own parents. But a public school classroom at its best is a place where we attempt to teach students how to treat each other well. In our testing-obsessed culture, we tend to forget that some of the most important lessons we teach in school are the ones that aren't graded: how to treat one another, how to share, how to be considerate. For a longer treatment of this particular issue, go back and read Robert Fulghum's classic essay.

Our society doesn't really encourage thinking about both sides of an issue and coming to your own conclusions. It tends to encourage accepting someone else's extreme point of view, and then shouting it as if it were your own. In a public school classroom at its best, you are challenged to think for yourself, to take a hard look both sides, or even many different sides of an issue, and then come to a conclusion based on what you thought about.

A public school teacher who is fulfilling his or her mission is working to promote real thinking, but also real tolerance, real interaction, and the integration rather than the fragmentation of society.

When I welcome my students to class each period, I try very hard not stereotype them or to view them as the enemy. As we begin debating the issues raised by stories or essays that we have read, and when we begin writing about those issues, I don't tell them what I think. I question them about what they think, and then I listen. I encourage them to listen to each other, too. Being nasty, disparaging, and belittling is not an option.

I wish the adults who so often disparage public schools and public school teachers would visit real classrooms once in a while. I suspect that if they did, they might learn some lessons about how to think, how to listen, how to treat one another, and how to be a little more accepting of people and points of view that are different than their own.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Do NOT Stay in the Four Corners of This Text!

Do not stay in the four corners of this text.
Do not be boxed in.
This text wants to ask you questions that take you outside itself.
Think about the best books you ever read.
THE best book you ever read.
Do you remember where you were when you read it?
What the cover looked like?
Were you eating or drinking anything?
What time of year was it and what kind of scenery was outside?
Snow? Verdant summer? Autumn glory in a kaleidoscope of colors?
How did you connect personally to that book?
Did you relate to the characters?
Want to escape to that setting?
Find the themes compelling
And applicable to your own life?

Stop. A break. Are you thinking about this text?
Or are you thinking about you?
How do you know?

Ask text-independent questions.
Someone may try to get you to answer
Or ask questions about this text
That are completely dependent on this text.
This text forbids you to do that.
This text wants you to relate everything here to you.
It wants to ask you You-Dependent questions.

Think about the most important reading experiences of your life.
Did they involve detached, emotionless data processing of information from an informational text?

Think about your best writing experiences.
Did you write things hoping that your readers would be unmoved,
Analyzing what you wrote, mining it for facts,
But feeling nothing, nothing, nothing
And letting your words affect them not one bit?
Do you think that most authors feel that way?

Think about me-- your author.
What prompted me to write this text?
What is my background experience?
Why would I write something like this?

Go look me up. David Lee Finkle.
I have a bit of a digital footprint.
Go look me up. I can wait here while you do it.
You'll be leaving the four corners of this text for a bit,
But I'm okay with that.
On the other hand, if you are not at all interested in me,
That's okay too.
You could look up New Criticism instead
And find out that it's really old.
If you did that, some people would say you cheated,
Because then you'd come back here with... background knowledge!
Instead of struggling to figure it out what's happening here,
You'd have a better idea of what I'm actually trying to say.
Isn't that terrible?

Do not stay in the four corners of this text.
Even if you were told to do that, the text itself is telling you not to.
It's like that piece of graffiti I saw once:
"The statement below is false.
The statement above is true."

A paradox.

There are people who want to take this text,
All texts,
And seal them in a plastic box
So you can look but not touch
Or be touched.
So you can't connect to it
Or connect it to the world.
They want you to prod it and poke it through the plastic,
But they don't want it to actually affect anything
Do anything, change anything or anyone.

They want to render texts sterile,
Lifeless, inert subjects for study
Like butterflies pinned to cardboard.

Set them free.
Let them roam the world and interact with it.
Think about why you read.
Think about how you read.
Think about what you read.
Resist it, hate it, want to rip it up.
Love it, live by it, make it part of who you are.
Or just be mildly amused.
But connect.
Let the text leak out of the book
Into your head
Into your heart
Into your hands
Into your feet
Into the world.

Writers write to change things,
Not so their ideas can stay trapped
Behind an invisible barrier
Screaming out at the world but never being heard,
Or being heard, politely listened to,
And ignored.

Do not stay withing the four corners of this text.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

How the Dirth Stole Learning! - A Yuletide Tale of Education Reform

This post will be updated daily for the next two weeks or so, up until the completion of the comic strip series that begins running tomorrow in the Daytona Beach News-Journal and online. I'm including the three "prologue" strips that lead to Mr. Fitz's fevered holiday dream! Check each day to see the story assemble itself before your eyes! 

Thanks to my son, Christopher Finkle, for helping me pen the Dr. Seuss parody, and to Gloria Pipkin for helping me edit the series!