We’re far enough into the year to see the end of student teaching for you, but can I say? I continue to struggle. I feel at war with fourth period. So many students in fourth period have problems from the news: illiteracy, apathy, goldfish memories, hummingbird focus… I asked to see Yourhigness’ assignment the other day, but he wouldn’t show me the paper. At first he was preoccupied eating a carton of macaroni salad and egg rolls over the corner garbage can, but when he got to his seat he still wouldn’t show me. He covered the paper with his arms. “Part of my job is to monitor your writing,” I said. He held the paper up and said, “I’ll read it out loud.” After two or three sentences of reading, he looked me in the eye and kept talking as if the words on the page had slid off the edge and were dangling in the air between us. “Are you reading?” I interrupted. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m reading.”
I’m writing from a Saturday class I have to take to keep my Career & Technical Education Certificate. (Journalism is cross-credited so I need both CTE and English endorsements.) I’m trying to pay attention to the instructor but keep thinking about the students we share, especially Yourhighness and Cordonte. I love that you took time during 4th period to talk one-on-one with Yourhighness and answer his questions about college: where you went, how to get in, the cost. Forging relationships like this will make your teaching more powerful and our students’ learning more meaningful, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here: spend some time focusing on what you want to know.
My teacher just said, “Sometimes I think I should go back to teaching high school and relax.” Ha! After he told us about a Hawaiian vacation. Other than this once-a-month class, what else is he doing? Lugging elk meat through the North Cascades? I’m 20% of the students here. It’s Saturday. How did I get in The Breakfast Club?
Anyway, onto your questions—starting with the easiest and ending with the hardest.
What are some of the best methods for communicating with parents?
For five years I taught in a mid- to upper-class community where a few parents did not respect teachers because parents could not imagine their gifted children pursuing a career in teaching. Comparatively, many parents in the low-income community we share now view education as a “way out” for young people. I see this respect for the institution of education extended in their children; courteous students step out of my way in crowded school hallways and help me carry items from my car to my 3rd floor classroom. Somehow, these young people have come to understand that teaching is an important, difficult job. At my old school I sometimes felt like a pseudo-professional; the best work I did was writing letters of recommendation to other places. ¶ I outline these attitudes not to reinforce community stereotypes but because I think it’s important for teachers speaking at parents conferences and Open House, participating in after-school meetings, and making mid-semester phone calls home to keep in mind whatever knowledge they have of their adult audiences. Avoid Stereotypes, but Know Thy Audience. ¶ I am not great at communicating with parents. My friend Chris, a middle school science teacher, is more thoughtful and proactive than I am. Before issues with students arise, he decides which issues need to be communicated to parents, which agreements need to be documented and shared, and which goals need parental support. I usually call home when I have to. ¶ One thing I do: when I’m having a bad day and my students seem like satan’s spawn, I call three or four parents of improving students and talk about the progress I’ve seen. Sometimes I do this after making negative calls, especially if the bad news has fallen on the ears of helpless parents who don’t know what to do, or scary parents who don’t seem capable of controlling their anger. I hate hanging up the phone and feeling like I’ve woken a sleeping giant. Taking ten minutes and calling a few parents with nothing but good news makes me feel humane while driving home.
What do you gain from professional development?
If I’m at a workshop or professional development day and daydreaming—that’s a hypothetical scenario, of course—I sometimes imagine getting revenge on the people who organized the thing. I spend a few minutes remembering the poem “Report of the Fourteenth Subcommittee on Convening a Discussion Group” by Marge Piercy, in which the speaker longs to stand on the conference room table (the long table where nothing much happens), swing a double-bladed ax, and shriek, “You shall do as I say, pig-bastards!” Then I spend a few minutes remembering the Susan Cataldo poem, “The Committee,” about a committee convened to “look into the air.” The committee oversees and regulates the air quality in an office building but sometimes ends up sitting on clouds and staring into space. This is because “looking into the air” is what they do. ¶ I think every committee should be like our colleague Will’s “Meet Only Once Committee.” After the committee meets once and makes a host of meaningful decisions, the committee is dissolved.
Quick run-down of what you’ll experience on a typical professional development day: You’ll talk about Marzano’s high-yield strategies, Danielson’s instructional framework, competency based objectives, interdisciplinary connections, international mindedness, and numeracy—and how to embed each into grade-level assessments that meet Common Core standards, the school’s “four essential questions,” unit themes, and more. You’ll get a copy of Harry Wong’s The First Days of School HORRIBLEST BOOK EVER and participate in a conversation guided by a protocol that relieves the instructor of the unenviable task of facilitating conversation in a room of skeptical, impolite teachers. Administrators will like the protocol for its structure. Teachers will talk at tables about the topics they usually talk about. The facilitator will remind the group each table must share their ideas with the group at large, and many teachers will look around and touch their fingers to their noses. ¶ Days like that are hard to forgive. One day this past August, I thought I was in for it. The facilitator broke everyone into teams and asked team members to read the task printed on each two-page worksheet. I read it to my group: “Connect 21st century themes to targeted mathematical practices aligned with district standards to create a lesson plan for your students,” I said. “Be sure to include language objectives, career applications, set-up information, lab organization, content-specific manipulatives, leadership opportunities, cooperative learning expectations, relevant vocabulary terms, and optional activities for advanced and emerging students, including formative and summative assessments. Please detail your plans by providing rubrics and scoring criteria. Do this for every class every day. Due tomorrow.” I looked at the group. “Just kidding!!!!!” I kind of yelled, “but not really!!! I made up the part about tomorrow.” One of the more serious teachers said, “Well, I guess we’ll start with 21st century themes.” Another teacher proposed creating a lesson on the global impact of iPods. After about ten minutes, the facilitator said we should prepare to present our ideas to the group at large, and we looked around and touched our noses. ¶ Here’s where it gets good. I couldn’t believe what some of the groups came up with: 1) How Tall is This Room? Use a klinometer to discern the height of the building from the carpet to the ceiling… Discuss how plumb line determines the angle of rise. 2) Pink Slime! Calculate how quickly the smell of ammonia travels from a bucket across the room to your nose… Open all windows to stall drowsiness. 3) My iPod’s Global Impact: Create a podcast exploring the 5 W’s of your mp3 player. Include writing that explores the truth of your conjectures. 4) Two Dollars For That? Justify the price of Arizona Tea in the student store. Discuss relative and comparison pricing as well as price elasticity in the context of supply and demand. ¶ Pretty sure that room contained a few angels—real angels, mind you, not the kind who sit at long tables in the sky and look into the air.
For the record: I hate this Saturday class, and I hate the teacher. As if hearing about the Hawaiian vacation wasn’t enough, he further aggravated the group by disparaging women. “Those ASB cashiers can be some hairy-chested women,” he said in the middle of a lecture on the importance of accurate bookkeeping in public schools. Less than an hour later, as an addendum to a PowerPoint called “Coordination Techniques for Worksite Learning” he forgot he was giving, he said he dislikes immigrant workers taking jobs from American teenagers. Let me repeat: He said he dislikes immigrant workers taking jobs from American teenagers.
I think this man thinks white teenagers are super-eager to harvest Washington apples but Hispanic boys swoop into orchards and push white kids off of the picking ladders. I hope the other four people in this class don’t associate this man’s racism with programs like Worksite Learning which, as I understand it, enables students to get classroom credit for working jobs outside of school. While such programs have their detractors—philosopher and ed-reformer John Dewey wrote in The New Republic that “The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime. I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that”—many students contribute to their household incomes and stay in school because of Worksite Learning. I’m not sure what Dewey or my Saturday class instructor would propose as an alternative for students like Viviana, who comes to sixth period and still works in the afternoons and babysits on weekends.
What are some good ways for a teacher to relate to students and develop camaraderie?
Answer 1: Don’t stereotype students. Don’t label kids. This is easier said than done when labels are clever: frequent flyers, squeaky wheels, fence sitters, scene stealers, lost boys, grade grubbers, wallflowers, knuckleheads, sparklers, the Microphone, the Cling-on… avoid good labels like “treat providers,” “stapler fixers,” and “pen lenders.” Too often teachers act like everyone else, operating in the realm of generalizations and nicknames, believing they’ve seen every “type” of student. We haven’t. ¶ Some of us have seen thousands. Maybe many of us have… so how should a teacher balance the brain’s tendency to categorize and draw conclusions with the need to see students as individuals? In her semi-autobiographical Up the Down Staircase, the hilarious and humane Bel Kaufman calls her students “desk despots,” “blackboard barons,” “classroom Caesars,” “Lords of the Loose-Leafe,” and “repeatniks,” and still manages an incredibly compassionate portrayal of young people. She strikes that balance. She reminds us the shorthand of labels doesn’t have to negate the distinct and defining characteristics of individuals. After all, it’s not the words of the labels themselves we want to avoid but the mentality of typecasting employed by weak-willed teachers who can’t distinguish between casual copy-room abbreviations and the thoughtfulness and compassion required to turn a room of teenagers into a community. ¶ Have I told you about Manuel, the boy who sneered during my lesson on sarcasm in September and gave me a rotten, mushy apple? He held out the apple and said, “This is for your teaching.” A few weeks later he asked me to watch him play piano at a talent show. I went, and when he got on stage, his fingers danced across the keys, improvising to the rhythm sections’ chord changes. Afterwards I complimented him on his suit jacket, his fedora, and his playing. Blushing, he said his mom shaved a line on one side of his head during a haircut that afternoon. He hid the mistake with the hat. I could no longer be mad at Manuel.
Answer 2: Remember what it’s like to be a student. ¶ School is not easy. Students are expected to sit in tiny spaces while teachers pound their fists on front-row desks and make exclamatory remarks using content-specific vocabulary. And for some reason those tiny student spaces are inversely proportional to the young people who inhabit them. Have you noticed? Kindergartners get long tables surrounded by plastic chairs in primary colors and oversized velvet beanbags for silent reading. Years later, college students get plastic chairs about the same size as those primary colored chairs from kindergarten with the added accessory of fold-over laminate desktops. ¶ Students come to us from a fantastically weird millennium where everything is made of sugar. They listen to Katy Perry confections in their headphones during passing time and quaff “energy drinks” that come in 24 oz. black cans decorated with animal scratches and neon thunderbolts during lunch. The other day I looked at a student sipping the devil’s water in the hallway and asked, “Really? Before class?” The student patted the pocket of his jacket, let out a long burp, and said, “Don’t freak out. I’ve got another.” ¶ Of course, I come from a weird place too. When I was in high school, I raced home from cross-country practice to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation. I couldn’t wait for Lwaxana Troi’s Betazoid wedding ceremony in Ten Forward. I didn’t know anything about bongs made from apple cores or sex before the age of twenty-seven. None of that mattered to me at the time because I was going to get the Forever Scholarship, a scholarship teachers and counselors had been telling me was coming my way for years. (“The Forever Scholarship works like this,” my trustworthy high school counselor told me. “As long as you study hard, get good grades, and avoid weed, anonymous donors will pay your college tuition and your room and board and you will have no worries forever. That’s why we call it ‘The Forever Scholarship.’ It’s what the fates-of-justified-efforts decree. Those fates also say, ‘We will publish your middle school poetry and finance a year-long national tour of coffee shops packed with intellectuals hungry for the unexpected sadness of your middle-class adolescence.’” ¶ I believed it all. I bought the Dream one hundred percent. Maybe that makes me weird. Maybe that makes me like my students. Maybe that’s why my students and I get along. We understand we come from different and similar places.
Too much empathy is as bad as too little. I see some teachers open their doors during lunch so students can eat in their classrooms. Those teachers say they’re providing safe spaces for at-risk kids. I’m not that nice. My take is: I’m an adult, and for most of the day I interact with youth. I should take my lunch and let the kids have theirs. Lunch is its own education. I can show students empathy the other seven hours. ¶ Too much empathy is as bad as too little. I am okay with students saying, “You fall asleep in Mr. Smtih’s class, you fall asleep with your eyes open.” I am okay with being mean. If I spot a glow in the back row, I have no problem confiscating a phone, holding my hand out and waiting. The Blind Text may be blind to the texter, but the effort isn’t hidden. I see the turning and stretching. I hear the purse rummaging. ¶ The other day when I walked into our room after conferencing with David Nguyen about “resisting the urge to walk around the room,” I saw you standing in front, saying to the group, “I can stay after school to get this stuff done. I don’t mind.” I couldn’t believe you said this! Were you prepared to stay after school? I’m impressed by your fearlessness. Some of our students work best with teachers who have teeth, and you showed yours. I especially liked the way you moved about the room right afterward, cheerfully helping studentswith their work and distributing handouts as if you hadn’t issued a threat. Empathy Fangs.
Answer 3: Make the curriculum relevant. ¶ Does this mean updating the presentation and formatting of your handouts, tweaking the default font each year from Times New Roman to Calibri, from Calibri to whatever Word has next? Does it mean turning an essay on character development into a Facebook timeline? Does it mean forgoing term papers altogether and asking students to blog? Maybe comparing Beyonce’s lyrics and videos to the writings of Alice Walker and Sojourner Truth? Or converting Angry Birds into Algebra and using NBA and WNBA player data to teach Common Core math? Tweeting Odysseus’ indiscretions? Inviting egg-shaped robot teachers in to sing Chris Brown songs? ¶ I used to think “relevance” meant incorporating “conscious rap” in high school poetry units. I thought anything by Nas would keep young people engaged and focused. Now it’s Bambu. ¶ The Southern writer and essayist Flannery O’Connor is not a fan of relevance. “The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present,” she writes in “Fiction is a Subject With History—It Should Be Taught That Way.” “He will teach literature… and if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” Wooooooooooo! Can you believe her? “Don’t reach out to students,” she seems to say. “You are the arbiter of what students need to know. Start with distant and foreign materials. All hail the curmudgeon.” ¶ By contrast, I have been made to feel relevance in education is everything. Can I update the content and skills for tomorrow’s lesson? I should use Jersey Shore to teach storytelling. (Discuss how the show’s season three editors create a narrative arc from Ronnie and Sammi’s escalating abuse.) I should use Project Runway to introduce metaphor. (List the metaphors Michael Kors uses to disparage the work of the show’s designers.) Or maybe another “text”? Separate the head and the heart, the hand and the head, the body and the brain. The Gates Foundation and the federal government have gathered the papers for me to sign. As long as I’ve written the district, state national standards for the day on the classroom whiteboard and students have written a metaphor on scratch paper and dropped it in a cardboard box on their way out, I’m fine. ¶ When I sense learning lost on the altar of relevance, I channel my inner O’Connor and become curmudgeonly. Instead of asking, “What YouTube videos will enrich this lesson?” I ask, “How many classrooms in this school should be screen-free sanctuaries for studying the great writings and civilizations of the past, for finding what’s foreign and making it familiar, for looking through all that cannot be looked up—and how many classrooms should be hotspots for kidult and adultescent social media managers to share original content across multiple platforms?” As a curmudgeon, I have no problem answering my question: “A ratio of four sanctuaries for every one wi-fi hotspot is a good beginning.”
Learning is not always lost on the altar of relevance. Sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes engagement loses out to content; sometimes teachers should be more contemporary. When I walk by classrooms and hear teachers moralizing in monotone and witness students copying bullet points from PowerPoint slides, I want to film what is more likely than not a catastrophically sad waste of time and put the footage on YouTube as an example of what happens when teachers and students loiter too long in the basement of Bloom’s Taxonomy. ¶ YouTube would be great for sharing that clip with the world. But then… I doubt anyone would watch it because 1) no one wants to re-experience on YouTube what felt like torture in real life, and 2) everyone knows teachers need to sing, rap, and/or dance to gain any likes and/or views. ¶ Teachers who sing and dance get way more views! YouTube is a virtual minefield of teachers clapping, stomping, and otherwise falling over themselves in incomprehensible rumpuses of relevance. There are real teachers rapping about math (“The quadratic formula is the tool you use / when those prime quadratics have you singing the blues”), rapping about pysch and stats (“We’re giving you that real world that you need / plus a little something extra you be bumpin’ in the streets”), rapping about American presidents—wearing a baseball cap turned backward, rapping about American Studies—while rolling in the school parking lot on twenty inch rims, dressing up and singing from the perspective of Mary, Queen of Scots to the tune of J-Lo’s “Jenny From the Block,” dancing behind students as a kind of “You got punked!” gag, and more. Not that I’ve wasted any time on YouTube.
If you want a full film, check out Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, the 1993 Whoopi Goldberg movie BURSTING WITH BAFFLING RELEVANCE. Skeptical teen: “Look son, I think we should just 86 this choir thing. Some of us actually got reps to think about.” Skeptical teen’s friend: “Hey yo, word up. If we start wearing robes and singin’ hymns and all that, my homeboys gonna think we a bunch of punks.” how does Whoopi Goldberg deal with these “bad choir kids”? By reminding them how hard it can be to sing in public. In the end, everyone conquers their fears and performs “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and this makes everything perfect.
Did you know field trips are supposed to have chaperones? Field trips are also supposed to have chaperones. They are also supposed to have an educational purpose. Those are the lessons from my Saturday class. I’m feigning attentiveness by looking up from my laptop to the PPT slides and squinting as I type. I’m wondering how quickly I can transition from coffee to booze when I get home. The teacher keeps edging close.
Roll the credits.
Quickly: You’ve chosen to teach To Kill A Mockingbird ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS EVER EVERONE SHOULD READ IT and chosen old-skool methodology. Not book clubs or literature circles or independent reading journals… but one book (singular!) assigned to the whole class with every student reading the same page at the same time and talking about it as a group. I already know you’re going to have great conversations about institutional inequalities in small towns.
You said you fell asleep at your keyboard last week and by the time your husband shook you awake you had six single-spaced pages of the letter “K.” Were you copying and pasting CCSS standards into page after page of lesson plans—like I told you not to?
P.S. Every time I turn my back in 4th period, Yourhighness and Cordonte get out of their chairs to talk, and I can’t keep track of their whereabouts. Last week they pulled a prank while you were out of the room and I was teaching. Yourhighness came to my desk after I called for Cordonte to see me. I said a few sentences to Yourhighness as if he were Cordonte, and the class thought this was the funniest, greaziest thing. “That’s greazy!” one student yelled. “That’s janxy!” another yelled. (Urban Dictionary on “greazy”: “a combination of the words ‘greasy’ and ‘sleazy’; used to describe a person who is both of these disgusting attributes at the same time; most likely an older male.” Janxy: “resembling cheap, shitty garbage.”) I didn’t feel too bad because Yourhighness and Cordonte have called me other teachers’ names on several occasions, and the other teachers were white. Sometimes they call out, “Mister!” I gained back some cred with them today when Cordonte rapped some lyrics from the new Macklemore album between instructions, stumbled partway through, and couldn’t believe his ears when I finished the bars: “When everything is gold / who cares about the carats?”—and brushed the dust from my shoulders.
P.P.S. Now I’m thinking about race dynamics in the classroom and remembering one student saying, “I think we’re the only white people in this class. Except Mr. Smith. But he’s a teacher.” So I’m exempt from the category of “white people” because I teach? And because teachers are assumed to be white? Or perhaps because teachers have no race and are the color of water, like gods?