Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why I Teach English

This article says it better than I can.

The humanities, rightly pursued and rightly ordered, can do things, and teach things, and preserve things, and illuminate things, which can be accomplished in no other way. It is the humanities that instruct us in the range and depth of human possibility, including our immense capacity for both goodness and depravity. It is the humanities that nourish and sustain our shared memories, and connect us with our civilization’s past and with those who have come before us. It is the humanities that teach us how to ask what the good life is for us humans, and guide us in the search for civic ideals and institutions that will
make the good life ­possible.

Why I Wake Up Angry: An Anecdote Illustrating My Encounters With Fellow Educators, Especially Administrators

I recently sat through a horrible training session. It was disorganized and filled with things that get on my nerves. I had one and only one question that I wanted answered, but no one would answer it. If that session is any indication of what the year is going to be like, I'm going to make the Hulk seem as calm as a meditating Zen monk.

After thinking about that session, I was reminded of an encounter that I had with a principal several years ago. I think that it illustrates why I get angry nearly every day.

I got a new teacher desk for my classroom. I was at school a couple of weeks before school began and wanted to set up the room. The desk was locked. I looked for the keys in the envelope that had some promo materials and in a few other places before asking my principal for the keys.

He said that he had the keys but they were with a bunch of other keys for other new desks and new filing cabinets and whatever other new storage equipment came in that summer. He had to go to a meeting or something, so he'd get them to me the next day.

I did other work to get the classroom ready. After a couple of days, I still did not have the keys. I wanted to get the desk organized, so I asked again. He was still busy. I think I asked one more time before going home and swearing loudly and creatively at the walls in my apartment.

During one of the meeting days that precedes every school year, one of my colleagues who camps in the principal's office told me the principal wanted to know why I needed to lock my desk. After I explained to him that I needed to UNLOCK the desk, he went to the principal and got the keys in about five minutes. I really don't understand why "I need the keys to my desk" necessarily means I need to lock it it not unlock it. I also don't know what difference that distincion makes; teachers have all sorts of things that they don't want students to have easy access to.

It's a boring story, no gunfights or car chases or fire trucks or hookers or anything, but I have had more experiences like that than I can count. In fact, I have about 50 to 100 of these conversations every school year. I make what I think are direct and understandable statements or requests like "I need the keys to my desk" and fellow teachers and administrators assume that I really don't mean what I say or that I have said or that I intended to say something totally different.

I'm getting older and more cantankerous, so I don't handle the frustration as well as I used to. Maybe, I'll just talk to my students and ignore everyone else.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Lifehack That Should Have Been Self-Evident but Wasn't

I've frequently thought that multi-tasking is overrated. For example, this Atlantic article contends "multi-tasking is dumbing us down and driving us crazy." I have trouble working on more than one major task at a time, so I believe the article has it straight. In fact, I still think that M*A*S*H's Charles Emerson Winchester III had a nearly perfect theory of everything when he said, "I do one thing, I do it very well, and then I move on." I tried to apply the principle to every part of my life. I've always been proud of the fact that I can remember minutia of plot details of a TV show or novel. I love knowing useless details. The only way I could remember those little details was by concentrating on only the the thing I was watching, reading or listening to.

I often tell my students that they need to concentrate on only the material for a test or quiz while studying. They insist that they can watch TV, study, text, play Halo, and argue with their parents at the same time. Their test scores usually tell a different story, so I have always assumed I'm right about multi-tasking.

I can empathize with the kids. They want to do everything and they don't have time to do it. I'm in the same boat. I want to be prepared to teach, grade papers, watch TV, read serious novels, read comic books. I have always tried to concentrate on doing one thing at a time. During the past two weeks of this sucky summer, I have decided to multi-task entertainment. It's helped. I can catch up on some light reading like Rolling Stone reviews or a comic book and watch baseball. It's not going to work when I correct papers or read articles for debate, but it should buy me some extra time with little cost.

I know everyone else in the world probably has been multi-tasking entertainment since they were in diapers, but I haven't been able to. It's been one thing at a time until now when I no longer have that luxury because I seem to have been doing far too good of a job of wasting time.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Getting Ready: What I Learned during Summer Vacation, Part 1

The letter came last week, the one that welcomes teachers back to a new school year and announces the meeting schedule.

I am not ready; I don't want to go back. I didn't accomplish anything, nor did I refresh myself in any meaningful way; so I decided to assign myself a short series of essays about the summer to see if I can find something to build on to have a productive school year and avoid having the same problems in the future. It's a variation of the cliche essay "How I Spent My Summer Vacation."

The first thing that I learned is that I, like everyone else, am a creature of habit who repeats mistakes. This isn't the first summer that I've wasted. I have wasted more time this summer than I have in past summers, but that waste is really a difference of degree not a substantive change in habit.

The second thing that I learned is that time matters. I can't get the months back. They are irretrievably gone. I have always known that wasting time is costly, but now that I'm older with an AARP card with all rights and privileges that membership, the fact that wasted time is indeed lost time has become frightening.

The logical conclusion is that I must change. I remember a Linda Ellerbee commentary on NBC Overnight a long, long time ago. She claimed that the real time of new beginnings was September, the start of the new school year, not December. I hope she's right, but that hope brings me to the last thing that I learned this summer. I'm not sure that I know how to change. I guess I'm going through the ennui that makes rich guys buy motorcycles and marry trophy wives. Maybe they buy trophy wives too; I'm not a rich guy, so I don't know.

I think that's what I learned. I have a few additions to "My Summer Vacation" assignment that I want to get to, but none of them fit here, so I'll save them for another post. For right now, I've got to get ready for the new school year. I probably should see if Ellerbee is right and try to make September the time of new beginnings instead of waiting for December.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Some Musings on Great Divides

Great divide number 1 is between students and teachers. I was overjoyed to find this quotation by novelist Zadie Smith whom I have never read.
When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second - put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year of more is ideal - but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can't tell you how many times I've sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go on stage and read from them. It's an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it's published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.
I try to tell my high school students to write a draft of their essay, walk away from the draft for a day or two, and then revise. I'm lucky if they let it sit for a minute or two because they usually begin writing the essay a couple of hours before it's due. I am, of course, supposed to reward all such efforts with an "A" because ....well, I've never heard an answer that I could agree with, but I know students think I'm supposed to.

Clicking through links to find the origin of Smith's quotation and innate curiosity lead me to this post about innumeracy, and this post requesting comments from humanities academicians, and then this post which offers another take on the divide between the humanities and the hard sciences/math.

Most high school students seem to consider math/science more important and more difficult than literature or the social sciences. High schools seem to privilege science and math. The smart kids are funnelled into math and science classes. No one is really funneled into a literature or humanities class. Wendell Berry offers my sentiments more eloquently than I can.
Now, according to those institutions of the “cutting edge,” the purpose of education is unabashedly utilitarian. Their interest is almost exclusively centered in the technical courses called, with typical ostentation of corporate jargon, STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.
After reading the posts and skimming comments, it seems that both sides are a bit defensive. Also, it seems that both sides of this divide are hampered by an anti-intellectual or anti-education bias. I don't have any scientific poll to back me up, but I'd be willing to bet that teachers and college professors are held in lower esteem than nearly any other profession.

On a more substantive level, it seems that high schools are doing a lot wrong. First, we don't really teach students to love any any discipline. We buy into the utilitarian logic that Berry decries. That logic seemingly is counterproductive because math and science types are encountering and decrying innumeracy and scientific illiteracy.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Some Basic Thoughts about Education

This is the third or fourth or fifth effort to try to blog regularly. Let's see how it goes.

Thought #1: I agree with Charles Murray (mostly), at least this time.

Last spring, I read a Charles Murray article about the philosphy that he described as educational romaniticism. A version is here. Murray makes at least three trenchant points and one mistake.

Trenchent point #1

"Many laws are too optimistic, but the No Child Left Behind Act transcended optimism. It set a goal that was devoid of any contact with reality."

To quote the great philosopher Stan Lee, "Nuff said."

Trenchent point #2

"To sum up, a massive body of evidence says . . .that we do not know how to change intellectual ability after children reach school. . . ."

Once again, "Nuff said."

Trenchent point #3

"In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion. Try to think of the last time you encountered a news story that mentioned low intellectual ability as the reason why some students do not perform at grade level. I doubt if you can. Whether analyzed by the news media, school superintendents, or politicians, the problems facing low-performing students are always that they have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, or have gone to bad schools, or grown up in peer cultures that do not value educational achievement. The problem is never that they just aren't smart enough." (Italics mine)

This is tricky ground. No one wants to claim that disadvantaged students are inherently less intelligent than middle-class or upper-class students. I am certain that a smart student who comes from a disadvantaged background has more hurdles to overcome than a smart student with wealthy student. Even with that caveat, a smart student from any background will usually be more successful in school than a less intelligent student, and Murray is correct to assert that schools ignore that fact. (I'll put off the success in school does not equal later success discussion for another day.)

The mistake (and I think it's a whopper)

"The good news is that educational romanticism is surely teetering on the edge of collapse."

I wish and I pray, but unfortunately, Lake Woebegone is here to stay. I don't think there's a teacher in the system that I work in that could keep her job is she uttered the phrase, "I don't think your child has the intellectual capacity to earn an A in my class." Further, I doubt that there are more than a handful of teachers who believe its OK to utter that phrase, even though they may think it quietly. Finally, I haven't seen any young teachers who have been taught that they should even think it.

Thought #2: On-line grading programs suck.

Change the brand names, but the problems this post outlines reflect my experience.

Thought #3: I wish I had the answer to this problem

Dennis O'Neil correctly observes,

"Over the past few years, I’ve come to believe that not everyone gets the same education, even if schools and transcripts are identical. Some folk mentally compartmentalize: church goes here, family here, school stuff here, life in general there. So when they pass tests on what they’ve heard in classrooms, and at the end of a span of time, usually16 years and some august personage hands them a rectangle full of fancy lettering, they’re done with it. No more schooling, and no learning above what’s needed to live comfortably. Schooling in its compartment yonder, not touching this compartment, which is where we live."


"The problem, I think, is this: There might be information over in the school compartment that is relevant to the contents of the living compartment. It might supply answers, or at least stimulate thinking.

"Left in the ghetto of the school compartment, denied access to other compartments, and it is useless, and it will die. Worse, its lack might cause you to blunder."

I see the compartmentalization every day. School is in a box that gets shelved the second students walk out the door to their real lives. In fact, all school seems to be is an interruption to the lives they want to lead.