Something Missing

6 12 2008

"Schoolhouse on the Hill" by Diana Dignonis


Lately, I have felt ambushed. As a public educator, I am unesteemed in the world of the Academie, I am held hostage by standards that do not measure understanding, I am stretched across achievement gaps, I am passionate, I am outraged, I am desperate for social justice in my classroom, in the communities where I work and live. I am longing for a rhetoric about education that is not caustic, accusing, and defensive. I am frustrated, but not hopeless. 

A few months ago, I attended a cocktail party at the University. A Research Fellow, who had helped himself to a few drinks by the time of my arrival, had some suggestions for me as a public educator. “If you could just get these kids to write a sent-ence,” he spat. “You know, a subject, a verb, and a DOT on the end. I mean, a simple sentence. I mean, how hard could it be?” I was the only teacher at this gathering, and this sneering (supposed) intellectual’s remarks did not make me feel any less alien. Unfortunately, this is only one example of my instances where I have been on the receiving end of feedback like this about my professional field all the time. Teachers are criticized by everyone: parents, students, administrators, politicians, mechanics, engineers, researchers, doctors, lawyers, husbands and wives. The quality these critiques share is the smug arrogance of their delivery. I suppose that since nearly everyone has been a student at some time or another, the general public feels as though they have enough knowledge of the field to believe that they are themselves experts. 

And we are teaching their children. John Taylor Gatto, New York’s Teacher of the Year, says that we (schools) “adopt” students, we are “entrusted” to take on a parenting role for other people’s children. Passion does often override reason, especially when it comes to parenting. When parents argue with me about the way that my classroom operates, I try to remember the many occasions when I have (tentatively) argued with my child’s doctor over a diagnosis, informed by my feverish midnight reading of Web M.D. 

Despite my (attempted) understanding, I can’t help but yearn for a time when educators might be treated as professional experts in their field. The mountains of meaningless paperwork alone is insulting, but the even worse are the public’s unsolicited knee-jerk reactions to the educational system and the complex dilemmas, issues, problems it faces. Everyone thinks s/he’s got the answer. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. There is a wide range of possibilities for improving the complex and diverse set of problems with education. 

So where to begin?

Last week, I stumbled across this reading for the Composition class I’ve been taking this fall. In 1996, Mike Rose wrote “What We Talk about When We Talk about School.” You can find this article in the September 25, 1996 edition of Education Week. After a heated “conversation” about education around the Thanksgiving dinner table that left me reeling, I was relieved to read Rose’s perspectives on the issue(s) facing public education and the rhetoric we use to discuss them. 

For three years in the early  90s, Mike Rose travelled across the country, visiting successful public school classrooms in an attempt to “fashion a response to the national discussion about public schools, a discussion that, [Rose] believed, had gone terribly wrong.” He analyzes the rhetoric of the conversation about public education, which he describes as being “flooded… with alarms and bad news, with crisis talk and prescriptions for remedy.” 

When asked about standardized test scores and school failures, he admits the problems with public education, but he also recognizes “the problem with assessing our schools through a few reductive or inaccurate measures.” Ultimately, he claims that “we need to think in richer ways about what we want from our schools.” Of course, he was received with “vehemence,” a response that he describes as “angry, disbelieving, assured and articulate, and terribly upset.”

What follows is his vision of “what’s missing” in our thinking about schools, schooling, and what we can expect from public education:

It is, of course, legitimate to worry about the relation between education and teh economy, and national and state goals, frameworks, and standards can play a role in improving the quality of schooling. But there is something missing here.

As I sat in those good classrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, Missoula and Tucson, Wheelwright, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., a richer vocabulary of schooling began to shape itself. To be sure, there was concern about the economy and attempts to prepare students for it. But I also heard talk of safety and respect. A commitment to create sage public space and a respectful regard for the backgrounds and capabilities of the people in it. I saw the effect of high expectations: teachers taking students seriously as intellectual and social beings. I saw what happens when teachers distribute responsibility through a classroom, create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new. I saw the power of bringing students together around common problems and projects – the intellectual and social energy that resulted, creating vital public space. And I saw what happens to young people, 1st graders through 12th, when they come to feel that those who represent an institution have their best interests at heart.

Safety, respect, expectation, opportunity, vitality, the intersection of heart and mind, the creation of civic space – this should be our public vocabulary of schooling – for that fact, of a number of our public institutions. By virtue of our citizenship in an democratic state, we are more than economic and corporate beings. 

If we are a nation divided, we are also a nation yearning for new ways to frame old issues, for a fresh language of civic life. The last year [spent “documenting excellence” in American classrooms for his book Possible Lives] has deepened my belief in the strength of this yearning. To generate this language for public education, we need to move a bit from the boardroom and the athletic field and closer to the good classroom – that miniature civic space – to find a more compelling language of school reform and of public education in a democracy.

I can’t imagine that many people would disagree with Rose’s depiction of public education in a democracy. I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t want her child in a classroom like the ones Rose documented. What is perhaps the most frustrating piece to this puzzling puzzle is that we all, everyone–rich, poor, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American– we all want this for our children. And we want it so badly, and so desperately, that we have to cling to oversimplified solutions in order to believe the possibility of “the good classroom.” Unfortunately, the solution is not singular and it is not simple. 

Frustrated with public education in America? Your name is Legion. For God’s sake, please have a bit of compassion on those of us who are sweating it out on the front lines. Just like our students, we need patience, understanding, open-mindedness, and support. 

If you’re interested in reading more of Mike Rose’s stuff, check out his blog

Antique School House Room Box & Antique Bisque Dolls, circa 1900

testing, testing: 1, 2, 3

18 03 2008

It’s that time of year–– again. The time when teaching becomes a bore, the students become hostile, and my life has lost any semblance of fruitful creativity. I spend the day trying to get my students to care about a test that is meaningless to them. These tests that the state designs and employs to hold everyone “accountable” are arbitrary enough as it is. Expecting a bunch of 8th graders to be responsible about taking a test that carries no consequences or incentives for their performance is ridiculous to say the very least. To use those test scores (which couldn’t possibly be accurate measures of the child’s knowledge if he/she isn’t even trying) to justify my ability as a teacher is just disgusting. I don’t believe that the answer is to raise the stakes; rather, we should be using alternative modes of assessing that are not forced-choice tests to determine whether or not a student is learning. A student’s ability to “pick the best answer” is limited by the answers that they are choosing from. How can you ask a student to choose a tone of a poem from four answer choices? To be honest, there are questions on the practice tests that I’ve been giving my students that I have to really stretch to find evidence for, and I have a graduate degree!!

A sample sentence from one of the passages: “Snow is fluffy when it falls, but when it accumulates without melting, it becomes granular and eventually compacts into solid ice.”This is a test for eighth graders. Accumulates? Becomes granular? Eventually compacts? I think this test designer thought that perhaps if the sentence started with something really dumbed down like “snow is fluffy,” ending the sentence with scientific terminology would be somehow justifiable. It’s not that these words are too hard for the kids. It’s that these kinds of technical terms are embedded in every sentence of a two-column page-long writing sample about something random… like glaciers.

Some context: It took me the entire first semester to get my students to read something, anything. I allowed them to pick out their own books and told them to get rid of the book if they didn’t find it interesting any longer. These kids are smart, but they are not prepared for the kind of testing that the state imposes on them. Their academic background is spotty when it comes to reading. Our culture is becoming markedly less textual: we simply don’t read anymore. Most of us get out news online (I get mine from the radio). We expect our kids to enjoy reading, but how many teachers are reading with their kids? How many classrooms are stocked with fun books? Kids become better readers by reading more. Period. It doesn’t matter what they read––they just need to read.Here’s what I know about the kids who perform well on these kinds of tests:

  1. They come from homes that have books in them.
  2. They will do an assignment “because the teacher said so.”
  3. They usually do their best work even when you don’t ask them to, no matter how meaningless it is to them.

I was not one of these students. When we took the writing assessment, I just wrote something down. When I took my AP exams, I half-assed them because I knew I was going to retake the class in college for an easy A. Now, the ACT? I took that one 3 times and studied for it. I didn’t sleep through that one. I was wide awake and rested for it. Same with the GRE. Why? Because I cared about the results because I knew that they would have a dramatic effect on my own personal interests (which happened to be going to college).

Bottom line: Testing is stupid. I wish I could articulate it in a more profound way, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s pissed off about the testing because it’s stupid. Today I happen to be pissed off about the testing because I’m working my ass off to get my kids to care about something that I don’t care about. The students’ scores are more mine than theirs. At the end of the year, those scores will come back to me. Being evaluated by something you don’t believe in makes about as much sense as an atheist giving all of his money to a church in hopes that he will be let into a Heaven that doesn’t exist.

Margaret Spellings makes about as much sense as Brenda Dickson.

as large as alone

28 02 2008

I have been really excited about the new Jack Johnson album: Sleep Through The Static. It contains his signature truth-telling lyrics with that whimsical, plucky guitar. It’s a gorgeous composition of soft and loud, and it reminds me of spring time in college. It’s the kind of music that makes it almost glamorous to be alone––the music itself is intimate, deeply personal, yet universally true. Or so I thought.This week, we’ve been writing for our portfolios, so I’ve been playing a lot of music during class. Usually I play it safe with wordless jazz and I stick to the basics: Miles and Coltrain. But the other day I decided to introduce some of my own music. Class, meet Jack Johnson. I was thinking, How could anyone not love this? I mean, I know it’s not Fergie or Van Halen or Lil Wayne, but c’mon. This is real. good. stuff. (But not as real or as good as Miles and Coltrain obviously.)Before the first song was 15 seconds in, I was greeted with the following critique from my astute musical connoisseurs. “Ugggh. This is lover’s music.” or “Awww man. What is this?” Some of the students tried to build my ego back up by offering comments like “If I were sitting in a restaurant, and this played, I would be like, hmmm. What’s that?” Of course, this kind soul’s final words were cut off by another commentator’s insistence that such music would make her “Get up and leave that joint!” Then yet another sympathetic student said, “Naw… It sounds like elevator music to me.”And so it is decided. I am lame. According to 8th graders anyway. I have to admit, Jack Johnson sounds different post 8th grade bashing, but they can’t take away my history with Jack. And so I will continue to listen and enjoy that melancholy “lover’s music.”

Valentines for the Unlovable in Haiku

14 02 2008

Picture 29 students shouting these things at the teacher to write on the board: feet! toe nails! toilet! oooooohhhh! the bathroom! chicken heads! sweaty socks! locker room! rats! nappy head! port-a-potty! broccoli! stains on clothes! flatulence! uuuuuughhh–you’re nasty, man! roaches, spiders, snakes, scars, mud, deer guts, moldy bread, gum on the bottom of desks, trash cans…

From this list, students chose their favorites, or invented new ones and we wrote haiku valentine poems to things that are usually repulsive. I tried to get them to put a positive spin on them at the end if they could, but there’s really not much positive about flatulence (though this student ended her poem with “I feel better now”). I bought really cool looking scrap booking paper with glitter and metallic designs on it and had them write their haikus on the paper… from a distance, my room looks really catchy. Up close, you will find tributes to a variety of nasty, repulsive things. Such is life: everything’s beautiful from a distance.

This activity was really useful in terms of helping the kids learn about revision. Since you have to squeeze your words into that tight structure, you have to be really inventive and it takes some time playing with the words. They got frustrated, but they were pleased I think with their final products. I didn’t sit down all day, but it was really exhilarating to hear the kids talking about and manipulating language in surprising and interesting ways.

Here’s mine (see if you can guess what it is):

Your slimy, prickly

skin: I want to wash my hands.

Marinate then bake.

Concrete Imagery

6 12 2007

Apparently, love is the favorite topic for 8th graders to write about. They write these really “deep” pieces about their feelings and bring them up to my desk with their chests puffed up, holding their breath. “Mrs. Reed, will you read this?” and then they throw the essay about what love is on my desk. It’s really hard to pretend like I haven’t read it before. It’s also really hard not to laugh. So, my challenge has been moving these kids away from cliché writing about abstract ideas toward using concrete images to illustrate their ideas.

So, we began our lesson today with Fergie’s song, “Glamorous.” It was really, really fun (to put it abstractly)! I had the kids write down all of the images they could find that illustrated the Dutchess’ notion of what glamorous is. Here are the ones we found: flying first class, champagne, diamond rings, having a chaperone, rims, selling records, driving a mustang, limousines, caviar, shopping for expensive things, having (a lot of) money in the bank, shoe fetish, trips to Rome, being on MTV, being on the movie screen, being on magazine covers, half a million (butter scones?).

After that, I took Emma Bolden’s genius lesson that she presented at Sun Belt this summer–we came up with images for the following abstract ideas: love, anger, sadness, frustration, patience, joy, peace, and hate. (They also were not allowed to use the words “good” or “bad” in their imagery.) Here are some of the images my students came up with:

LOVE: My husband doing the dishes before going to bed at night (mine), my daddy getting up at three a.m. to get me a mouth guard for basketball, Having all of your family around you, When your parents take you to Hollister and buy you an $80 pair of pants for no reason

ANGER: When you order a cheeseburger but you don’t get any meat or cheese, Getting kicked out of a good skate spot, the look on your face when you just found out your dad went through your phone

JOY: When the old woman in front of you speeds up, Getting a new skateboard, When a player on the other team catches a punt and runs it backwards to get a safety

PEACE: The forest, Sleeping during the rain, When your house is quiet because you tied your two sisters up with jump ropes and put one in the bath tub and one in the kitchen cabinet (once you get one tied up, it’s easy to get the other one)

PATIENCE: Waiting in the cold on the day after Thanksgiving Day sales, Trying to learn a new trick three weeks before a contest, My grandmother’s face when she’s cooking, When you’re sitting at the doctor’s office, Getting my hair braided, Waiting for your turn to play in the game, Waiting for an old lady to get up some steps

PEACE: Being surrounded by my family, The sound of rain on my roof at night, When me and my brother aren’t making the neighbors call the cops, The silence in your house when nobody’s there, WHen your softball coach quits blowing the whistle to run

HATE: SAT’s, Bad headache at school, When someone eats your food, Doing homework, When people drop wide open passes

FRUSTRATION: Stubbing your toe on a table while going to your room half asleep at 3 a.m., When you forget what you’re about to say, Not being able to figure out a problem on a math test, Sitting in Mrs. Reed’s class trying to think of something to write about, Sitting in a boring class, When your P.E. coaches make you run a mile when they’re the ones that need to run it

SADNESS: My cousin who I was tripping out with one day dying the next, Listening to people cry in a movie, When your coon dog gets bit by a rabid coon, When your 8 year old cat dies

The other night, Adam, Audra and I were watching The Actor’s Studio with John Cusack. He was talking about how 12 is like the Buddha age–when your perception of the world is clear and unjaded, but still mature enough to see how things work… Since my kids are 13 and 14, they’re really not too far off from that. I am always surprised by the maturity my kids show in their perceptions of the world around them. Yesterday, I had a student share a story about hanging out at her grandmother’s house (in a neighborhood where “all the crack heads live”) when she heard 2 gun shots. She watched the police bring the man out without his gun. In the end, they discovered that he had hidden the weapon in a cereal box. Another student (who is failing 3 of his core classes right now and who never really acts like he gives a rat’s ass about my class) wrote an essay entitled, “Bringing Back Sunday Night Dinner.” I think what makes this age so special is that they act like they’re “grown,” that I am often convinced that they are (as when I have to remind them that I am the adult here!) so it’s easy to forget that these kids still have the souls of children… and perhaps so do we.