Archives for the month of: October, 2014

One of the wonderful things about teaching English—and one of the hardest and most trying—is when you realize that what it’s really about is developing the ability to feel with someone else. That is to say, what we really do in English class is develop the capacity for empathy, for compassion. When we teach The Catcher in the Rye and some kid starts in on how Holden is a worthless whiner, we know we have failed even if the kid read the whole book, can tell you about the symbolism of the ducks, and pass whatever test you throw at him. He couldn’t put himself in Holden’s shoes, so the whole project is a bust.


As you go along you begin to discover where the empathy traps lie. It’s like a minefield and in time, you get a pretty good map and can tell the kids where to tread so they don’t blow up their capacity to open their hearts. When I teach Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, I start with a little lesson on Mohammed Ali and his bragging. The kids like and understand him and his trash-talking. From there, they are ready to accept Cyrano’s big mouth full of ego.


They don’t typically reject Gatsby, but inspired by a colleague, today I asked my tenth graders to write about their own plans for their lives;  most of them have dreams of how they hope their lives will unfold, although few of them have quite the desire to remake themselves that Gatsby had. First I asked them to define The American Dream and we talked about that. Then we connected that to Of Mice and Men. Then I asked them to spell out in detail what their lives would be like in ten years, given the best case realistic scenario. I read my hopes and some of them read theirs.


It was fascinating to note that when we think about money and what it will buy for us, there is an intangible beneath the literal. Lennie and George wanted a little ranch, but what they really wanted was security, autonomy, dignity. One student wanted to work at Pixar and have a waterslide in her yard: creativity and play. Another wanted a penthouse in New York with plush couches: luxury and status. I want my own department of education where I can teach teachers; books and screenplays published and in development; time and money to travel each year: influence, good work, fulfillment, adventure.


Then I asked them what they would need to do to accomplish those goals and what obstacles stood in their way.


When they had written all that, I asked them to fold those papers in quarters and tuck them into the book at the page where we see James Gatz’s list for self-improvement. Like a little present, those thoughts, perhaps similar to Gatsby’s, will await them.  And perhaps they will feel a little friendship for him and his out-sized dreams.


May students develop a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.

May students develop a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.

There is so much stupidity out there that I could spend all my time rebutting the moronic, illogical contentions of those who know nothing about education except precisely what to do to “fix” it. Frank Bruni of the New York Times made an ass of himself, as usual, today. But unless I determine to write him a letter, I’m going to ignore it.


Instead I want to remember something that happened yesterday in class. We are reading Their Eyes Were Watching God and we are at the beginning. The kids noticed with some alarm the language describing Janie’s awakening under the pear tree. I recalled for them walking in April under the magnolia trees on Oxford Street in Rochester, age 12 or so, and a shower of petals fell about me, and I longed—pined– for a boyfriend. That surge of energy, pure and unrelated at first to lust, is what Janie experiences. I knew I was unready for love: chubby, spotted with pimples, and sporting ugly braces on my teeth, I needed no one to tell me that I was no man’s dream. The loneliness and longing! And kids told of their own embarrassment and shame in veiled references and tentative acceptance of a passage quite recently passed. For a few moments we were all just human beings together, and united with Janie under her glorious pear tree. One girl raised her hand and said that until this moment, she never considered how alone she felt in this universal experience. Here we all were, all of us in memory of our awkwardness, that isolating conviction that we were the only ones on earth so gawky and unlovable—never dreaming that our very isolation was universally understood.


I live for moments like that. Thank you, my dear E.K., for that.


(let’s see you put that on a standardized test, “reformers”)


Enough to make a girl's heart swoon.

Enough to make a girl’s heart swoon.

Here is a helpful response to Time’s latest cover story, about how megabillionaires want to fire great heaving masses of evil teachers and throw all the rest of us into a state of peril:


Time Magazine is just an embarrassing internet troll now by Jeff Bryant


One of my favorite passages:

As a recent commentary by law school professor Erwin Chemerinsky in the New York Daily News explained, “A study published in the Harvard Educational Review found a significant positive relationship between rates of unionization (and accompanying job security) and student scores on the SAT and ACT. Every year, the states with the highest student performance are those with robust protections for teachers – places like Maryland and Massachusetts.”

Matt Di Carlo of the Albert Shanker Institute has meticulously studied the relationship of student and school performance to the strength of teachers’ unions that argue for tenure protections in their contracts. He wrote, “Binding contracts are not associated with lower [National Assessment of Education Progress] scores, at least at the state-level. Charter schools, which are largely free of both unions and their contracts, overwhelmingly perform no better than regular public schools (see also here and here). And the undisputed highest-performing nation in the world, Finland, is wall-to-wall union, with contracts, tenure, and all the fixings.”

And this:

American teachers, in fact, already have one of the more challenging work environments compared to other teachers in the world. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristofrecently pointed out, the most recent report from the OECD, an agency tracking data from developed nations, “indicates that American teachers work far longer hours than their counterparts abroad. Yet American teachers earn 68 percent as much as the average American college-educated worker, while the O.E.C.D. average is 88 percent.”

While there are some signs that the tide is turning and that most parents and kids love their teachers and appreciate their hard work, a combination of profiteering and ego is running with the old narrative.  Nobody has been able to offer any evidence that there are huge numbers of ineffective teachers.  We lose 40% in the first five years– it’s a pretty self-flushing system.  Administrators are responsible for hiring and awarding tenure to teachers:  where is their responsibility?  It’s not hard to imagine that without our job protections, teachers’ jobs could become political favors.  I can see certain governors (not naming any names, but nearby states where their tough-talking, swaggering govs’ names begin with C come to mind) firing all the teachers they deem “ineffective” as a result of their outspokenness and bestowing them on sycophants.  They are predicting a big teacher shortage in this country.  Who is going to want to do this work, when you could be fired at the whim of someone who knows a lot less about it than you do?

But the real issue, as always, is misunderstanding what teachers are and do.  We choose to do what we do because we love our subjects, our kids, and our communities.  We love learning.  While hedge fund managers look at community schools in poor neighborhoods and see failure and a potential honeypot of tax money, we see valiant professionals struggling against all odds to preserve those kids’ and families’ last hope.  When the Gateses and Waltons look at highly successful community schools in well-off neighborhoods, they see an inexplicable anomaly and an even bigger honeypot.  We see the system working the way it was designed to work.  Since when did being rich mean that you knew everything about everything?

Teachers need to be paid a wage that allows them to live in reasonable comfort in the communities in which they work, and they need protections to shield them from ignorant whims and fads.  It takes a long time to learn to be a good teacher.  Job protections help to shield excellent teachers from somebody’s megalomaniacal self-promotion.  Too bad Time allowed the megalomaniacs/”tech billionaires” to throw sand in its eyes.


Give me a break, Time.

Give me a break, Time.



From the other Renaissance.

From the other Renaissance.


Exploration and discovery are two big words for me in my classroom: what I’m driving at. They are at odds with the testing culture, of course, as is most of what I do when my game is on. You can’t encourage kids to branch out, go off the beaten path, find unexpected treasures, and foster the spirit of adventure if what matters to you and to them is a predetermined set of answers to be bubbled on an answer sheet at some future date. If you’ve nailed down where you want them to go, there isn’t much point in their venturing out to all points of the compass.


But I contend that this kind of random exploration is precisely what they most need.


In my tenth grade class, we are starting The Great Gatsby and I like to preface that with a foray into the Harlem Renaissance, which was of course happening at the same time. I love the Harlem Renaissance anyway, but it also helps to balance some of the casual racism in Gatsby. And so it was: I told them a bit about it and then they took out their textbooks, in which there are about 40 pages of H.R.-related info, poems, stories, bios, images, and whatnot. I told them to noodle around in there, read some stuff, and then after about a half hour, answer these three questions:

  • What did you read?
  • What did you learn?
  • What did you like?

I collected those half sheets of paper. Today, after a weekend’s worth of forgetting, I asked them what they recalled. One girl said wryly that it wasn’t the Renaissance she was picturing. Ah ha! Teachable moment!


There ensued a solid half hour of the meaning of the word renaissance, what happened in Europe in the Middle Ages and then the Renaissance, the birth of economic inequality in the shift from brakteaton to money (and how I learned this from Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff), cathedrals, flying buttresses, Chartres and Sainte Chapelle, perspective drawing and realism as opposed to the symbolic yet cartoonish painting of the Middle Ages, Renaissance propaganda including renaming what came before The Dark Ages. . . I don’t even know what. It was great! And completely off topic, which ultimately was Gatsby.


A “reformer” would perhaps argue that none of this would be on the test. How true! But look at all I modeled and they (potentially) learned. This plus the fact that I reiterated a number of times how much of this background info there is out there and they should never be intimidated out of asking about it and learning it. Learning is fascinating, but nobody is born knowing a thing—so ask! As my sweet student did, giving me the opportunity to fill them in.


And to help them remember to learn it, I put a number of those terms on my website—the one I maintain through the school district. My new project is to give them a quiz every now and then on all this randomness, so they actually do reinforce it enough to make it their own. Note again the reason for the test: not to imply that these are the facts one must master, but to provide incentive to take a second look and consolidate some context into their world view.


All of it sparked by one, simple remark about a confusion between two renaissances—that kid brought her whole self, admitting her error, and I brought my whole self, illuminating some stuff I find interesting.


Whole teacher, whole child.


I love you, Zora.  Did anybody enjoy the H.R. as much as you did?

I love you, Zora. Did anybody enjoy the H.R. as much as you did?

People who have made a lot of money seem frequently to believe that this confers upon them a special skill, that somehow creating $$$ for themselves means that they have acquired wisdom and the ability to see into the very heart of things.

They are wrong.

They often turn their attention to education and advocate for businessy incentives, like pitting schools and teachers against one another or merit pay, as a result of their unshakeable faith in the efficacy of money as motivator.  These incentives don’t work, as has been shown over and over again.

Indeed, people don’t go into teaching to make a lot of money.  We want to be paid a living wage, a wage that allows us to live in modest comfort in the communities in which we teach, but we are not in it to make a killing.  What we want instead is to be part of a winning team, a school that does a really good job, where we can see our students thrive and grow.  That is our motive:  seeing kids flourish.

Others have written eloquently on this topic.  I can’t improve much on this:


Laura Chapman on Education, which is not a business


Except maybe to add this:


Dan Pink sums up the research (old research) on motivation and creativity.


This isn't a business either.  Good luck motivating it with $ incentives.

This isn’t a business either. Good luck motivating it with $ incentives.

Public education is undeniably under assault. Time magazine is coming out with a new cover declaring “war on tenure,” and that’s only the latest example. Since I was in college we have been hearing that our schools are failing, we’re falling behind, our kids are irremediably stupid and it’s teachers’ fault, and we need a clean sweep fore and aft—a whole new world of educational choices to address this abomination that our public schools have become.


Every single piece of this narrative is rubbish, but one positive thing might come out of it: we might just be able to raise our game. If anybody is open to solutions rather than either the status quo or the scorched earth policy, there’s a chance we could effect some wonderful change.


If I were in charge of those changes, here is what I would do:

  1. Redefine schools as community centers, where during the day kids attended class and after 3:00 all sorts of people could go for all sorts of classes. Parenting, photography, cooking, Spanish, art of all sorts, budgets and money. . . the kind of stuff you find at Community College continuing ed. classes. Above all, there would be classes for kids who would otherwise go home to empty houses. They call them “wrap-around” services.
  2. Re-design teacher preparation and support. As far as I can perceive, schools of education associated with colleges and universities consider their proper work to be researching educational techniques and strategies. They don’t have a close connection to people who are still in classrooms, teaching actual students. They don’t know what we do, nor the circumstances under which we do it. Few new teachers feel prepared by their course work for the reality of a teacher’s day—I know I learned everything I needed to know on the job. Why? Why not help people get a sense of what the job entails and how to succeed before they’re tearing out their hair? The model, in my opinion, ought to be more like doctors’ preparation. Let’s have teacher interns and residents in actual schools, that would function as teaching schools. Let prospective teachers spend a year in a school, observing teachers from every discipline, attending faculty and school board meetings, observing guidance counselors, nurses, librarians, administrators, and faculty advisors to clubs.

I would love to find a way to make those changes.


In the meantime, we will all keep on doing our job as well as we  can, which in most cases sets a high standard of excellence, despite what ignorant critics say.

Okay, so I was posting pretty regularly in the summer, but then all sorts of things happened (including the start of school), which kind of got in the way. Funny to think that actually teaching gets in the way of talking about teaching, but there it is.

But among all the distractions and needful tasks, I’ve been writing a mindfulness blog for my mindfulness students, who are also teachers. If you are interested in getting a sense of what’s been going on over there, here is the link:

Breathing Across the Curriculum

The good thing is that I’m getting a handle on it all: what I have to say about schools and teaching, plus how to find the time to say it. So for those of you who have been supportive and subscribed and let me know you are thinking about teaching and schools along with me (I’m looking at you, dear Katherine B.!), I’m gearing back up.

In the meantime, I hope you’re all reading Diane Ravitch– all the time.

Love and will be back soon,

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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