Monday, February 29, 2016

Parents just don't understand, which is a huge problem

“Braden has a hard time comprehending the text,” I told Mrs. Crews.  “That could be from not reading very much, or he just may have comprehension issues.  That isn’t uncommon in his grade, so there are a few things we can do to improve his understanding.”

Mrs. Crews nodded.  I pulled out a copy of the book, To Kill a Mockingbird.  “So, for example, when he’s reading at home, you can-“

“Well, one problem I think is that he’s not interested in the book,” she interrupted.

I nodded this time.  “Oh sure, that would be part of it.”

“So why does he have to read it?”

Surprised, I said, “To Kill a Mockingbird is part of the curriculum for the year, and-“

“Right, but can’t he pick something else?  Because he really doesn’t like the book.”

I smiled in what I hoped looked like sympathy.  “That’s not uncommon, but it is a book that’s required reading in most schools, and the ideas and themes in it are important to the American identity.  His understanding of this will help him quite a bit later in high school.”

Mrs. Crews shrugged.  “Well, I’m not so sure about that.”

I frowned.  “What do you mean?”

“I’ve never heard anyone talk about To Kill a Mockingbird.  I just don’t see what the big deal is, and why it seems like everyone pushes this book like it’s so great.  I didn’t like it.”

I thought I liked Mrs. Crews when our conference first started.  Now I wasn’t so sure.  Who doesn't like To Kill a Mockingbird?

“Besides,” she continued, “I don’t know that it’s even appropriate for his grade.”

Swallowing my impulse to ask if she was an idiot, I said, “Actually, it is.  Research shows that –“

“I just don’t see why he has to be forced to read this.  You really can’t learn anything from a book you dislike.”  She looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to agree with her.  

“Well,” I tried to choose my words carefully, “You CAN learn from a book, even if you don’t like it.  I’ve never been a fan of The Great Gatsby, but I understand why the ideas in it are important.”

“Oh,” she shrugged, “I’ve never heard of that one.”

What?  Was she serious?  I was beginning to understand why Braden didn’t like to read.  Had Mrs. Crews ever read ANYTHING? 

“Really?”  I allowed myself to look surprised.  “Most people have to read it in high school or college.  I did.  But what’s more important is to help him understand the book he’s reading now.”

Mrs. Crews shrugged again.  “Yes, I guess so.  But, I mean, I just think Mockingbird is a strange choice, especially since hardly anyone likes it.”

Once again, this didn’t get me on her side.  I pushed some of my notes aside.  “Not to change the subject, but can you tell me why you didn’t like it?  Because sometimes we can unknowingly pass along our personal likes or dislikes to kids, and then they don’t approach the task with an open mind, which is what we want.”

“It wasn’t very interesting.”

“How so?”

She suddenly looked irritated.  “Well, I don’t know why it matters whether I liked it or not.  We’re talking about Braden.” 

“I’m just trying to get some insight that might help him; that’s all.  I personally don’t like science fiction, which is why I don’t recommend it much.  But that is probably short-sighted because I know I have students who would love sci-fi novels and short stories.”

“Oh,” she said, leaning back in her chair.  She was quiet for a minute, then said, “To be honest, I was supposed to read it in high school.  I never finished it.  I just remember it being boring.”

“Wow, that’s not what most people would say, honestly.  Were you someone who liked to read?”

She looked on edge now.  “Well, I was a perfectly good reader –“

“Please don’t mistake me, Mrs. Crews.  I don’t care if a kid likes to read or not.  Some kids will never like to sit down with a book, and that’s fine.  They just need to be able to read well enough to get what is needed from a text.”

She opened her mouth, closed it, and then sagged.  “No, I honestly didn’t like to read.  My parents used to fuss at me over it.  Braden’s a lot like me; he’s just more active.”

Personally, I didn’t think that was true.  Braden struck me as a child who probably would enjoy reading, but had been encouraged to be sporty, which he clearly wasn’t.  I seriously doubted that he got much encouragement from his mother that way.  ­­

“Is there anything he likes to read?” I asked.  She shrugged again.

“I’ll tell you what.  What would help him most is to have someone read the book with him, slowly, and aloud.  Would that be something you could do with him?” Mrs. Crews wrinkled her nose and looked at the ceiling.  Way to put yourself out there for your kid, mom.  Braden’s reading problems were getting a lot clearer now.

“Would he be able to stay after school a couple of days this week to read to me?  I could help him work through it.”

“He has soccer,” she started, then stopped.  “Is this going to affect his grade if he doesn’t know it?”

“Yes, it will,” I replied firmly. 

“Oh,” she said, looking surprised.  She paused, thought, and said, “Okay, then what about Wednesdays?”

At least Braden would get some help.  But how much more help might he have gotten if he’d been encouraged and pushed at home? This is a well-off parent, one who I know has the time and money to assist her kid in furthering his education.

Look, I know I should be glad she came to the conference, and I am.  She showed up, which is a big part of making sure your child performs well in school, and she was willing to make sure he could come to get after school help.  So she’s still light-years away from most parents, whom I never see, and whose kids are flailing around in class, trying to find their way. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

There's a tear near my beer, or there would be if I had one, uh, here.

I've decided to switch from Coke Zero to alcohol of some kind, like maybe whiskey, or heroin.  Then I might understand what I'm reading in these writing assignments. 

When it comes to the role of athletics in education, there are many people of different minds on the topic.

I believe that sports make up half of the school.

Without sports education would take a drastic turn since it would leave behind contributing factors sports gives us.

Sports do teach students how to work together, which is the opposite of education.

Schools are dropping education and putting sports into play. (Get it?  Great, that makes one of us.)

There are many different sides to this than meets the eye.

Another perspective that lingers in the minds of many...

From the classroom to the field, court or alley, many kids learn life lessons inside and outside the classrooms.

Sports and academics are similar and can help anyone by comparing the two catagories together.

Many different types of athletes exist around the world.  Several of them have been around for centuries.

A person needs an escape, such as a sport to learn communication, teamwork, and to experience a life that is not so unified.

It is safe to say the world lacks teamwork and coherence on many issues.

I actually agree with that last one.  Did someone spike my Coke Zero?

Monday, February 15, 2016

His mistress's eyes are really nothing like the sun, at least when she looks at him

I teach a Creative Writing class that meets last period.  It’s an elective for students grades 10-12.  We have pretty good time in CW.  The writing exercises are fun, and I encourage students to be as creative as they can without creeping or grossing me out. 

Selma is one of my favorite students in the class.  She’s an excellent writer, she’s clever and sarcastic, and most of the other students enjoy both her writing and the comments she makes in class.  In fact, one student enjoys them the most of all – James, my LEAST favorite student.  I realize that James has a pretty serious crush on Selma.

James is a sophomore and Selma is a senior.  Selma is a good student, while James regularly neglects to complete or turn in work.  Selma actively looks for feedback on her writing to improve it; James, on the other hand, thinks he’s “really smart” (his words, not mine) and argues with all of the uniformly negative feedback he gets.  James loudly proclaims himself an “independent thinker” and says that anyone who disagrees with him is a “sheep.”  He regularly vents his disdain for religious or “narrow-minded” students; his favorite targets are the devout Catholic or evangelical Christian students in the class. 

I don’t have a problem with James being an atheist or an independent thinker if he even knows what that is.  I have a problem with the fact that he’s a loudmouthed jerk who, despite all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, thinks he’s smart. 

But what makes James’ crush on Selma so amusing is the fact that Selma is a VERY devout Muslim.  Yes, she’s cute, but she wears a long skirt and her hijab every day, and in her culture, dating is out of the question.  James and Selma are opposites in almost every way. But every time she talks in class, James leans back in his chair and looks at her with a dreamy half-smile on his face. 

I’m not sure how this crush developed, or why.  Maybe James has fantasies of “freeing” Selma from her “oppressed state.”  Maybe her oppositeness attracted him.  I must admit, though, that watching this one-sided romance grow has made the class a whole lot more fun, at least for me.   

I first noticed something unusual when I had to partner the students up for an in-class assignment that required giving feedback on the writing.  Selma and James ended up as partners and neither seemed happy about it initially.  They were quiet as they read each other’s work.  Then the critiquing started.  Selma was pretty forthright in pointing out that James wasn’t using evidence to support his assertions.  James, naturally, blustered on that his piece was just fine, and maybe SHE just didn’t “understand it.”

Selma glared at him.  “No, I get it.  Maybe YOU don’t get it.  Ms. Marlowe gave us the guidelines, but you didn’t follow any of them.”

James shrugged and rolled his eyes.  “It’s not like your paragraph is any better.”

Their voices steadily grew louder.  “No, but I think –“

“Maybe if you’d let me FINISH!”

“I heard what you said, you said that the point of view isn’t right, but you aren’t…”

“And if you’d let me FINISH, I could tell you why it’s not…”

“Geez, do we have to go over this again?  I said I heard you!”

Then I heard Selma bark, “Are you an idiot?  Or do you just act like one, Captain Fabulous?”

You have to admit, Captain Fabulous is a pretty good title, especially for James.  I asked them to lower the volume, and the barks became heated whispers and hissings, until I heard James say, “Fine, if that’s what you think.”

“That IS what I think.”

“I can tell.”

“Oh shut up.  Don’t talk to me anymore.”  I noticed that James grew progressively quieter until the end of class.

The next day he asked if we were going to work with partners again, and seemed disappointed when I said no.  Later, when I asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to read what he or she wrote for the day’s free write, James raised his hand and volunteered Selma.

“I’m sure it’s going to be interesting,” he said with a sticky smile. Selma looked at him, horrified.  The entire class was so shocked that the room fell silent for a minute. 

The next week, Selma stopped by to tell me that I had ruined her life.  I’m used to students telling me this, but I asked, “How so?”

“James!  He’s stalking me!  He tried to sit with my friends and me at lunch, and he keeps walking up to me in the hallway and asking how I’m doing.  If I don’t answer, he’ll tell me that women have a voice at our school too, and I should exercise my right to my voice.”

I started coughing violently to cover up my laughter.  “So use your voice and tell him you’re not interested.”

“The more I tell him to go away, the more I see him around!  Can’t you get him transferred out of this class?”

I wish.  “Selma, seriously!  He’s only a sophomore anyway.  You’re going to graduate soon, and you won’t even see him anymore.”

“But now he’s following me on Twitter and commenting on everything I put up!  What do I do?  He’s stalking me, Ms. Marlowe!  That’s not right!”

“He’s not stalking you,” I said mildly.

Her eyes were big and round.  “Oh yeah?  Yesterday he followed Felicia and me to Taco Bell.  I don’t even know how he knew we were going there!”

Okay, that IS stalking, because most of us want to eat our Burrito Supreme in privacy and shame.  And it doesn’t help that James looks like an unwashed Dwight Schrute on his best day.  

I tried to reach deep, DEEP down to pull up some words of wisdom to help Selma.  Nothing was floating up, except “restraining order” and “hired hitman.”  So I said, “You know, Selma, sometimes in life you just have to put up with hard things.  Maybe James is one of those things and he’ll eventually go away.”

“That’s really all the advice you have for me?  Seriously?” 

“Uh, restraining order?  Contract killer?”

“Can you seat him on the other side of the room?”

“But Selma, he’s quieter when he’s near you.”

“I shouldn’t have to suffer because it’s better for the class!” she complained. 

No, she shouldn’t.  But you know, sometimes people just need to make sacrifices for the greater good, blah blah blah.  And James is finally turning in his work and actually considering the feedback he gets, so… Yeah, sorry, Selma.  I have to think of the greater good, and get my entertainment in where I can.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Living it up in the ideal world!

I’m beginning to wonder if administrators, instructional specialists, and policymakers have absolutely no idea what kids are like, or have any recollection of what life was like when they were kids.

When teachers have to take their certification tests, they are often given this advice when reading the hypothetical teaching situations: “Think of what the best answer would be in an ideal situation.” For those of you unfamiliar with teacher-ese, that means think of what would be the best answer if all the kids behaved, worked hard in class, you had plenty of equipment and resources to use, and if your administration fully supported you. 

Anyone who’s spent time in a classroom is now doing a spit take, because none of those things are ever going to happen all at once.  But still, “they” want you to pretend it will.

Consider the following question:

A high school English-language arts teacher wants to ensure that students successfully complete a content-specific essay. Which of the following actions should the teacher take to best help students understand her expectations for the assignment's format?
A.      Supplying students with more information about the topic
B.      Asking students if they have any questions about the task
C.      Showing students examples of what to do and what not to do
D.      Assigning related readings and reviewing content
The correct answer is C.  However, most teachers will do all of the above.  Even so, none of those are going to work.  You’re assuming your students are listening, which they’re not.  They’re trying to text each other while holding their phones under the table. 

So after confiscating at least two phones, you’ll once again go over the instructions.  You’ll ask if there are any questions, which there won’t be.  Then you’ll ask a few students in the class to repeat your instructions.  One or two will do it correctly.  Within a few minutes, a student will ask you a question about the assignment that you already answered.  When the assignment is due, you’ll get about 50 percent of them back.  That’s a good day.

I think we can all agree that the ideal situation is never going to happen.  You veteran parents know what I’m talking about.  So why are teachers told to plan for something that won’t ever occur?  Why aren’t we given practical advice on what to do?  Why aren’t we then evaluated based on the fact that we handle classroom issues in a practical manner?

Most advice we get is very IMPRACTICAL.  For example, I was in training for a reading intervention class that runs on a 20 minute three station rotation.  This is a terrible idea for high schoolers, who can’t do transitions well, and an even worse idea to help students read.  The minute they can finally get into their books, they have to switch to another task.  It’s multi-tasking, and science has proven that multi-tasking doesn’t lead to effective learning. 

When I pointed this out to the workshop facilitator, she assured me that it would work.  “You just have to train them (the students.)”

“Okay, how?” I asked.

“Just practice with them over and over.  Run a timer so that they know when they have to transition.”

“What happens when some of them ignore the timer?” I asked.

“You encourage them to move to the next station.”

“And if they don’t?”  I could tell at this point that she was getting irritated with my constant questions, but I’ve worked with high school students.  “I agree that it needs to be practiced, and I plan to do that, but realistically it’ll take three weeks of practice before they get this down, and by that time we’d be behind on the curriculum.”

“You’ll just keep reminding them,” she said curtly.

“While I’m trying to run my own small group station?  That doesn’t make sense.  If I have to keep reminding him, isn’t that taking time away from another group, and disrupting the rotation anyway?”  I pointed out. “I’m just saying I know this is going to happen, so I need a strategy for someone who is insistent on not following the schedule.”

“Oh, they’ll follow it,” she assured me.  “Kids who waste time trying to find their book are just trying to cover up their nervousness about reading.  They know they aren’t good at reading, so they’re stalling.” 

“Yes, I’m aware of that,” I said thinly, because THAT WAS THE POINT I WAS TRYING TO MAKE that she clearly wasn’t getting.  “Most students will do whatever they can to get out of work.  But with such limited time, how do I move them along without taking time from another group?  How did you do it?”

That’s when I found out that she had never taught students with this program.  She was the trainer, but had no actual experience using this particular format.  I stared at her in disbelief.  “Then you don’t know how to make this work?”

“We’ve had other teachers who have used it very successfully,” she told me blithely. 

Too bad they weren’t in the room now.  I raised an eyebrow.  “And this was high school?”

“Well, um, actually it was elementary and middle school…” she said, trailing off.  “But ideally –“ I glared at her, and she stopped talking. 

Ideally, my students would not come from broken, poverty-stricken homes and be saddled with learning disabilities and behavior problems.  In an ideal world, they’d come to school excited for the lesson, full of enthusiasm and eager to show respect.  And ideally, they wouldn’t have reading comprehension issues to begin with, making this program unnecessary.  

I kind of like the ideal world, and would love to live there.  But I don’t think anyone can afford the rent. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

If poetry is the food of love, I'll just starve.

I hate poetry.

"Hate is a pretty strong word," you may respond.  "And how can you hate poetry?  What about haikus?  What about T.S. Eliot or e.e.cummings?  What about Tennyson, Crane, Shelley or Byron?"

To that, I would respond, "Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate!"

What does this have to do with IWSG?  Right now my classes are covering poetry as part of the curriculum, and it's hard for me to hide my disdain.  Whenever I confess to another English teacher or writer that I dislike poetry, they always seem shocked.  Apparently, if you have any literary leanings, the love of poetry is supposed to be embedded in your DNA.

If you're a teacher, you can't convey your dislike for a particular subject or topic to your class, or else they'll assume it isn't important or will figure they don't have to put much effort into it.  Poetry is mandatory in the language arts class, and yes, I understand the value of its study.  I also understand the value of mopping the floor, but that doesn't mean I enjoy doing it.

I do have some exceptions.  I love Shakespeare's sonnets, probably because I love his plays.  I like the occasional Sylvia Plath verse as well, but I never think, "Poetry!  Oh boy, this is going to be great!"  My dislike probably stems from my love of a straightforward story.  Even when I read a novel, I tend to skip over long descriptions and go straight for the explication or dialogue.

Part of this unit involves students writing a poem of their own, an assignment I argued against strenuously.  I can honestly say without hyperbole that nothing makes me want to put a gun in my mouth more than reading another poem about love or friendship written by a 15-year-old.  Lines like "My love is true, I'll always be there for you" cause me to feel like I just suffered an aneurysm.

So pity me as I slog through more explanations of rhymes, alliteration, anaphora and symbolism.  Pity me even more when a student gets that "poetic spark" and asks me to read the poetry she's been secretly writing for years. And if you're another blogger who wants to post a poem on your blog, sorry, but I'll have to skip reading it.  There's only so much punishment one teacher can take.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ruling by fear, and rules!

“Teachers, we’ve been having an issue with students in the hallways.  When we stop the student, he or she is telling us that the teacher allows students to leave early.  It is very important that we continue instruction right up until the bell rings…”

I’m sucking down some Coke Zero in a vain attempt to stay awake through this staff meeting.  Once again, we’re being told that a problem “has arisen” with something and are given vague, general threats as to what SHOULD happen if we are caught doing said thing.

“Teachers who allow students to leave class without passes and before the bell will face disciplinary measures.”  "Facing disciplinary measures" is one of Ms. Lear’s favorite phrases.  I know, because we hear it every week.

“Excuse me,” Patty says, “can you tell me who it is who is letting the students out early?  Because for all we know, if you asked a student, that student may be lying to you about getting out early.”

Ms. Lear looked mildly annoyed.  “Yes, of course, students don’t ALWAYS tell the truth, but we’re seeing a trend – “

Low, angry muttering begins.  Patty pipes up again.  “Look, if the problem is limited to one or two teachers, that is a problem that should be addressed with them.  I can tell you right now that I do NOT allow students to leave my class without a pass, and not within the last 15 minutes of class.” 

“Right,” Ms. Lear says, more visibly annoyed, “But this is a reminder for those who don’t know – “

“Who doesn’t know this?” someone calls out from the back.  “We all know this!  That’s why we have passes!”  The muttering is getting louder. 

I start snickering, and then choke a little on my Coke Zero.  As amusing as this little scene is becoming, I know it’s going nowhere because these are the same issues I’ve raised myself in the past.

Here’s the deal, administrators and managers: If you have a problem with something a teacher is doing, then TALK TO THAT TEACHER.  Don’t issue a general warning during a staff meeting.  You’re wasting everyone’s time, and the person who needs the message won’t get it.  If a general policy reminder were all anyone needed, you’d never have to give them more than once. 

I like the fact that administrators never seem to use the techniques with the teachers that they want us to use with the students.  Issuing a general, vague warning to a class about “students who throw trash on the floor will be disciplined” does nothing to keep the trash off the floor.  Instead, a teacher should figure out where the trash seems to accumulate, keep an eye on that part of the room and then tell Rodney that he’s staying after class to clean said trash up.  And really, does it even surprise you that Rodney is the one dumping his old papers on the floor?

But administrators still use this method of nonspecific warnings and threats.  Is it because we’re all adults that they figure we’ll feel bad enough to start policing each other and make their job easier?  Or is it because Mr. Shutz will have a breakdown over getting a stern talking-to over not keeping his grade book updated?  And let’s be honest, we all know that Mr. Shutz is the problem anyway. 

As most adults have learned, unless warnings are addressed to the one person causing the problem, everyone else stops listening.  “This doesn’t concern me,” they think, and if it never concerns them, they’ll tune out more and more of what is said.  Those teachers who are causing the problems stop listening as well, because, like Rodney, they haven’t been caught yet.

The fun aspect of all the vague threats we got in staff meeting was that the administrators weren’t willing to hold to their own rules either.  One day in class, I received a call from the office.

“Hi, Ms. Marlowe.  Can you send Samid to the auditorium?”

I looked at the clock.  “Sorry, I can’t.”


“It’s the last 15 minutes of class, so I can’t send any students out.”

“Well, he’s a student ambassador, and we have some important visitors –“ the receptionist started.  I interrupted, “Right, but the administration says that we CANNOT send students out during the last few minutes of class.”

“You just give him a pass…”

“No, sorry, not allowed, it’s the rule.”  She said okay, and I hung up.

Ten seconds later, Ms. Lear herself called.  “Ms. Marlowe, we need you to send Samid to-“

Here I interrupted again.  “To the auditorium, I know, but I can’t because it’s now the last 12 minutes of class.”

“It’s okay; you can give him a pass just this once.”

“Actually, I can’t, because we were told in the staff meeting that we’d be disciplined if we did that.”

Long pause.  “Well, the administration needs him now.  We have some really important visitors.  Senator Fallows is here, and -”

“Shouldn’t Samid or his teachers know about this in advance, so we could avoid breaking the RULE?”  I asked pointedly.

Ms. Lear seemed a bit flustered.  “Well, you know, things come up unexpectedly sometimes…”

“I’m sure they do,” I responded pleasantly.  “But I feel it’s important to abide by the rules, not just for my students, but for myself, right?  We can’t always be making exceptions when it’s convenient.” There was another long pause. 

“The principal is asking for you to send him now.”

“I’ll tell you what.  I’ll have him come just as soon as I’m finished with my instruction.”

“Um, okay…”

“Thanks!” I said brightly.  I hung up the phone and looked at the class.  Samid was standing up by his desk with his books in his hands, an expectant look on his face. 

“Sit down, Samid,” I said mildly.  “We have about 10 minutes of class left, and I know you’re not done with your work yet.”  He sat back down and pulled out his notebook.

Rules are rules, right?  I’m sure the distinguished visitors were impressed that SOMEONE was following them, and the administration was probably even more impressed by my slavish adherence.   Clearly, at least one person was listening in staff meeting.