In Defense of Poetry

My employer, my state, the world demands: teach your students how to read and write. Teach them how to cite their sources, dig deep into ideas, learn and compare and contrast and make Meaning. Teach them how to argue with logos and facts as their foundation. Leave the ethos and pathos to pretty speech-makers and politicians. What we need are citizens who can think dispassionately, reason clearly, and (for heaven’s sake) write using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

So I have. I do all of these things. These bloodless, starched-shirt, bureaucratic things. I tell my students these skills are valuable. I tell them these abilities matter. And I mean it.

For the most part.

What I don’t tell them, and what tears inside me like a growing ulcer, is that this is not the epitome of what makes a successful human being, or a dispassionate citizen, or a college-and-career-ready life. At best, these lesson amount to training in marketable skills in the business world. At worst, it’s a lesson in conformity. It subtly implies the only writing and thinking that matters is the writing and thinking we do when we work for others, when someone tells us what to do, when it’s our job and not driven by curiosity or passion or even basic interest. Cite your sources, please. Don’t think about being your own source.

Instead, in quiet defiance, I teach poetry. That fluffy-bunny writing that will doom you to a life on welfare and living in your parents’ basement. No one makes a living writing or reading poetry. Or stories. (Unless those stories become blockbuster novels turned into films. But, hey, not all ball players make it to the majors, so you’d better focus on that business degree when you’re twelve, ok?)

Poetry. The realm of dreamers and dissidents. The writing that’s “for girls not boys.” The kind of writing only nerds and flaky artistic-types understand, right? In the classroom it can mean opaque symbolism and a coroner’s quest for meaning through autopsy. Line by line, excavating, making note of figures of speech, counting the syllables, and hauling away adjectives and alliteration into neat, tidy, standards-based piles of UNDERSTANDING.

The Standards say:

  • Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.
  • Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
  • By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

I am aware that these are worthy goals and “standards aren’t curriculum” but as the distance grows between what will be tested and what can never be tested, I find myself fighting to keep poetry as a vital part of what I teach and what my students learn. I feel pressure to keep it short and move on to “more important” things.

I don’t teach poetry because it’s cute or pretty or cultured. I teach poetry because it is one of the best ways for the truth and honesty of human experience to find expression. I teach poetry outside of surface measures and seek-and-find literary device games.

We read and write for real, and the work my students produce takes my breath. Instead of limp and dull, though technically proficient poems, what they write when we study poetry sends electricity up my spine.

Like this:

only In–

our dreams             when the world is wish-

magnificent the things

we wish were reality

 

fly high      and        free

 

and the princeandprincess live

happily ever after and

do the unimaginable

but we’re dreaming

 

when the world is journey-magnificent

 

the plans we’ve

held captive inside us escape

then come to be

and we hopeandpray to never wake up

 

from imagination and perfection

 

we’re

dreaming

and

                    the

                                     frightening

things real life holds make us

wish

we

weren’t

 

Or this:

Grade 7–

 

a Time where everything is Group–Separate

nerds and JOCKS as well as

those who are world–unaware

 

the crude Talk in the

room–

the Alliances and Enemies

 

the Numbers and the TEACHERS–

 

a Place that is experiment–fearful

the Whispering

                     the Giggling

                                          the “Secrets”

to think it is all bricks

caging the Mayhem–

even the labyrinth

has never been so twisted–

 

everyone has to but

eventually will

                                                forget

a place where the odds may be ever in your favor

Or this:

in Science–

where everything is lecture-boring

and the science man

goes on

and  on

and

on

sapping every bit of interest    out

 

when life around you is snail   –   speed

the distant mumble of speech

droning on — forever

endless

meaningless

 

a standardized test

the monotonous article

that puts you to sleep

at a single glance

 

everpresent is the interest

lurking

creeping on the edge of existence

living in a deep   dark slumber

searching for a time to awaken

 

but that time

has yet to come

I hear their voices clamoring to make sense of the world they find themselves in, struggling to understand how they are to become whole people in the midst of conflicting expectations and misdirection. I want to tell them that sometimes there are no arguments that make sense, no sources to answer the questions they ask, and that pushing against their fears with a poem might be the best self-defense.

Argument: Was this in the cards?

According to the student handbook, playing cards of any kind are not allowed at school. It’s an obscure rule buried deep in the handbook and has its reasons, but isn’t on the list of top student infractions.

"Wave" by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

“Wave” by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

A few of my students had been using a deck at some point during their lunch break to perform magic tricks, and an adult rightly asked them to put the cards away.

This is where things got interesting.

The students came to me, their language arts teacher. We’ve been studying argument writing and my students, instead of wanting to complain or protest, wanted to write an argument to defend their use of the playing cards as appropriate and to ask for an exception to the school rules. I’ve seen this movie before. Over the years I have witnessed student petition drives, performance art, handbills plastered across every public surface, and even outright rebellion as students fought to have their voices heard. Often there was an edge of immaturity to these protests because, let’s face it, adults have the power and the advantage. The immature response is a result of their perceived lack of power or frustration due to feeling unheard. The adult reaction isn’t always as constructive as it could be, often devolving into a “because we said so” or “sorry you feel that way; too bad.”

That wasn’t happening this time. These students were calm, rational, and respectful. They acknowledged that the adult in charge who had asked them to put the cards away was following the rules and they held no grudge. They had done their research, brought a copy of the handbook rule to me with the significant parts highlighted, and simply asked: how can we have our point of view heard?

What is a teacher to do? I knew the rule and the simple thing would be to tell the students there was no point in arguing. This is the rule; we have to abide by it with no exceptions. Instead, I offered to help them put their thoughts in order. The rule is inconsistently applied with some playing cards allowed at certain times of day, including a four-table Pokémon game before school officially begins. They had been using a standard deck of playing cards and the rule assumes these cards are a distraction while the other games’ cards are not.

The students came to my room during team time to get my advice and to start putting their argument together. I will read it and likely give them advice for revision or editing, but the words and opinions will be theirs. As I listened to their thoughts, I was so impressed with the way they turned to writing and dispassionate argument as a way to find their voice and a sense of personal power. Real world writing, indeed!

Are the adults in administration ready for these voices? Are we prepared for students to take the lessons we teach them about analyzing evidence and defending a position to challenge our rules, policies, and procedures?

When a student uses close-reading strategies to mark up the handbook, are we ready for honest conversation and to possibly admit we need to change?

I hope we are. There could be nothing worse than to teach students how to become their own advocates through reason, logic, and maturity to tell them it only works when it’s for a grade.

Screen Glow

The first message came at 11:09pm.

Then 11:21pm.

The last message, at 11:32pm, was the one that caught my eye. The glow of my cellphone’s screen in the darkness as the “alert ” screen slowly faded to black.

What was so urgent that I was woken from my sleep? A student was replying to feedback I left for him on an assignment in Google Drive.

It’s Sunday night, way past bedtime for this teacher, and truth be told–for my young students as well–but I can’t help but feel bemused.

I’ve been giving feedback on student writing for years. Hours of time. Gallons of ink. (Hyperbole? Perhaps.) So often, once the grade was on the page, the feedback and comments were tossed aside or even straight into the recycling bin.

This late-night, unasked for revision? This was not a reaction I’m used to getting to my feedback. Its mere existence on the document invites action! It’s half of a conversation, waiting for a response. The immediacy and ease of communication, the personal, one-to-one coaching: all of it is so powerful.

Still…to my kiddos…it CAN wait until daylight, ok?

20140210-000016.jpg

Oz: The Great and Powerful

I’m restless. From the first time I set foot in an education class, I was looking and listening for anyone who saw education as a frontier worth exploring.

I dutifully generated bloodless lesson plans for phony classrooms populated with imaginary students. The veil between my imaginary classroom and my ability to teach remained a barrier until I began my career and awoke to reality. With each new group of students, I questioned my methods, learned and tested new strategies, and ever-hungry for more, joined professional groups.

Still, no matter what I did, I felt lonely and isolated. I felt transformed and renewed each time I grew as a professional in my practice through study and application or through the hard-knocks of teacher experience. Teaching was alchemy and each alchemist tested and refined her own methods for spinning straw into gold. We didn’t hide our conclusions from one another, but we didn’t share them openly either.

Parents and the general public questioned: What goes on in that classroom of yours? How do you know that what you’re doing works? Fear of judgement kept us from inviting colleagues or supervisors to visit and learn with us.

I realized our profession has often made us into mad professors hiding behind barriers of our own making. We can easily become the Great and Powerful Oz, obscured behind grade book averages and hidden behind closed classroom doors–mired in “the way we’ve always done things.”

I have sought ways to tear down that curtain, find other like-minded and restless professionals, and show what teaching and learning really looks like in my classroom. The future looks open to all kinds of possibilities: Twitter, Edcamp, Sanderling. These are the tools that will help bring professional development out of the shadows and into the noisy, energetic tumble of teacher professionals.

I’m off to be a Wizard and the journey all at once. It’s time to put on my walking shoes and put this restless drive for change into action.

(Cross-posted on Sanderling.)

9/11 and My Seventh Graders

Today I teach children born in late 2000 or 2001. They have never known a world without the United States at war in the Middle East. Bin Ladin was as real (and frightening) as Voldemort from their childhood storybooks. And they are profoundly affected by their passive connection to this day’s events simply by being born in the year of 9/11. It shows in their conversation and in their writing. From this generation on, 9/11 is a dusty bit of history, as remote as Pearl Harbor.

We did not dwell on 9/11 today. I left their families to approach the historic day, or not. They carry a burden, no matter how young they were on that day. It breaks my heart to read their first writing assignments: a self introduction. Many of them begin, “I was born the year the twin towers fell.” They don’t understand that day, but they have absorbed its haunting, lingering fear. The media images play like cinema footage, equally real and unreal.

I hope for the day when they can say, without fear, “I was born the year the twin towers fell, and I am here to change the world for the better.”

My Kids -Your Kids

I started teaching in 2002, armed with a Bachelor of Science, methods courses, and a mentor. I was fresh out of college, single, and childless. I looked so young that I once had a colleague stop my class from going down the hallway because she thought they were unescorted by a teacher and thought, at first glance, that I was one of my eighth-graders. At the end of the year 7th vs 8th softball game, I wore my hair in braided pigtails for team spirit and a parent asked my partner teacher if I was a “new kid” in the seventh grade class.

It’s now over a decade later and no one is going to mistake me for a twelve year-old anymore, and while I am now married, I am still childless. According to an article by Sara Mosle on Slate.com entitled “Parents make better teachers,” because I am childless, I lack a critical perspective on child and adolescent development.

Mosle writes about her early career as a TFA grad, working for a charter school with the limited perspective that is part and parcel of being in your twenties. If you’re out in the world as an adult for the first time, you’ve got learning and living of your own to do. She writes, “To the extent I understood family dynamics, it was solely from the perspective of the teenager I’d been just a few years before.”

I can remember early entanglements with parents when I attempted to assert my authority in the classroom. A parent refused to have her daughter serve a detention because I could not prove that she was talking when I had asked her to stop. Her mother said, “Just because her lips were moving doesn’t mean my daughter was talking.” I talked with my mentor; I learned flexibility; I learned how to reflect on my actions; I became a more savvy classroom manager–but these skills took time and mentoring to develop. Now, my students rarely receive detention because I’ve learned how to engage them, guide them, and help them stop a problem before it gets to the level of a detention. It took experience and observation to get good at this part of the job.

I remember having a sophomore student who missed class frequently, didn’t bathe regularly, never completed his assignments, and often went to sleep in my class. In my early years, I would have seen this student as someone who needed discipline and strong consequences. Instead, I asked the guidance counselor what was going on. He lived with one parent who worked the graveyard shift. If his parent didn’t come home in time to take him to school, he would miss. This fifteen year-old only had access to the groceries and laundry detergent that was in the house. When supplies ran out, he had to wait until the next grocery trip. He spent most of his waking hours at school or alone at home. When his parent was home, the parent slept. They were on opposite schedules for school and work. He felt adrift and unmotivated. How’s that for “family dynamics”?

I’m not sure how having my own child would help me better empathize with students like him.

I agree with Mosle that charter schools who employ only young, single, childless teachers are being short sighted–but I reject her thesis that hiring teachers with children is the answer.

Enough. Enough with the oversimplification.

It takes a school community. It takes teachers like my mentor when I was twenty-three and starting out to help me learn from her experience and reflect on my management choices. It takes guidance counselors and principals. It takes parents and guardians who are willing to work with teachers and schools as partners. Charter schools who demand their teachers work 100 hours a week for the sake of their students at the expense of their own lives or own families are not sustainable. Teachers are human beings with a very real and important need for boundaries that allow them to be whole people with lives and families of their own. Teaching and caring for someone else’s children should not be all we are allowed to do.

I would love to have children of my own, but so far I can’t. I suffered a miscarriage while at school and had no choice over the following weeks and months to mask my grief and pain in order to protect my students. Don’t tell me I can’t be a good teacher if I’m not also a parent.

I buy school supplies for my students. I buy them lunches. I have held them when they’ve cried and talked them down from their feelings of betrayal and despair when a parent goes to jail or when there is divorce. I have held a student’s confidence when she told me she’d just worked up the courage to tell her parents and the police she’d been raped. I have walked students to the guidance office when they were facing the possibility of pregnancy. I have had a student steeped in his own depression lean on me to guide him to the help he desperately wanted but didn’t know how to ask. I have consoled parents who don’t know how to handle their child’s heartache, or addiction, or anxiety. I have been to hospitals. I have been to funerals.

It’s an old cliche that teachers refer to students as our kids. No one who says so does it lightly. I know when a new group of children are entrusted to me at the beginning of the school year that I have an obligation to provide each child with an intellectually and emotionally safe, motivating environment. They become my kids and I advocate for them; encourage them; and challenge them to see their potential even when they cannot.

I may not be a parent, but I have learned over the course of my career that I don’t have to be a parent in order to be a good teacher. What makes a good teacher? All those things I have been so blessed to find as I have grown and developed as a teacher: consistency, support, positive relationships with parents (their child’s first teachers), trust, and experience. Having a fertile womb hasn’t really entered the picture.

My Ninth First Day

All the anxiety melted away as I greeted my new seventh grade classes today. After hiring on last week and getting the whirlwind introduction to my new school, it was a relief to stand in front of a class again–a place where I feel at home. It was everything I hoped for from a first day and I want to build on the excitement and energy of my new students.

This is the ninth school year when I’ve kicked off an opening day and each time it gets more and more comfortable. I’m keeping a list of To Do/Don’t Do Again in my desk drawer to remind me for next year. So far, the To Dos are running away with themselves. If I can do all this with barely a week to learn all the protocols and even the closest faculty neighbor names, what can’t I do this year?

Of course, I’m flying high right now. I’m in love: new classes, new school, new faces, new opportunities. There will be bumps and uglies coming very soon, as they always do–because human beings are messy. Still, I’m going to enjoy the extra burst of energy and enthusiasm and plan for a great year learning with my students.

Today I thought back to my very first day in the classroom. I also taught seventh grade–and I was also hired on with barely a week to prepare. I’m such a different teacher now and I keep learning more about what it means to be a good teacher. In a way, it reminds me of Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Eleven.” In the story, the main character Rachel describes the way she feels about age–that all the years grow one inside the other like tree rings or nesting dolls. Perhaps that’s true for teachers, too, as we face each year both with experience and with fresh beginnings.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to what the year has to bring and all the ways my students are going to grow.

Happy New School Year to you all!

Saying “Yes” To What Scares Me

The first time I said yes to fear instead of what scares me was during a family trip to Kings Island. I was seven and old enough to ride some of the rides, but not all of them. I watched as cousins, uncles, aunts, and even my grandmother got in line to ride roller coasters with names like “The Beast” or “The King Cobra.” I spent my time with bumper cars and flying swings, secretly wishing I were old enough to ride the roller coasters and, at the same time, relieved I had an excuse not to go.

There was one small problem with my plan. In one area of the park–dedicated to kids–there was a reproduction of “The Beast” that was kid-sized.

The Beastie, image courtesy of Jay Hull on Flickr

I would be allowed to ride that roller coaster.

I watched as the filled cars inched their way up the first incline. Each click and clack of the cars sounded to me like the bolts breaking loose. For a moment, as the cars reached the top, they glided in an arc to the left before plunging down the first hill, washing over the crowd with a roar and a sustained, gleeful scream from those delighted riders. The shrieks would peak and fall with the hills and curves before the train rumbled back to the platform. Some riders’ faces were flushed, others were laughing.

I watched and was afraid.

I got as far as the top of the platform only to turn around when it was my turn to step into the waiting car. My fear told me that no matter how many times I watched others ride safely, it was too dangerous for me and I should stay on the ground. Weighted with shame and embarrassment, I plodded back down the ramp, going the wrong way past other riders and into the blinding summer sunlight while my father and older brother waved from the ascent. I watched with envy as my older brother and my dad sat side-by-side, throwing their arms up in the air. I could hear my father’s carefree laughter through the screams and cheers.

I held my breath, knowing they would be safe, but still afraid to trust the ride would not crash or fly from the tracks. When the ride ended and they came back to where my mother and I were waiting, my dad offered one more time to wait in line with me, but this would be my last chance before we had to leave the park. I stared at my shoes and said “No.”

My brother laughed and called me a chicken–because that’s what eight year-old brothers do–and I hated him for it. I was a chicken. A coward.

The rest of the day I followed along with my mother and brother, riding the kiddie rides and getting sunburned. I listened to the gleeful cheers and screams throughout the park, piecing my courage together to ask for one last chance to ride the Beastie. By the time I was ready, it was also time to leave the park. My parents would not be swayed by tears or protests. I’d had my chance and chose not to ride. Now I would have to wait until the next trip to Kings Island in a couple of years.

When to Say No to Fear and Yes to Opportunity

A few years later I visited another theme park but this time I left nothing to regret. I rode my first, second, third, and fourth roller coasters–wooden coasters and metal coasters and tracks with loops and cars that went forward and backward. I had learned my lesson. Was I still afraid to take the chance? Yes, but I wasn’t going to say yes to my unreasonable fear. In fact, the more coasters I rode, the more I conquered my fear.

It was a good life lesson for me. As I’ve grown older there have been more opportunities that have come my way and I’ve had to choose whether or not to go along for the ride or to stay safely in one place. I’ve learned to differentiate between good risks and real danger, and I’ve learned that those opportunities in my life that are tinged with the fear of the unknown are usually the opportunities that have the most potential for me to grow.

This summer, I am taking a chance and working in an administrative role for the first time. I tend to gravitate toward supporting roles when it comes to leadership, so to take on the responsibility for leading a staff as well as students is definitely outside my comfort zone. When the position was offered to me, there were so many reasons to say no: I didn’t know enough about the position. I had no administrative experience. I’m too young. I’m not young enough.

I had thousands of excuses.

The opportunity was there in front of me: a chance to grow and to test my leadership in a new way. It scared me, but in the same way all good opportunities come wrapped in a fear of the unknown. I knew I had to say yes and take the chance. It’s going to demand my best and I know the students and staff will test my skills as a leader, but in a way it feels like waiting in line for a roller coaster ride: anticipation, excitement, and nervous energy soon to be released in a gloriously wild ride.

And the teachers were people. Reflection on Asimov’s “The Fun They Had”

My sixth grade language arts teacher told us we were welcome to take as many copies of the classroom set of magazines as we wanted. It was the end of the school year, and of course, that meant it was time to clear the shelves and close the room for summer cleaning.

We’d only managed to read a few READ magazines in class. The rest, with their mini plays, writing prompts, and stories, were shrink-wrapped gifts, waiting to be opened. I don’t remember how many students took her up on the offer, but I was there, poised like a yard-sale bargain-hunter, examining the literary buffet spread across the table in the back of our classroom, waiting for the moment I could get my hands on them. I took one of each, clutching a fist full of those pulpy paper magazines and slipping them into my deep, purple back pack on the last day of school.

The unclaimed copies probably wound their way to the landfill. 1992 was still too early for a dedicated paper recycling program in my elementary school, though we’d been intoning “reduce-reuse-recycle” for two years.

READ magazine covers, as I remember them.

I don’t recall a single story or poem from any so-called literature book I read in grade school, but I do remember the stories, poems, and ideas from READ, even long after the tissue-thin pages of the issues I brought home had fallen apart. The stories were provocative in ways our regular classroom reading wasn’t. These stories were suspenseful, witty, and sometimes dark, but always challenged my view of the world and myself. They were stories that kept unfolding and presenting me with new ideas that seemed to lie between the lines and beyond the pages.

In Stephen King’s “Battleground” a man fought to the death against a murderous army of sentient G.I. Joe-style toys. Donald E. Westlake’s story “The Winner” forced me to contemplate power and powerlessness, torture, human dignity, and the cost of doing the right thing in the face of oppression or authoritarian rule. A dramatization of the events at Pearl Harbor led me to ask questions about war and suffering in situations that had seemed so cut and dried in social studies class. Hardly fluff fiction.

My one of my favorite stories, and the one that sent me straight to the public library to mine the shelves for more, has been on my mind more and more as I approach the end of my first decade as a teacher. The story, by Isaac Asimov, is called “The Fun They Had.”

“The Fun They Had”: Imagining the Future of Education

Asimov’s story was first published in 1951 when computers were the size of rooms and a computer bug could quite literally be an unfortunate moth or spider that crawled across the circuitry and shorted something out among vacuum tubes, lit bulbs and relays. Yet in less than 1,100 words, Asimov predicted personal computers, ebook readers, the death of print (though not the end of hand writing), one-to-one computer-based education, differentiated instruction and Khan Academy.

The story (set in the distant year 2157) focuses on Margie and her friend Tommy, who finds a yellowed and crumbling bound book. Margie is fascinated at the sight of a printed book where the words stand still and don’t vanish when a page is turned. when she learns the book is about school, she wrinkles her nose in disdain and wonders why anyone would want to write about something as boring as school. For Margie, school is torturous. She goes to the school room in her home five days per week and a faceless machine delivers instruction. Margie listens, completes assignments, and inserts them into the teacher-machine for instant grading. The reader learns, however, that Margie’s teacher is broken and requires a checkup from the local inspector who adjusts the teacher to Margie’s level of readiness.

Tommy explains to Margie that long ago, schools were places where children gathered to learn from one another and teachers were men. Margie exclaims:

“A man? How could a man be a teacher?”

“Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.”

“A man isn’t smart enough.”

“Sure he is. My father knows as much as my teacher.”

“He can’t. A man can’t know as much as a teacher.”

“He knows almost as much, I betcha.”

In Margie’s world, people don’t teach, machines do. Students work in isolation, though their progress is monitored closely through frequent computerized assessments. Margie longs for the old days and imagines how much fun it must have been.

All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.

And the teachers were people…

The Transformation Generation

In my lifetime, I have witnessed the shift in classrooms, culture, and information. In elementary school, I still visited the public library and made ten-cent photocopies of pages from the encyclopedia to use in school reports. I was taught to use our school library’s physical card catalog and to use a book’s index to find topic-specific information. I hauled piles of books onto broad tables, bookmarking and making index card outlines. By the time I was a sophomore in high school I was accessing the Internet but didn’t really use it for research. By 1998, I used my savings from birthday money and babysitting to purchase my first internet-ready personal computer to ensure I would be ready for college.

As the gap closes between Asimov’s world in 1951 and his imagined future in “The Fun They Had” I find myself a little breathless to be part of the Transformation Generation who have lived through the changes as students. My students have never known a world without the “net.” They don’t remember all the innovative leaps from floppy disks and 3.5 inch disks to zip drives and thumb drives to the cloud. For them, photographs have always been digital and subject to manipulation. Their PDFs are editable; I still used a typewriter and correction fluid to complete my college applications. I got my first cell phone after college–and it was an insurance policy, not a ubiquitous mini-computer.

I think about this narrowing gap and the adults who have lived the adventure, now in our 30’s. We have a unique perspective on this slice of history as the landscape has shifted beneath and around us. I feel personally compelled to defend my profession against attempts to turn teaching into fact-cramming, where people are robots and education is nothing more than a series of inputs and outputs.  Asimov’s caution is still relevant if our culture is willing to heed it. In his story, children like Margie create nothing, design nothing, question nothing. They merely receive instruction and give back what is expected to the computer “teacher.”

There is more to teaching and learning than knowing facts and passing exams. I refuse to let go of the art of teaching and submit to the data wall; I don’t want the children of 2157 to look back on 2011 and wonder how we could let education reform go so terribly wrong.

Click here for the full text of “The Fun They Had”.

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.