Sacred Cows

I love writing. I adore metaphors and images so clear that I can lose the distinction between words and what the language evokes. One of my favorite poems is this gem by William Carlos Williams:

Image courtesy mcbarnicle on Flickr

This is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I read that poem for the first time in a high school creative writing class over half my life ago. Even now I can imagine the cold plum in my hands, the texture of the skin, and the sweet burst of flavor in the first bite that grows sharp and sour toward the stone. Poetry has always been a miraculous alchemy of text and imagination for me and I write from time to time for myself and for my students.

One of the life lessons I took away from that writing class has helped me shape not only my writing, but also my decision making. I’m sure at the time my teacher had no idea her suggestion would leave such a lasting impression.

K.Y.D. or Sacrificing Sacred Cows

When a writer has fallen in love with her idea and written every wild thought onto paper or into a document, the resulting piece can be an overwhelming tangle of images. In the revision process, it’s up to the writer to sharpen the focus or soften edges, polishing and refining the draft until only the essential elements remain. This is where the writerly advice to K.Y.D (kill your darlings) or sacrifice your sacred cows comes in.

"Old and New F-P Cows" Image courtesy teresia on Flickr

Sometimes we write beautiful descriptions that don’t advance the action and clog up a story’s rhythm. The writing is lovely, but it doesn’t achieve the aims of the piece; snip-cut, the darling must go. If the writer clings to tightly to every potential cut, the piece as a whole suffers. I learned through practice that the wild hare ideas and tangents that popped up in my essays and didn’t quite fit my thesis could become whole essays on their own if I allowed myself to make the painful cut and sacrifice a sacred cow. (Right now there are fifteen blog posts waiting in the wings; piles of sacred cows ready for reincarnation in a new form.)

Like my writing, my career has borne dear darlings and sacred cows, too. I vowed to return home and teach, embedding myself in the community where I had grown up; I now live over 1,000 miles away from it. I swore I would never teach middle school students, though my first job as a teacher was in a 7th grade classroom–and those students formed me as a professional. I believed book tests, lecture, and nightly homework made me a good teacher because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. As I’ve grown as an educator, I have let go of many of my former sacred cows and replaced the lazy dear-darlings (worksheets, vocabulary workbooks, book reports, cookie-cutter essay prompts) with stronger, more interesting, more challenging, and more collaborative work for my students and for myself.

Fire Up the Grill

The trouble I’m having with the education reform discussion is that many proposed “solutions” are propping up sacred cows and dear darlings: standardization, testing, conformity, submission, uniformity. The talking-points have become so sharp from frequent use that they’re used to pin disagreements and divergent opinions to the wall; I’d rather use them as skewers and grill up some sacred-cow kabobs. Until education reform is willing to address some systemic sacred cows, no amount of testing or meriting or byzantine formulas for assessing quality will amount to any positive change.

Dear darlings and sacred cows on my list?

Here are a few sacred cows and failed experiments I’d like education reform to address. If we’re not willing to question the merits of items like these, we will be unable to imagine the schools of the future.

  1. Birthdates are the best way to sort children into learning cohorts.
  2. It is not only possible, but best, for students to learn a prescribed set of information for all content areas and master it in one academic year.
  3. Retention policies based on the one-year, 100%-mastery ideal.
  4. English teachers as the only ones held accountable for teaching reading and writing.
  5. Mathematics is a mechanical process to be memorized rather than a way of thinking or problem solving.
  6. Grade levels K-12.
  7. Letter grades that reflect student behavior or compliance with assignment criteria rather than reflecting what students know and are able to do. (And the false equivalency of “the A” with “mastery.”)
  8. Desks in rows. Lockers. Printed textbooks. Assignments written or printed and handed in.
  9. Fetishizing trivia and testing its recall.
  10. Outsourcing professional development.
  11. 180 school days that start at 7:30. Five-day school weeks. Summer vacation.
  12. The supremacy of data and research findings when it comes to “core” subjects, but not when it applies to the arts or physical education.
  13. Eliminating recess.
  14. Segregating students by grade level so that older students and younger students rarely work together.
  15. Music, art, photography, dance, creative writing, and design are luxuries failing schools can’t afford. These are frills parents can provide for students outside a formal education and must be cut to pay for more important things. Like more tests.
  16. Lesson plans (lines) instead of educational designs (maps).
  17. The best way to develop divergent, creative thinkers is to ensure they all give the same correct answers on a standardized test.
  18. Prepackaged “programs” or methods foisted on all when it only works for some.
  19. Insisting that all schools are the same in every way, ignoring individual student and community needs and desires.
  20. Anything which, when questioned, the only response is: Because we’ve always done it this way.

The Easiest Job in the World

Ever have one of those days.

Every lesson, every class discussion, every student seems to fit together in one glorious alignment with the universe. Students buzz with curiosity, perseverance, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration. It is a wonder to behold. Those who love teaching know what I’m talking about. Every now and then our efforts not only to teach our content and meet standards, but also to spark our students’ interest, exceeds our expectations. It’s the reason why I chose teaching instead of business, English instead of engineering. It’s the student who asks if it’s okay if his research paper is twelve pages instead of ten because he found such good source material and he’s not quite finished with his ideas. It’s the small group who chose to create and narrate a documentary presentation instead of a plain old PowerPoint. It’s the terribly shy student overcoming her nerves, calling a local journalist to interview for her project, and beaming with pride when she hangs up the phone. It’s the seventh-grade academic team who didn’t place during competition, but began a deep and abiding appreciation for Shakespeare and Francis Bacon. I live for these moments and they’re my “merit pay.”

Of course, anyone who has taught for longer than fifteen minutes knows that these are the golden, mountain-top moments, not the norm, and it’s not because of ineffective teaching or laziness or the lack of careful planning. Sometimes life gets in the way.

This is what worries me about the narrow concepts of teacher evaluations.

There is an assumption that teaching is the easiest job in the world. In a way, that’s true. If all I had to do each day was conduct what amounts to a staff meeting to a group of silent, attentive, note-takers who would then complete the work I assign, then sure–teaching’s a cakewalk.

I could show a PowerPoint, I could lecture, I could assign reading–and my workers, my students, would follow my every order. They would all be fed, rested, and compliant. But students aren’t paid to show up to school the way employees are paid to come to work. Compliance is not the same thing as self-control. School is compulsory and for some the day-to-day grind can make school unappealing at best, hostile at worst. Students come to school hungry, or sleepy, or stressed out over problems and obligations that are outside their control (more on this in another post).

The way I choose to react and use my EQ instead of just my IQ can make all the difference to a student in crisis.

If we limit the measure of teacher effectiveness to test scores, we must ignore the human side of teaching, the messy side that understands it’s impossible for a student to care about comma splices when her mother is dying of breast cancer. It’s hard to stay awake in class if you’re responsible for co-parenting younger siblings or work after school or in the evening to help pay the family bills.

Real students are not monolithic data sets with all variables under control. For merit pay or value added assessments to work, students would have to be little more than empty shells, waiting to be filled with an educational parfait–built layer by layer, year by year. This kind of thinking diminishes the humanity of our students and turns teachers into dispensers.

Resilience, compassion, creativity, coping with difficulties–these are not items on a standardized test, these are ways to handle the tests of living. What good is a content education without these skills?

Teaching, when done fully, is not the easiest job in the world, not by a long shot; however, there is no other way I want to spend my life than helping children–adolescents and young adults–develop the skills they need to cope with what life brings next.

Acknowledging Students’ Humanity

Students come to us in all forms, and no two students think alike or come equipped with the same set of coping skills, aptitude, talents, or motivation.

In any given classroom, you might find…

  • The Driven–students whose parents expect nothing less than their child’s best and push their children to take and excel in advanced classes.

    Sometimes my role is to let them cry or vent on the days the pressure is too much and to breathe deeply when they (or their parents) lobby for me to change a grade. At all times, I want to meet their desire to learn more, know more, and be the best while tempering their drive with the reality that “knowing it” for a test isn’t the same as learning. These students tie their self-worth so tightly to their GPA that taking risks or making a mistake is tantamount to failure.


  • The Disruptive–students whose behavior ranges from outright defiant or violent to gregarious and subversive.

    These students stand when we ask them to sit, yell when we ask for quiet, and question everything–“Why do I need to know this? Who says?” They seek the approval of their peers and test the bounds of authority. These are the students who garner enough disciplinary notes to wallpaper their bedroom–if the notes even make it home for a parent’s signature.

    These students test my patience and their constant need for attention can make it difficult to teach anything. These are students who have learned that life isn’t easy and will take any kind of attention to feel important–even if it means being yelled at. They cope with stress from home or a lack of support by turning on adults around them. Negativity and impatience are toxic responses.

  • The Immature–these students are emotionally or socially delayed for many reasons and as their more socially sophisticated peers leave them behind, the gap becomes a chasm. They may have short tempers and be easy to provoke. These students may “overshare” in class or reveal details about their likes, dislikes, or home life that make them targets for bullying. They may unsuccessfully attempt to insert themselves into conversations or friend groupings and alienate themselves from the very people they long to know. Their reputation can outstrip them and even as they pass through this developmental stage to maturity, they can still be trapped by the expectations and long memories of other students.

    Sometimes my role with an emotionally or behaviorally immature student is to consciously alter my reactions to support that student’s need for attention while helping them find alternative ways to express themselves. I also have to watch the balance of power in the room and encourage all students to treat others with patience.

  • Students with particular needs: English language learners, new students, and transient students; students with autism, ADHD, dysgraphia, dyslexia, and other learning differences; students living with addiction (their own, or a parent’s), pregnancy, divorce, homelessness, depression, eating disorders, or suffering trauma from abuse or assault; students with frequent absences due to illness or tardiness due to a lack of reliable transportation. They may be consumed with grief because a family pet died or because a friend died in a car accident or because a parent is going to jail. They may live in fear of violence, failure, not fitting in, not getting into a good college, not having a best friend or a date to prom. They may face racism, bigotry, homophobia, religious intolerance.

    Even students who face none of these challenges to their safety or sense of self and have the full support of their parents can be challenging on the days their binary view of the world’s fairness causes conflicts.

    And this list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to the challenges our students face or may face.

Just because we teach children doesn’t mean that their lives are not touched by troubles. Our students deserve more than to be summarized into a statistic or data set. The art of teaching acknowledges students’ humanity and works with students’ frailties, not in spite of them. Without this essential element, teaching loses its soul.

Artfully Scientific

Open notebook

During a professional development meeting about seven years ago, I started doodling in a black and white composition notebook. I don’t remember what the presenter said that made my mind race, but a torrent of ideas spilled themselves all across that notebook page. I created a list, a drawing, a diagram, a mess of tangled lines and arrows and bullet points.

The list was my attempt to define my role. That meeting took place at a point so early in my career, I was having trouble orienting myself in the classroom as the teacher. I felt unsure of my role and what felt like the many hats I was having to pull on and off in the course of my day. The longer I have been a teacher, the more roles I acquire.

I am a coach     mentor     doctor     lawyer

therapist     mother hen     model citizen     manager

police officer     judge     architect     artist     expert

musician     counselor     defender     designer

scientist     statistician     researcher     technology guru

peacemaker     writer     poet     cheerleader     librarian

…the list goes on.

I may embody each role for only a fraction of a moment as I interact with students, my colleagues, or parents. In the community I am a spokeswoman, an archetype, a strawman, a figure carved in marble, a selfish ineffective drain, or an earthly saint. Each of these roles, too defies easy borders and the labels stick firmly.

I eventually put my list away, but every so often I open my old notebook, trace the inked lines and ask the one question that won’t leave me alone: Is teaching an art or a science?

This blog, a brand new venture for me, is my attempt to grapple with this question at a time when education reform depends on it. The calls for merit pay and value-added assessment won’t mean a thing if they’re suited for a job description that doesn’t match what I do. In my heart, I believe teaching is both an art and a science and if we ignore or devalue one of those aspects, we weaken and devalue what it means to be a teacher.

For anyone who may read my ideas, please understand that I’m bringing my personal philosophical struggles into the public sphere and I may, at times, say things that appear contradictory or uninformed. All I can do is ask you to share your insights with patience and quote American poet Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”