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.

Featured post

Hallways, Halfways & Hyphens

I don’t like doing things halfway. I don’t like the mile wide and inch deep approach. I’m a big advocate of less is more. So when I saw that we were to have themed months this year, I was wary. When I saw the list, though, one ‘month’ stuck out from the others. Where September was Latino/a American Heritage Month and November was American Indian month, October was Service Month. So I asked about that first. He said something about how the white kids needed a place to land and that in his experience, many of them identified around service. I was intrigued. It was better than trying to muster a white American month.

Again, though, I hate doing things halfway. I saw the person leading the Latino/a American Heritage month struggle to get students to plan it, struggle to make time for herself to plan it, struggle to get support from teachers and students for what she tried to do, and the limited amount we were able to do, I got concerned. Heritage is not Heros and Holidays. And it’s not just food, clothing and arts either. I suppose my thesis here is that something is better than nothing is just wrong. A half-hearted attempt to put posters in the halls actually trivials the group to be studied and does the whole concept a disservice.

But along with another white teacher, I’d signed up for service month. We batted around ideas. We ran into obstacles with the Union (too complicated to explain). We had one of our open dates moved at kind of the last minute. We wanted to help students understand why service was central to our school’s mission all year, not just in October. But it’s tough to convince anyone of anything in a cafeteria. At this point, I can’t even remember what we did with our second time slot.

I wrote the Principal suggesting we euthanize the concept, arguing that superficial was not better than nothing. He politely declined, saying we had to set up a system where students would take the lead. Appeals were made for students to take the lead on American Indian month, but no students stepped forward. No one was studying anything related. Although a few students claim some Indian ancestry, there were no volunteers.

So the person in charge of the assemblies took the lead. This morning, shortly before we were supposed to lead the discussion, we were given 4 discussion questions and an article about the prospect of changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Person’s Day. This is an important topic, to be sure, especially in town with a baseball nickname and mascot like ours. But here’s the thing. With no context and little chance for anyone to prepare, no one cared. I had about five students engage. People get too offended. What about calling it Indigenous Persons Day? Everything we celebrate has a complicated history. Fine comments, but then thud. There’s nothing next. The students who did not engage had every reason not to engage. They knew there was nothing at stake (for them) and nothing next.

But I’ve said my piece about it. I am not going to try to step in for any of the future months, unless students ask for help. It’s throwing good energy after bad. In this case, better is not the enemy of perfect. Better than nothing trivializes the very purpose of such months, a purpse that, I suspect, is inherently flawed.

Well, that’s never happened before. . .

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.

Compass Learning

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?

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Instructional Rounds in Education – a review

If you give a village a cow. . . (Part 2)

The tour continued. Houses were meant to represent a culture. Though there were careful disclaimers, they tended to be lost in the tidal wave of words, particularly words about how our guide had been to every place and worked with everyone. The houses, therefore, became a single story – of Peru, of Thailand, of the ‘urban slum,’ of Appalachia.

Pictures were distributed. One was of a mother with her child strapped to her back on their way to get water. The caption –

The woman not only is going to fetch water, but gets to carry her baby the entire way. I love the typical way they carry their children. It is so nice to have free hands.

I had to wash the condescension, the romanticism of poverty off of my hands.

Thailand – We were shown a picture of a woman in traditional Ahkah clothing. Apparently, when our host had shown up, the woman was only wearing the headdress with jeans and a Nike t-shirt. But our guide couldn’t have that, no. She sent the woman back into her home to change into her traditional regalia so she could take a more ‘authentic’ picture.

In the ‘slums,’ we learned from our guide that the happiest children are generally the poorest children. We learned that thanks to the mid-life crisis of a movie executive, there was now the Cambodia Children’s Fund, and that now everything little thing was gonna be alright. I know this because our guide showed us a video of well-dressed, smiling Cambodian children lip syncing to that Bob Marley song. I don’t know a lot about Marley, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t approve of his song being used in that way. But I shouldn’t worry, I was told, because at least in slums you have a community.

The cooking challenge, though smacking a bit too much of a reality show, was fun. The students learned to barter (and to steal) for what they needed and had to cook over an open fire. The scenarios each group received were too complex. (Note to guide: Creating ‘stuff’ is not the same as creating curriculum.) The night time was surprisingly fun. My group was assigned the ‘lower slums’ and eventually went to sleep. The morning after reflection was fine, if a bit superficial. The students were urged to do something, to spread the word. It was time to go.

If you give a village a cow. . . (Part I)

Open House starts in 15 minutes, so I probably won’t get through all of this in one go. Prior to going on this trip, I was impressed with Heifer International. Their work, I thought, was sustainable, and focused on long-term root causes, not just symptoms. Who could argue with it?

Don’t know the place? Check this out.

We had an overnight trip scheduled to their Global Village in Michigan this week. I really didn’t know what to expect. The initial presentation, in which Africa was referred to as a country, was not impressive. I started to take notes about Heifer International works “to lift them out of poverty” because “cows last forever.” We were shown a shiny propaganda video (during which time our hosts left the room), and I started to wonder about the cycle of poverty in Cleveland, the same cycle that some of our students are stuck in. Why, I wondered, should we ask them to focus on the cycle of poverty in, for example, Zambia rather than Cleveland?

Now I’ve had this debate before, and the answer I’ve gotten in the past was that we have systems set up to help those in need while Zambia, for example, does not. I know more now. The systems we have set up aren’t working. And the ones that are working are overtaxed. And no one is pushing at the question of why so many of the same kind of people need access to these systems.

With this host, though, it became a kind of Oppression Olympics. Yes, Flint and Cleveland are having trouble getting access to fresh water, but it is not as bad as what they have to deal with in Thailand. Yes, Haiti is poor (my comment), but they also have “the most corrupt government in the world” (hers). When I told one student about Haiti, he asked why students learned about the Incas and not the Haitians. A whole other conversation. But he’s on to something.

And then there was the comment at the beginning of the tour of their various symbolic shelters: “We are educated; we have soap.”

More in the next part. . .

Mastery Learning

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.

“Why do we always talk about race in this class?”

Well, I’ve gotten this question before, though usually not so early in the year, and usually not from the same person who asked me, “Why do you all [read: white people] hate us [read: black people] so much that you keep killing us?”

I guess I have come to the belated and none-too-original conclusion that race is the center of the American story / experience, etc.. It intersects with many, many things – class, gender, sexuality, etc. – but it’s at our center. And, in order to do that thing that teachers are told to do, I often ‘read’ things with the lens of race.

I am not unconscious that the first two books I chose – Master Harold. .  and the boys and Of Mice and Men both feature race issues, including the n- word. But that’s not why I chose them. They are short, highly engaging books to read. I am trying to get the reading year off to a good start.

I used the photography of Hank Willis Thomas today to get things going. I always find his work provocative, and so do students. Engagement was pretty good today. If you don’t know his work, check it out here.

Related student comment of the day: “You know why the n- word doesn’t bother me, Mr. Ellenbogen? Because I know I am not one of them.” (Here, I am thinking Baldwin.) “That word describes ghetto people who don’t care about their education.” (Here, I am sighing. I made him promise we could talk some more.)

On the “N” word in the halls and in the classroom

Many years ago, I think it was an article in an NCTE publication that convinced me not to let the word ‘gay’ become acceptable as a slur in the hallways. I don’t remember it being an issue in classes, but I would definitely hear it in the halls and began to challenge students about it. But I have never encountered – in both the halls and the classrooms – with the intensity and frequency that I have in Cleveland.

A colleague and I were both kind of shocked by the use of the word ‘gay,’ and so we schemed and research, and with the help of the LGBT Community Center in Cleveland, we launched a ‘Choose Another Word’ campaign. At first, students would (somewhat jokingly) say, “Okay, fruity.” When we made it clear that that (and all other slang synonyms were not acceptable), they began to be more cautious, and to remind themselves and each other. But it was like holding back a flood. I understand bell hooks has a great essay on this topic, but I haven’t been able to find it.

Then there’s the ‘n’-word. I am not being coy. I just can’t type it. It will come up in at least two of the books I’ve selected this year – Fugard’s “Master Harold” and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I’ve had that discussion before. Is it appropriate? Should it be banned? When has it been banned? Should we read it out loud? Is it okay for some people to use it and not others (attention: Bill Maher)? Does it matter how it’s spelled? Should it be used in creative writing? And so on.

I am at a new school now, one that is much more diverse. One student spelled the word as (an appropriate) part of a point he was making about Charlottesville. A student across the room then said, “You mean n—-?” and said the whole word. Later, that same student used it as part of a greeting to a new student.

Not only am I at a new school, but the school is new. I wrote to the Principal for some guidance. The relevant part of his reply —

I believe strongly that our school’s values will be a reflection of our collective values in action, so if it bothers you, I would suggest you say something to students when they use it.
For me personally, I think it’s important to emphasize for students that certain language is not acceptable to use in the context of school. It’s useful for kids to be able learn how to switch up their register for different situations and contexts.
So it’s in my hands. Do I get ahead of it in English class? Wait until I get to those books I mentioned? Talk to that particular student – an African-American male? (I am a white male.)  He’s also my advisee. A private conversation? Talk with the whole advisory? Make it part of a discussion on code-switching? Am I paralyzed over nothing?

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