Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Bike Ride in Search of a Metaphor

There is a canal that runs 184 miles through the Potomac River gorge, right alongside the river itself. Built in the early 19th century, it was constructed to do what all canals do: make a river navigable so that barges might transport cargo from one point to another. Although it was closed to commerce less than a hundred years after it was built, today the canal is a national park and the tow path is restored for hiking and biking.

These days, the river is high and muddy because of all the rain. It's a challenge to experienced kayakers, and even then, there are areas such as Great Falls, that are always too dangerous for those boats; it's easy to see that a barge would never make it through. When you consider the hilly terrain that surrounds the canal, the tow path becomes an ideal destination for a nice, flat, bike ride, too. You can spin hard for miles in the shade getting a pretty good workout, and, in many places, enjoy that view of the wild, brown Potomac.

The special education teachers in our building often face resistance from their general education colleagues when it comes to the issue of putting accommodations in place for their students. Many regular ed teachers feel that accommodations "dumb down" the curriculum and make it "too easy" for the special ed kids, so they ignore the fact that the IEP (individualized education plan) is legally binding.

Today as I pedaled along the tow path, it occurred to me that special education is the canal that makes the curriculum navigable. The destination is the same for all who travel this route, and not everyone is an expert kayaker or a mountain biker. In fact, in the case of the Potomac, there are places when the canal is the only way to make it through. It was to the advantage of many that the barges were able to reach their destination; surely, we can say the same for our students?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

An Interesting Calculus

So, I wanted to know why so many of our sixth grade students couldn't do sixth grade math. As a language arts teacher, it's hard for me to figure out, not because I don't know math-- believe me, I've been in sixth grade a long time, and I'm down with the curriculum-- but because I don't know the kids as math students. We disaggregate the data by race, ethnicity, gender, special needs, and socio-economic status, so I understood the profile of the kids who failed, but I wanted to know why. Is it developmental? Intellectual? Cultural? I asked the math teacher what she thought.

We talked a bit, and she was fairly non-judgmental in her description of what she saw. Her theory was that it was SES more than anything else, and related to that was the level of those students' parents' education, as well as their knowledge of English. (Yeah, a lot of Latino kids failed.) One point she made was very thought-provoking to me: When parents of struggling students sit next to their children in meetings with the teacher and admit that they can't help with math, because they don't know it themselves, it sends a powerful message to their kids. If this math is too hard for their parents, who are successful, working adults, how can the kids ever learn it? And, on some level, why should they bother?

It's not the full picture, but it is an interesting piece of the puzzle, and I still think that we need to understand any problem as fully as possible before we start proposing answers.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Testing Season

It's that time of year when teachers, even those who don't "believe" in standardized tests, talk standardized test results. In this world of miraculous modern technology, kids take all of their tests on the computer, and in theory, they could get immediate results. In practice, it takes a couple of days, at least in our state, and then the news goes to the teachers. At sixth grade in our district, students take reading, math, and U.S. history through 1877. We're done with the first two, and the last is on Monday, so the conversation has turned to percentage passing, and the students who failed.

Who are they, these kids who don't meet the minimum standards of our state? For reading, on my team of 99 kids, with the exception of two, they were all special education or second language, and all were minority students. As a language arts teacher, I know these kids as students in my discipline, and so I have an idea of their strengths and weaknesses, and therefore, I sort of understand what went wrong. That's not true for math.

In our state, once past 5th grade, students don't take a grade-level test for math, they take the test for the class they are in. So students who are in the advanced class in 6th grade take the 7th grade test, because that's their curriculum, and students who are in the next level up take the 8th grade test, again, because that's where they are. That leaves only the kids who are at or below grade level to take the 6th grade test, and as a consequence, those results are awful. It's less than a 60% passing rate.

I asked the math teacher today, because I really want to know, what's going on that these kids can't do math? I'll tell you what she said tomorrow.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I read today on another blog what Suze Orman said about teachers in the NYTimes Magazine a couple of weeks ago. I get the Sunday Times, but I hadn't had a chance to read that article before today. It's really less than a paragraph in a 5500 word piece, but the author characterizes Orman's opinion as follows:

...students can’t learn empowerment from people who aren’t empowered, and teachers, she says, are too underpaid ever to have any real self-worth. She told me: “When you are somebody scared to death of your own life, how can you teach kids to be powerful? It’s not something in a book — it ain’t going to happen that way.”

You can imagine that this has caused quite a stir in the teacher blogosphere: many voices have risen in rebuttal, but even so, I'd like to comment briefly...

...a roll of the eyes, a shake of the head, a sharp exhale, and now, back to work.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The End is Near

"What are we going to do for the end of the year?" one of my students asked me today. "Can we have a party?"

Maybe it's my personality, but I like the year to end with as little fuss as possible. (For the record I hate any good-byes, especially long ones.) If it were up to me, we would follow our regular schedule until the very last day, and then I could bid each class a warm farewell; perhaps instead of my usual, I had fun today-- thanks for your hard work and enjoy the rest of your day, I could substitute "this year" and "rest of your life" and call it a year.

Somewhere along the line though, the students have gotten the idea that June is a non-working month of celebration. Not only that, but since the advent of extensive standardized testing, they feel like they should be rewarded after each and every test, as well. Some teachers oblige, but I don't share this view. I believe that it's our job to help the kids understand what the tests are: simply a measure of what they know and can do, data that we will very likely use to figure out their placement and instruction. When we explain it that way, there's no reason for students to do anything other than their best, and there's no reason to look at the tests as anything but another day at school.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Examined Life

We kicked off the last week of our month of May Slice of Life Story Challenge today with a common text about Socrates and his famous quotation that, "the unexamined life is not worth living." Students worked in small discussion groups to figure out what Socrates may have meant by this and how in the world it might relate to the brief personal anecdotes we've been reading and writing all month.

In case I needed any reminding, probably the main thing I took from today's lesson was that kids are funny. Not one of them would have chosen death over an unexamined life. Living as they do in a land where free thought and free speech are a given and so often taken for granted, many of them could not fathom Socrates' choice. Why didn't he just choose exile and go examine his life somewhere else? They wondered.

Even so, I'm not very worried that they are lemmings in training. Too many expressed their annoyance at this silly idea of self-examination (offered as it was by their teacher) all too clearly for that. One girl opened her group discussion with, "If self-examination is so great, how come we've never heard of it before? Everybody knows that vitamins and positive thinking will improve your life, but self-examination? I don't think so."

At the end of each class, I asked two questions. The first was: How does this essay relate to what we have been doing this month? The most common answer to that one was always that this story was a slice of Socrates' life, but eventually each class made it around to the idea that the daily writing we've done has been an opportunity for us to examine our lives. My second question was, What's your opinion on the value of self-examination? On that one, they were mixed. More than one student told me that if you spend too much time examining, you'll miss out on the living. And, as true as that seems at 10:35 PM on this Tuesday night, I had to take exception and encourage them to always make time for the living AND the examining.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Is Anybody Out There?

One of the top lessons any writing teacher plans for her students is on audience. "Consider your audience," we say. "Who are they and what do they want to know? Choose your words, details, and examples for them."

And, so, as it turns out, the most astute students try to write for their teacher, the one person they are sure will read their writing. (English teachers, we see the irony, right? How many pieces does the number one reader skim at the end of a very long day, desperately looking for something to comment on? Or worse, something to criticize? It's not that we don't care, kids, it's just that there are so many things to read...)

Audience is a tricky lesson, though. When my students share their writing with each other, the silliest, grossest, and most childish stuff is usually the most popular. I roll my eyes as I circulate through the room, but if they are writing for their peers-- 11- and 12-year-olds in this particular case-- how can I possibly be surprised? The audience LOVES it, even if I do not. What's the lesson there?

I don't know who I thought my audience was when I started writing and posting here. I guess I just didn't follow my own lesson plan. In the beginning, I was surprised that anyone was reading at all. Since then, I've pressed the link onto some and given it out upon request to others. I don't disillusion myself that a whole lot of people read what I write, but I know that some do, because they are kind enough to tell me so, either in writing or in person. As my audience has grown, so has my consideration of them evolved: do I really want to write that, if I know so-and-so may read it?

About a month ago, I gave the link to my blog to my nephew, and he took the time to read it. He wrote a very considerate reaction to it on his own blog. He's a thoughtful guy with some interesting friends, and I have reason to believe that some of them have taken the time to look at my blog, too. That's really cool, but it makes me think about what I write... many of these people are students in my school.

But, a blog is public, and I although I knew that when I started, I didn't understand it in quite the same way I do now. Clearly, there is a balance between honesty and discretion that any published writer must know how to negotiate (or learn to do so quickly), that a novice may not consider fully. What impact might such a recognition have on a writer? A friend asked me this today. I want to say, nothing of substance, but I'll have to wait and see.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Holiday Weekend

What do Eat, Pray, Love, the movie, Angels and Demons, and the musical, Giant, all have in common? You'll never guess, so I'll just say... it's the Fountain of the Rivers. Sculpted by Bernini and located in Rome, this fountain is mentioned in all three of those works.

I saw Angels and Demons yesterday, and a pivotal scene takes place in the Piazza Navona, or rather more accurately, in the fountain itself. I found the movie more than a bit ludicrous, and therefore, disappointing, which is probably why, in the middle of what is supposed to be a very exciting part of the story, I was thinking, didn't Elizabeth Gilbert write about that fountain in her book?

Then, today, a family friend invited us to see a performance of the new musical, Giant, based on Edna Ferber's book, which is itself most famous for the movie version starring James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. This production is lengthy-- we're talking four hours, with two intermissions-- and I guess sprawling might be accurate. And did I mention, it's a musical? Anyhow, again in a rather dramatic scene, one of the characters refers to that fountain, she might even sing about it. Coincidence? Yeah. But I noticed, even though I was fading in and out a little from Texas musical fatigue, and then I remembered to check on the Eat, Pray, Love reference when I got home, and sure enough, there it was on page 74.

Why this synchronicity of Fontana dei Fiumi I wondered. What significance might it hold for me? So I thought a little, read a little, wrote a little, and... when I figure it out? You'll be the first to know.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What I Did

Immediately after I posted yesterday's entry, I picked up the phone and called my student's mom. Writing about it made me realize that I should talk to her.

I started the conversation in terms of touching base about the e-mail I had sent, since even though I had received the signed progress report, I didn't know for sure if she had seen the message. She had, and she thanked me for sending it and apologized for not responding sooner. She asked if her daughter had turned in the interim, and I told her yes.

From there I reported my concerns for the student, doing my best to be informative and without judgment. Sometimes, when a teacher calls home, parents react as if they are in trouble, too. As cooperative and appreciative as they usually are, there can also be an undercurrent of defensiveness about their parenting. I listened carefully to what she said. Her voice broke when she asked me if her daughter was getting into any other kind of trouble at school.

"No," I assured her. "No." And I promised to let her know if anything changed in the three weeks we have left of school. She thanked me again, and we hung up. I spun my desk chair around to look out the window. At five on a Friday afternoon, the parking lot was empty. I had done all three of the things I considered: I let the student handle it; I consulted the counselor, and I spoke to her mom, but I still didn't feel any better. Why should I? There's nothing to feel good about when nice people are going through hard times.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What Would YOU Do? ...continued

At our school, forgery is taken very seriously, but to be honest, it's kind of a common misdeed. An eleven-year-old kid knows he's going to get in trouble for his grades, and since all adult signatures are just glorified scribbles anyway, he takes a shot at it, but once it's out of his hands and into the teacher's possession, you know he's sweating, and he should be, because no sixth grader is a good forger! We almost always catch them, and we don't even have to try that hard.

In this case, I knew that there were extenuating circumstances. My student's dad is battling a serious disease with a terminal diagnosis, and their family is going through all the emotional and financial upheaval that goes with such a sad situation. When I asked to speak to her privately, she seemed like she knew what I was going to say. I handed her the progress report and said, "I need a real signature on this by tomorrow."

There were tears in her eyes, but she didn't want to cry. "I know," she answered. Her grades weren't that bad-- a couple of Bs and some Cs, but they weren't what we all knew she was capable of, and she was missing assignments from several classes. In my estimation, there were two issues: she didn't want to worry her parents with her lower-than-usual grades, but she didn't want to get in trouble for them, either.

"You have to let your parents know what's going on with you," I said. "I understand they have a lot on their minds, but I also know that supporting you is a priority for them, too."

She shook her head. "No, no, no," she said, more to herself than to me. She reached for the sheet of paper I held in my hand and said, "I'll bring this in tomorrow." We both had classes to get to, and I offered her a pass to the restroom to wash her face, but she just rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and went on to first period.

I knew that I didn't want to refer this incident as a disciplinary issue, but I wasn't sure what I should do instead. Cut the kid some slack and let it go? Tell the counselor? Call home?

Yesterday afternoon, I mentioned the episode to the counselor. She told me that she has offered support to this student many times, but the girl always says she's fine and doesn't need to talk. The counselor also said that this kid's feeling that her weak grades and forgery would overwhelm her parents at this point is probably right on target. They are in a fragile place right now, especially her mom. Later on, I e-mailed a reminder home about the progress report, but without mention of the forgery, so I was pretty sure that she would bring me the signed interim this morning, and she did. Does my responsibility end there?

I don't want to upset people who are struggling already, but their daughter has been pushed to the point of forgery. It's not even that I'm concerned about her grades so much as the stress she must be feeling to make such a poor choice. Shouldn't her parents at least have that information to do with as they can? Who am I to keep something like that from them? And who am I to decide what they can and cannot handle, especially when it comes to their child?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What Would YOU Do?

Teachers are faced with ethical dilemmas almost daily. Take, for example, the area of discipline. Which behavior infractions warrant referral to the administration, which a call home, which just a stern talkin to? When is it worth taking time from the other students' instruction to redirect and redirect and redirect again an errant student and then address her inevitable question, "What did I do?" With experience and of necessity, most teachers develop a "sense" of these things, but although we try to be fair in our reactions, sometimes we're not, because, well, we are human, and it's really hard to be sheriff, judge, jury, executioner, and instructor all at once.

Acknowledging the challenge is the first step. I try not to impose consequences during class, but rather ask the students to "see me" at lunch or after class. Sometimes I do this after a cooling off period-- for them-- outside the room. I guess what I'm looking for in those follow-up conversations is a little remorse and a lot of accepting responsibility for one's actions. An apology, a sincere one, never hurts, either. If the behavior is of great concern, then I take the time later to document it by writing a referral to the principal. It's really best that way: after a little time, I have calmed down and am able to describe the situation much more objectively. Plus, nothing undermines a teacher's authority more than to make a huge show out of sending a kid to the office, only to have him or her come back in few minutes to report that the principal said she'll "talk to me later." So, unless they are a danger to themselves or others, they stay in class, and I do my best to continue with the lesson.

Sometimes, though, we are faced with more complicated situations. On Monday, we sent home interim progress reports. The students are supposed to go over them with their parents and return a signed copy to school. We collect them through homeroom to make sure this happens, and the last of my 12 signed interims was handed in today by one of my favorite kids. A quick look at the signature told me that she had forged it. It had all the tell-tale signs: it was in pencil, it had been erased several times, and although the final product wasn't bad, a couple of letters weren't formed quite right when compared to the real signature I happened to have at hand. I waited until the end of the class and then asked the student to stay for a moment.

(I'll post the rest tomorrow)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wednesday Meeting

We had an ELA department meeting in my building this afternoon. The group consists of two each 6th-8th grade English teachers, two sixth grade reading teachers and a variety of special education and English as a second language teachers. We never have 100% attendance; for example, today there were nine out of a possible seventeen of us there.

These are never happy meetings, basically because our group lacks consensus and a shared vision. It's mostly a result of a failure of leadership on the countywide level, but we have to accept responsibilty for the amount of cyncism we each bring to the group, too. That and passive aggression are pretty much all anyone ever contributes to our twice monthly meetings. In the sixteen years that I have taught at my school, we've been through eight language arts specialists. They have all been lovely people, but not one of them has ever been able to herd us English cats in any common direction.

I would never want the thankless job of leading this group, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I don't have the credentials for the job, anyway. But, instead of demoralizing, I have a sense that the time we spend together could be energizing and constructive, if only we could find the magic format.

Yeah, if only.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Blue Skies

Once my brother told me that in our area grass grows fastest in April and October. It seems counterintuitive-- what about those long, sunny, humid days of summer?-- but I believe him: he's mown a lot of grass in his life. I think that if I were grass, I'd like those clear, blue sky months, where the sun is warm, but not too hot, as much as I like them now, and I might just grow, grow, grow in appreciation, too.

We have had a cold spring this year, though, and it seems like the grass might just be getting its boost, nearly a month late. Only in the last week or so has it shown its true emerald luxury, and I worried about farmers and gardeners last night when I heard there may be frost.

I've noticed that there comes a point in every school year when conditions are perfect for both teaching and learning. It's usually after the first of the year, when all the excitement of the beginning of school and the fall and winter holidays has worn off, and the end of the school year is so distant that it may as well be non-existent. One day you realize that you and your students have created a nearly ideal learning community. You know and trust each other, and no one is going anywhere anytime soon, so you all take a deep breath and exhale at leisure, and then, like the grass, the kids bolt for the blue sky and the warm sun, because their roots are solidly planted in the familiar expectations and predictable routines that you have established together. For a few weeks, a couple of months, even, everything seems to effortlessly go as planned, and we all just learn, learn, learn, until reality intrudes, and end of the year jitters are brought on by any number of harbingers: the calendar, the first really hot day, state testing, whatever.

This year, like the grass, my students and I were a little later than usual in establishing our mojo, but we've got it going now. Today the weather was beautiful-- sunny and cool without a cloud in the sky. We had a modified schedule, so I took one of my classes outside for a half an hour before their state math exam, and the bond was there. In a pack of eighteen, we talked and joked our way around the trail that circles our campus. The kids ran, and did cartwheels, and climbed trees, and played tag, but stayed close to our group until it was time to go inside. Then, we used a stopwatch to time their bathroom and water breaks to see who could get back the quickest (no running in the halls-- hand washing mandatory-- top honors to fastest girl and fastest boy), before I sent them off to their testing groups.

We still have another four weeks of school, and this weather is predicted to hold for a few more days, but then it's supposed to turn hot and humid. Summer's coming.

Monday, May 18, 2009


"We should start our own school."

How many teachers have had that conversation with colleagues either in earnest or in jest? My hand is raised as I type. Masters of our own classroom, maybe it's not such a big leap to be sure that we could run a whole school. And in those classrooms, what is it that we do? We take a prescribed curriculum and find, adapt, or create the lessons and activities we need to meet the needs of our students. Well, that's what the best of us do, anyway.

Usually the toughest part of that task is reconciling the demands of those who define what our students must know and do with the people our students are. It's a teaching cliche that accountability predicated on standardized testing contradicts all we know of true individualized instruction, and so there will be some children left behind. Standardized means, by definition, that some square pegs are gonna have to squeeze into those round holes.

A couple of years ago, Ruth moved to the next state over, and enrolled her boys in a Sudbury School there, and she joined the staff last year. I like the concept of these schools, and the student I mentioned in my last post probably would approve as well-- they help you to learn what you need to know when you want to know it. In other words, they change the hole, not the peg. BUT... (and you had to know this was coming), I'm conflicted about the elitism of such a school, and I'm disappointed that people who support this idea don't do so from within the structure of public schools so that more children would benefit.

Obviously the easiest way to make the curriculum relevant is to ask the students what they want to learn, like the Sudbury schools do. That's how adults learn, right? You decide you want to knit or snowboard or speak Italian, and you make it happen. The teacher is secondary to your will to learn. But such an approach with children sets aside all standardization whatsoever, and where will we find our well-educated citizens then? You know, the ones that have those minimum skills and knowledge and who will carry us all into the future? The ones that have a good work ethic and understand that sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do? Who's going to teach the kids that lesson?

Last November, at the end of an ideal Thanksgiving weekend, I found myself embroiled in a bitter argument about what we should reasonably expect from students. My point, and perhaps I wasn't clear-- it had been a long weekend, and I was tired-- was, that for students who are already alienated from the status quo for one reason or another, insisting that they comply with assignments that they consider irrelevant, and punishing them when they don't, is counterproductive. We all learn best when we want to know, and so the task for a teacher is finding what the students want to know, and framing your instruction in terms of that, if possible.

But look-- here we are back at the round hole again. What should we do? Focus on changing the hole or changing the peg? Maybe I'll just keep working on both.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, there was a big debate in one of my classes. It actually started as a result of reading the poem God Says Yes to Me by Kaylin Haugh, which I've mentioned in an earlier post. In the poem God tells the speaker that "you can do exactly what you want to do."

"Really?" one of my students jumped at the opportunity he saw there. "I'd never come to school." And the rest of the class period was spent with all the other students trying to convince him that he was wrong. He held his ground admirably. "Think about it," he said at one point. "What has school ever done for you? When have you ever needed something we've learned here?"

Oh, they tried to convince him of the things he would need to know in the future, but the best they could come up with was cooking or "more math". "I already know how to cook," he replied, "and anything else, I'll learn it then, if I need it."

Up to this point, I'd been silent, listening and allowing the students to work this out on their own, but now the change of class was minutes away, and I felt like I should nudge the conversation to some closure. "How awful it must be for you," I said to the student, " to come every day to a place where we ask you to do work that you don't think is valuable. I'm sorry you don't like school."

He frowned for a moment, and then he said, "Awww-- school's not that bad."

The groans of the other students started low and rose to a stunned crescendo as the class ended. They couldn't believe that the conflict was resolved just like that, and they were still talking about it on the way out the door, until the room was empty but for a single student and me. "Thank you for letting us have that debate," he said. "It was important."

Saturday, May 16, 2009


A little more than a year ago, I got a phone call from my brother-in-law. He, my sister, and their two children had recently moved to a new city, and they were shopping for a house. At the time my nephew was two and my niece was four months, but the family was planning in advance, and they wanted to be sure that they could count on schools where ever they bought their new home. They were looking at a specific property, and he sent me the link to the local elementary school.

He explained that the neighborhood was undergoing "transition" in terms of property value and the socioeconomic status of the residents, and when I checked out the school's "report card" I could see some evidence of that as well. Over the last three years, the percentage of minority students and those on subsidized lunch had declined. Over the same time period, their standardized test scores had gone up a bit, but they had met the state standards to begin with. Even so, the scores were not as high as in some of the less diverse schools around them, and that concerned my brother-in-law.

I told him what I've told many parents who have asked me similar questions: your children's test scores will be pretty much the same no matter what school they attend, and for a more accurate picture, look at the disaggregated test data for the kids of your race and SES. I also pointed out that schools with more affluent families tend to offer more opportunities for the students, mostly because their parents (along with their greater resources) are more involved. So a family in the situation that my brother-in-law was describing faced a choice: would they join their neighborhood school and, working from within, commit their time and resources to improvement for all the children there, or would they go someplace else?

The deal on that house fell through, but some questions remain. If a school isn't good enough for your kids, which kids is it good enough for? When something as important as that is broken, whose responsibility is it to try and fix it?

Friday, May 15, 2009


I got an email this afternoon, subject line "Something for your research..." from my friend, the teacher from yesterday's post. The message was a link to an essay about why kids hate school.

Of course I read the piece with interest. In it, the author outlines many of the same problems with school that I have observed myself and tried to write about: an outdated and irrelevant curriculum, arbitrary and meaningless grades that are frequently demeaning and most often take the place of detailed evaluations, and unreasonable restrictiveness aimed at controlling and punishing the misbehaved rather than encouraging the learner.

This guy makes a clear and compelling case, and I would include the link here, were it not for the fact that this web page happens to be part of a site that offers custom research papers for sale to students. Forty bucks a page and a click on the radio button acknowledging that you have consulted your instructor to ensure that using this service is okay with your educational institution, and you will have your own "ghost writer" to assist you on a given assignment. Hmmm...

I'm not interested in spreading that particular word, but I guess it makes sense in a very loose Robin Hood kind of a way-- perhaps in order to express disapproval of an imperfect system, these folks offer students a way to undermine it. If only they weren't working for a profit, and if only they weren't helping students cheat to succeed within the very system they criticize, I might have an easier time accepting their good intentions.

Suppose someone wanted to really change things, though. What might be the best way to go about that-- from within or from without?

Thursday, May 14, 2009


"So, I was thinking," a teacher friend started, "isn't middle school the time in their lives when kids are gravitating toward their peers and away from adults? Think about it-- school is run by adults! Doesn't it make sense that they wouldn't like it? Could it be developmental?"

I'm so happy she's reading my blog, I thought, and the look on my face must have tipped her off to something.

"Uh oh," her toned changed. "Is this going to show up on the internet?"

"It's funny you should bring that up," I returned to the original subject. "Yesterday, I asked my students to decide if they liked school or not and explain why, and then they were to write a slice of life story that showed what they meant." I took a stack of papers from the corner of my cluttered desk, and examined my informal data. "It's about half and half," I reported.

"But how much of that is kids who don't like school because of the social challenges?" she wondered.

"That's a good question," I said. "There are a few who say they don't like school because they don't feel like they fit in. BUT, there are just as many, or more, whose primary reason for liking school is that it's the place where they see their friends."

We pondered that in silence for a moment.

"Other kids say that they don't like school because it's not worth their time," I continued. "My favorite example is the boy who wrote, probably the biggest waste of time was when my third grade teacher tried to teach us to read lips," I laughed, "but that was followed closely by the girl who said that if she wasn't stuck at school, she could be doing really important things like playing games or hanging out at the mall." My friend nodded, unsurprised at the mall thing.

"Then there are some kids who don't feel challenged, some who think there's too much work, and some who don't think their teachers treat them fairly." I flipped through the papers. "But... several said that they do like school because they learn new things and their teachers are nice," I added hopefully. "That's not too bad."

"I'm kind of compliant," she said, "and I went to Catholic school, so I was used to doing all sorts of things I didn't want to, but I didn't mind middle school."

"I liked school," I agreed. "Look, I came back forever."

"Well, keep thinking about it," she said. "It's good material."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


In case you're wondering, I'm not quite sure where this whole series is going. I'm pretty much writing for discovery. It's like what I've told my students, if you have something on your mind, write about it, work it out. Well, okay, I don't say "work it out," but secretly I hope they do, and some have tried.

I have a group of girls in my class this year who have been friends since kindergarten. They are lovely children: thoughtful and compliant, but with a bit of an edge. As similar as they all seem on the surface, they are really very, very different, and as the teacher who reads their writing, I can see that clearly. I haven't cracked their social code well enough to know exactly who is best friends with whom, but I understand that as close as they all seem to outsiders, there is a hierarchy.

One of the girls has written several slice of life stories about another, who is in a different English class. She starts each piece by explaining that they are best friends, and then describes an incident in which she was mistreated by the other girl. "Maybe you guys should talk about this," I told her after reading the third one. "It doesn't seem good to hold on to your resentment."

She laughed. "Oh, she'll never change," she said, "but I do feel better writing about it."

Is that what I'm doing, too? Public education and I are pretty tight, but I do harbor some doubts.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


On the day that I received the phone call telling me that I finally had a teaching job of my own, I was babysitting my oldest nephew, who was a little over a year old at the time, and it was with him that I celebrated my new career-- we went out to lunch and got balloons. Hooray Aunt Tracey! Since then, I have had the great privilege of teaching both him and his brother when they were in sixth grade.

I have no children of my own, and it's likely that these boys are the closest thing I will ever know to that. Both of them are smart, thoughtful and inquisitive people who demonstrated curiosity and a genuine delight in learning from the earliest of ages. When they were little, it seemed as if they were destined to do well in school, and they have. Neither one of them particularly likes school, though, and that's a fact I find hard to dismiss. They are intelligent, compliant and successful, but they don't like school.

Monday, May 11, 2009


The other day I was in the computer lab when another class came in. It was at the end of my teaching day, and my students had gone on to P.E. and electives. I was gathering my things and straightening up the lab when a small group of eighth graders arrived. Their teacher gave the directions, and they logged in and were waiting for their settings to load when someone said, "Why do we have to do that?"

"It's school, Dummy," another student answered.

"Man! I HATE school," the first student replied in disgust.

The other students laughed. "EVERYBODY hates school, Dummy," one of his classmates told him.

"I wish I could have my own school," another student added. "Nobody would ever have to come."

What's the objective of compulsory public education anyhow? Is it for the good of society or for the benefit of the individual? I suppose most people would agree to a middle ground where the purpose of education is to prepare the individual for success which in turn will benefit society by adding one more productive citizen to our numbers. That's the theory, anyway. How, then, do we resolve it when the needs of the individual clash with the needs of the group? Or when the school doesn't prepare the individual for success? What then?

When it came time for Ruth's boys to go to school, they didn't like it. For three years she tried switching schools and changing programs, but they were profoundly unhappy and chronically complained of having to go, and so she resolved to try homeschooling them, instead.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


And now a brief respite from the tale of my teaching trajectory:

I decided to do a Slice of Life Story Challenge with my students for the month of May. I started writing this blog as part of such a challenge, sponsored by the Two Writing Teachers website (which is an excellent resource). My goal in participating was always to find an application for my classroom, although I've discovered much more over the last 70 days. In our state, May is usually chopped up by standardized tests and the like, and so I figured that a dependable activity on those days when we do meet this month might be helpful in maintaining consistency for my classes, especially in the face of that test craze that has a way of taking hold.

One of my objectives for this activity is for students to practice writing a conclusion that explains the significance of the experience they're writing about. I've told them that sometimes they won't understand why they remember these events or what they mean until they have written about them, and that's another of my objectives, to show kids that they can use writing to make sense of things.

So far, it seems like my students are enjoying it, and they have done some wonderful writing. One boy wrote of visiting his grandmother in Bangladesh last summer. Bored, he folded some paper airplanes and launched them off the balcony of her apartment. Watching the planes glide to earth, he saw another boy, close to his own age, who was working as a street cleaner, lift one from the ground and then look up, searching the skies for its origin. I looked at him, and I knew he wanted to learn. So I made more planes and wrote instructions in each of them and sent them down to him. In his conclusion he reflects on how lucky he is to be able to go to school and learn when so many children in Bangladesh can't afford the same opportunity.

I think he's getting it.

(And that's what I mean about writing for discovery. It wasn't until I posted this entry that I realized it wasn't an intermission at all.)

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I am the product of private schools. When I was thirteen, my family moved to Saudi Arabia, and that was the end of my public school experience. I went to an international school there and then on to boarding school in Switzerland for high school.

Living overseas was life-changing: I think it's hard for Americans to develop a true international perspective any other way, maybe because our culture is so dominant-- so loud and brash-- that it's nearly impossible for us to hear any other voices but our own. I don't mean that in an entirely critical way; it's simply that the vibrancy of our American life preoccupies us, leaving very little room for anything else.

As a teenager abroad, I missed the din of the States, and I brooded about how deprived I was living in the foothills of the Alps and traveling all over the world. I was convinced that all I wanted was a "normal" kid's life with Doritoes and Dr. Pepper and Friday night football games.

Yeah, I was an idiot (and on so many levels!), but losing out on all those things also meant that I never suffered through the downside of American public schools. Maybe that's part of the reason why, that to this day, I carry a fierce idealism about public education, despite how well-acquainted I have become with its flaws.

Friday, May 8, 2009


I won the pool when Ruth's first baby was born. It was during the pre-service week of my second year of teaching, and my guess was closest to his weight and date of birth. The year before, her principal had pulled through right at the end of August and hired me to teach sixth grade English (mostly on the merits of my spaghetti cooking, I think), and it was he who stepped to the mike during one of those endless faculty meetings we have before the students return and announced the good news that our colleague was a new mom.

Sometimes, the longer you know someone, the more you find that you agree on, but the opposite was true for me and Ruth. Don't get me wrong: the longer I knew her, the more I liked her, and our disagreements never got personal, but we had some distinct political and ideological differences. Ruth's empathy for the students was unparalleled, though, and I wasn't at all surprised when she took a high school job at the end of that year. I understood that theater had always been a safe place for her when she was a teenager, and she wanted to provide that for other kids. And so we parted ways again.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


The kids in my class turned out to be rising first graders, which just means that they were really kindergartners who could benefit from summer school. I'd done half of my student teaching in first grade, and so I set up a routine like the one I knew. My class was mostly boys, all Latino and Black, but it was one of the three little girls, Cecilia, who challenged my authority on that first day.

I gathered the children in a circle on the carpet. "Welcome to first grade," I started.

Cecilia frowned and shook her head; then she looked me straight in the eye. "No, miss, we're in kindergarten," she corrected me. There were a few nods from the group assembled around me.

"Kindergarten's over," I said firmly. "You're first graders now. Let's get to work." And that's how it went for the next four weeks. If any students said they couldn't do what we were doing, I told them that they simply had no choice-- first grade demanded it from them.

And, whichever it was, a high tide of either confident inexperience or inexperienced confidence, fifteen little boats were raised a bit that summer. Even so, I cried as I carried my box of books and classroom supplies out to the car on the last day, because as great as summer school had been, it was August, and I still didn't have a teaching job.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


After the foundations course, my path diverged from Ruth's. With a resume as a professional actress, she was working toward being a high school drama teacher, and I was more interested in elementary, so we didn't have any more classes together. Then, before we had even finished our degree program, Ruth was hired mid-year to replace the drama teacher at the same middle school that she had attended. Meanwhile, once we graduated in December, I was taking any sub job that they called me for, working all over the county, trying to find a toe-hold in what was turning out to be a very tricky job market for me. In February, Ruth organized a dinner theater at her school, and as a favor, I did the cooking with a crew of middle school kids. After curtain call on the last evening, she introduced me to her principal, who shook my hand, complimented the spaghetti and meatballs, and promised to keep me in mind for any openings.

The school year ended, and I didn't have a teaching position. I was just about to take a summer job as a tourmobile guide, when I got a phone call offering me a summer school class-- four weeks of first grade language arts. On a hot day near the end of June, I walked into my first real classroom: 15 desks crammed into a tiny room off the library with bookshelves covered in brown paper. The place had a decidedly "pardon our mess" vibe, but I couldn't have cared less. There was a chalkboard and me, and students on the way.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Q: What do you call the guy who graduates at the bottom of his med school class?

A: Doctor.

What does it take to be a teacher? The credentialing system that is currently in place requires a certain amount of course work and passing scores on some standardized tests. Neither of those things qualifies you to be a teacher, though. In theory, we act as if teaching is quantifiable, but in practice it is no such thing.

Teaching has been compared to herding cats, and that's not a bad analogy. In the name of skills and content, we try to impose a unified vision on a bunch of individuals who have little or no knowledge of those things. That's a lot of free will running around in a confined space for ten months or so-- somebody's bound to get hurt once in a while. Sometimes I think that teachers should swear the Hippocratic oath, first do no harm, because we have such ample opportunity to inflict injury, and in so many cases, we rely on the resiliency of the students to wash away our iniquities.

Neither Ruth nor I had children when we started our M.Ed, program, although she confided in me that she and her husband were trying to start a family. I guess she was thinking that being a teacher might be a good career when it came time to be a mom.

Monday, May 4, 2009


The first thing I remember about Ruth is a shared eye-roll. Two weeks into the class, I was still in that same seat that I had chosen the first night, and she was sitting behind me. One of the younger people, or maybe it was one of the middle-aged women who always seemed to monopolize the class conversation, had said something silly, and I sighed and looked over my shoulder. She had the exact same expression that I imagined was on my face at the time, and we made eye contact and smiled. That was it, too; we were fast friends ever after.

That evening, instead of sitting hunched reading over my notes at break, I actually had a conversation. It turned out that Ruth and I were the same age with what seemed to be similar brands of... Sarcasm? Dry humor? Cynicism? It was hard to tell, but, whatever it was, we found each other very amusing. And even though I had liked the class before, now I really looked forward to going.

Neither of us had any teaching experience, and so to us, everything that Dr. Y said was theoretical and hypothetical. In addition, I had come to the class with a B.A. in philosophy and an M.A. in English Literature, and while I appreciated the educational theory that we discussed, Dewey, Montessori, Piaget, and so forth, all that stuff about classroom management, and dealing with colleagues, parents, and administration, seemed, well, not very intellectual to me, and therefore, not very important.

Are you laughing, yet?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

I Wanna Be a Teacher: Part 1

I was 29 when I started my masters in education and licensure program. The first required course was a nine hour class that met every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 6:30 to 9:30. It was taught by a kindly retired public school administrator in his early seventies and was called something like foundations of education. There were probably 35 people in there when it started, ranging in age from early 20's to mid-50's. There were experienced teachers who were trying to move up on the pay scale, and military people who were close to retirement and looking for a second career, and people like me, who just thought teaching might be a good idea. In retrospect, that's a pretty broad audience, and I don't know how I would spin a lecture for that group, but Dr. Y did a pretty good job-- at least I remember thinking so at the time.

The first night, I took a seat in one of those one-piece chair-desk combos that so many classrooms are furnished with. My place was one from the front, next to the wall that the door was on. The room was stuffy, but not unpleasant; it had that chalk and textbook smell, although the only books in there were a couple of cracked dictionaries. New notebooks were arranged just so on each desktop, and there was the chirp of pens clicking nervously, like crickets, underneath quiet small talk as we waited for our class to begin. A tiny woman with long black hair sat behind me, and being the introvert that I am, I ignored her; in fact the only reason I know she was there is because later she told me so.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

No Bright Lines

I heard a story today about a teacher in our building who was so frustrated with one of his classes that he changed his seating chart so that all the disruptive kids were in the back. He told them why they were there-- they were obviously more interested in talking and socializing than in learning, and he was tired of competing with them. Therefore, the students who were serious about the subject were in front, where he could focus on them. The seat assignments were made strictly on class behavior, but the students complained to another adult in the school that all the black kids were in the back of the room, and sure enough, when that person went to check, that's how it was.

The teacher, who is white, said he never even noticed any racial component to the new seating arrangement, and the black students admitted that they were inappropriately talkative in his class. Obviously, this is a case where it might be easy to start tossing accusations back and forth, but it is also a situation that, to an educator, might seem easy to fix. Put the disruptive kids in front, we might suggest to the teacher. Pay more attention in class, we would say to the kids, followed by, Your education is important, you know.

I was a little appalled by this story, even though I empathized with the teacher's frustration. And it was that idea of frustration that reminded me of something that happened in one of my own classes just last week. Every Monday, my students have an assignment that involves answering some questions in writing about their independent reading book in order to prepare for a short small-group discussion. The groups are heterogeneous, because I think that each student has something of value to contribute. On this particular day, it seemed like there were a couple of students in each group who were really dragging their heels on getting the written part done, and so they were holding up the discussion. Impulsively, I decided to reorganize the groups to put all the slower-working kids together, so that the other students would have more time for their conversation.

In less than a minute, the kids had moved, and three groups were talking, and one was still writing. I went over there. They knew, as did the other students, that the reason I had re-organized everyone was because they weren't finished. Whatever I said to them was a mixture of encouragement and urgency, and for the most part, they responded, hurrying to get their work done so that they could begin their discussion and earn their points.

I went off to check on the other groups, but, keeping that teacher's eye on everybody, it wasn't long before I looked across the room at those students, and for the first time, I saw who they were: two boys who were going through the special ed referral process, a girl with obvious attention issues, another girl who was new to our school system and whom we were finding to have some big gaps in her skills and knowledge, and another girl whose dad is fighting Stage IV cancer. All were kids of color.

I don't know what it all means. As teachers, we group and regroup students all the time, based on many factors. It's called, "Best Practices". I do know this: both of these stories make me uncomfortable, and I'm going to keep thinking about them.

Friday, May 1, 2009

That Kid

You know RJ. You taught him. He was a reluctant reader, writer, worker. Heck, he was a reluctant everything, except talker. Remember? He would not shut up. All through your class he talked. He didn’t even care enough to bother being quiet or sneaky about it. The other kids eventually got as aggravated as you were. They actually preferred listening to you, over him. In fact, if you assigned him a seat near them, they often came up after class and requested a change. God forbid you put him in a group to work. Even the lowest performing students would complain bitterly to be saddled with Mr. Obnoxious, although he was a convenient scapegoat. How could you blame them for not getting the assignment done? They had RJ!

I taught RJ my first year. To begin with, rather than become annoyed, I tried the strategies I’d learned in school. First, I called home. I was certain that he was going to "get it" when I told his mom about his outrageous behavior. I felt a little bad about it, but, hey, I’d warned him. I had specifically told him that I was going to call his parents if he showed up once more without his homework, and he defied my edict. On the day of the call, I was a little surprised when he didn’t seem to care. I was irritated, too. We marched into the team room, and I picked up the phone. I handed it to him and told him to dial the number. He shrugged and punched the buttons. “Mom? It’s me. My teacher wants to talk to you.” He listened for a minute. “Nothing,” he said into the phone. “Okay.” He hung up and turned to me. “She’s too busy to talk right now.”

“What? Give me that phone!”

“She said she doesn’t want to talk to you.”

I rolled my eyes and dialed the number on the data sheet. It rang and rang. I kept the phone to my ear, glaring at RJ.

“I told you so,” he said.

A week later, after constant attempts, I despaired of ever speaking to RJ’s parents. I implemented Plan B: Proximity. There was one seat directly in front of my desk. That is where I put RJ. I intended to personally supervise his education from here on out. There was one little problem, though: RJ talked to whoever was nearby, and I am very distractible. Many times I would catch myself in mid-conversation with him, “I can NOT talk to you right now! I’m trying to give directions.”

One day, I put a journal prompt on the board. If you could make or change any law, what would it be and why? RJ opened his notebook and wrote nothing. He waited patiently for me to engage him.

“RJ,” I started, but he interrupted me.

“You know, there are some crazy laws out there.”

“Well, why don’t you write about one of them?” I suggested.

“I mean it. There are some CRAZY laws.”

“OK,” I said. “WRITE a-bout them,” I spoke slowly and loudly, and I leaned toward him with my head wagging. Some of the other students lifted their eyes toward us.

Undeterred, he continued, “Did you know that in Ohio you’re not allowed to go out on Sunday if you’re ugly?”

“I would love to read about that, IN YOUR JOURNAL,” I said.

“Really. Really! REALLY. It’s true. I should know, I used to live in Ohio,” he finished. He looked at me like, top that.

“Oh yeah?” I said. “Well what’d you do all day on Sundays?” And then I laughed.

The silence was painful, but the “Ooooohh.” was worse. Not for RJ, though. His eyes narrowed, and his face froze for the briefest moment, but then he just changed the subject and moved on to some crazy law in Michigan. His knowledge really was kind of remarkable.

I felt triumphant at first; the other kids were still snickering about it when they left, and I heard a few repeating it to their friends even days later. I was the funny teacher who put that annoying kid RJ in his place.

Not long after the “Ohio incident” RJ moved. I was the last teacher to fill out his transfer slip. I looked at his grades. He was failing everything. I added one more F to the collection and signed my name. I looked up and handed him the paper. “Good luck,” I said.

Ten years later, I ran into a student from that class. We were catching up and reminiscing. “Remember that great skit you and Kristin did for your book project?” I asked her.

“No, not really,” she answered.

“Oh,” I replied, disappointed. “What about that poem…?”

“Mm-mm. You know what I do remember, though?” She said, laughing. “It’s illegal to go outside in Illinois if you’re ugly!”

“Ohio,” I corrected her, “but only on Sunday.”

“Whatever! That was hi-larious; I will never forget that.”

Still chuckling, she walked away, leaving me to wonder what RJ remembers about sixth grade.