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.
I appreciate those of you have taken the time to read and those who have taken the time to read and comment. You have helped me (re)think and sharpen ideas and given me much for further consideration. I was asked at one point what my goals were. For me, that goes to purpose.
First, I suppose, is a sense of entitlement. 25 years, well over 10,000, has, I think, given me the credibility to say some things about teaching and education. And I want to say them in a way that promotes conversation. I envision having sidebars from former students and colleagues, other professionals – especially those who disagree with me or remember things differently.
I want to tell my story. There are so many stories out there about what teachers are like, what teaching is like. I am not at all claiming that mine is representative in any way; it’s just mine. In fact, given my wide range of experience (never the plan), I think it’s pretty unique. I’ve also been asked how and why I’ve stayed in teaching for so long. So maybe that’s the story. I think maybe it’s the gaps I want to fill or at least address between what I see presented to the public and what happens down on the ground level.
I’ve also been asked how and why I’ve stayed in teaching for so long. So maybe that’s the story. I think maybe it’s the gaps I want to fill or at least address between what I see presented to the public and what happens down on the ground level.
I’d also like to think I could have an impact. I hope my readers are new teachers or teacher-leaders or people just starting schools and that my experience gives them some things to consider and maybe even inspires each reader a bit. I hope the book is one that is useful. I expect it to be annotated, passed around.
If you go to the Education section of a library or bookstore (often located near the Parenting section – an interesting choice), you will see, I imagine three kinds of education books. There are the practical, instructional ones – the mammoth study guides for various tests, for example. And vocabulary workbooks. And for teachers, there are books on how to teach writing. Or with poverty in mind. There are those who want to present their big ideas or comment on the big ideas of others. But how many do you find that are written by teachers who are still teaching (somewhere in the PK-12 range)? Of course, time is an issue. Some weeks it can be hard to write an email, let alone a chapter, for example. The only one I can think of right now is This Is Not a Test, which is, by the way, quite good. Feel free to mention more when you comment. I’m sure I am not thinking of some good ones. So I think that’s another gap I want to fill. Or at least try to fill.
Never the Plan – that could make for an interesting title. . .
My first teaching experience was at a small private school on the South Side of Chicago. We’ll call it The Hitchcock School because of a historical connection it had (it is closed now, I’m almost certain) to an event that became an inspiration for a Hitchcock film. I heard of the opening because a former teacher there worked with my wife. I do not remember much about the interview, but I do remember signing the contract and the principal telling me that the salary was not enough for starting a family. I’ve never been shy about discussing salaries. I think the taboo against it is sometimes a tool used to intimidate people from discovering whether they’re being paid in an equitable manner. My salary for that first year was $15,500. This was 1992. In any event, all I remember about my first day is the last period. A student, a senior, had his hand up for much of the period, but I was having none of it. I kept talking and talking and talking. Finally, with maybe 5-10 minutes left, I called on him. His question: “Can you tell us your name?”
It was a good place for me to start, I think. My Principal, after I’d had a particularly rough day, told me that what he liked about teaching is that you got to come back the next day and that, more often than not, the students had forgotten about whatever had made the day before feel so lousy for you. It’s advice I’ve kept close at hand since then and have passed on to many others.
It’s a tough school to describe. We had a somewhat transient student population. We tended to get students who were getting lost in public schools and needed a kind of tune-up before they could return. But we had some permanent students, including the senior I mentioned above. Class sizes were small. In general, though, I really didn’t know what I was doing, especially with those students who had special needs.
I remember my bubble of naivete bursting when I learned that two of our female students had children by the same father, so they’d been placed in separate grades to try to prevent conflict. There was my first experience with a student who was being abused at home.
What I lacked in terms of training and strategies, I tried to make up for with energy. We read books. One student reported being assigned similar titles in college and being grateful to me for her preparation. Others struggled. I was at a loss when it came to managing a grade book and was grateful that our motorcycle riding math teacher was willing to guide me. I had almost no ideas about dealing with classroom behavior. Or working with colleagues (much less getting along with some of them). Some of our students were involved with gangs. Drugs. A student I had in 8th grade showed up driving a fancy car, maybe a Trans-Am or something, the next year. One senior plagiarized Camille Paglia for his final project. He’d also set another student’s hair on fire, though I think that was my second year. I volunteered to coach basketball. I think I got on decently with some of the parents.
After that first year, we got a new Principal. And we had budget problems, so the staffing situation changed quickly, and I ended up with a British Literature course I hadn’t anticipated. We had a science teacher no one could figure out, and he ended up being asked to leave after the first quarter, I think. Discipline issues persisted. Students came and went and sometimes came again.
I organized some field trips, mostly to see plays. One time we went to an art exhibit. Another time, a dance performance. I tried to help students get into college. I made a student turn his hat around when he was confronted by someone as we walked to see a play at a local theatre. I took some students to hear Malcolm X’s widow speak and mistakenly allowed some students to return in a private car. My exasperated Principal explained the risks involved. We went to see a morning matinee of Of Mice and Men and required the students to buy their lunch at a restaurant opened by the father of one of their classmates. I’d never had jerk chicken before. (It was good. I should check to see if his place is still open.)
I was on the Development Committee and helped organize our annual fundraiser. The only reason it was successful the first year is that someone I invited was, in fact, running a pyramid scheme so he had a lot of cash to spend. When I asked the Chairman of the Board what the money would be used for, he said, “You know those checks you all got today? They won’t bounce.”
Yeah, that was a problem. Luckily, I banked nearby so I was generally one of the first to get my check deposited. Others were not so fortunate.
It was a good place for me to start. I learned that I loved teaching. I also learned that I didn’t know enough to do it well. It was time, then, to go back to school.
Once again, we started on time. It’s a small thing, but I love it. We began with an exercise in Design Thinking. (Or there’s this.) In order to practice the process, we interviewed a partner and were interviewed in return about how much we enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) hosting dinner parties. (Anyone who knows me knows I was in the ‘did not enjoy’ camp.) It was also, not coincidentally, a great way to get to know another member of the cohort. After that, we repeated the process – somewhat less formally – and interviewed each other about our ideas about our action research project. My partner is a K-8 art teacher and, astonishingly, her school does not permit her to have her own field trips! She also set a goal for herself about folding in an object-based approach to at least one unit in each grade level. I offered her two challenges – first, to address the field trip issue. To me, such a restriction is absurd. Apparently, grade level teachers at her school get two trips a year. She used to collaborate on one with the 6th grade teacher (on Egypt), but that teacher subsequently left. Second, I encouraged her to map out her ideas for the year so that she not trying new things in several grade levels at once. She said she’d been at her current school for 10 years, so she knew her curriculum pretty well. I guess there was a third. She spoke of how well she used to collaborate with an art teacher who had a very different approach from her, but she too had moved on. I encouraged her to find a partner for planning. Teachers in the arts often have solo acts. They get attached to various other meetings. It would be useful for her to have a thinking partner. I talked through my photography idea with her. It was just so useful to change it from an idea that was floating around in my head to something more concrete. She offered me some good suggestions, including several about technology, which I desperately need. She also led me to see how photography could be a recurring tool that I could use throughout the year, instead of for just one project. It was cool. Again, having the time to talk to another teacher – what a luxury! (For the record, I am far from the only non-art teacher there, which I think is great.)
After that, the white gloves came out. The Museum has a program called Art to Go. Before we could touch the objects, we again paired up with one person looking at the object and the other looking away – pencil and paper in hand. I was the ‘describer’ first. As with the activities yesterday, the goal was not to say ‘This is a mask,’ but to describe things in terms of shapes, sizes, lines, etc.. It was very hard. My partner got a lot of the shapes down that I described. They just looked like they’d been juggled and dropped from what I’d intended. I did little better when it was her turn to describe a new object. And then we got to touch them which was awesome. I still remember going to something like a Please Touch area of the Smithsonian when I was a child. So cool, then; so cool, now. The person who runs the Art to Go program modeled a questioning protocol. Sometimes, it can be annoying to be asked to toggle between being a student and a teacher when I’m in a professional development situation; so far, it’s been great.
After lunch, we got a tour of and an introduction to the research library at the museum. It’s just incredible to me what they have available in the museum and on-line – for everyone. The day closed with an opportunity to do some planning for our projects. We could stay in the library or go through the galleries. (Teachers being trusted? Amazing!) And the day really ended with us again being asked to offer some input on the next day as well as reflect on the day we’d just completed. I’m eager to get back at it tomorrow. Today helped me go from a zillion thoughts buzzing around my head to a more tangible plan for what I want to do and what I still need to do to prepare.
I love, love, love the Cleveland Museum of Art. So when an opportunity entered my email inbox to do some professional development there and it was a program my administration supported, I put in an application and was fortunate enough to be accepted.
We gathered outside the front door of the museum, and I was not too surprised to find that of the 11 (?) of us, only two of us are male. I was also not surprised (though I am disappointed) to find that none of us, at least as far as I can tell, are teachers of color.
An opening challenge – to take a piece of paper and any available supplies and turn it into something that represented me in 3 minutes – quickly revealed that of the 11 of us, I was lodged firmly in 15th place in terms of artistic ability. Nevertheless, it was an effective and efficient way for us to introduce ourselves to each other – one of many activities I intend to bring into my classroom.
It quickly became clear to me that, at least on the surface, this professional development was going to meet my basic standards for PD – respectful use of time, both practical and philosophical, not lecture-based, no one read to me, etc..
We entered the galleries and practiced a few ways to engage students with art. The first was based on Visual Thinking Strategies, an approach I’m somewhat familiar with, but our facilitator lent it a new twist, by having us go around in a circle and just say one (new) word at a time about the picture. Luckily, when I repeated someone else’s word during Round 3, I was not out. Instead, I was just given more time to think. It was the first of several efforts during the day to get us, as viewers, to slow down – to avoid interpretation, to avoid judgment – until we had, at the risk of using a dreaded phrase, ‘collected’ our data – in this case, in the form of observations.
We did several other activities (all in front of works I’d never given a second thought to before). Now, I have a certain amount of skepticism about the 7 Intelligences and a limited amount of patience for hooks. Since we had time to not only practice a variety of activities, but to reflect on them, I realized that these activities – one of which had me adopting the pose of a dog, another – imitating the sound of a cooking fire – were no mere gimmicks. They were drawing me into works that I’d never considered before and giving me openings that I could transfer to the key question about literature namely, how does form make meaning?
As an English teacher, I am used to crafting ways for students to write about art, so when we were told we’d be getting a choice of writing invitations to respond to, I thought I was finally in my comfort zone. Before looking at the prompts, I thought I knew which work I wanted to use as the basis for my response. But then I read the prompt. I was invited to write about the work that said something about me as a teacher.
I turned around and saw this —
It’s called Mapa estelar en arbal and it’s by Gabriel Orozco. To me, it looked like a profile of my brain when I am planning lessons, units, etc.. It was a cool activity – the idea of overlaying my autobiography onto someone else’s artwork. As with everything else in the morning, I will adapt it and use it in the classroom.
The opening question in the afternoon was how comfortable we all were with drawing. In general, if I can look at something, I don’t mind taking a hack at drawing it. We went into one of the Asian galleries and sat in front of this — well, never mind, I must not have taken down the right information because I can’t locate it on their website right now. (If anyone who was with me today can provide a link, I’d be grateful.) We went through a similar process with it that we had with the works in the morning. The challenge with this one was that there was a kind of optical illusion in this painting. There were two characters in it. It took me a while to discern the second one. We were invited to sketch it and, at intervals, we were asked to consider certain elements of mark-making – speed, pressure, etc. When we were prompted to hold our pencil the way the artist held his brush, any success I’d been having went out the window. Then we were given the kind of brush the artist used (but sadly no ink or water) just to get a sense of how that felt. It reminded me a lot of the writing exercise that asks writers to learn the style of another writer by copying a passage. My brain kept code switching to English teacher mode, and thinking about how teaching an International Baccalaureate program requires developing an understanding of how different kinds of stories work. Then I got stuck (and probably stubborn) in a familiar place – the question of context – how much? when? and what weight should it carry?
We spent so much time with this painting that there was not much left for this one —
What do you see in the picture? No judgments. No interpretations. Just list what you see. Think about both in terms of form and content (see – just like reading literature). To what effect? What argument can you present based on the evidence provided by the picture? (I loved all of the discussions about museum labels and the prospective assignment of having students write their own labels. Our facilitator made a point of obstructing our view of the label.)
It turned out that, somewhat in violation of the manifesto of the Abstract Expressionists (there is a Jackson Pollock two paintings away from this), this effort, called, “Alabama,” has some realism as its origin story – a photograph of (I think) car headlights and a Klan rally (not owned by the museum). Having now looked at more pictures of Klan rallies than I care to, I will admit to not being able to find the photograph that served as the artist’s (that is, Norman Lewis’) inspiration.
Ultimately, we are to develop an action research question that must focus on an object in the museum’s permanent collection.
So far, I’ve got three ideas:
- How do artists (or maybe just photographers), like writers, use techniques to make meaning?
- Something about the whole notion of appropriation. The power of the photograph of Emmett Till’s body and the white artist who recently made her own painting of Till. . . (not sure if this connects to anything in the museum’s collection)
- a photograph I bought and used as a ‘master work’ when I was teaching at an arts magnet school – two South African schoolboys talking with each other at the gate of a school – the white child is the one on the outside (again, might have to be for practice because I’m not sure what it connects to in the museum’s collection) – could connect well with “Master Harold”
A good, energizing day at a great place. They want to the museum to become more like the kinds of classrooms we’d like to have. And they seem open to any and every possibility. I look forward to tomorrow.
Somewhere in this social media world, there is a page dedicated to those, like me, who absolutely loved our high school theatre program. Now that I have children of my own, one of whom is particularly interested in theatre, I have only gained more appreciation for my own experience. I have long wondered what made it work. On the surface, the success of the program is obvious. The program can boast of actors and writers on Broadway, on TV, movie makers, etc.. (Me? I go to plays. And try to bring students.) But I think it’s success runs deeper than that. While the program was largely in the hands of one person, I’ll call her Lynn (yes, a pseudonym, and yes, we called our teachers by their first names), I don’t think it was a case of cult of personality. And it wasn’t just a case of ‘the theatre crowd.’ Since my private school was small, lots of students did lots of activities and there was, in my memory and experience at least, not a lot of judgment around. Of our current TV stars was also the starting forward on the basketball team. How did the school achieve that culture? I do give Lynn credit for at least two things. She had incredibly high standards – for herself and for all of us. I still remember her delight in telling all of us the story about how one long-time theatre parent told her early in one production that she’d finally “bitten off more than [she] can chew” and then come back to her later and said how much he’d enjoyed the show. I hope he apologized, but I don’t remember. I remember loving the way she refused that there was anything she, and therefore, we could not do, even with a limited budget (and the fact that we produced our shows in the gym). Her spirit was contagious, and the colleagues that worked with her radiated that spirits well. She gave students a lot of responsibility. A LOT. And you had to earn it, especially on the technical side. (Having no talent for it, I know little about the casting side.) You started on a crew and worked your way up. And it was not all about talent. I was not particularly skilled at designing and building sets, for example, but I’d earned my chance to design and build a set for Pygmalion that was, or at least was supposed to be, in the round. And she let us fail. She had to. She couldn’t do everything herself. I still wince at some of the props I didn’t finish in time for The King & I.
Are there successful and wonderful theatre programs at public schools? Absolutely. Are they so woven into the school culture as ours was and, by all accounts, still is? If you were in a public school theatre program, how much responsibility did you have? Do you still love theatre?
I think the element that has most carried over into my own teaching is the way Lynn treated us like adults. She had to, I think. I don’t know whether it was deliberate; it just was. And we tried hard to live up to her expectations.
I’ve taught at 3 independent / private schools in my career. (Is there a difference between ‘private’ and ‘independent’?) I think it’s also important to say that, upon facing one of the required desegregation order that I’ve since studied, my parents pulled me and my siblings from our local public school and moved us to private schools. It is also important to say that the gravestones of my maternal grandparents are in the shape of open books. They believed in education. They had no way to anticipate the costs, though they tried.
I loved my own private school. It was a good match for me. Georgetown Day School. 2nd – 12th grade. It was small enough that I was known. I had good connections with my teachers, some of whom I still talk to. The school, once in a converted office building, has since moved, and I still go back to visit. I recently took our son to show him around.
I remember some less than wonderful years (5th grade, Amy, if you are a GDS person reading this) and some less than wonderful teachers (Jerry, Chemistry). And yes, we called our teachers by their first names. But most of the teachers, especially my English teachers, were wonderful, game-changing people. And they put up with me. I was, to put it mildly, a temperamental child. I came out of the experience better prepared in some subjects (English, history, even math) than others (science, languages), but I was ready for college. I had the work ethic.
The place was small enough that I could be involved in lots of extra-curricular activities. At 6′ 1″ (6’3″ in the program!), I was the center on the basketball team for my last two years. I worked backstage on the plays and musicals. I was part of the Model UN program. I even went on a school trip to Russia. (No, I didn’t meet with anyone about the 2016 election.)
I was infused with a strong sense of social justice, even as my school began, with the shift to its new building, to betray its own principles. So much so, I was determined to teach in public schools. So it was odd that I would start my teaching career at a private school. But that’s for Part II.
There is an illusion that teachers get summers ‘off.’ First of all, is it me or are summers getting shorter? Maybe I’m still dealing with the hangover of being at a year-round school. I remember sitting in front of someone at a college soccer game who was clearly in training to be an elementary teacher. She said she was learning how to make bulletin boards and was looking forward to having summers off.
Me? I probably go too far. I can’t turn my teaching brain off. And there are a lot of great opportunities for teachers – the NEH has many, for example. But here’s the thing. I always feel like there’s something I can do, something I should do to prepare, to get better, to get ready. Even if it’s just taking some time to take care of myself so I can be reinvigorated for the new school year. School years are marathons; they take endurance.
Should I care about disabusing the general public (particularly those who object to any pay raises) that we don’t really get summers off (in the same way that we don’t really finish work at 3)? I know it bugs me (as do many of the public perceptions of teachers and teaching), but I’m not sure it’s a priority.
What do you like to do – personally, professionally – over the summer?