Long ago, I promised myself that if I completed 25 years of teaching, I would try to write a book about my experiences. Next year will be year 25. So I started this last year to begin to figure out what I wanted to write about. I welcome your comments, resources, links to your own teaching blog, book recommendations, etc.
There’s a great moment in Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars in which she describes an international group of educators watching a video of an American teacher’s classroom. One of the non-American teachers keeps asking to stop the recording and asks, “What’s that?” After a while, the American teacher finally realizes what’s so foreign to the teacher who was asking for the recording to be stopped. It was the intercom.
Today was that kind of day. Testing the intercom. Teachers stopping to “peek in” to the classroom (we’re in a new building; many of my students are their former students, etc.).
We know and agree on about 4 things in education. 1 of them is that we shouldn’t interrupt classes. So let’s not do that. Let’s make class time sacred. Because if we don’t, how can we expect the students to do so?
This is a story about a friend. And not ‘a friend’ as in I am trying to disguise the fact that I’m writing about myself, but a friend. Really. So, Mom, don’t call.
A story I tell, probably too often, is about Opening Day at Wrigley Field in the mid-late 80s. I could look up the exact year if it mattered, but it doesn’t. What matters is that prior to the previous season, Major League Baseball seemed to think Andre Dawson was washed up. So he offered his services at what I remember as the league minimum (again, I’m not sure that the details matter, so please don’t bother correcting me) and the Cubs signed him. And he hit close to 50 home runs. I think it was 49. So when he came out to right field on Opening Day the next year, the fans were chanting “An-dre, An-dre” and bowing to him. And I remember in the midst of all of that bleacher craziness thinking about how hard it must be to walk away from all of that, how hard it must be to know when you’re finished.
Now there are age issues or health issues or other circumstances that could prompt my exit from the classroom one day. A few issues that have come up, like No Nonsense Nurturing, have fallen into the category of a hill I was willing to die on, but my resolve was never tested, but then this. My friend and former colleague bought a bulletproof vest last night.
I want to try to stick to what I know to be true here. A student brought a gun into the school. A student came to my friend’s classroom and asked to hide in a closet. In the end, another student reported the gun-wielding student to security. No one was hurt. Those of you who know me and / or read this regularly will know the school. It is rocked by violence on a regular basis.
And my friend, an excellent teacher in his own subject and one of those people who are great to have on a faculty because he is willing and able to do whatever is needed. (He once told me that chickens make a contribution to breakfast and that pigs make a commitment. When it came to teaching, he said, he wanted to be a pig.) I have also had the opportunity to see him as a husband, a father and to hear stories about him as a brother and a son. All told, when I told him I loved him on one of my last work days with him last year, I meant it. I already knew of his experience with guns. And now he has a bulletproof vest.
At first, the moral of my story is that when he saw himself in the store contemplating which vest to buy, well, that should have been his sign to himself that it was time to quit. I know some offer the notion that educators should be armed, and if that becomes the requirement, it would mean it was time for me to go. I am certainly never buying a bulletproof vest any more than I am carrying a gun at school (or anywhere else). And I still think he should quit. The first rule of teaching is to keep the children safe, physically. But the school, under its current lousy leadership, has an obligation (moral, contractual, fiscal – whatever suits you) to keep its teachers safe too. And clearly, he does not feel safe. One mutual colleague suggested he might be overreacting. Maybe. But I know him as a reasonable person. I know this recent event did not happen in isolation, that it just may have been the exclamation point. But it’s enough. He should quit.
But I realized that this can’t be the complete response. He should quit for his safety. And he, we, also need to change the terms of the fight. After the recent Presidential election, a lot of words have been written in response to more or less the same question: how did we get here?
And that’s the question I have now: how did we get here? How did we get to the point where a talented and passionate teacher is so disrupted by the amount of violence surrounding his school that he buys a bulletproof vest? How do we make sure that not only my friend is safe, but that all teachers and students are safe? How did we get here? And how are we going to step back from this particular brink? And stay back. We know you cannot learn when you are hungry. Well, you cannot teach when you are afraid.
So not only do I want my friend to quit, I want him to quit publicly. I want him to let people know what he bought and why, and why this will likely be his last year of teaching. I want people to know that just as we can’t accept the national scene as any version of normal, this, even if it is in the “inner city.”
I am sure there are millions of ideas about how we got here. I’m not even sure that I can say what ‘here’ means. Perhaps it’s enough to say that ‘here’ is in the aisle of some store looking at your options for bulletproof vests.
Parent conferences last night. Whatever I think about the format, I was thrilled with attendance. I think I saw around 30 parents. Many of the conversations were productive; at least I thought so. I was leaving somewhat high on this buzz (at my previous school, if we saw 5 parents, that was a win) when I saw a student sitting with the Principal and crying. She had a minor argument when she and her mother and conferenced with me, but for some reason, I knew. Mom had left her behind. On purpose. The minor argument that had started in front of me must have escalated. I was absolutely chilled.
I spoke with my mother about it, and she helped me calm down. She reminded me about what we do in times of anger and how some people get no help, no role models, and no education when they become mothers. I had a feeling her comments were somewhat autobiographical.
There’s a difference, though, between then and now, between black and white. I am not sure where the student slept last night, but I suspect that it was arranged by the city and not her mother. The Principal reminded me to keep my mouth shut this morning. I knew to do that. And the student isn’t even here.
After watching our daughter endure close to two years of this glitchy program, I went to talk with her Principal about it (and other things). Conferences with her teachers had indicated to me that they were less than enthused about the program and that they were being required to choose an arbitrary number of lessons to assign each week. I asked him about the research that went into selecting the program.
Principal: It is supposed to improve test scores.
Me: Oh. Where can I find that information?
Principal: Compass Learning.
Me: I mean, has anyone outside the company that sells the program said anything positive about it? Is there any independent research? Did you contact any other schools that use it?
Principal: It’s meant a great deal to my son. I’ve seen his confidence in math improve.
So when I went to the Open House for our son, I was pleased to hear what sounded like a more deliberate approach to using the program. I was pleased until he called me to the computer one day and asked for help with a unit called ‘Poetics.’ After enduring an endless and inane lesson on the volta (not the most urgent topic for anyone, much less a 5th grader), we came to this writing prompt –
Write two paragraphs in which you analyze and compare how the forms and structures of “Sonnet 19” and “Ozymandias” help to express themes and ideas. Use the information in Part 1 to help you organize your ideas. Refer back to the text evidence you found in the sonnets to help you support the ideas in your analysis.
I was floored. I’ve taught “Ozymandias” . . . to 11th graders. And Shakespearean sonnets can be fun, even for 5th graders, but not like this. Definitely not like this.
I wrote his English teacher an impassioned plea to reconsider assigning this unit. I received a rather bureaucratic response. She claimed that the program offered different levels of reading challenges for students (this one apparently had a 9.8 lexile) and that if I wished, I could tell our son (very much a rule follower) not to do Compass Learning and that it would not have an impact on his grade.
First, she missed what I thought was my wildly overstated point that this approach was very much going to contribute to the reputation schools have for killing the joy of poetry. Second, if it’s (supposedly) so essential to the curriculum, how can he just opt out of doing it? If I mentioned this option to him, he would refuse it, not wanting to be singled out. So now I am left with the option of bringing my concerns to a higher level or enduring another two years of this?
I know it’s a buzz word or jargon or whatever, but I am finding that even after I have left a school dedicated to mastery learning for an IB school, the concept still resonates with me. I am much more deliberate about assignments I offer. This also means I give fewer assignments. I am much more thoughtful about what the assignment is for and how I can set the students up to succeed, and how the assignment can then lead to the next one. The concept has really made me reduce things to their essentials: What should students know, be able to do, and to think about?
It’s working for me. My assignments are clearer. I am giving much less busy work. The number of “Why are we doing this?” questions has gone way down.