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.

Drinking from a Fire Hydrant

4 12 2007

There is a quiet moment following the all-call for the last bus. Despite the papers that are strewn across my desk, the water bottles that litter the various surfaces of my classroom, the empty Coke cans and energy drinks that align my window sill, out of sight from the students’ hungry eyes, there is a peace, a moment of stillness. Generally, I take all of the papers and sweep them into a stack somewhere on my desk. Today, there is no room for another stack. If I were to take a picture of the catastrophe that is my December desk, you would certainly be aghast with the horror. There are notes to myself squeezed in the margins, on curled up corners of student work, on the back of my hand. Where did this chaos come from and how will I ever, ever begin to make my way to the bottom?

Fortunately, there is the promise of a fresh start with the New Year. Unfortunately, the new year feels as though it is eons away. Those eons will consist of one 30 page “article manuscript” (in which I will historicize the novel Little Women within the trajectory of the systemization of education in the late 19th century), 10 school days, 5 sets of final exams, 145 writing portfolios, an oil change, Christmas presents, Christmas cards, countless cups of coffee, one family reunion, 2 gift exchanges, at least 3 presents which will require assembly, and a new pair of shoes for Ruthie.

Last year, there was an autistic student in the 8th grade here who was out sick for several days. When he came back, he responded to inquiries about his health with, “Are you drowning in a sea of debt?” (Apparently, he had watched a lot of television during his time at home and the commercials about debt made a lasting impression on him.) Personally, I am drowning in a sea of to-do lists.

8th grade Monsters

6 11 2007


It’s happened. I have reached that point in the school year where I am mad. A lot. Those of you who teach know that there is a point during every school year when the mood shifts. All of a sudden, these bright, young adolescents who come into my classroom each day become wild ogres whose life-purpose is to torture their teacher.

I just jumped all over my 5th period class. The students trickled in 5 minutes late from P.E. It took them 7 minutes to turn their attention to their bell work after they came in. I watched them laugh and jive in their seats. I watched them throw paper across the room and offer each other a stick of gum or a piece of candy. I watched them silently from the doorway, a hot anger slowly rising to my cheeks. When I finally closed the door–a mild slam really–several of the students noticed and began working, but most of them carried on. I moved across the room to my desk. The conversations around me continued.

“Hey, man. Check this out. Yeah, we did it in wood shop.”

“Ka-CEE! Stop that!” (Kacee popped a rubber bad against her friend’s arm)

“Man, that substitute in Ms. Green’s class sucks. She told Shonda she was stupid. And Shonda was all like, in her face, you know.”

I sat down at the desk. And then I just lost it. “Keep it up, guys. I’m writing down the names of those of you who have failed to begin working on your bell work. Expect your parents to receive a phone call from me this afternoon.”

10 minutes into class, they hop on that bell work like their lives depended on it. Finally. We share some of our sentences (the bell work was a sentence combining activity to get them ready for revising today). So far, so good. Maybe I actually scared them this time.

Then, we move into developing our revision task lists for the day. Okay. One group decided to put Ms. Green on their “to do” list. They marked it out after seeing my eyebrows go up and began composing a more serious list. Things are beginning to move along… until we share our task lists. Now, my students know that if there’s one thing that sends me over the edge, it’s students who don’t listen to each other during share time. Share time is serious business. Share time is sacred. Don’t mess with share time. I’m sure you can guess what happened next. That’s right. Someone messed with share time.

Right now, I am looking over my computer at a host of 8th graders who are diligently copying down their definitions for unit 5 in their Word Skills books. I know, I know. I should have given them a more meaningful punishment than copying definitions, but I was pissed. I hear pages turning, I hear pens scratching out ridiculous, long winded definitions that often times don’t make sense to me. I want to stand up and shout, “I HATE WORKBOOKS!” But I can’t. I have crossed over to the dark side. I may as well be wearing a bun and slapping their desks with a ruler.

Perhaps the 8th grade Monster is me.


9 10 2007

I am sick. I have one of those colds that creeps into your throat and then expands, seeping down your bones. I’m not hungry. The only thing I want is some kind of magical elixir that will wipe these germs out of the inside of my throat [cut to a hand holding a towel, cleaning the inside of a glass vase, making that squeaky sound].  Said elixir would have to taste like a mud slide (i.e. bushwhacker). I would settle for just the mudslide right now… or perhaps some warm apple cider.

I don’t really mind being sick because most people feel sorry for you when you’re sick… even 8th graders. My kids were so quiet today. So I don’t mind feeling a bit under the weather. However, I hate, hate, hate, loathe having a cold when it’s not even cold outside. I don’t understand that. If I have a cold, I want to be curled up on the couch, swathed in blankets, sipping something cold and relishing the warmth that emanates from the mug. But no! I am laid out on the couch in a tank top drinking Sprite (or, “Tangy” as Ruthie calls it) with the fan pointed directly at me.

Ah, well. Tonight I will dream of places that are cool in September. Cool enough to wear perhaps a light scarf and one of those cute corduroy jackets from J. Crew. Mmmmm.


26 09 2007

Currently, I am being held captive by my Foundations of Education professor who has decided to go off on a tangent about her penchant for speaking Turkish and her regrets at not having learned Japanese (though she argues that she should have become a linguist since she has Japanese books at her house). While this tangent is tangentially related to cultural diversity, it is boring and we are still 22 pages from finishing our discussion of the chapter. She is now telling us what she is going to ask us a questions about on the final exam, which is multiple choice. Now, I have some issues with multiple choice tests that have to do with the fact that they are stupid and I am in grad school. So instead of marking the information that she is prompting us to note, I am going to make (yet another) list of the exciting things that have happened to me this week:

1. I had eggplant parmesian last night, followed by tira misu

2. Last night, Ruthie thought it would be awesome to take off her diaper in the middle of the night and pee all over her crib, so I will need to finish washing her sheets whenever my professor decides to let us go.

3. Yesterday, I got to run errands and get ice cream with Ruthie and a friend, which made it way more fun (especially when Ruthie made up her mind that she had enough as we approached the fabric softeners, leading a loud and dramatic scene which I was proud to be the center of).

I have to stop with my list now because my professor is persecuting me for saying that race is a social construct. She’s now saying that she’s “comfortable with race.” It makes me physically sick to think about what they are paying this woman to be a full professor at Auburn University. She is now promoting the genetic model as a credible one. Jesus.

No Beef, All Filler

11 07 2007


As a teacher, I am consistently blown away by the CRAP that we had to do in school for no apparent reason (other than the obvi: “because you have to”). Because of asshole laws like No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing (SAT, ACT, ARMT, blah, blah, blah), we teachers are forced to do a bunch of junk in our classrooms that entail anything but learning. If you’ve ever

a) taken a quiz on the parts of speech

b) been asked to identify the theme of a poem on a multiple choice test

c) had to answer trivial questions about a novel you read for class

d) memorized facts in preparation for a test

e) all of the above

Then you have been the victim of learning-less education. The problem is in the proof and the proof is supposedly in the testing. As educators, we have to be able to determine whether or not a students has learned the material we have taught, so we have to construct ways of collecting evidence that justify the grades we end up having to give our students. Most often, forms of evaluation like the ones I lsted above are much easier to evaluate than authentic assessments, but much less reliable in that they really only show evidence of a student’s ability to recall information and they cheat a broader vision of education.

Last night, I was reading this article in Time magazine that issued a report card on No Child Left Behind. This legislation, described by one superintendent as being like “a Russian novel” in that “it’s long, it’s complicated, and in the end, everyone gets killed,” was essentially designed to “close the achievement gap” between rich and poor, between “lacking” groups such as minorities and special ed students and everybody else. “under achieving” schools have to prove that they are making adequate yearly progress (AYP) towards reaching their goals that will help them “raise the bar” for their students. Funding for public schools is strictly tied to compliance with NCLB, so schools that fail to make AYP risk losing funding.

The first issue I have with this well-intentioned legislation: we are STILL LABELING students! The gap will begin to close when we stop defining our differences and start practicing more inclusive means of teaching. A second very serious issue that I take with NCLB is the idea of “highly qualified” teachers. We teachers have to take ridiculous (and expensive) tests in order to prove that we are highly qualified. In Alabama, the APTTP actually requires that we listen to various messages and record the information we heard. So while students are being groomed for high stakes testing, teachers are also being measured in completely arbitrary–and often insulting–ways.

The law is up for renewal this year. Please read the article and be informed about where our educational system is heading. The anxiety that this law creates in the classroom is cheating our children. Teachers are being evaluated based on how many of their students make the grade on these tests, which causes them to curb their teaching styles to “teach to the test.” Instead of creating authentic opportunities for learning (i.e. getting the hell out of the textbooks), teachers are handing out worksheets and making their kids do practice tests–all activities that yield little to no results in the classroom or on these tests. This kind of learning is meaningless and it does not transfer beyond that isolated activity. Since the law is coming up for review this year, you could make a difference by writing a letter to your Senator or your Representative. Anyone who knows me know that I am not a particularly political person, but this one hits close to home as I teach in a school that did not make AYP last year.

Here’s two more links to check it should you feel so inclined:

Eliminate NCLB

National Education Association

U.S. Department of Education