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.


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.

It’s Time to Put Right All The Wrongs I’ve Done

I have finally confirmed my feelings of inadequacy.  You see, my whole life, I have nothing but a cook.  Furthermore, the people whom I give credit for some of my accomplishments in life are nothing but cooks as well.  And I feel like I need to address this because I owe an apology to some and am owed restitution from others.

First, I need to take my father to task for not literally being a chef.  He was an educator himself, so he should have known better than to simply cook dinner every night.  He should have taken the food he bought at Waldbaum’s every Sunday morning and come up with creative and innovative ways of serving it for dinner instead of merely cooking it up and serving it.  Just about every meal we had as kids featured a piece of meat that was baked or grilled; a grain such as rice or starch such as potatoes, which were baked, boiled, or microwaved; and frozen vegetables, such as peas and carrots.  Clearly, he was locked into the concept of compliance and did not rebel against the system that so oppressively dictated that he provide a nutritionally balanced meal for his children.  To this day, whenever I find myself serving a meal that consists of a protein, a green vegetable, and a starch, I feel an enormous amount of shame for only having been taught how to be a cook and not a chef.

My AA baseball coach, Mr. Dimino, was a huge reason I ever hit a pitch.  Prior to being on his team, I was not only able to make contact, but I was incredibly scared of anything thrown my way.  We all took batting practice once a week and whenever I was up, he’d whing the ball over the plate and shout the same reminders of what we’d practiced in previous weeks: stay in the box, hold the bat tight, watch the ball, swing before it gets to the plate.  And no matter how many times I swung and missed, he insisted I try again until my time at batting practice was over.  I used to be proud of the fact that in my first at bat in our first scrimmage that season, I doubled into right-center field and later that season would hit the only home run I would ever hit in Little League.  But now I know that’s not something to be proud of because I was taught using drill-and-kill methods that kept me in the bottom of the order and had he let me take ownership of my baseball, I would have been a more creative hitter.  Being a solid contact hitter is neither anything to be proud of or brag about, no matter how bad I was when I started.

I played the piano consistently from the time I was in the fifth grade until I graduated from college and during that time I had two teachers: Mrs. Stein and Ms. Klosterman.  Mrs. Stein taught me starting in elementary school until my senior year, with Ms. Klosterman taking over during my senior year at Loyola.  Much like Mr. Dimino’s batting practice, every one of my piano lessons started with my working through scales and whenever I started a new piece, I had to identify the key in which it would be played.  And while I often got to choose the piece I was playing, I was never taught how to write music.  I used to count playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata for my final recital in college as one of my proudest achievements in college, but now I realize that all I was doing was playing someone else’s work and not being a maker.  The lack of a maker space here means that I was cheated out of an authentic experience.

As a teacher, I clearly need to apologize for working within an abusive 19th Century industrial-based system.  I’m reminded of a student in my class a number of years ago (whose name shall remain anonymous so as to protect the dignity of my victim) who had problems with attendance and discipline that had landed her in my summer school class the previous year.  When she took my sophomore English class, we knew one another pretty well and I considered that a huge factor in her working hard and generally staying out of trouble.  When I ran into her on the last day of school that year and told her that her grade for the year was a C+, she gave me a huge high-five.  She has since graduated and I want to find out where she is so that I can tell her that I was wrong and she should not be proud of her improvement in her grade from year to year because grades are arbitrary, they send the wrong message, and don’t show anything beyond the accumulation of points for assignments that are quite often inauthentic and punitive.

The biggest shame, however, is that I have been ruining my own child.  Awhile back, I was a guest on a podcast called “My Star Wars Story” and when the host, Scott, asked me what Star Wars item I cherished the most, I told him that it was the Lego Millennium Falcon that Brett and I had put together.  My parents bought it for him when he was six years old and over the course of several weekends, we worked on the Falcon, eventually finishing it.  When he’s not playing with it, it has a prominent place on his toy shelves. Now all I want to do is smash it to pieces because of the harm I did him.  Can you imagine the cruelty of making him follow the directions?  It’s my failure as a parent to not let him create his own Millennium Falcon from scratch and I am a horrible person for thinking it would be cool to assemble the spaceship together because I’m excited that my son likes Star Wars as much as I do.  That’s not father-son bonding; it’s child abuse, plain and simple.

Thankfully, being a Connected Educator™ has shown me the error of my ways as both a teacher and a parent and I hope that I will somehow be able to make up all of this time I have lost and replace my false accomplishments in life with experiences and achievements that live up to all of the authentic innovative maker-based personalized creative endeavors that the 21st Century demands.

How do we help students through writer’s block?

Photo by Rennett Stowe.  Used under cc license

Photo by Rennett Stowe. Used under cc license

The second hardest semester of my college career was the spring semester of my junior year.  That was the semester where I took both creative writing: advanced fiction and writing for the stage and within a few weeks I was hit with a furious case of writer’s block.  Everything I came up with was utter crap and I struggled to put something together that I deemed worthy of being workshopped by peers and graded by my professor.  I eventually got a B+ in each of the classes, probably because I persevered, but I can’t say that I ever felt I earned it.

Looking back, I see that was the moment that i should have realized that my strength in writing was non-fiction prose, as I rarely if ever had a problem writing my weekly column in the student newspaper and even once resorted to the tried and true hack way of writing about writer’s block.  I have brought this up in my English classes on occasion when students are stuck because I want them to know I empathize–I have been there more than once.

Writer’s block can kill a developing writer’s motivation so easily that you as a teacher want to do everything you want to prevent those you teach from becoming even mildly frustrated.  You want to keep them constantly inspired to constantly reflect and share, and when you do that it is the only time you ever do your job the right way.  At least that’s what I’ve been led to believe.

Never mind, of course, that writing is about work and even the greatest writers hit walls, scrapped ideas, got frustrated, attempted to throw in the towel, and in some cases needed an even more capable editor to pull them out of whatever rut they’d dug themselves into.  Because as much as the inspiration maniacs will deny it, the reality of writing (and by extension, being a writer) can be harsh.

But as much as I think that persevering through a can be rewarding to a young writer, I don’t want to hang them out to dry because I want to help them see the reward that comes from such perseverance.  How do I as a teacher help combat writer’s block?

I’ve got five ideas.  They aren’t tested or proven using any sort of measurable data, nor are they comprehensive.  They are simply ideas.

1. Vary the assignment as much as you can. In teaching writing, you are working within a curriculum with a set of standards, so there are certain modes of writing you want your students to work on, especially if you also have the obligation of a state writing test in the spring.  But there is a difference between following standards and teaching to the test.  With the latter, you are feeding them state-provided writing prompts as practice all year.  With the former, you can have students generate their own topics to fit whatever you’re looking to cover.  They might enjoy it more.

2. Have a pile of backup prompts.  That being said, don’t throw out that state-provided list of prompts.  I have given students free reign on writing assignments before and while some absolutely love it, others completely freeze and actually wish they would be forced to write about something.  Before we start such writing assignments, my classes and I often do a whole class brainstorming session and I add what they come up with to a list I already have so if a student is stuck, i can offer suggestions.

3. Allow for conversation.  Sometimes, ideas come from having someone to talk to and “bounce ideas off of.”  Other times, what is in your head can’t seem to get to the page but you definitely can say what you mean.  It’s helpful to give young writers the time to talk out their ideas; heck, it’s helpful to give any writer the time to talk out his or her ideas.  I’m still learning how to do this with 28 students in the room without making it a cacophony for those who want peace and quiet, but I have encouraged students to talk to one another or to me and to take notes while doing so in order to jog things along, or to talk into their cell phones and record their thoughts (something I have done countless times with my MP3 recorder) out in the hall.

4. Limit distraction.  Yes, I work with music playing too, but I also write a number of drafts in longhand in a notebook because I find typing on a computer doubles my writing time due to the number of tabs I keep open.  Saying that my students should cut themselves off somewhat electronically does not make me an Innovative Educator, but one of the drawbacks of multitasking is that it makes it hard to get into the zone.  If you want to be productive there is a certain amount of self-discipline required.

5. Be the editor.  For the past couple of years, I have had seniors hand me draft copies of their personal statements for their college applications, asking me to “tear them apart.”  It’s because I murder their papers in sophomore English.  I don’t do this because I am sadistic; I do it because I have high standards.  What I also do is allow time for revision and rewriting.  Every paper that my students write is eligible for a rewrite for a higher grade, and when I give those paper back I try to be as clear with my comments as possible.  I also try and set deadlines that are reasonable so that we can both work well within them.  This does sound like a very traditional teacher role, but I see the back and forth with my students as more editorial than professional.  I can see wh

at they can’t and help them shape their pieces so they use their own strengths more often.

This is not a foolproof system, but I prefer it to being a taskmaster who constantly cracks the whip of assignments or a pollyanna who speaks nothing of rainbows, unicorns, gumdrops, and lollipops of inspiration.

There’s a problem with “What Teachers Make?”

So yesterday during my district’s annual convocation, the teacher of the year gave a short speech and she ended it by reading Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make.”  Well, she didn’t read the exact poem–it was a rather watered-down, cleaned up version, but the message was still there.  Most of the people in the auditorium knew exactly what she was talking about when she mentioned the title because I’m pretty sure at one time or another, we’ve all seen it.  It has several versions (Mali’s a spoken word poet and performs quite a bit), but whenever I do want to hear the poem I watch the following clip:

The video I linked to was posted in 2012 but I know it’s much older than that because I’m pretty sure that I heard it somewhere during my first few years of teaching.  I was pretty empowered by it at first but over the years its effectiveness on me has lessened a little, but that’s typical with a lot of performance pieces–you’re blown away the first time but once you see it again, you know what’s coming–and it hasn’t made me like the poem any less.  I will say, though, that a couple of years ago, I was watching the video (I had fallen down another one of my spoken word poetry rabbit holes) and the thought occurred to me that the edutwitterati would haaaaate him as a teacher because of the way he asserts himself and because he won’t let kids go to the bathroom.

No, I’m serious.  Here’s the part I’m talking about.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I’ve seen long, drawn-out Twitter conversations and blog posts that belabor the point about classroom rules and letting students go to the bathroom (my rule is simple: one at a time and you need a pass), and in the back of my mind, I was pretty sure that at some point, I’d see a takedown of Mali’s poetry.

This week, the Internet didn’t let me down because someone shared a post from June 5 by Bruce L. Smith, the author of the Write Learning blog called “What Does This Teacher Make?  Me, Frustrated.”

I embedded the link there because before you read the rest of this post, I’d like you to read that post.  It’s a well-written post with a lot of salient points.  I also think he’s missing the point and leaving out some things, though, and his tone throughout doesn’t really help.

In fact, I’m going to only briefly talk about how he repeatedly uses the phrase “conventional schooling” to describe the type of teacher of whom Mali speaks and whom loves this video.  It is incredibly condescending and serves to perpetuate one of the major problems in the national conversation about education, which is that teachers don’t know what they’re talking about because, after all, they’re just teachers.  I teach advanced English and general English (actual course names, not my labels) and if I condescendingly referred to the students in those general English classes as “General students” I’d probably hear it from a number of people (and rightfully so).

But let’s move beyond tone to the actual poem.  Smith talks about how the poem drives home the notion that our current system is one of saviors and martyrs, as if our students are the ones in need of saving and we will constantly fall on the sword and bleed for them, working for less and less as we’re asked to do more and more.  There’s definite truth here and the way people in my field act as if they’re saving the future of the country can get incredibly overbearing and I’m not a fan of the notion that I’m not doing my job unless a year in my English class can be turned into the next Freedom Writers.

Another thing that Smith points out is that Mali’s poem is another in a long line of pieces that perpetuate the “us vs. them” notion of teachers and students.  He cites The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as other examples, saying that they are “are celebrations of sticking it to The Man, those deadly dull and/or obsessively controlling educators who hold arbitrary power over us throughout our childhoods.”  On one hand, he is right; however, his point is a too simplistic look at those movies.  Yes, both movies are teenage fairy tales, but  Ferris is deliberate over-the-top farce, an exaggerated satire of suburban culture, so Ed Rooney has to be awful or else the movie doesn’t work.  And The Breakfast Club has significantly more layers than just being about “sticking it to The Man” where Mr. Vernon is concerned.  In fact, I blogged about that very idea a number of years ago.  Furthermore, those two movie examples are flawed because the educators who play the “villains” (and I use the word in quotes because I don’t think that Vernon is a villain per se) are not actually teachers.  They’re administrators.  Those are clearly two different levels of authority with two different job functions, and that is important to realize if you’re going to apply John Hughes to Taylor Mali (and to add: the two times you see a teacher in either of those movies–both in Ferris–the teachers aren’t authoritarian, they’re simply boring).

Let’s get back to the poem and do what we do in my English class, which would be to break it down and find what the poet is saying and how he is saying it.  Because after all, this is a blog about teaching English.  And I apologize for the length here, but whereas Smith cherry picks a few lines from the poem, I want to do the whole thing.  I’ve grabbed the text off of Mali’s website and have edited a bit to have it reflect the version given in the video at the top of this post.

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­‐kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.

Here is our setup.  Basically, the meat of the poem is a response to some jackass at a dinner party who decides to make fun of teachers, treating them as if they are some sort of unworthy peasant or plebe, second-class citizens.  What follows is a response that as you saw gets more passionate in tone and honestly … I’m not sure is meant to be said as a response.  I’ve come to wonder if this is not simply an internal monologue.  Now, based on his other poems, I don’t doubt Mali would go off on someone like this, but for the rest of us it might be like that scene in High Fidelity where Ian (Tim Robbins) walks into the record store and Rob (John Cusack) thinks of a couple of things to say and do to him but ultimately stands there and says nothing.  In other words, much like John Hughes movies are teenage fantasies about “sticking it to The Man” (as Smith puts it), “What Teachers Make” is a teacher fantasy about “sticking it to The Man.”

The rant begins …

You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­‐ feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question, so put your hand down.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go, do you?

This is the most quoted part of the poem in Smith’s blog post and it is actually where the teacher comes off as the worst.  The line about the bathroom is actually funny in an “I’ve been there” sort of way, and if you look at the groups/question/bathroom portion it seems like he’s talking about a study hall and not an actual class.  And study halls are different than actual classes.  But I might be splitting hairs here.

Anyway, the phrase that Smith also hates is “I make.”  Mali will use it several times over throughout the poem and Smith says that he’s taking a glowing pride in being forceful, ignoring the fact that Mali is simply using parallelism to get his point across.  The entire rant in the poem is a response to the question “What do you make?”  The use of the word “make” is obviously regarding salary.  Here, Mali is talking about what he does but uses “make” as a direct retort; furthermore, repeating “I make” several times is the very definition of parallelism: repeating the same phrasing or grammatical structure, which in speaking and argument is an effective way of not only getting your point across, but having your audience remember it (see Marc Antony’s funeral oration and the phrase “Brutus is an honorable man”).  Taylor Mali doesn’t want to force his kids to do anything; he wants to force the audience to remember his point.

He continues …

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
He said, “Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

Smith cherry picked the last line of this part without including what’s before it because if you look at those lines, it blows apart the argument of Mali being authoritarian and forceful.  He starts off thinking he’s going to be the jerk, making parents tremble in fear when he calls home, because most of us as parents associate calls home from teachers with bad news.  However, he turns it on his head and shares how he is proud of that kid for being compassionate and standing up for someone else.  If he cared about nothing else than being forceful or making kids do things, would he put this in here?  And those last two lines are about something we really try to do every single day–making a student’s potential something kinetic and helping them build up more potential.  And it can be anything, really.  I left high school English wanting to be a writer; I left high school Calculus not wanting to major in math or engineering but realizing I had the ability to accomplish something beyond my strengths.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.

I fail to see what’s wrong with this part of the poem aside from Smith’s assertion that “I make” is the wrong message (see previous paragraph concerning parallelism).  Question? Criticize?  Apologize and mean it?  So … critical thinking, thinking for oneself, and having empathy and a basic sense of human decency and manners are wrong?  And getting students to write and read and practice that to hone their skills and broaden their minds is wrong?

Also, there has to be a reason Mali uses the phrase “definitely beautiful” over and over beyond its natural rhythm.  Why isn’t he using words like harbinger, perspicacity, or denouement? Maybe because “definitely” is a word of confidence and “beautiful” is … well, beauty … and both of those words might have something to do with self-confidence?

And showing all your work and math and hiding it on your final draft in English is just what you do.

Let’s close it out (because I’m at 2250 words here and everyone already went “tl;dr”)

I make them understand that if you’ve got this, [points to head]
then you follow this, [points to heart]
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this. [flips the bird]

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
I make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

I will admit that I am not a fan of standing up in front of a group of people and proclaiming that I make a difference in people’s lives.  Internally, I constantly worry that I’m horrible at my job and that I am a terrible teacher and that what I do makes no difference–in other words, I have an ongoing existential crisis.  But I know that I’ve made some difference because students have told me.  So there’s that, right?

But the line makes sense because it fits with the tone of the rest of the poem.  It also is a flourish at the end–there’s a musicality to this piece where Mali is obviously building toward a big ending and is not going to give us any falling action or resolution.  It’s not “Bohemian Rhapsody;” it’s “A Day in the Life.”  And he’s getting more and more flustered as he responds to the guy from the beginning of the poem, so he has to be angry and he has to be self-righteous, or else the poem doesn’t work.  Does that send the wrong message?  Maybe?  Like I said, I can’t refute the notion that people get self-righteous; that’s human nature.

I can, however, close us out with an appreciation for a teacher.  When I started teaching, I was paired with an experienced teacher in my building as part of a mentor program.  Maria Glass had decades of experience and still had passion for the job as well as for her students.  Knowing her, I would suspect that the idea of having brains,following your heart, and giving the finger to anyone who tries to judge you based on what you make would be right up her alley.  I learned a lot from her about making sure you stick to what you believe in while also keeping your mind open to others’ ideas and that you help your students do the same because in teaching them how to be better writers, you’re teaching them how to express themselves better and hopefully prevent them from being ignorant their entire lives.  Maria retired a couple of years ago but is still very active as an advocate for teachers and has never once not stood up for what she believed in.  Moreover, she has former students who look at that and see a role model.  And that’s what Mali’s describing in that last sentence:  conviction.  Passion.  Pride.  Standing up for yourself.

As much as I scream “Stop Trying to Inspire Me” on a regular basis, teachers do need inspiration.  This might not be the perfect piece for it and each individual may choose his own way to get both motivated and inspired.  But you cannot refute the power of “What Teachers Make?” with a few cherry-picked quotes and a prejudiced view about “conventional schooling.”

Spark Notes exist and it’s all my fault

So last night, I was treated to a retweet of a video that was posted to YouTube back in 2010 called “Why Students Don’t Read What’s Assigned in Class.” It’s a video of high school students who are probably juniors or seniors talking about why they haven’t done the assigned reading throughout high school. The interviewer asked them what they did instead of reading the books, why they do that, and how to solve that problem. The answers basically were that they didn’t like being made to read books that they found boring and in order to get a better grade they usually used Spark Notes and b.s.’ed their way through discussions. Their solution to the problem came down to the simple concept of choice: when they were allowed to read whatever they wanted, they read more and it “made them better readers.”

While the video is nearly five years old, it’s presented in the same manner and with the same tone that I usually see or hear things presented from the average Connected Educator™: teachers are doing everything wrong.

Now, the idea of balancing a teacher’s interests, the curriculum’s interests, and the students’ interests is an excellent one and one that makes an incredible amount of sense; moreover, quite a number of English teachers will tell you that planning is often done with that in mind with varying degrees of success. Despite that incredibly obvious point, I think it’s important to explore this video a little more because the sentiments shown here are very often held in higher regard than anything someone who’s “just a teacher” could ever say.

1. Consider the source. The person who uploaded this video to YouTube is not a person at all; it is Heinemann Publishing, a division of Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt, which is one of the largest textbook publishing companies in the world. Heinmann specializes in professional development materials for teachers, including “Reading Projects Reimagined,” “Minds Made for Stories,” and “Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades.” In other words, this is not advocacy for a new method of teaching; it’s a sales pitch. It’s the equivalent of the Chewlees Gum representative giving an anti-smoking diatribe at the beginning of Clerks.

More appropriate to education, it’s the highly paid professional development speaker speaking to a packed auditorium about how the old methods are all wrong and there are new methods and he just happens to have books to sell that detail those new methods.

2. Everyone in this video is white and privileged. I took a very close look at the video the second time I watched it. It’s all shot in the same classroom because obviously, the person putting together was just talking to one English class. But the classroom is nice, clean, and modern with plenty of technology and access to technology as well as furniture that suggests someone spent money to create an Innovative™ environment and the teacher wasn’t stuck with desks that came with the school when it opened in the 1970s. Every student interviewed appeared to be the type of kid with money you’d expect to find your average upper-middle-class suburb. These students have the luxury of making this complaint, probably because none of them will struggle to pass a standardized test and all of them plenty of access to things like food, shelter, and clothing (let alone things to read). Furthermore, I can imagine the faculty isn’t under constant pressure from the administration regarding benchmark testing data and whether or not AMOs will be met, as well as a community that wants the budget cut even further because they view public education as a tax burden.

3. This is nothing new. Cliff’s Notes existed when I graduated high school twenty years ago. Plenty of people I knew used them. Furthermore, plenty of teachers knew they existed, had copies of them, assumed that students had access to them, and then planned around said Cliff’s Notes. I either own or have perused the Spark Notes and Cliff’s Notes of most of the works of literature I’ve taught and I challenge my classes to dig deeper than what’s in their superficial summaries and analyses. I’m not exactly impressed that a student can b.s. his way through a discussion; besides, knowing how to b.s. is an important skill you need to have.

I’ve also done independent novel units and it’s never as perfect as this video is trying to show. Many of the students who are excited about being able to read whatever they want are usually the same students who would have read the books and participated anyway. Students who were using Spark Notes or just not reading at all often found the way around choosing what they could read by simply picking something they’d read years before and remembered. Laziness is laziness, people.

4. There is a reason classic literature exists. The argument that “classic literature is dull” and that’s why you don’t read it is about as valid as saying you don’t listen to The Beatles or Chuck Berry because “It’s old” or you won’t watch a movie because it’s in black and white. I like my fair share of popcorn literature, but popcorn literature is called that for a reason and doesn’t stand up to a deep analysis or really show you anything incredibly insightful about human nature. If a teacher is giving you The Great Gatsby or The Odyssey, it’s because these are texts that have something about them that stand the test of time and still resonate with today’s audiences and it’s worth it to see why certain works of literature are timeless.

That’s not to say that we don’t reevaluate texts on a regular basis. There are books I read in high school that I don’t think hold up very well now (Great Expectations, for instance), but there are also books that I would readily share with my students and do every year (Fahrenheit 451). But the argument being made here is that classic literature is “long and boring” and that’s an immature view that is hard to take too seriously.

5. Stop being so deferential to students. Teachers don’t know every single want and need of their students, but we should try and do our best to find out and meet those wants and needs realistically. That being said, I should not be chastised for using my experience and expertise in my subject area when it comes to the materials that are used in my classroom. Relationships work two ways; so do conversations. That means that for as many great ideas that I can get from students, students should be able to get good or even great things from me.

Nobody benefits from a strict, rigid curriculum. Teachers need to be both open-minded and versatile in their planning. The thing is?  We know that.  What we want is to be given a little more credit.

I’d ask my Thought Leaders about rape, but they’re not talking

Last night, I had the privilege to be on a Twitter chat about Ferguson (h/t to @JessLifTeach).  It wasn’t the only tweetchat about the topic by any means, and I was glad to see a group of teachers talking about what they can do to talk to or teach their students about what has been going on.  Ferguson has come up a little bit, but it’s taken a back seat to a recent Rolling Stone article about rape at the University of Virginia.  This makes sense because we’re just north of Charlottesville.

If you haven’t read the Rolling Stone piece, it’s pretty grisy: a  first-year at UVA was gang-raped at a fraternity party by several fraternity brothers as part of some sort of disgusting initiation ritual.  This story is in addition another story on Jezebel about one student raping several girls and his victims basically being bullied out of school as a result.

#edchat yesterday was asking who the Thought Leaders are in education, a conversation that’s not only incredibly Orwellian in its concept but is an illustration of how Connected Educators are as out of touch with the real world as they say teachers are.

And of course, we aren’t.  We’re reading the news and talking about the news when we get the chance and doing our best to answer questions our students may have.  The problem is that it’s tough to answer those questions and talk about the story without fear of reprisal.  When a student brings up a hot, controversial topic and you want to talk about it with them, your head is bombarded with a mine field’s worth of thoughts.  Trust me, I’ve been there.  My advanced sophomores and I got into a heated discussion about the teaching of evolution a few years ago and two of them felt the need to go to guidance and say that I was “making them feel uncomfortable.”

So when someone, even an honors student, approaches the topic, I do my best to encourage the conversation but the entire time I’m thinking, “How do I stay neutral?  How do I not offend anyone in the room?  How do I keep this conversation civil?  How can I fit this into the curriculum?  How does this not turn into an angry parent phone call at the end of the day?”

Even if I did have a constructive conversation about rape with my students, it wouldn’t be enough.  What’s described in the articles is a cultural problem where boys of privilege are allowed to behave abhorrently and are excused for their behavior.  It’s wrapped up in victim blaming or worse, “tradition,” and it means that girls and women who are sexually assaulted are continuously afraid to tell anyone what happened to them.  And why would they?  They’re crying rape and ruining the lives of those “really nice boys.”  So I need to take a conversation about rape with students beyond a few minutes in my classroom.  How?

The classic response would be an assembly where you get a motivational speaker to come in and talk about why this is wrong.  You could even get news coverage for it.  It worked when that guy came and talked about bullying, didn’t it?  If that sounds cynical it’s because it is.  Those never work because every teenager in the room can see right through it.  Sure, some may come out with a slightly better perspective, but most will turn it into a joke and life will go on.  What’s needed is something along the lines of an actual curriculum.

That, however, is easier said than done.  Too many states have strict abstinence-only sex education policies and would probably rather bury their heads in the sand than acknowledge that: a) teenagers have sex and b) teenagers need to be taught and need to discuss responsible and correct behavior when it comes to sex.  I’m lucky that I had a fairly thorough education about sex, although I could nitpick it apart as well.  What I have seen in my teaching career isn’t very good and I can imagine that if we began to introduce the topic of rape it would become so quickly politicized that it would be shelved to eventually be abandoned and budgetary reasons would be the justification.  Or maybe that’s just my cynical view of things.

When we get back from Thanksgiving, my advanced classes and I will be looking at several essays and short stories that have something to do with the concept of identity and that will be the perfect opportunity to further the conversation.  But I’m frustrated when I see the award-winning Innovative and Connected Thought Leader Educators blabbing on about the same topics, ones that could stand to be put aside for another week or two.  You cannot possibly be wrapped up in your own sense of self-importance that you ignore what’s going on, can you?  If that’s the case, I don’t want to hear anyone tell teachers they need to make their classes “relevant.”

Snark aside, this issue will not go away and if it does it is because we ignored it away.  Changing our attitude and our culture toward rape is going to be difficult and will probably take years, but if we’re really concerned for the safety of our students, we owe it to ourselves to try.