Student Notes, part 4

Last semester, I had a student in English 101 who I’d also had for her sophomore and junior years in high school. She wrote the following on the back of her final exam last month. This note made me feel good for days after. Really, if you can say something nice to a teacher, rest assured that will have done something meaningfully kind for another human being.



Throwing Away Essays

Yesterday I read an essay by a college freshman that began with the paragraph below.

“Alright class, pick up your pencils and write me an essay about something that will bore you to death”. Those are the words that my sophomore high school english teacher told us one day when he had nothing planned for our class. The entire class was in shock, but that statement was only the beginning. Each one of us wrote our essays and when that sweet sound of the bell rang, we threw our papers onto his cluttered desk and ran off, escaping the torture of listening to the clock go “tick tock” for fifty-two minutes. Two class periods later, I witnessed something I never thought would happen. I watched my teacher throw a pile of paper into the trash, but it wasn’t just any pile of paper, it was our essays we wrote just two hours ago. It was at that moment when I felt that teachers really didn’t care about our creative minds and our writing talents. It was at that moment when I felt that writing was just a waste of time and that teachers made us write boring essays just to keep their job.

There are at least four big red flags here: the unprepared teacher, the callous nonchalance with which he or she appears to address students, the nonsense assignment itself, and the almost immediate disposal of nearly an hour’s worth of student work.

I get the impression from the student’s lack of surprise that this kind of thing was not uncommon.

I’m completely stunned. This is outrageous. I sent this paragraph to the principal of the school in question, to deal with or not as he or she sees fit. I won’t say what high school this student attended, but I will tell that it is one of the relatively newer, richer schools in the valley.

I’ve mentioned before a department meeting I attended about a decade ago where an older teacher freely admitted that she refused to read student essays. I think that’s a deal breaker, and anyone with such an attitude does not belong in the classroom.

Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and time consuming, but bottom line, it’s our job.

And using essay writing as time wasting filler and then simply discarding it is nothing less than education’s version of malpractice.

And the student’s “lesson” learned at the end of that paragraph…it’s just absolutely heartbreaking. I teach writing because I love it and I know it’s important. Too important and lovely to be screwed up like that.

I hope I can help this student have a redemptive experience with writing instruction and practice this semester.

Teachers as Curators

An old dichotomy has it that teachers are “the sage on the stage” or “the guide on the side,” (though I think it’s really a bit of both), but especially in the digital age, we’re also curators. For an English teacher in particular, a lot of our job now entails being a gatekeeper of media materials.

We’ve always taught students how to evaluate such things (as credible sources in a research unit, for example), but more and more I find myself actively showing young people how to be critical consumers of mass media. From web sites to classic movies to whatever’s on Netflix, the little tangents in class are now frequently spent in comparing and contrasting things, noting on what criteria various things succeed or fail, or modeling some other process of sifting the timeless from the ephemeral in the electronic world.

It doesn’t hurt (or help?) that practically any given day in my classes will consist of bits of various media squeezed in to help illustrate things, make connections, and extend ideas.

Today, for instance, my speech & debate class watched this video about vocal fry. Classes that are starting Huckleberry Finn just got a posting on our class web page about free audio resources online to help them understand the dialects. This was after our last class, where they annotated this article about free speech controversies in American schools, and which I supplemented with another post on our web page with ancillary resources, including this NPR interview with President Obama’s recent thoughts about banning unpopular speech in colleges (he’s against it).

The illustration at the top of that free speech article, though? I pointed out that that little boy looks like Danny in The Shining. Only a few kids got the reference. I briefly summarized the movie and recommended it, for those who like horror. Other great but obscure-to-kids-these-days movies I’ve name-checked and given a thumbs up to in recent classes: Animal House, The Sound of Music, The Iron Giant, Seven, Galaxy Quest…and Dude, Where’s My Car? (They don’t all have to be masterpieces.)

I see myself doing more, not less, of this in the future. With an ever-greater abundance of choices, with an ever-greater past body of work behind them, and with increasing consolidation and dumbing-down of mainstream media, such cultural literacy and evaluative skills will be more important to them than ever.

What this also means, though, is that teachers need to be constantly updating their own reserve of media resources. That’s the professional development of the 21st century.

Sick Day Origins

Teachers: “It’s 3 A.M. and I’ve thrown up five times.  Maybe I should call in sick?  But the juniors have that big project due today, and I want to be sure I hold them to it.  Besides, a lot of them worked really hard and they want me to see their final product.  And I have two parent conferences I need to be there for.  And if I stay home sick, I’ll just have to go in for a bit anyway, because I’ll have to switch out half the materials for 3rd and 4th period for stuff the sub will be able to use.  And I have three kids coming in for detention today–no way do they get off the hook!  Plus, I’m doing my favorite lesson of the quarter with the sophomores and I don’t want to miss that, or push it back, or have a sub messing that up.  …Oh!  And I wanted to talk to those guys in 1st period about the game yesterday!  *sigh*  I’ll just go in.  It’s too much hassle to take a day off.”

Students:*Achoo!*  Sweet!  I have the sniffles.  I’m gonna take a week off!”

“No one knows when the harlot’s cry…”

Regarding the recent viral rant by Texas high school student Jeff Bliss against his history teacher (below), there may well be legitimate grievances here.  Three things that deeply worry me about this are the three things that nobody is commenting on.

First, the whole Internet is rushing to get on this kid’s team.  But none of us were there.  We don’t know the teacher’s side of the story.  We aren’t qualified to take a side.  What could prompt such a mad, mass bandwagon of groupthink?

Everybody criticizes the herd mentality unless, you know, you’re in on it, because then it’s just obviously right.

Second, nobody is talking about who recorded this and put it online, and why they did it, and if that was a good idea.  I agree that public school classrooms need to be open to the world, but this is a selective moment published just to hurt a teacher.  Nobody is worried about the precedent here?

Which brings me to the third point: as the UK’s Daily Mail notes in its weekend article on the controversy, “Meanwhile, the teacher in the video has been  placed on administrative leave while the school investigates…”

Wow, some kid posts a video online of another kid criticizing a teacher, and the teacher gets suspended and investigated.  Her career is likely ruined.  Over a one minute video where all she really does is calmly reiterate that a disruptive student leave.  What he says may be right, but she deserves to be harrassed and investigated over this?

I’m reminded of the sword of Damocles.

I’m reminded of Reverend Hale’s line in Act IV of The Crucible: “No man knows when the harlot’s cry will end his life.”  Or when the student’s cry will end her career.  Apparently, society is OK with a witch hunt if the accused are only mere teachers.


18 Passwords

Last week I sat down to record in one place every user name and password I have for work.

I have fourteen for my day job.

One gets me on the desktop in my classroom.

Another gets into a laptop / projector system for class use.

Others get into my email, my grade book (Easy Grade Pro), our school’s program for recording grades and attendance (ClassXP), and another grade and attendance program (ParentLink).

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Annual Rituals

Ah, Spring.  Birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, allergy sufferers are sneezing.  Also, in another cycle of nature for this time of year, the local newspapers are piling on scary stories about the teachers’ union vs. the school district, where the outcome this time will certainly be massive teacher layoffs, horrific student deprivation in a barren campus wasteland, and the end of life on Earth as we know it.

I’m looking forward to summer as much as anyone, but I have to admit, this nauseating dog and pony show is enough to make a guy pine for November again.

It’s getting to be as predictable as Superbowl ads where GM hires some celebrity to tell us that Detroit is “making a comeback.”

A Retiring Veteran Teacher Looks Back

A few months ago a veteran teacher and administrator I know retired.  When she left, she sent out a wonderful, long message to the staff, sharing a lot of experiences and feelings.  I thought people might like to see some of these, so below is an edited version of that email.  Impossible to read this and not respect good teachers:



I.  A History Lesson


1.  When I graduated from high school in 1960 (I WAS young for my class and I skipped 4th grade based on an IQ test), the government tried to hire me for the BIA at $4800/year because I took shorthand at 190 wpm and typed at 110 wpm with accuracy,  THEY NOTIFIED ME IN A TELEGRAM!–ever seen one?


2.  Education was important in my family so I went off to Augustana….no going to work after high school.    4 years later I got a teaching contract at  $4600/year–so much for 4 years of education, but the passion I’d had to teach since 8th grade was finally put to use.  I went to school with Garrison Keillor, Mary Hart, and David Soul (Solberg–Starsky and Hutch).


3. I was student teaching the day John Kennedy was shot.   Continue reading

But Will People Stop Bullying Teachers?

Nevada is in the middle of an official week-long campaign against bullying in schools.  There is much merit to this, but I have to wonder: with all of this emphasis on curbing the harassment of young people in schools, will anybody think to halt the bullying of teachers, also?

Who bullies the teacher?  Parents, mostly.  Ron Clark recently noted:

Today, new teachers remain in our profession an average of just 4.5 years, and many of them list “issues with parents” as one of their reasons for throwing in the towel. Word is spreading, and the more negativity teachers receive from parents, the harder it becomes to recruit the best and the brightest out of colleges.

I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of this.  All teachers have.  Continue reading

Yes, You Pay My Salary. No, You Are Not My Boss.

I cringe when I hear people say of teachers, “My taxes pay their salary–they need to be more cooperative and responsive to my needs!” 

What this really means is, “Give me what I want.”  What’s so wrong with that?  It’s wrong because schools are not customer satisfaction factories.  Our job is to educate future generations, even when it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, or even upsetting to any individual or group.  In fact, real progress usually has to entail those things.  Public schools exist to safeguard the success of society, not to pander to the whims of individuals.  Sorry if that sounds cold or collectivist, but it’s true. 

Parents rarely seem to consider that all those exceptions, changes, and special favors they ask for don’t just affect their own children–while Mom and Dad often only care about the short-term outcome of a single issue, we teachers must be cognizant of long-term precedents and the ripple effect on an entire campus.  Just giving Junior that higher grade or privilege you’re agitating for will ultimately cause far more harm than good. 

But surely nobody thinks that good schools will make everybody happy all the time anyway!  It doesn’t matter that most parents are reasonable, decent people.  No public institution can function as a pure democracy–imagine if everybody (or only the good people–you know, like you) got what they wanted every time they were upset at a school.  It would be chaos!  How often do you think parental special interests contradict each other, anyway?  Sometimes people will say of rival gangs, “Just put them in a room and let them fight it out.”  Teachers often feel that way about parents. 

So, yes, parents are paying teachers, but not to be at their beck and call.  We’re paid for a service that, by its nature, must ruffle feathers at times. 

And it’s somewhat of a simplification to say that “your taxes” are paying teacher salaries, anyway.

Local Teacher Only Gets To Have One Ivory Back Scratcher

A sob story in today’s Las Vegas Sun wants us to empathize with the pitiful plight of a local teacher who (gasp!) works a second job. 

Of course, his second job is as an actor at the mob museum, which he says is “fun” and which he’d like to turn into a career.  He went out and got this job just because he “didn’t want to work at Wal-Mart.”  Life is nice when you have choices. 

Not exactly a coal miner, this guy. 

He’s quoted as follows: “Without this job, I’d be starving.”  Really?  According to our school district web site, with a Master’s degree and five years’ experience, he’s making over $46,000, a little above average.  The article doesn’t say if he has dependents, just that he has student loans and “$10,000 in credit card debt.” 

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Teachers’ Cars

It’s a cliché that teachers don’t get paid enough and that everybody should commiserate with us about it, but I’ve never bought that.  First of all, we chose this job, knowing full well what we were getting into. 

Second, how many teachers do you know who are living off of food stamps or sleeping in a homeless shelter?

Several years ago, I was at a school where the student newspaper got into a lot of trouble because they took pictures of some of the teachers’ cars in the parking lot and ran them in the paper, suggesting that this was proof that they were paid pretty well.  The staff went nuclear.  I thought that was sad–it was brilliant thinking on the students’ part, but instead of using the opportunity to engage in a discussion, the school just shut the students up and taught them that angry authorities are always right. 

The worst part is, those students had a point.  Take a look around your neighborhood school’s staff parking lot.  See too many ’79 Pintos?  Not exactly. 

How many of those desperate, angry, truant teachers in Wisconsin–the ones screaming about how any cuts to their standard of living will put them in a Dickensian debtor’s prison–are driving anything more than ten years old?

The Hypocrisy of Bleeding Heart Teachers

I’m talking to you, Wisconsin.

I bet the union thugs shutting down learning in Wisconsin, taking students out of school for political reasons the kids don’t even understand and sabotaging the process of education, are the same teachers who usually claim to “love” their students, being extra kind to them and making sure that class is fun. 

I’ve known tons of teachers like this. They look at their work as a “calling.”  They likely embrace all the latest watered-down edu-fads sponsored by the experts, and look down their noses at the cynical conservative teachers who are just here to do an important job and do it right. 

The thing is, teachers who revel in the warm, fuzzy side of the profession are rarely the selfless shepherds of youth they want you to think they are.  They’re in love with an image of themselves as the cherished, inspiring heroes of society. 

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An Anti-Teacher Witch Hunt

News outlets reported on Thursday that Natalie Munroe, a teacher in Pennsylvania, had been suspended, pending termination, for writing critical comments about her students on her blog. 

According to the articles (such as here and here), she had written that her students were “lazy” and “whiners,” among other things.  My initial thought was to ask if she had directed comments at any certain students, or called them by name.  It appears that she hadn’t.  She did, however, use profanity on the blog; while it is unclear from the reports if it was directed at the students, it probably was, and that would be wrong–abusive language is never appropriate.  She also seems to have made comments about children’s physical appearances, and written things like, “I hate your kid.”  Yes, that’s over the line.

But the headlines, the complaints against her, and the comments on articles I’ve read mostly excoriate her for criticising students in general, not for the inappropriate content itself.  Parents and students at the school are outraged that a teacher could write about frustrations over poor student performance. 

Really?  Have any of the offended parties here bothered to consider what merit the criticisms might have?  Is it really so awful to suggest that maybe, just maybe, some teens actually are lazy whiners? 

Before anyone goes crying “Blasphemy!” and prepares to storm my castle with pitchforks and torches, can you see the irony of the situation?  If the teacher here was saying that her students and their parents are self-absorbed and entitled, how exactly is their response proving her wrong? 

About a year and a half ago, a report was released which studied 30,000 American teens and found that a third of teens are thieves, two thirds are cheaters, and about 80% lie to their parents.  Fully 93%, however, said that they are proud of their good character.  Wow. 

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