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 am not proctoring today. Instead, I am in the cateogry of ‘Other.’ I have bits and pieces of several advisories, and I am essentially babysitting. A group is playing cards. A few students are doing homework. Almost all of the students are on their phones.
I am not sure what, in the end, I could do with this group. They all have plenty to work on, but they have no access to computers and generally little motivation to make these kinds of arbitrary times useful. They probably should. I always remember that the group with the best GPA at my college was the football team because they learned to use every moment efficiently because of how time consuming football was. But these aren’t those students.
One student just arrived with an elaborate drink from Starbucks and an urgent and intense look on her face as she manipulated her phone.
We count the time for required tests. But what about the meetings to make sure we’re ready for testing? What about the time it takes to make sure the computers are ready? The time it takes to make sure everyone knows where everyone is supposed to be? The time it takes to deal with make-ups? And try to remember the last time you took a standardized test. How much did you want to do after that? Our students have lunch after testing, and then they are supposed to go learn in 3 classes. How many of those classes will be worthwhile?
One student is watching a YouTube video of a young man going through his sister’s phone. Another is sorting through an endless pile of papers. Perhaps he’s looking for something? Getting organized? That could be useful.
I am not teaching; what are they learning?
It was in Houston, appropriately enough, where we realized that we had a problem.
See if any of this sounds familiar. You have been tasked with the research paper. You are sent the file for this assignment, though it may still be a paper file because the assignment has been around that long. You are told that this research paper is the rite of passage that all students, teachers and, frankly, parents (some of whom had the same assignment when they were at the same high school) must endure. You are expected to scramble for resources, like library time and computers, neither of which tend to be readily found. You are expected to emphasize both process and product. The process is supposedly made easier because of technology as though a notecard that is on the computer is vastly different from the notecard you created on an index card. You are expected to give over massive chunks of time to something you had little hand in creating. You minimize that which you are passionate about and, if all goes according to plan, have 50 or 100 or even 150 8-10 page papers (because it’s not truly a rite of passage unless it’s a big piece of writing) that are tedious to grade. This mind-numbing process is inversely proportional to the amount of time you generally have to grade them. You write comments on them that no one will ever read, and though the option more often than not exists, few if any students elect to revise their papers, and you will be too exhausted to encourage it because you will have to deal with the inevitable 2-3 examples of plagiarism.
You are probably an English teacher because even though research is required in science and Social Studies, among other subjects, it has fallen to the English Department to steer this particular battleship because (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) everyone takes English all 4 years. So you do this and it is done. Those who don’t finish or do well are likely doomed (in terms of their grade, college success, financial earnings, chances of ever shooting a hole in one, etc.) and the students, supposedly learning the skills that are as necessary as breathing, almost certainly never do such a paper again.
Thanks to the internet, yesterday’s research has become little more than a kind of curation of existing materials according to a structure pre-determined by the teacher. Assignments that cross that rubicon from pre-Internet to post-Internet are revealed as the absurdities they are. I taught once at a school where the 8th graders were expected to select an author from a set list, read a few of the author’s book, research the author’s biography, and produce an epic ‘Author Research Paper.’ When I first encountered it, the assignment hadn’t changed in 25 or 30 years. Teachers hated teaching it, students hated doing it, so some plagiarized it and others handed it off to their parents, and the results were as dull as they were long. Why did we ever think an 8th grader would be able to write something worthwhile about Ernest Hemingway? At that same school, the 6th graders wrote a biography of a world leader. There were always a plethora of Mandela biographies. None of this is research. At best, it is an exercise in curation, and at worst, it’s an invitation to cheat.
We need to rethink research. The most promising concept I’ve encountered is YPAR – Youth Participatory Action Research. As with most concepts / jargon that enters the educational realm, there is already a danger of abuse. The woman who said, “Oh, yeah, I do YPAR. We focus on human trafficking” has it wrong. Students, either in groups or as individuals choose. They select a topic and refine their research question the way we might work with them on selecting a topic and writing a thesis for a paper in response to The Scarlet Letter. The topic has to be a passion for them. These projects are invariably long and allowing students to select something banal will be painful for both of you. Take your time with the questions.
Look around your community. Start with your school. What are the assets? Who are the assets? What are the needs? Some topics are inevitable – dress code, school lunch, school schedule, etc.. These are likely okay, especially for freshman and / or if your school is isolated. If we’re not turning to the internet, then, what exactly is the research?
Strictly speaking, it’s not that we’re not using the internet, it’s just that we’re not turning to it first. Create a hierarchy of skills. Surveys were a good 9th grade skill. Imagine the steps. What’s a good survey question? How many questions? What kind? What kind of biographical information do you want to collect? On paper or on the computer (I recommend Google Forms; Survey Monkey proved unwieldy)? How do you handle sensitive topics, like teen suicide? How many surveys are enough? And then, when the data comes in, how do you read, analyze and present it?
We tried observations as the other research skill for 9th grade. It just didn’t suit enough topics and some topics (How many people give to the homeless on the street? What kind of violence takes place around an elementary school vs. a high school?) had other problems. This year, in 10th grade, we are trying interviews and focus groups. Interview questions can be similar to survey questions. What I’ve found is that students will read through their list of questions without being nimble enough to be alert to the prospect of asking follow-up questions. Have them practice on each other. Are they going to record? Transcription takes a long time.
They are not very familiar with the idea of a focus group. Model one. Or three. There are logistical challenges when it comes to setting these things up. When can they happen? Note that they can still do surveys and observations as well as other forms of research, but they are supporting actors.
I was excited when the topics for the second year were much better than the first, though some students have elected to dig deeper into their topics, which we encouraged. Then they got stuck. Last year, we told them they were going to do a poster presentation. This year, they have to design their own product. They are also working individually.
They can fail which, in most cases, is simply not finishing. They are to keep a process journal in which they describe their use of time, make to-do lists, jot down notes from phone calls, etc.. If they don’t finish or can’t make their final product, they have to account for and reflect on why.
The culminating event saw students rise to the occasion. They dressed up. They took it seriously, even when the audience was just their peers. They were proud of themselves. Our guests – parents, community members – were impressed. And then, exhausted, we had to try to turn to the action part.
Here is one of the best projects that came out of my advisory.
Next: What’s action?
Bob, that is.
I was thinking about “Sundown on the union,” but that’s not right. I was thinking about “People seldom do what they believe in / they do what’s most convenient, and then repent.” That’s closer, but the son of a bitch never repented.
I taught at a school for a year. It was not a good match. There were all sorts of details and situations, all sorts of problems and perspectives. But I was the first-year teacher and so it was just as easy for all of us to agree that I shouldn’t stay.
And you know what? I’m glad. I was not happy there. My subsequent stops have been much more my style. I was angry for a while, was even heard out by a Central Office admin, and slowly the feelings drifted away.
Now comes word that one of my former colleagues there has, in all probability, been woefully mistreated. Of course, she had been there much longer so she definitely had more allies. You know what? Though I never saw her teach, she seemed to have her stuff together. I can’t recall any acrimony between us, but I’m known for missing such things.
And the same person who claimed he knew all along, the same person who is supposed to help all teachers, who did nothing for me except listen to me vent and buy the flowers for my funeral, is perched high on his soapbox, complete with unnecessarily inflammatory rhetoric, detailing all of the ways this colleague was wronged. I don’t know the facts. I can’t know them. I suspect, given all else that’s tumbling out of this particular district lately, one that has such a great reputation (“he smiled at your face, but behind your back he hissed” – Dylan again – or there’s probably something better from Othello), I suspect his concerns, however clumsily they are expressed, are largely right.
Why didn’t you stand for me? Maybe you didn’t like me? I know I hadn’t been there as long, but cripes, man, anyone could see you were just going through the motions and even that was far too late. But you won’t discuss it. You are far too perfect and popular. I should have known then and try to remember now that “He might be standing next to you, the person that you notice the least / I hear that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.”
This is not about money. Or race. This is about generations.
We just had parent conferences. Several parents – when reminded about how they can go online to access all of the information they were asking for – admitted it with a tone approaching confession. “I just can’t figure it out.”
Now I am far from a technical wizard, but I can navigate our various electronic platforms and get basic information. We also had stations set up for training, training that was conducted by folks much more skilled than me (not a high bar, I admit). But it started me thinking.
If I get home from work and want to check on how my child is doing or find an assignment or communicate with a teacher and none of these things are comfortable for me and to accomplish any of them I am likely going to have to count on said child to help me, well, then I might not get past, “Have any homework?” “No.” “Great.”
Have we gone too far?
In our efforts to make everything (jargon alert! jargon alert!) “transparent,” are we instead putting up another obstacle? How many students are raised by grandparents? I’m not saying that there aren’t grandparents who are tech-savvy. I am just saying that maybe we’ve created yet another divide, made it just a bit harder for those who are trying to stay involved, who may also have trouble with internet access.
Choosing books is hard. There are so many factors to balance. Some part of me believes, with Neil Postman, that school should act as a thermostat to that which goes on outside. In short, in my case, that means I shouldn’t teach the Bluford Series. On the other hand, I have a lot of (very) reluctant readers, so I need to pick things that engage them. It is rare but wonderful to find things that do the good work of both being challenging and engaging. That’s why books such as The Hate U Give are so important.
And I know that “I don’t like the book” sometimes translates to “I don’t understand the book” or even, “I haven’t read the book.” I try to tell students that I don’t try to choose books that they won’t like. I try to choose individual books as well as a year’s worth that do something, both individually and together, that each book has its purpose and very rarely is that purpose to be popular. I do see what Atwell says about making all reading independent reading and though that won’t work right now for me since I’m in an IB school, I would love to do more with it.
Choosing books is hard. I relish the challenge. Maybe I just feel stuck in Haroun.
There’s an axiom that says you shouldn’t receive any feedback at the end of the year that surprises you. In my experience, to butcher a line from Hamlet, that’s a custom more honored in the breach than in reality. Not for the first time this summer, I received some (A LOT OF) feedback that surprised me, and now, three weeks in, I can say with some confidence that I’ve done my best to honor it (though have received feedback on only one element of it so far – apparently, I’ve been successful at writing fewer and clearer emails – yeah, me!).
That feedback became goals, and then I started the year with goals of my own. Added together, I have a lot of goals. In general, I think it’s been good for me. It’s caused me to go slower and think more about differentiation in lesson planning, organization (my own and the students’) and, yes, the emails I choose to write. At times, though, I wonder what’s been lost as a consequence. I am certainly spending my energy in different ways. We’ve had fewer discussions. I think I’ve been able to do less to challenge the much sharper students. Overall, I am not having as much fun as I usually do. Has that changed what students are learning? It’s hard to say. Maybe I’ll get used to what’s been good about this, and find the fun again. Right now, it feels like every day, every period, every interaction (with adults and students) is tied to one of my goals. And that makes for long, tough days.