Students

Can Sci-Fi and Horror Save High School English?

toserveman

“IT’S A COOKBOOK!!!” An image from the Twilight Zone adaptation of “To Serve Man.”

A flying saucer lands on Earth and the alien race the Kanamit bring world peace and turn Earth into a paradise.  But they have a hidden agenda and it’s all contained in a book entitled, “To Serve Man.”

Little Anthony Freemont has psychic powers and uses them to make everyone who crosses him go away … or even worse.  People just have to constantly believe that “It’s a Good Life!”

Our narrator gets a call to get his snowplow truck out and along the way picks up a hitchhiker who initiates a conversation about a serial killer on the loose who has been killing hitchhikers.  He does this “Time and Again.”

A mysterious man who has been living alone in a castle for as long as he can remember decides to break free in search of human contact and light.  He is “The Outsider.”

George Hadley and his wife live in the perfect customized, automated home of the future.  Their children spend their time in a virtual reality room called “the nursery” and are very attached to it.  George thinks that they might be too attached to “The Veldt.”

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea that what I just listed are short summaries of science fiction and horror short stories, each with a plot that has its fair share of twists and turns, sometimes even waiting until the end to reveal that twist.  They’re also stories I have either used or considered using in my English classes.

A couple of months ago, as part of the work I’m doing for my adolescent literacy class, I gave two of my classes an interest survey that asked them about when they read, how often they read, and what they read, as well as what types of movies and television shows they like to watch.  You’d think that by January I would have known this by now, but aside from talking about superhero movies and the occasional blockbuster that most of us have seen or heard of, my students seem to talk more about what they’ve seen from friends on Snapchat lately than anything they happen to be watching or what video game they were playing.

When we did get a conversation going about television or movies, the subject would often turn to science fiction or horror, especially horror.  A number of them watched Stranger Things last fall (as did I) and a few had started watching it.  Many of them had seen the Purge films, and lately have been recommending Get Out (which I think my wife and I plan on seeing once we have a child-free night).  The survey results reflected that–teenagers like horror.

And everyone who was a teenager between 1979 and now just went “Uh … DUH.”

Now, I’ll confess that I’m not a horror aficionado, but I do like a good scary movie from time to time and I’ve seen all of the classics of my youth:  Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th as well as straight-up classics like Night of the Living Dead.  I think I’d also put Psycho in that box, although I can’t tell if that’s a suspense flick or horror.  Anyway, there’s something that’s been universal about being a teenager and plunking down your hard-earned lawn-mowing money to see whatever splatter-fest is in the theater.  To a lesser extent the same can be said for science fiction, as in some cases you’ve got your blockbuster sci-fic/fantasy/action movie (Star Wars, for instance) that a large number of students will go see, but not all of them will sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, or some other “hard” science fiction.

Anyway, that led me to ask why there isn’t more sci-fi and horror on my curriculum.

There’s definitely some dystopian sci-fi; specifically, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which I personally think is even more relevant in 2017 than it was in 1951 and not just because of the politics contained within (seriously, go reread it and tell me that it’s not a tech nightmare).  But beyond that, I didn’t have much, and when I took a course in YA lit last semester, we read a little sci-fi but completely skipped over horror, to the point where I wondered aloud why we weren’t really touching on the genre.  Oh wait … there’s Poe.  But Poe is well-covered territory in English classes other than mine, so with the exception of the poem “To Helen,” I don’t really touch the guy.  Frankenstein is taught in the twelfth grade course (in fact, when I taught twelfth grade, we read it), and Dracula is another text that is more AP-level.  And Stephen King I’d reserve for options on independent reading because of the pearl clutching that tends to go on during the more dirty parts of The Catcher in the Rye.

As a way to find whole-class reads in the science fiction/horror stable, I started looking for short stories, novels, or stand-alone excerpts from novels.  I tried to find things that were contemporary and found some great stuff (“Patient Zero” by Tanarive Due is freaking amazing), but as I kept looking, the stuff I found was either too sexually explicit or was way too above their level.  So I went to a place where I, as a teenager, found some great science fiction stories:  The Twilight Zone.

I asked “What Zone episodes were adaptations of short stories?”  After all, it seemed to work for “Lamb to the Slaughter” and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. That’s where I found, at a first glance, “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby and “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight.  And I know that what I did was a classic “read the story”/”watch the movie” bit, but it worked pretty well–the class found those stories to be “creepy” or “weird” and liked the twist at the end of “To Serve Man.”  They were able to handle the black and white of those old TV episodes and we even watched the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes of The Simpsons  (the one based on “It’s a Good Life” also features adaptations of “The Monkey’s Paw” and Frankenstein and has one of the best lines of the show–“Dammit, Smithers, this isn’t rocket science; it’s brain surgery!”).  And I have been slowly compiling stories that I may or may not use, plus looking into a couple of novels that might be worth it, including The War of the Worlds (which I have to reread anyway).

But, after 1000 words already, I don’t think I’ve really addressed my topic or thesis or whatever I’m supposed to be calling it (people stopped reading long ago anyway), which is why science fiction and horror are good genres besides their being in my students’ wheelhouse.  Well, if you look at even the laziest-written sci-fi/horror, you’ll see a host of literary devices: allegory, symbolism, metaphor, and universal themes about humanity and human nature.  You can even use them as mentor texts for descriptive writing, like I did with the first chapter of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (h/t to my father, who used to read it aloud to his marine biology class while playing the John Williams music).

None of these strategies, by the way, are anything new, but I think that when English teachers think like English teachers, we have a tendency to think that any short story used in class has to have “literary merit.”  Many of us have been moving away from this mentality in recent years, but I think that it lingers in the back of our minds, especially because so many of us love literature.  But science fiction and horror, with some few exceptions, has been marginalized for decades and never been raised to the level of “literary,” just as sci-fi/horror films rarely, if ever, win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  Yet some of the best discussions I’ve ever had, especially ones that border on philosophical, have come when talking about the consequences of actions in the context of a sci-fi/horror plot.

So as you’re planning for the next semester or year, dive into the realm of scary or weird.  Try out some short stories.  Find some old episodes of The Twilight Zone (which is streaming in various places), The Outer Limits, or even Star Trek (I kinda want to show “The City on the Edge of Forever” but need to build a lesson plan first).  Grab some old pre-code sci-fi/horror comics (you’d be surprised how many tackle important issues, such as prejudice), or simply start a conversation about horror movies in class and see what happens.  You might find it to be more engaging than A Doll’s House.

Oh, btw, there is a twist ending to this post.  High school English doesn’t need saving.  I just put that title there so people would read it.

This has been bad twist ending theater.  Good night.

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I Hear Your Voice, But Your Argument is Wrong

04 - Hack your high school

Prompt by John Spencer.

Next month, my advanced English class will take on their annual research project. In the past, we’ve had debates on issues important to them or they have researched the history behind a famous photograph, but last year (and this year), I have changed things up and started things off with a visual prompt that I swiped from John Spencer: Hack Your High School. List five things you could change about your school. We begin by listing what they came up with and then have an open discussion about it before moving on to the actual project.

That project is a collaborative presentation. A group chooses a topic, identifies the problem, and generates a viable solution. The research comes as part of finding proof of the problem and testing that solution’s viability, something that I emphasize in a brief lecture on how problem/solution presentation works: you have to not only identify the problem, but its cause, see who has the power to change things, and not only come up with a solution but consider as many logistical or cultural issues that may arise during the implementation process. I also note that one of my biggest pet peeves was people who either complain for the sake of complaining or offer a solution that is nothing more than a platitude or wishful thinking.

The presentations are graded on content as well as aesthetic. After all, good information can fall completely flat or get ignored when the audience is bored out of its skull (all teachers have experience with this). I give some recommendations–make sure that you and not the slide are the focus of the presentation, don’t just stand in front of the class and read bullet points, and make sure your slides can be and you can be heard from the back of the room. From there, I said they can do whatever they wanted, but with the knowledge that I would be asking questions after every presentation (and if all goes well this year, I might have an administrator or other teacher to make comments as well). We’ve been in the class together for 3/4ths of the year so far, so that last item is not to be taken lightly and they know it.

Last year’s presentations were solid and there was some real enthusiasm throughout the class, and I am hoping for some of the same this year. In looking back, though, I know that I need to work with my class on creating a polished presentation as well as refining some of their arguemnts. Still, in my first shot at this last year, I was impressed by a few things and have really come to see the benefit of a project like this.

1. Students gain an understanding of logistics. Last year, among the popular topics was being able to customize one’s class schedule more as well as more funding for the arts and non-sports activities, better school lunches, and solving our growing overcrowding problem. When offering solutions, many groups knew what could or should be done, but had a hard time working through logistical or financial roadblocks. It seemed that one solution put in place caused another problem or that “doing more with less” was not always easy. Some were frustrated; some saw a pathway via incremental solutions instead of focusing on the big picture.

2. Students want to be proud of their school. The idea behind this project is not “This place sucks. How do we fix it?” It’s more of trying to optimize what is provided for us and improving things for the future. A few students tackled issues such as sanitation and building construction and I specifically wanted them to come up with solutions that didn’t involve knocking the building down and starting over. In other words: can you work within the existing system to enact the change that will benefit you and future students?

To say that a place is terrible or a system is broken without really analyzing the hows and whys is a nice political tactic that will get you noticed (or even elected) but is ultimately a cop-out. Thinking within the system forces the class to thinkin more thoroughly about the school and their place in it. While some fo my class’s arguments last year came from a place of frustration, there wasn’t much throwing up of hands. In fact, a number of them genuinely wanted to improve the place and tried to find a way to focus their energy for the better.

3. The research is more solid. It shouldn’t be assumed that for a project like this, there is going to be more quality of research, but when I did this last year, there was. And I am not going to fling edubabble like ownership of learning or authentic audience at you. What I will say is that I think the research was better because as they looked at their topics, students narrowed them down to a specific process, and a specific process that is very common–after all, problem/solution was the process for just about every business proposal I ever helped write during my marketing days–and the topics were very localized. Getting the information needed could not all be done online. Some students had to interview teachers and administrators as well as students and many did field research of sorts by taking pictures. This provided more thorough information and actually made for better presentations.

4. Student voice is not all for one, one for all. Having been a publications adviser, I am a strong advocate for students having a voice. But I have found an odd sense of elitism within the #stuvoice conversations I have seen. Then again, I apparently misinterpreted the purpose of #stuvoice years ago when I wondered if they stood for everyone.

So the problem is obviously me.

Anyway, when some of the issues that my students were concerned about were brought up in a whole-class discussion last year, especially when it came to things like schduling, a number of students seemed tob e very dismissive of those who they perceived as “less than.” In fact, I actually wound up stepping in at one point and saying that they may not think that the students who, according to them, “don’t care about this place” matter, but the school serves everyone, so the solution that is generated must work for everyone as much as possible. I don’t know if I changed any minds, but I did want to point out that you canot solve a problem larger than yourself if you are in your own bubble.

5. Empowering students to use their voice isn’t enough. There was only one point last year where I found myself frustrated and arguing with a group. Their topic was parking and they were arguing that because the rules of parking passes are not always enforced, students should not have to pay for parking passes. It is unfair, it was argued, that students who did not pay and do not have a hang tag were not getting in trouble, which was a very fair and valid argument. However, I had one question: at 150 spaces and $25 per parking pass, the school makes $3750. If parking passes were done away with (or were free), how does the school make up the loss of that $3750?

This had not been addressed in the presentation and I honestly thought it was a legitimate question because very often schools are on a tight budget and that money goes to a general fund that pays for various amenities. Plus, $3750 is not a small amount of money.

However, the responses were all about how it was unfair how people who didn’t pay for parking were parking illegally, and I heard that so many times that I had to stop the discussion and not only restate my question, but make the point that regardless of whether or not students are parking illegally, the school is still making money because the pasess are prepaid and always sell out. In other words, you need to listen to the question being asked instead of claiming that life is unfair.

Which is really what it comes to, when you think of it. Truly empowering student voice is not just giving them a chance to say something, but helping them refine how they say it. Because if we want them to feel that they are being heard, they need to make sure they are speaking clearly when we’re listening.

Scar Tissue

One of the sentiments I see very often when people write about establishing relationships with students is that teachers need to show that they make mistakes and are vulnerable, and a lot of times that comes through sharing personal stories.  While I understand the ideas behind that, I am not sure that I completely agree because sentiments like that sound like they’re coming from a pretty, popular girl who is telling a less-popular, self-conscious girl that she shouldn’t be so self-conscious about her looks.  “Be vulnerable and tell stories” is the sentiment of someone who never had his vulnerabilities used against him or thrown back in his face.

One of my favorite essays of all time and hence, one of my favorite essays to use in my advanced English class is Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When The Other Dancer is the Self.”  I’ve mentioned it more than once and written about it more than once and that’s because it’s so well-written and generates some great discussions about how people judge one another based on physical traits or characteristics as well as the cruelty of children toward one another.  We discuss this essay in my classes via student-run seminars, so I don’t do very much talking except to either clear up factual questions the group can’t answer (although I have been known to jump in when things go completely off the rails).  But when it comes to this essay, it’s very hard for me to not say anything because of how the subject matter affects me on a personal level.

You can’t notice it unless you look very closely or meet me in person, but I have a scar under my right nostril.  It’s the result of a bicycle accident I had a few days after my thirteenth birthday–my face hit the handlebars of my ten-speed and one of my front teeth went through my lip.  For the first three years after the accident, the scar was very noticeable because the tissue had keloided, meaning that it had puffed up and instead of looking like most scars, it looked like an extremely large pimple.  Combine this with the fact that I had two false teeth, which I was wearing until my orthodontist completed the task of moving my other teeth over so my dentist could cap them with veneers, the school year following the accident (eighth grade) was a nightmare.  I wasn’t really popular to begin with and the comments I heard ranged from “Can you take your teeth out?” to “Why don’t you pop that thing?”  I even had one person offer to perform home surgery with an ice cube and an Exact-o knife.

I am hesitant to compare my experience to Alice Walker’s because that would be an exercise in ego and I would surely be taken to task for my ignorance as well (and rightfully so), but whenever I read and discuss the essay, I can’t help but make that text-to-self connection and notice at least some similarities.  We both had noticeable scars (hers was in the eye, the result of a BB gun), and both had corrective surgery sometime later (I went to a plastic surgeon and had a skin graft done between my sophomore and junior years of high school) that on some level fixed the problem.  Walker writes about how her grades improved and she excelled beyond that; I heard, “Oh, you popped it!” a few times before not having to hear much of anything else about my facial irregularities.

Still, the damage was done and it took being around people who didn’t know about the scar on my face (read: people not from my high school) to realize that everything would be fine. As a result, I came to terms with my scar and the insecurities that came with it, and the scar on my face stopped being the first thing about me that people saw, thought about, or commented on.

I should tell this story when we discuss the essay in class specifically because it dovetails so well with it and as I mentioned, it’s a good text-to-self connection moment.  And yet my experience with being pushed around and both aggressively and passive-aggressively ridiculed during my formative years makes me very hesitant to do so.  I still reflexively act as if anything I say can and will be used against me.  Plus, even though my students are intelligent, they are also teenagers and not all of them have the maturity to absorb or handle that amount of honesty, especially from a teacher.  Sometimes they do, and I have told a version of my scar story and related it to the essay and that seems to be a positive contribution to the discussion.  Other times, I’ve started to talk but held back when side conversations and chatter that weren’t going on began the moment I opened my mouth.  After all, why should I open up like that to people who can’t give me the respect of a single word?

I have no problem making and owning mistakes as a teacher (I think I’ve said “I’m an idiot” out loud more times than anything in class), but the vulnerability and soul bearing that I read about doesn’t come as easy.  There is a line between humility and humiliation, and controlling who you are as well as how much people see of you is just a demonstration of your own humanity as baring your own soul.  Scars are what they are for a reason–they remind us of damage and of pain.  And yes, they can remind them of resilience and strength, but it takes a while for some of us with the scars to discover that, and until we own those scars we shouldn’t be told that we have to reveal them to and share them with everyone else.

Don’t Break the Ice

I hate the first day of school.

That’s not a sentence you expect to hear from a teacher. In fact, if I said this sentence out loud in the confines of edutwitter, I’d probably get a ton of responses that wondered why I am a teacher, some platitudes that people would retweet, a few quotes in pictures, or be edusplained to by someone who hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom for more than five minutes since the 1990s (yet is a “Thought Leader” in education). So, for clarity’s sake, I’ll say it again.

I hate the first day of school.

Some teachers walk into the first day with the energy of those really chipper people who were your freshmen orientation staff at college. They want to do cheers and play games and willingly embarrass themselves by acting silly. In the lead-up to the first day of school, they burst with enthusaism about all of the money they spent on school supplies for the kids and how they’re so excited to meet all of them. And on that first day? Well, I guess you call it “teaching like a pirate” or something? I don’t know. What I do know is that they bring to their classrooms the enthusiasm equivalent of the pyrotechnics at a KISS concert.

I am not like that. It’s the second day of school and I was just in my advanced English class and we were doing some of our initial discussions of the summer reading (Into the Wild) and I was not a bundle of enthusiasm and rah rah this is exciting and teaching like a pirate but instead was just a bundle of nervous energy. In fact, the only thing that I will ever have in common with Lloyd Dobler is that when I get nervous, I have that talking thing … I just ramble on and try to fill quiet space/awkward silences with something so that the silence isn’t there. I know that I’ll settle down in a few days or maybe a week and will feel more relaxed in front of the students, especially as I get to know them more, but these first few days take so much out of me because I have to make a real effort to seem outgoing and wanting to get to know the students when my instinct is to put my head down and work quietly.

It’s not because I hate students or anything like that–I actually like spending my days surrounded by sophomores (most of the time, anyway). It’s that I’m way more of an introvert than I let on, and those people who know me well see a little more of my personality than those who are getting to know me. Not only that, I also tend to overanalyze my interactions with people I don’t know well or encounter in social settings. For instance, if I go to a party, I will spend the entire drive home replaying the entire evening and searching for moments where I may have done something stupid or embarrassed myself. And that’s pretty much how yesterday went as well. I spent my entire drive home replaying the day to see if I said anything or did anything that might have left a bad impression on my students and wondered if I handled every classroom management situation well. You know, on a day where we did introductions, went over the course guidelines and did a small activity.

Other people don’t have this issue. They will come home on the first day a little tired because they’re not reacclimated to the routine of the school day, but they will be so enthusiastic about the kids they’re teaching and feeling even more excited for the next day. I come home exhausted, with my voice shot, and wondering whether or not I have already ruined their lives because the first day was too teacher-centered or something. And yes, I realize that this isn’t all about me and it’s about my students and all of the other supposedly selfless things that teachers say, but I’m not afraid to admit that I constantly worry about what I’m doing and if what I’m doing is the right way to do it. And the time when that’s the worst? The first day of school. When we hit the middle of September and I’ve got my rhythm down and I know the students and their traits and quirks very well, I won’t have as much anxiety about all of this and I won’t feel so exhausted when I get home because I feel like I have to pretend that I’m that constantly psyched all the time.

I also won’t have to constantly remind myself that I can do this.

I have a lectern in the front of my classroom and taped to the top of the lectern are notes students have left me over the years as well as a Post-It with the phrase “You’ve got this.” Now, I wrote that and put it there, but I did it because it was one of the best things any colleague has ever said to me in my nearly twelve years of teaching. It was about two years ago and I was getting ready for our school’s Poetry Out Loud assembly; I was running around the stage area like a complete nutcase, stressing out over every little detail because I had about 600 students who were about to come in to watch eight of their peers recite poems for a contest. My partner in the assembly and someone who was one of my best friends here, saw that I was basically about to pop a blood vessel, put her hand on my shoulder, and calmly said, “Hey. You’ve got this.” And I know that it was probably just her way of trying to calm me down because I was probably driving her nuts, but it worked and any time that I am super stressed out or wondering if I’m screwing everything up, I take a moment and remember that.

Because she’s right. I’ve got this. And even though I may not be completely on point with my enthusiasm, cheerleading, or teaching like a pirate-ness from minute one of day one, I know that when it comes to the long game, I’m going to have no problems. And I guess it’s kind of my hope that someone is reading this post (not likely, I barely get any traffic here) and can completely identify with my nervous energy and the exhaustion that comes from being introverted and forcing yourself to extrovert until you are comfortable. I don’t see many discussions about that when I read about making an impression on the first day, which maybe is one we should have so that we’re not all nervous wrecks and feeling guilty about hating the first day of school.

Where are the other voices?

Back in the spring, my advanced English class was having a discussion about Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” and at one point one of the students leading the discussion asked a question and got a reply of “Oh well, I don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman.”

Now I usually stay back during class discussions because I want to let the students take the lead and see where it goes, but I was struck by the dismissive tone the student in question–a white male, by the way–had used when making the comment and when the group leading the discussion had a hard time coming up with a response, I said, “Well, of course you don’t.  Which is one of the reasons we read writers like Alice Walker.”

The discussion continued from that point and went pretty well, but that comment continued to grate on me, especially a few days later when a similar comment was made while several students in the class went off on a great thread about what it’s like to have parents who were immigrants or who live in a bilingual household.  This time, it was a snarky remark about how “this isn’t my experience,” to which I did my best to be diplomatic by offering up that it wasn’t my experience either (I’m a white kid from the suburbs of Long Island, after all), but I always want to hear these different stories and experiences from different perspectives.  And to the group running the discussion’s credit, they shut him down right away by giving him one of the most epic death stares I’ve ever seen before moving on.  I made a mental note to praise those students later while also making a mental note that the guy making those comments really needed to shut up.

Moments like this are what I think about when I read the latest tweet or post about the importance of student choice in reading and letting them read what they want to read, as well as the vast number of Dead White Male authors I have read and studied in my time.  I touched on why DWMs are a default setting years ago and have also gone on about how it does not begin and end with choice, although I want to expand a little on the latter.

I assign reading.  And I will readily admit this.  Yes, I am working on a way to incorporate more independent reading, perhaps through more informed choice, but I don’t think I will ever not assign reading despite what trend pieces and tweets say.  Why?  Because of what I detailed in the first few paragraphs of this post.  Like I said, I grew up on Long Island and my town was a very white suburb where the biggest problems ever faced were what to do with the kids who liked to drink the woods on a Friday night.  The books I was assigned to read in high school, while very good, had a very common demographic characteristic and the reading that I did own my own rarely strayed from the comics/fantasy/sci-fi realm.  While I did know of the existence of The Color Purple or The Joy Luck Club because they were boxes on the shelves of my local video store, I didn’t read anything by Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or any other non-white authors until they were assigned to me in college.

The reason?  Partly my own immaturity and sheltered view of the world, partly because I had no idea that they were there.  Perhaps I would have found them, but I have to say that maybe I would not have or I would have been dismissive of them the same way that student was if I had not been introduced to them and had gained the willingness to sit back and back and listen to those other voices and perspectives (and even then, Loyola College in Maryland was not a bastion of diversity).  So as an English teacher, I want my students to see, hear, and read the voices that are unlike those around them and try to provide a diversity of race, gender, religion, and sexual identity in the course concept.

Of course, this is not easy and I have not perfected it at all.  I am still having a hard time finding LGBT voices to share in class, and I could stand to just have more volume in that library, which is what I will continue to do as long as I’m an English teacher.

What I tell myself and what I am afraid to say

So the other day I got a message on Facebook from a former student.  She had just finished a placement test in writing at her new college and wanted to message me to tell me that she got a perfect score.  I congratulated her and wished her luck this year while also telling her that it’s going to be weird to not have her stopping by my room on a regular basis.  At some point during our quick chat, she said, “It’s because of you.”

I share this anecdote not to brag or hoist myself onto a pedestal, but because while I sent a message thanking her, my internal reaction was, “Really?”  I mean, I run into students all the time and am even friends with some on Facebook, but our conversations often have to do with catching up on how they are doing since I last saw them or heard from them or maybe something a little more random.  Most of the time, I walk away from the conversation feeling glad that I ran into him or her, and there are even times when I’m genuinely impressed by what they’ve been able to accomplish beyond their time in my class.

But over the years I have had a hard time believing that I really had a hand in that person’s success.  Their talent and their ability all comes from within and I just get the feeling that if their teacher had been someone different, the results would have been similar.  They still would have succeeded and still would have gone on to lead good lives no matter whose classrooms they passed through.

It’s the teacher’s constant existential dilemma–do I really make a difference?  Does it really matter if I’m here?

And then there’s the other dilemma–am I allowed to admit that I’m a good teacher?

Now, my internal monologue (as it was) probably just comes from my own feelings of anxiety and oft-bruised self-esteem, and I certainly am not indicative of most teachers out there.  And while I usually am proud of what I’ve accomplished, I learned at an early age not to express that pride too much lest I be called an egomaniac.  In short, this is my own hang-up that I’m expressing here.

But.

Whenever I read the comments on an article about teachers or teaching, I see people who want to set me on fire or run me out of town.  I’m their tax burden.  I’m a lazy waste.  I’m the source of the problem.  Whenever I go on edutwitter, it’s either platitudes in pretty boxes or statements about what I “should” be doing or what I “don’t” do.  I’ve even see Very Important Education Thought Leaders get in on the act and advocate all sorts of alternatives to what I do for a living, then claim to be supportive of teachers.  Everywhere I turn, it’s a reminder of what I’m doing wrong, and honestly, that gets to me.  I think it will get to anyone.

I realize that part of this profession is being humble and that students succeeding on their own is an indicator that they have received an excellent education, but I wonder when that translated into not being allowed to admit that you’re a good teacher.  I’m serious here–I’ve never actually said that to myself or out loud because I’ve more or less convinced myself that I’m not.  And I’m not writing this to fish for compliments or anything like that, just to say that I wonder if I’m the only person who goes through phases like this, where despite all evidence to the contrary, they think they’re not doing enough or not doing enough the right way.

I don’t wish to take credit for any of my students’ accomplishments. I’ve been fortunate and grateful to teach some amazing young people during my eleven years as a high school English teacher.  I’ve also had the misfortune of teaching some young people who were very much the opposite.  But I want to be allowed to take the opportunity to look at what I have done or how far I’ve come since I started teaching and say, if only to myself, “You’re a good teacher” and not feel that I’m being arrogant or putting myself before my students.  Maybe I’ll earn that one day.

Fear of Being Liberal

Last week, I watched the Democratic National Convention.  For the first time in what seems like many years, the party I follow and support inspired me.  I turned the television off each night feeling hyped up and even more ready to support Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency.

Yet something did not sit well with me.  I thought her acceptance speech on Thursday night was superb.  It was the type of intelligent, thorough speech that I have come to expect from her, to the point where the English teacher part of my brain clicked into gear and gave her an A+ according to my rubric.  MSNBC’s after-speech commentary group, however, seemed less impressed.  They called it a “good closing argument” but didn’t like how much of it was a response to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech from a week earlier–you know, even though the person who closes second always has the luxury of tearing apart the argument the other side just made.  The other complaint was that it did not appeal to Republicans and was “too progressive.”

Now I guess I should set aside that  had she done exactly what the commentators were criticizing her for not doing, they would have criticized her for not being progressive enough or not directly addressing Donald Trump.  Picking things apart to get an audience reaction is what cable news talking heads do.  But the “too progressive” comment bothered me because it made me think about how for a long time I’ve hidden my own liberalism.

Okay, I haven’t exactly hidden it away and pretended to have conservative views, making my support for abortion rights my dirty little secret or anything.  It’s more like I was a liberal hiding in plain sight.

I grew up in an extremely white, extremely middle class town on the South Shore of Long Island that while not wholly conservative, has its fair share of conservative-minded people.  I went to a Jesuit college in Baltimore.  I teach in a rural and “red” county in Central Virginia.  This means that many members of my family, some of my friends from high school and college, and many of the members of the community in which I teach are conservatives.  If you combine that with my general non-confrontational nature (read: I don’t like to upset people or get them mad at me), I tend to keep my mouth shut when it comes to politics.  And I’m especially quiet at work–yes, I will put a bumper sticker on my car for the candidate I support, but I only volunteer my political views if asked and even then, I don’t say much.

There is so much wrong with those last two sentences that I don’t even know where to start.  Okay, I want to start by apologizing, but I’ll hold off because i think a diagnosis would work better.  I’m quiet because of a combination of a few things:  fatigue from years of having my conservative friends imply that I don’t like America because I never liked George W. Bush and I didn’t support the Iraq War; years of hearing tales of teachers fired for their views or because they spoke up; people above and around me making blanket statements about having to “watch what we say;” oh, and that one time I did get into a political argument with a student and two of his friends went to guidance and said that I “made them uncomfortable” in class (the student simply came to me and we talked it out).

I have, for so long, been a fraud.  I have encouraged students to speak their minds and yet am a wimp about speaking my own.  i have repeatedly qualified or apologized for my political views so that I would not be accused by a student or parent of pushing “liberal indoctrination.”  I have kept my mouth shut in the name of being polite while so many others just went off without any regard.  And I even feel uneasy writing this because it is  whining from the very seat of privilege.

And yet, I worry about my fellow teachers as we head back to school in a very heated election season.  I have no problem calling out those students who are bigots or racists–I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again–but what about the student whose views are opposed to mine but clearly based on inaccuracies micsonceptions fed to them by their parents or friends?  Can I fully engage them in a debate without being sent to the principal’s office for making them feel “uncomfortable?”  And even if I do, then, so what …?  Some of the best teachers I ever had were the ones who shook up my views just enough to make me think twice about who I supported or what I believed.  I never considered it “liberal indoctrination” just like I don’t think it’s “liberal indoctrination” to offer up diversity in authors read in class.  And I don’t think that my views are “controversial” because they don’t line up with a section of the community.

Over the course of four nights in Philadelphia, I watched so many different people speak and cheer.  I heard the concerns and the voices of so many who didn’t look like me or lead lives like mine.  And I walked away thinking that not only this is the America that I feel proud to be a part of, but this is America and I’m proud to be an American.  That is neither a liberal nor controversial view or an opinion to be afraid of, and while I don’t think it should be a challenge to show it, I know I should be ready to accept that challenge.