Archives for the month of: February, 2015
Magic writing teacher!  Answer lady!  Hamlet untangler!!

Magic writing teacher! Answer lady! Hamlet untangler!!

The purpose of this blog is to celebrate what teachers do, to tell the truth about what happens in lively classrooms, to encourage new teachers who are learning their craft, and to speak to any who care to interest themselves in this fascinating, exasperating profession.

To that end, I’d like to talk about spending a couple of hours today listening to high school seniors’ ideas for papers about Hamlet. Ooof. Picture sitting in your chair while half a dozen really bright kids come up to bounce ideas off you, saying stuff like, “Well, I’d like to talk about the idea of invasion. There’s the whole Trojan war thing, with the Hecuba speech, and then of course Fortinbras, but there’s also lots of invasions of privacy and personal space and even of family. Do you think I could work with that?” Yes! I think you can work with that.

Then I ask for a moment to consider and then trot out some ideas of where else that motif applies, how it might illuminate something thematic, warnings about how not to organize it (so as to avoid dreaded plot summary), suggestions of where to look for more. . . and so on. . . times as many students as need advice, which is most of them.

It’s highly rewarding and highly depleting. Shakespeare is hard and they are young and the opportunities for misunderstanding are many. Plus, they some of them still cling to the scaffolding we gave them in middle school, and think that outlines come out of the brain whole and pre-numbered. The technique of pouring all their ideas out on paper, searching the text for more and putting those on the paper, and only then gathering them into piles and seeing the connections between them—all that comes hard for some of them.

Interestingly, this comes equally hard to the outstanding and challenged writers. A few of my kids have the lyrical, poetical thing down and they have never written a paper that required them to do this puzzling, step-wise process. Others haven’t yet written a super paper—they are still struggling with the basics and for that reason, want to know how they’re going to organize their paper before they know what they’re going to write. Neither set has faith that if they just search and keep an open mind, they will find something interesting and insight will descend like a dove.

Meanwhile, those who do know that sudden ah ha! seek me out and request my help in achieving it. I come home with spongebrain.

When someone picks your brain hard enough for long enough, it hurts!

My brain is a sponge!

My brain has turned to sponge!

But then, one hopes, the papers they turn in will be fabulous and it will all have been worth it. Or one day soon, their papers will be fabulous, whether I get to read them or not. Or maybe it will take a hundred more spongebrains before the papers are fabulous.

It’s like brain donation. I know I needed to piggyback on my parents’ and teachers’ brains to write a couple of good papers, before I caught the sense of it and could do it for myself. And so I only hope that this brain-picked, spongebrain feeling means that I’m returning the favor.

Teachers need and ask for more time, which is one reason why we rejoice when we have a snow day. Yes, there’s some extra sleep in it for us, but what it really means is that we have a few extra hours in which to get the grading and prep done. There is more of this than layfolk may believe.

A former student of mine is now a teacher in my building. She is having to force herself to take off one day per week, either Saturday or Sunday. I would estimate that she spends two or three times as much time planning and grading as she does in front of her students, which is 4 and a half hours per day. In addition to the 90 minutes of plan time she has per day, she puts in 3+ hours after school and 6+ hours each weekend day. At this rate, she will burn out.

I’ve been doing this for a long while and the longer I teach, the more efficient my use of time. It used to take me a half hour to grade each paper, back when I was unclear on what the kids were likely to master or find challenging and when it was harder for me to put what I wanted to tell them into words. Now it takes me about 10 minutes for a good paper and 15 or 20 for a bad one. So let’s say I have 25 kids per class. Each time I collect papers, that means

25 x 15 (average amount of time per paper) = 6 ¼ hours x 3 classes = 18 ¾ hours

That’s in addition to my contracted hours, plus meetings (faculty and department), clubs and activities, extra help for kids after school, and all the rest.

And that’s just the papers. There is also all the other work that needs to be graded (quizzes, classwork, projects, etc.). And that’s not even glancing at the time I need to prepare lessons—and no, I don’t recycle them from year to year. It’s far more effective to make up lessons with these particular kids in mind.

And don’t forget college recommendations. And helping them with their college essays. And reading their poetry and short stories, which they’d like to share out of pure exuberance at loving to write.

Does this strike you as a complaint? It isn’t. I love my work and see the grading and preparing as an integral part of it. It’s a fact that, no matter how long you do it or how efficient you get, teaching is a labor-intensive art, requiring enormous skill and oodles of time out of the classroom.

Time in the classroom is only the tip.

Time in the classroom is only the tip.

TIME is what we could give teachers that would help to make them more effective. Not money. Merit pay is a stupid idea that works absolutely nowhere—and it’s been tried many times and in many places. Merit pay posits that money is the main motivation for all people and that teachers aren’t trying as hard as they would if you dangled a bonus in front of them. Both assumptions are wrong.

No, what we need is time: days in the building, built in days for which we could plan, when we could collaborate, plan units together, meet with kids, catch up on grading, college recs, etc. We ask and ask and ask, but generally, it seems that to mollify crankypants columnists and their ilk, administrators feel constrained to fill what little time there is with more responsibilities.

There should be designated days, built in to the calendar at regular intervals, for teacher collaboration and planning, for assessment, and for meeting with kids who need extra help. The suggestion that we use snow days, which happen rarely if at all, for that crucial work shows how little it is actually valued.

Somebody has an issue with teachers staying home when there aren’t any students in the building.

Why does he care?  We have a lot of work to do that isn’t place-dependent.  Why can’t we do that work at home, as we do all week when we don’t have snow days?  Do you care where a columnist writes his column, whether office, coffee shop, or living room?  What difference does it make as long as he gets his work done? (in this case, I’d have been just as happy if he’d been watching TV instead).

But this writer says he believes teachers do no work on snow days and loll about eating bonbons, so we ought to be forced to go in to work like “everybody else.”  Why the malice and distrust?

Are teachers professionals who must be counted on to prepare for and follow up from their time with students?  Then let teachers figure out when and how to do that.  Or are we clock-punchers who don’t have to take work home?  We’d be very glad to go in on snow days if the only work we did was in the building.  Either way is fine with us.  You guys figure yourselves out and let us know and quit griping at us.

It gets down to whether teachers are professionals or not.  We have master’s degrees and courses beyond, equivalent to the course work for a Ph.D.  Why must people be so angry if we do a wonderful job by giving our own time at home?

Somehow teachers are the new “welfare queens.”  If we say that we work really hard, the angry public responds, “Yeah, we do, too!”  But weren’t you just saying that we didn’t work hard?  I don’t get it.  Nobody is attacking lawyers, who can write briefs at home, or college professors, who work far fewer hours in the classroom, or nurses, who can’t take work home, or sanitation workers, who also got the snow day off.

Why the special hatred for those of us who work hard to get kids interested in learning difficult concepts and skills?

Note:  when I get a snow day, I am thrilled to have some time to get caught up with all the work there is never enough time to do.  No bonbons.

Besides, I’ll be making up all snow days at the end of this year, as all public school teachers do.

Teachers, stay home and get some work done.

Teachers, stay home and get some work done.

Not England, but corporate interests.  Not nations, but public school districts.

Not England, but corporate interests. Not nations, but public school districts.

This will be a long post.

The Common Core State Standards promise to revolutionize education and their arguments are crafted so as to appear plausible.  They appeal to a kind of knee-jerk instinct that something is terribly wrong with our public schools (false) and that a simple clarification of what we ought to be teaching will fix them (because complicated systems always have simple solutions?).

To get a sense of the depth of nonsense, you really have to see what it’s all about. I transcribed the video from their website, which appears to have been replaced with a dialectic between “Eddie”, who wants to invent a time machine, and an unnamed woman who wants him to be prepared for the future.  The video I transcribed had that kind of drawing hand animation, someone with a marker and a whiteboard making Ken Robinson-esque line drawings as the voice-over informs you.

My transcript and commentary:

 Like it or not, life is full of measuring sticks. How smart we are, how fast we are, how well we can, you know, compete.

Wait, what? Life is absolutely not full of measuring sticks unless someone imposes them. We grow as tall as we’re going to get whether anyone measures us or not. And whether we’re competing or not, and whether we’re winning or not, we all have to make a living and get along. A much better point is that no matter what you try to do, someone comes at you with a measuring stick and tries to derange you—and when they do, you’d better ask on what authority they claim to know how you ought to measure up.

 But up until now it’s been pretty hard to tell how well kids are competing in school, and how well they’re going to do when they get out of school.

So no attempt to hearken to the good old days, which is interesting in itself—this group doesn’t even pretend to believe that any of our schools has ever done a good job. But I’d like someone to explain how stacking kids up against any measuring stick now is going to tell you jack about how well they’re going to do when they get out of school. In fact, Bill Gates, one of the agents of Common Core, never had much truck with formal schooling for himself, and look how he turned out by his own standards. I’d love to know what the PARCC would have foretold for him.

 We like to think our education system does that,

No, we don’t. It’s worse than useless to inform kids they’ve already failed at life—or that they’re superior to their peers.

 but when it comes to learning what they really need to be successful after graduation, is a girl in your neighborhood being taught as much as her friend over in the next one? Is a graduating senior in, say, St. Louis, as prepared to get a job as a graduate in Shanghai?

Who cares?! For one thing, no one will ever be able to discern what anyone will need to be successful after graduation, for the world and its needs change. A better way is to foster the best in each kid, which will inevitably and gloriously vary from kid to kid. And what the heck about competing with a Shanghai grad for a job? What job? Does the kid want that job? Is it available to her in Dubuque? Whoever wrote this drivel seems to believe that

  1. all kids are the same
  2. all jobs are the same and equally available to all kids.


Well it turns out the answer to both these questions is NO. Because for years states have been setting different standards for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level.

How shocking is that! One thing we absolutely must not have is diversity! Down with creativity, local decision-making, local economies, local cultures.

Also note the confusion with “setting standards” and getting kids to meet them. How about if we say all kids must be geniuses when they graduate from high school. Now that’s a nice, high standard, and what a great thing it would be if we could meet it! But we can’t. We never will and that’s not defeatism. This whole standards thing is a massive confusion between wishes and reality, as if wishing would make it all come true.

 That’s making it too hard to know if our kids are doing well enough over all—and if they can really compete for a job someday.


Which kids? Which jobs? What economy?!

Note: if you were to have devised “standards” in 1995, you would have missed the little thing called “the internet”—and all your devious planning for what kids must know to be successful would have been wasted effort. So why are we so sure that we know what’s around the corner?

Furthermore, note how they don’t even try to tip their hat to the fact that school is about more than jobs. What about stuff kids might want to know to make informed decisions as citizens? What about art, music, and literature: all disciplines that grace our lives whether we make any money from them or not? How did school become synonymous with vocational training rather than education?

 What we really need are clear goals. That’s where the Common Core State Standards come in. They’re like a total sea change in education: consistent, strong , clear benchmarks for English/Language arts and math.

Because teachers don’t already know what to teach? A total sea change?! You mean nobody has had clue 1 about what to do with their classes up til now?


Here’s how it works. You can think of kindergarten through 12th grade like a giant staircase. Each step is a skill your child needs to learn before stepping up to the next one. But right now, too many kids are not confident with, like, 2+2 before they have to move on to 2×2 . We need more focus on the skills that help them move up the stairs or they can slip up and fall behind.

Do these people know anything about kids, intellectual development, or teaching? In some disciplines there are foundational skills that must be mastered before you can go on, but learning tends to resist being restricted to 2 dimensions. Kids learn differently, at different rates and times. It is absurd and dangerous to insist they’re all going to learn the same things at the same ages. They won’t. But you sure can traumatize them into thinking they should which does nothing but harm.

 And there’s another problem. What if everyone’s stairs were made of different heights?   Well here we go again. They are. So. A boy in Seattle who’s rocking an A in English literature could be getting a C on his Chicago friend’s staircase. Oops. We need to create consistent steps in education, too. So first each standard creates a landing on the staircase , a stop along the way as your child heads to high school graduation. Each stop is a chance for every parent and teacher to focus on the skills their students are supposed to know at that step no matter the zip code, language, or race, and more importantly, each standard makes sure all students are learning what they need to know to get to graduation and beyond. Because something like counting to a hundred leads to understanding dollars and cents which eventually leads to understanding how to balance a budget.

Note the attempt to clothe conformity and obedience to authority as liberation from discrimination.

Some kids understand dollars and cents before they can count to a hundred and others understand all that and still can’t balance a budget: just ask any number of larcenous charter school administrators.

We DON’T know what they will need to know in their lives. We never have.

We DON’T know how to present information and concepts so all kids will learn them. We never have.

We CAN’T and mustn’t standardize kids. We never have and we never will and that’s a good thing.

 Secondly, the standards are consistent from school to school and they match up against international standards too . Now we know how we’re doing compared to just about everyone.

Why is this desirable? Why the mania for comparison and competition? We are not all the same and we are not all destined for the same work. Shouldn’t we foster diversity of talents and skills instead, so that no matter what the future brings, we’ve got someone who can help us find a way to meet it?

 So even though local communities will still design their own curriculum, with the same rules, everybody can compete on the same kind of staircase. But standards aren’t learning.

They got that right. Standards aren’t learning: they’re opposed to that kind of free, open inquiry.  But also note the anxiety about having overstepped federal authority and removed local control from districts, which in fact Common Core does do.  We can all design our own curriculum, but it sure better lead to the right scores on their tests– which is the hidden engine by which all this will be bludgeoned onto us.

 That’s why we need teachers, parents, and students to help make that happen. By working together to help kids meet these standards.

I don’t want them to meet these arbitrary and absurd standards. I want each kid to reach his or her highest potential.

If a kid is way below the “standard,” you have to work with him where he is. If a kid is way above the “standard,” you still have to help her move forward. “Standards” are arbitrary constructs, but all kids need to learn.

 The world’s getting more and more competitive every day. But now, when our kids get to the top of our staircase, they can have way more options of where their life goes from there.

How is that possible, when you have so confined the curriculum and the kids to something you determined in a windowless room ahead of time, heedless of what the world would need by the time the kids graduated? Standards actively close down options.

 Clear goals, confident, well-prepared students. That’s the Common Core State Standards.


Gee, thanks. A colossal waste of money and student talent, creativity, resourcefulness, and inquiry. It’s intellectual colonialism by those think THEY know better. THEY are here to impose THEIR superiority on all. THEY will ridicule everything we have done up until now. THEY have airtight logic (by THEIR own standards) with which we cannot argue, for THEY have already dismissed everything we have to say without the formality of listening to it. THEY have the money, the will, the resources to shove THEIR goals down our throats. And THEY will ask us to thank THEM for the destruction that will ensue.

That’s the Common Core State Standards.



Back in the fall, someone I know had a piece published in the NYTimes magazine featuring Eva Moskowitz, the head of Success Academies Charter Schools.  I wrote him a letter, received a response, and this is what I replied to that.  It sums up my feelings about what will work with kids who are failing to thrive academically.

I’ve been putting off writing you back to consider carefully what matters to be said. Probably not much. As you say, you’ve arrived at your conclusions and you aren’t engaging with me to the degree of answering the points I raised. I appreciate your kind words very much. I dislike this adversarial conversation. I still find it difficult to believe that you disagree with me.

The one part where we agree completely is that something must be done about kids with blighted hopes and futures. It seems obvious to me that that something is smaller classes, caring teachers, and plenty of arts and fascinating digressions. The education you chose for your kids is a pattern for all kids. I cannot understand how focusing on test scores and intense discipline is going to help anybody. Stress and pressure do not enhance learning, they impede it.

As for seeing Eva Moskowitz as a lightning rod. . . Public schools are under assault and have no means to defend themselves. Someone who throws rocks through your windows and makes money doing it is not what I’d call a lightning rod.

So that’s another thing that troubles me. Your piece was very far from objective, yet somehow you have the privilege of getting your opinions published. The voice consistently absent from these discussions is career teachers’. Our public education system is for the most part splendid—we do beautiful work except in areas of concentrated poverty. We would do even better if anyone would listen to what teachers know kids and schools need. But instead, some well-intended, impatient people and others who seek profit and some kind of libertarian extinguishing of all government institutions sweep in and declare themselves experts and ignore everything those of us who actually do the job have learned. I hope you read the New Yorker piece about Zuckerberg’s attempt to save Newark’s schools.

I’m sorry, but I am grieved by where you have landed in this debate and I believe you will regret your support for this woman and those groups. In teaching and learning, as in parenting and raising children, there are no shortcuts. We know exactly what works for kids and it’s consistent worldwide and throughout history. Safe, loving, rich environments foster intellectually curious, confident, able kids. You just can’t browbeat someone into being educated. Kids with the least need the most. If Success Academies are achieving, it’s because they are spending more and providing a richer environment with higher teacher:student ratios. It is then utterly unjust to blame the co-habiting public school for not having hedge fund benefactors.

It’s fine with me if you want to let our discussion drop here. I hate the saying “agree to disagree” because we don’t in fact agree, not probably even on disagreeing. Nevertheless, I think we’ve probably said as much to one another as is fruitful and, I hope, respectful and painless. I know I will be glad to shake your hand next time I see you.

I’m still learning how to write letters like this.  I can get cranky and start to yell, as it were.  That does nothing to open anyone’s mind.  Yet how to stay open when you’re dealing with someone who has it all wrong, as you believe?  Not easy.


It probably doesn't do any good, but it's better than a metaphorical asp.

It probably doesn’t do any good, but it’s better than a metaphorical asp.



Yesterday some fellow teachers and I traveled to Lehigh University to see the indomitable Diane Ravitch.  It had been conceived as a debate between her and Michelle Rhee, but Michelle, having agreed to the date, punted when unable to comply with the conditions she herself imposed.

Diane called protecting public schools “the civil rights issue of our time.”  She named eight steps to that imperative:

1.  Prenatal care for all expectant mothers.  We are 134th of 180 nations in the number of our mothers who receive prenatal care, on par with Somalia.

2.  Early childhood education, starting at age 3.  This has been shown to have profound and long-lasting effects on kids’ ability to learn.  We rank 24th out of 45 nations in our availability of early childhood education.

3.  Reduce class sizes to 20 or fewer students, especially for younger children and especially for poorer or disabled children.

4.  Provide a full, rich, well-rounded curriculum for all kids.  Put the arts first, not last.  Learning to play a musical instrument ought to be an encouraged option for all kids:  it teaches discipline, perseverance, and harmony with others.

5.  Raise the standards for preparation for teachers.  Nobody should get to be a principal without ten years of teaching experience.  Teaching is not for resume builders.

6.  Allow teachers to teach more and test less.  What tests there must be should be written and graded by teachers, so they can have information about how well the kids are learning what they’ve taught.

7.  Adequately fund all schools so they can have librarians, nurses, guidance counselors and all the other necessary staff that makes a school into a community that can serve the needs of kids.

8.  Ban for-profit charters.

The saddest part was when she pointed out that finding common ground with those who advocate vouchers, charters, and what they call “choice” is impossible until we can agree on the facts.

  • our public schools are not failing.  Our scores are up (not that this is such an accurate measure of our achievement), our graduation rates are up, more kids are going to college than ever before.
  • merit pay is a “zombie” idea:  it never works and never dies.
  • we impose many restrictions, laws, and requirements on public schools because we say they are necessary and important, but we allow charters to operate free of those restrictions.  There is a double standard.
  • kids are not widgets.
  • teachers are not the reason kids are poor.
  • tenure does not mean lifetime security for bad teachers:  districts with tenure outperform those without it.
  • standardized testing encourages conformity and discourages creativity, resourcefulness, initiative, and the love of learning.
  • nobody has a quick-fix, easy answer.  If they did, we’d be doing it by now.
  • nobody should be getting rich off of taxpayer dollars.

“Reformers” often care deeply about kids’ lives.  They then turn on the very people who have been working to help those kids and blame them, thinking that they, who have very little experience in schools, will be able to find The Answer.  It’s understandable, but naive, arrogant, and insulting– and a distraction from the hard work that will actually make a difference.

Thank you to Diane for all her hard work and clear insight.

Stephen in his backyard playground.

Stephen in his backyard playground.

A student sent me the following link and implored me to watch it, saying that this guy lives so much of what I’m trying to teach:

Stephen Jepson:  Growing Bolder interview

Boy did she get that right.

Beside the inspiration of his energy, humor, agility, coordination, and all the rest, I came away with this urgent question: How did we let our lives get so boring?

I used to play jacks, climb trees, jump rope, and ride my bike so much that when I was finally snatched off the seat and forced into bed, it felt as though my feet were still going round and round and round. Exploring in the woods, making up games, hopscotch, tossing a ball in the air and seeing how many times I could clap my hands before it came back down—what happened to that spirit?

When I mentioned the tyranny of goals and checklists and doing this to get that and purpose and all the rest of it to a friend, she said of those folks they are trying to pave a road rather than following a path. Stephen Jepson does what he does for the joy of it and the results he receives are a bonus.  He’s following a path of play.

My poor students. So many of them have already drunk the poison of thinking that what we do today is merely so we can get what we want tomorrow. Our culture is full of that poison. I’m full of that poison and I’d like to find the antidote.

Stephen Jepson:  making the world less fall-y-down-y and also less goal-y-obsess-y.

Here is his website:  Never Leave the Playground.

Is this his morning's  commute?

Is this his morning’s commute?


Erich Brenn turns out to have been an important person in my life and the lives of many teachers of a certain age.  He was the guy who spun plates on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Check him out here. (and do do it, all the way to the end– a real variety act from back in the day).

We used to watch enthralled, never dreaming that that’s what our days would one day resemble.

I don’t mean to complain or brag, for there are many demanding jobs in this world and lots of us run around at hectic paces.  All I wish to do is comfort those who are new to teaching.  It feels at first undoable.  How do you keep even one plate spinning?  And then there are so many classes, so many kids, so many requirements that have nothing to do with either classes or kids.  .  .

Once long ago I was in a team meeting (where teachers who teach the same students at different times in different subjects come together to plan and facilitate) and a brand new teacher came in looking dazed, a piece of paper in her hand. Someone asked if they could help. She presented the paper, as if she’d just escaped from a space ship, mute and fazed. The experienced teacher looked at the paper and told her, “No worries. Not an issue. Just throw it away.”

“Gee, thanks,” she replied and trailed out the door.

Someone asked, “Didn’t that come out 6 weeks ago?”

“Yes,” was the response, “but she’s new.”

Understanding smiles and nods all round the table.

Perhaps one day they will backtrack on this statistic, but we’ve been told that nearly half of all new teachers quit within the first five years.  That matches my anecdotal experience.  It’s definitely a throw-you-in-the-deep-end profession and many find they can’t make it work.  The plates smash on the floor.

But for all those who secretly harbor shame that their act is not more together, that their plates are wobbling, that they’re having to ignore one class to prepare for another brand new one:  that’s just the way of it.

Perhaps one way to retain more of our new folks is to help them more?  To provide a little more collaborative time?  Plus time to do those all important assessments we hear so much about?  Just a thought.

Spin away, brave Erich.

Spin away, brave Erich.


Sometimes things don’t go so well.

You’re going along, teaching for all you’re worth, and some one student rankles, irks, gets under your skin, hurts your feelings or “presses your buttons.”  Weeds spring up in the happy garden of your cultivating:  the weeds are your unskillful responses to that kid.

It can happen that a student is difficult and awkward. If you can see that this kid has trouble everywhere with everyone, it can get easier. Every kid deserves a safe place where the teacher will at least not add to his or her troubles. Every kid is somebody’s child. Knowing what that kid must have suffered can often dissolve the harsh response.

But not always. Teachers are human and we can feel manipulated and played, one-upped and put down. What do you do when a kid lands a barb in the quick?  How do you respond if you’re all weedy with anger, frustration, and defeat?

My former neighbor (Nancy, I honor you) told me a story about when her son, Jeff, first got his driver’s license. She had told him he could use her car and a number of friends came over for a ride. She watched out her bedroom window as the car motored down the rocky driveway, teenagers hanging out the passenger windows whooping, perching on the door ledges, pounding on the roof, and she just about threw up with terror. There were no cell phones then, so all she could do was hold her fear and wait. In time, Jeff came home, and Nancy was at the kitchen table, waiting.

What did she do? Did she yell and scream? Did she take away his license? What is the wise response?

She told him simply and without embellishment of her fear. She told him she loved him and wanted him to be safe. And (in a highly surprising move) he cried and told her of his fear, that he could not control his friends, that he had no power to control them. Together they came up with a way. I don’t remember it, but that scarcely matters. Jeff knew that his mother would provide the cover he needed to inform his friends that dangerous behavior was off limits, and Nancy knew that Jeff needed her to set the limits that would protect him. Because both of them could own their feelings (which in this case involved fear, the purpose of which is to keep us safe), they could work out a plan.

If they had instead gone to passing the fear back and forth, Nancy yelling, Jeff defending—who knows?

Illustration by Irene Trivas, copyright 1983-2015

Illustration by Irene Trivas, copyright 1983-2015

Playing Hot Potato with feelings makes them hotter and bigger and more unmanageable, not to mention burning everyone’s hands in the process.

What Nancy did not do:

  1. Observe erroneously, exaggerating, dramatizing, self-pitying.
  2. Go wild: allow the fear to possess her.
  3. Scream, yell, and in all other ways discharge her feelings so that they were Jeff’s problems.
  4. Abandon Jeff to deal not only with his unruly friends but also his irate mother.

What Nancy did:

  1. Observe accurately: look clearly at what was occurring.
  2. Feel and own her feelings without becoming lost in them.
  3. Communicate both her observations and her feelings simply and directly.
  4. Contain her feelings enough to hear what Jeff had to say.
  5. Work with her son to create a workable framework for the future.

Our emotional feelings are as much our responsibility as our physical feelings. If we feel pain, we have to look at that, figure out what hurts and why and deal with it.

I’ve had a number of difficult interactions with kids recently where I felt a bit like Nancy up at her bedroom window, although my response wasn’t fear. More like offense, feeling disrespected and taken for granted. The weedy response is to act out and thrust the feelings back at the kid.

Note to self: How to uproot mean weeds of unkindness to students.

  1. Observe accurately.
  2. Feel and own my feelings.
  3. Communicate my observations and my feelings.
  4. Contain my feelings enough to hear what the student has to say.
  5. Work with the student to create a workable framework for the future.
Take 'em right on out.

Take ’em right on out.

I’m glad to write this out and put it where I can find it again, because I’ll need to remind myself.  Weedy feelings make me stupid and forgetful.  Weeds crowd out the other plants and try to take over the whole lawn.  Plus they keep coming back, so you have to break out the weeding tool again and again.

I don’t know what the economists who want to institute Value Added Measurement think it means to teach, but what it really is is offering up what you have to kids who may or may not see its value. It feels really personal. You give them what you have and if they don’t want it, it hurts.

Earlier this year I typed up a particularly, remarkably beautiful sentence from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and photocopied it multiple times on a page, then cut the sentences apart so there was one per slip and gave them to the kids. I told them that a really good way to expand their toolkit of syntactical effects is to take a masterful sentence and replace all the nouns and verbs to match some observed experience of their own. I pointed to this model sentence as a minor miracle and suggested they try the exercise. It was, to my mind, like offering them a piece of candy, like those chalky mints they used to have in cut glass dishes at restaurants when I was a kid, and we’d grab a big handful, as big as we thought we could get away with when our parents weren’t looking, to munch on the way home in the station wagon. Only better.

At the end of the day, there were great drifts of the slips left behind, as much as to say, “As if.” No sale. Who is she kidding? Ha. Joke. Teachers are lame.

I felt hurt and sad and a little ashamed of my own naivete. I wanted to have a fuss, too, and yell at them for being the swine before whom I’d cast my pearls, or rather Warren’s pearls.

I now see my reaction as a weed, as one of those natural sources of pain that only hurts because I’m seeing it wrong. Just as calling a parent to tell on a kid in a fink-him-out way prevents trust and progress, so does minding that students aren’t going to embrace everything I bring them cause me pain and them guilt.

I don’t quite know the antidote to this kind of pain. It springs from the desire to give them good gifts, but what can any teacher know of what those unique kids actually need? Do you get mad at your friend’s toddler if he doesn’t play with the toy you bought? In that case, you know that your gesture was the most important thing and the toy was merely the vessel for the love.

So why is this so hard in the classroom?


Bonus: here is the sentence:

“Across the street lay the little park of trampled brown grass, now glistening with moisture, where the bums sat on benches and the pigeons cooed softly like an easy conscience and defecated in little lime-white pinches on the cement around the fountain.”

How you do that, RPW?

How you do that, RPW?

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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