Archives for the month of: October, 2015

There.  I’ve gone and said it.

Now that President Obama has admitted that there is too much testing (although he has ducked saying that he, and President Bush before him, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, plus Arne Duncan all caused the testing overload) and has suggested that we cut back (although his recommendation that kids spend 2% of their time on standardized testing is still far too much) and that we reduce the amount of weight we give to standardized tests when judging teacher quality, I feel it is safe to admit that I have no idea how to raise test scores.

No clue.

Although I do know how to teach kids to read, write, think, and take an interest in the world around them.

When I was a little girl, my father, who was an older father, nearly age 42 when I was born, used to enjoy saying in the most enticing, quietly thrilled voice, “You’ve got your whole life spread out before you.”  It felt so exciting to hear that.  I couldn’t imagine what my life might contain, but I knew it was going to be full of wonder– I could tell by the sound of his voice.

That’s what I feel when I look at my students.  I want them to know that the world is a fascinating place of unimaginable complexity and that no matter how much they learn, they will never know more than a tiny fraction of all there is to know.  What they don’t know will intimidate them and they will shy away from it, as we all do, but out of that not-knowing is where the learning arises.

That’s what I teach them– the anti-testing mindset.

Try bubble-testing that.

Try bubble-testing that.

Bucks County has a new poet laureate.

Well done, Tyler!

Well done, Tyler!

The youngest one ever and he was so generous as to name and cast light upon the teachers who inspired him.

A reporter for our local paper (whose article appears below) asked me for an anecdote or reflection on Tyler and his career at Central Bucks West High School.  This is what I sent to him via email:

Tyler told me after he graduated the one moment that most stood out for him of his time in my class.  It was a beautiful spring day and I was teaching them “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost.  I recited the line “Nature’s first green is gold,” and pointed out the window to the exquisite oak trees so generously planted by far-seeing benefactors when West was first built, where the leaves were just emerging, and I said, “See that?  That delicate pale green?  That is what Frost is talking about.”  Of all the things I taught them, that is what lodged in Tyler’s heart and mind.  Perhaps you can use that anecdote in your article.

As a side note, and because I am always trying to show people the difficult, onerous, skilled, and immensely rewarding work that teachers do in this age when newspapers including the Intel are bent on excoriating teachers, the above vignette is precisely what we aim to do.  We teachers say beautiful, true, and useful things every day, all day, yet we never know until much later and frequently not at all, which ones have taken root in our students.  And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the contempt of the public.

(Notes to self: quit using the word “excoriating.”  It’s becoming quite a habit.  Also, don’t you think that maybe that last sentence is just the merest bit pretentious?)

I was surprised and pleased to see that Mr. Gianficaro used that sweet anecdote of a budding poet connecting words to reality all in a heady rush– and even tipped his hat to the hard work we do.  To the planting of seeds!

Here is the article:

Chalfont poet flourishing from seeds of inspiration

By Phil Gianficaro, News columnist

His is an old soul. His words flow freely to paper from pen, arriving chipped and weathered despite the author’s brief time in life’s storm, belying the short stretch of road he’s traveled.

Tyler Kline, age 22, basks in his moment now. The Chalfont native and senior at the University of Delaware was recently named the youngest poet laureate in the 39-year history of the competition in Bucks County. The official celebration will be Nov. 15 with a poetry reading and reception at the Bucks County Community College campus in Newtown Township. His 15-poem chapbook, “As Men Do Around Knives,” will be published in May. His dreams have come quickly.

The honor elicited in Kline a mix of shock and joy. He excitedly shares what inspires his poetry – the living and growing up in a quaint town in a rural county. His poetry illustrates the wide slice of life that can be seen from a farm boy’s front porch.

When Kline is asked about being named poet laureate so early in his life, he extends thanks to those who chose him. He mentions his own work, sure, but mostly talks about others. He credits his mom, Janice, a former principal at Copper Beech Elementary School in Abington, for establishing the framework for him to learn to write well. He lauds those who boosted him to such heights so soon. As the spotlight rightfully finds him, he tilts it toward those who first noticed his promising wings and pointed him toward the sky.

“My teachers at (Central Bucks) West also have so much to do with my ability and my success,” Kline said. “When I was a senior, I had AP lit and a creative writing course with Mr. (Rob) Trachtenberg. He made poetry really accessible, and it engaged us all. He showed us contemporary poets and styles of poetry that were foreign to students. He showed us experimental, fresh types of writing that inspired me.

“And also Mrs. (Katherine) Semisch, who I had for English at West, who exposed us to poetry. I still meet with her, and Rob visits me from time to time at the organic farm, Barefoot Gardens, behind Doylestown Hospital where I work. I experienced a real connection with these teachers and all they taught me.”

Semisch remembers that beautiful spring day she was teaching her class “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” the Robert Frost poem that projects a fairly comprehensive vision of experience, and one included in a collection of poems that won him the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

“I recited the line, ‘Nature’s first green is gold,’ and pointed out the window to the exquisite oak trees a where the leaves were just emerging,” she said this week. “I said, ‘See that? The delicate pale green? That’s what Frost is talking about.’ Tyler told me after he graduated that was the one moment that stood out for him of his time in my class. That’s what lodged in his heart and mind.”

It ranks among the great unknowns in school classrooms. Teachers plants seeds of inspiration, uncertain if they’ll take root. If they do somewhere down the road, the bloom often occurs around a curve, beyond their view.

One wonderful exception is Tyler Kline, who accepts his trumpeted celebration and chooses to share some of the notes with those who planted the seeds.

For Kline, it all goes back to his teachers at West. He hopes to someday return there as a secondary English instructor. To stand beside those who inspired him. To proudly call them colleagues.

And to plant some seeds of his own.

Yesterday I tried to persuade my AP students that the passive voice will make their sentences soggy and flat.  Some sat stony-faced.  Kids who have always gotten good grades (in grades k-11) don’t much like to hear that they’ve been doing it all wrong.  I found myself saying that if they looked it up (they won’t), they would find unanimity on this point among writing teachers.  When you can, use the active voice unless you have a really good reason not to.

Sometimes you want to conceal the subject.

Sometimes you want to conceal the subject.

But how can they know how right I am?  When I’m really right, I mean?

It’s like teaching them about cliches.  They haven’t been around or read widely enough to know that we’ve heard all we want to hear about hearts beating like drums.  They come up with these things spontaneously and it’s sad to learn that your genius phrase wore out before you even got here.

So we painstakingly try to rip their illusions from them as gently as we can, establish our credibility, and hope that they see what great sense we’re talking.

For me the breakthrough came when in high school I read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”  I roared through it, put it down, and felt an overwhelming sense of the work ahead.  Orwell showed me that all my life I’d been writing rubbish, most especially when I thought I was being clever and original.  It was a crushing defeat that felt fabulous.  I felt that I’d finally found the true path.

I think I’ll give my AP’s Orwell’s bracing diagnosis today.  Poor things.  But at least they won’t have to take my word for it.

Maybe they'll trust a real writer.

Maybe they’ll trust a real writer.

Today, teaching The Odyssey, I had a little lightning bolt of thought.  I was trying to explain to my seniors why epics start in the middle of things.

My father was born September 18, 1917.  He was 9 years old when, so the story goes, he went to get a haircut and he heard that Lindbergh had been sighted over Scotland (I might be making Scotland up, but he was sighted somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic).  Imagine the feelings of those who hear that news– as it was explained to me on more than one occasion– the world suddenly felt a lot smaller.  One man could get from the East Coast to Europe through the air!

But also– as it was explained to me on many occasions– a number of men had already tried and failed.  Attempting this flight was old news, much to the grief of the mothers of the daring young men.

Lindbergh’s triumph began not when he designed The Spirit of St. Louis, and not when he took off, full of hope, but when he looked as though he just might make it.  Death averted, history in the making.  .  .  the world tuned in “in medias res”– in the middle of things, to participate in the glorious finish.

And so it is with epic heroes.  Their humble beginnings only matter when they near their illustrious accomplishments.  What’s the point of hearing of Odysseus’s journey if we don’t already know that Penelope is faithful and that he will return home to her?  The ending justifies the beginning– and this is what makes fiction so satisfying, as opposed to life, which must be lived forward, even if only understood backward.

And this is a signal fact about all our lives.  We feel that when we happen on the scene, that is when it all begins.  We are the generation.  This is the world.  I see it in the faces of my students:  this is not just a time, but THE time.  It’s now!  And I’m in it!

But we live in medias res, whether we know it or not.  I wonder: does knowing that we are merely passing through, that the world was here before us and will go on after we’re gone, depress the spirit or enlarge it?

Epic heroes are just passing through, too-- but they leave a legacy behind them.

Epic heroes are just passing through, too– but they leave a legacy behind them.

A parent in Indiana, Cathy Fuentes-Power, made these remarks today to her elected officials:

This educational environment has become a pressure cooker for our kids and teachers because the legislature has decided that somehow educators weren’t accountable enough. The learning and teaching process has been transformed into a test-taking, data collecting nightmare to somehow prove accountability… at the root of which is an apparent deep distrust of teachers.

She is absolutely right– but I wonder why?  Why do people distrust us so?

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Katherine Good

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