All posts by Dana Huff

Wife, mother, indie writer, reader, book and education blogger, Technology Integration Specialist, and English teacher.  Fangirl.

blessing the boats

Do you get the newsletter “Teach This Poem” from Poets.org? If not, you should definitely go sign up. I don’t always find time to implement each plan, but they are great for tucking away to fill in lesson plans at times. What I like about the plans is they incorporate other disciplines, such as art, history, or science. Students have a chance to discuss and write in each lesson.

Some time back, the lesson plan revolved around Lucille Clifton’s poem “blessing the boats.” Please check out the poem at Poets.org.I don’t want to reprint it here without permission. I have even set the link to open up in a new tab, so you don’t lose your place. Come back, because I have more to say.

I think Monday is an important day to teach this poem, and the final instruction in the lesson plan caught my eye:

In recent weeks, students around the country have become activists and are leading campaigns to change minds and laws. Ask your students to write about how this poem might relate to the context of student activism today. Ask for volunteers to read their writing to the class.

Yesterday, I joined student activists and their allies at the March for Our Lives in Boston. It was a powerful and meaningful event for me. I haven’t ever done something like that before, and that was one of the reasons I went. I feel strongly about the issue of safety and schools, and I have ever since I was in college, preparing to become a teacher, and we first started hearing about school shootings. The organizers asked that adults hang back and let the students start the march, which began at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury and ran mostly up Columbus Avenue, ending with a rally at the Boston Common. During the rally, speakers included Leonor and Beca Muñoz. Beca is an alumna of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who now attends college at Northeastern and her younger sister Leonor is a current MSD student who survived the shooting. Leslie Chiu, another MSD alumna who also attends Northeastern, spoke as well.  Harvard University student Reed Shafer-Ray lost a friend to suicide and spoke about a couple of bills before the Massachusetts legislature that might have helped save his friend’s life. Graciela Mohamedi, a teacher who was a former US Marine spoke on behalf of teachers, including highly trained teachers such as herself, who do not want a gun.  A former child soldier from the Democratic Republic of the Congo also spoke about escaping from violence—I regret I didn’t get his name, and it would seem none of the news outlets covering the event did either. If someone finds it, let me know in the comments, and I will update this post.

This was my view as I began marching.

It was heartening to see so many people coming out to support our young people. These adults were, as Clifton describes in her poem, “blessing the boats.” This is not going to be an easy fight for them, but based on what I’ve seen, they have got this one. There were volunteers registering people to vote at the rally. I can remember being in college and being fired up to act politically for what I believed in. There is a lot of energy in these young people. There is some energy in their allies, too.

I could barely keep up with this guy, who started out right in front of me at the march but outstripped me somewhere along the route.

Some of the signs were really clever, and there were a few I wish I’d been able to capture. One, for instance, had a great drawing of Angela Davis along with her comment, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

The English teacher in me was happy to see literary references.

There were definitely a lot of teachers there. I was behind three teachers talking about Paulo Freire near the beginning of the march.

I’ve been criticized before for being political on this blog. I’m supposed to shut up and share lesson ideas, I guess. Freire says, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” I’m not going to side with the powerful against my students. Freire also says, “This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” As far as I’m concerned, I’m with the kids. I’m just here to bless their boats.

We Have a College Admissions Problem

college photo

I follow many of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. on Twitter. I don’t think anyone who has followed my Twitter feed or even this blog for any amount of time is unaware of how I feel about the MSD students and their stand against gun violence. I was surprised to see this tweet from one of the MSD students who has been most vocal in his advocacy for change:

If someone as articulate as David Hogg has demonstrated himself to be—time and time again over the last month—is not accepted into the colleges to which he’s applied, we have a college admissions problem. To my way of thinking, colleges should be clamoring to admit David Hogg and his peers. The fact that he has received several rejections boggles the mind. What, exactly, are these schools looking for if he doesn’t have it?

I wasn’t going to write about my personal experience here. I’m not embarrassed about what happened, but it’s not something I thought I’d talk about publicly. A doctoral program I spent about a half a year preparing to apply to and another three months waiting to hear from rejected me. I took the GRE, and given how long it has been since I had taken mathematics at the level the GRE tests, I was pretty proud of my average score on the math component of the test. Behind that average score was months of hard work practicing math using Khan Academy and GRE practice books. Aside from that, my verbal and writing schools would be difficult to beat: 168 (out of 170) on the verbal and a perfect score of 6/6 on the writing. I honestly thought it was a sign when one of my essays prompted me to write about the very subject I’d like to study in graduate school.

My college transcripts for both my bachelor’s and master’s reveal a hardworking student. I graduated magna cum laude from UGA, and my master’s GPA was a 3.9. My recommendations couldn’t have been stronger. I wrote something like seven or eight different drafts of my statement of purpose. Was it the statement of purpose that sunk me? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell if you have hit or missed the mark by a wide margin with such things, even if you pore over the advice from admissions offices.

My résumé reveals someone who publishes (including this blog for over a decade), often presents at a variety of conferences, and regularly engages in professional learning. I’m honestly the kind of lifelong learner for which I should think a doctoral program is looking. I have a certain humility, but I am proud of my desire to learn. You will never hear me say I know everything there is to know about a subject.

The rejection letter was a mere few sentences long. I didn’t think there would be a point in trying to figure out why I was rejected; most likely, I’d be told that the school didn’t have time to respond to those types of questions. Maybe a part of me didn’t want to know. So one of my dreams died. That’s okay, I consoled myself. I have other dreams. Maybe I should focus on achieving them instead.

So, aside from the fact that the program to which I applied is competitive, why was my application rejected? I was honestly a bit more stung by the fact that I didn’t even receive an interview request, which spoke of a whole other level of disinterest on the part of the school. I suppose I don’t understand why I didn’t even make it through the first hurdle of being asked to interview. The only reason I can think of is encapsulated into the word “fit.” That word covers a wide variety of potential reasons for rejection, some of them discriminatory, some of them not. It’s true I am a lot older than the average age of the student who studies in the program. I felt my experience would be an asset. It’s true also that I am a teacher, a practitioning educator, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my career researching. I want to be involved in education, not just study it and talk about it. For that reason, I admit, the program might not have been the best one for me. I have tried to decide if I am feeling bitter or if I’m being honest, and after much soul-searching, I concluded that the program honestly would not have been the best program for me. I was swayed by the cachet the name of the school would have offered me. Perhaps they just recognized it before I did, and if that’s case, maybe they did me a favor.

I went to two respected public universities—University of Georgia and Virginia Tech, and yet I have often felt, especially in New England, where I currently live and teach, that neither school is considered good enough. A former colleague shared he felt the same way. A doctorate from the college to which I applied would prove something. I’m not sure what.

I spent a couple of weeks feeling sad about it. I cried a few times. Then I thought long and hard. Did I still want to earn a doctorate? I concluded that I did. I applied to a different program. I am hoping for better results, but at the moment, my application remains incomplete until the school receives official transcripts and one more letter of recommendation. And honestly? The program I just applied to is much better suited to my needs and my current career as well as my future goals.

I do think we have a problem when applicants as strong as David Hogg receive multiple college rejections. I honestly think it’s a problem that my application went into what I imagine is an enormous slush pile. What exactly is it that colleges want in their applicants?

If applicants like David Hogg find college acceptance difficult, what does that mean for other students? Some might argue that college isn’t for everyone. It should be for everyone who wants to go, but I don’t agree that college should be required for everyone. In our economy, however, we demand college educations for jobs that don’t necessarily need one, and college graduates still find it hard to obtain work. However, despite recent arguments to the contrary, colleges do great work with students, and I remember my time at UGA in particular as a wondrous time filled with learning.

I don’t think I could have been better prepared to teach than I was as a student at UGA. Even to this day, their English Education faculty includes such luminaries in the field as Sara Kajder and Peter Smagorinsky. I applied to the school as a transfer student after a year at a community college. I was relatively new to Georgia, having moved there halfway through my junior year in high school. I had the most unhelpful college counseling you might imagine (as in it didn’t exist). The internet wasn’t available for me to research programs on my own. So, I went to community college for a year, so I could decide what to do. I saw a recruiting table for UGA’s College of Education at my community college. I spoke to the recruiter for a few minutes. I liked the look of the materials. I applied only to UGA. Later, I found out my SAT scores and probably my high school grades were not high enough to meet UGA’s threshold for freshman admittance. And yet, the entire time I studied at UGA, I earned A’s and B’s and, as I already mentioned, I graduated magna cum laude. UGA never asked for my high school transcripts or SAT scores when I applied as a transfer. I wonder if UGA would have given me a second look had I applied as a freshman rather than as a transfer, after I had proven I could excel in college studies.

Therein lies the problem. How many potentially great students are rejected for seemingly arbitrary reasons each year? I’m sure that college admissions offices have a tough job. How to distinguish one strong candidate from another on paper? How to determine who would be a good “fit”? Competition for a shrinking number of open student slots is fierce. I’m not sure how they should change, but I do know that if colleges are rejecting students like David Hogg, they’re getting it wrong. I’m concerned about issues of access for all if strong students like David Hogg are shut out.

Wish me luck as I wait to hear from the second doctoral program to which I’ve applied. I think I would not only be an excellent fit for the program but that it’s an excellent fit for me. If I’m rejected, however, I’m not sure I could try again with another program.

Update 3/19: I want to state for the record that David Hogg appears to be handling these rejections in stride. He is regrouping and discussing a gap year and internships as possibilities. He is in no way acting like his recent activism entitles him to college acceptance. I did not make that clear. It is also true I don’t know about his school record beyond what I have seen, but I am impressed with what I have seen. I think it speaks to the notion that he is a strong critical thinker and communicator.

Update 3/29: TMZ said yesterday that David Hogg’s GPA is a 4.2 and his SAT score is 1270, for those people wondering about his background and potential credentials. The SAT score puts him above the 80% percentile when compared to other SAT test-takers. He has been rejected from UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Irvine, which, incidentally, is a school I considered applying to before my family moved away from California in my junior year. Not sure I’d have been admitted, but it was my top choice until I moved. So, I think my argument that we have a college admissions problem is probably accurate.

Why I Threw Out the Lesson Plan

Katniss, © Lionsgate Films

Sometimes, real life is more important than discussing Mrs. Dalloway. And if you knew how I loved that book, you’d know I am really saying something.

I invited my AP Literature and Composition class to discuss gun violence in our country. They have questions. They want to know what we are supposed to do when the fire alarm goes off if mass killers are pulling fire alarms. They want to know why this keeps happening. They want to know why people care more about their guns than they do about people’s lives.

We watched Emma González’s incredible speech, which I can also completely justify on the grounds that it’s an excellent example of the rhetorical triangle at work.

As a side note, how amazing is Emma González? When can I vote for her? She even thanked her teacher for teaching her “everything we learned.” Go, Mr. Foster! I know, I know, how very proud you are.

We signed a card with messages from our AP Lit class to the AP Lit classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

My students who were eligible registered to vote.

I wish I could express how proud I am of my students. They have thought about this issue. They were pulling up their writing from AP Gov and sharing selections. They know the facts and statistics. Their logic is airtight. They’re going to be marching. They are going to be a part of a revolution.

Hope

I admit to a feeling of real despair in my last post. So many Americans, so many children, have died due to senseless gun violence, and people in power do not seem to care. In the days since I wrote that post, however, I am feeling more hopeful. This girl is one major reason why.

Screen Shot, Video of Emma Gonzalez's Speech
Screen Shot, Video of Emma González’s Speech

If you haven’t heard her amazing speech in its entirety, you need to listen. CNN isn’t allowing me to embed, so head over to their site to watch and come back.

Anyone who works with young people knows they are capable of organizing. I really think that politicians need to watch out. These kids are marching, and soon they’ll be voting, and then they’ll be running for office. My friend Jennifer Ansbach captured this generation well:

They know what they’re doing. Again, Jennifer’s tweet captures what many of us who work with teenagers know:

Emma González is not the only one of her classmates to speak out, either. David Hogg. Cameron Kasky. They are speaking out.

The adults had better watch out. These kids have started a revolution.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
Emily Dickinson, Fr. 314

I’ll be marching with them on March 24. Will you?

Again

school shooting photo
Photo by fabola

America has once again been rocked by a school shooting. I wish I had hope that this time, maybe, something would change. That we would commit to valuing our children more than we value our guns. But we won’t. If seeing 20 little children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT did not make us want to change our gun culture, then nothing will.

As a teacher, I have to do active shooter drills. I have to figure out how to respond if someone comes into my school with an AR-15—have you noticed it’s often an AR-15?—and starts shooting at my students and me. I have to figure out how to barricade the room in the event my students and I are unable to escape, which is really our best option. I have to figure out what I have on hand that I can throw at a shooter to distract him. I learned how to grab a shooter’s elbow and drop, using my weight to pull the shooter down if it becomes necessary I have to tackle him directly.

What we aren’t talking about as much is this thread Michael Ian Black shared on his Twitter timeline. He lives not far from Newtown, CT.

You will probably need to click over to Twitter to read his whole thread, and it’s worth a read. Toxic masculinity pervades our culture. The worst thing a man can be called is weak or feminine. We even use a crude word for female genitalia to describe such men. Toxic masculinity contributes largely to our gun culture.

We idolize guns. We worship guns. We genuflect at the altar of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

It’s been said before, but I’ll repeat it: one man tried to create a bomb with his shoes on an airplane, and now we all have to remove our shoes at the airport so security can be sure we’re not hiding bombs in them. Kids start a ridiculous meme called the Tide Pod Challenge, and there are calls to figure out how to get Tide Pods out of their hands. We require anyone who wants to drive to obtain a license and pass a test to operate a vehicle. We have awareness campaigns for drunk driving. We require car insurance. In virtually every other area, it seems we have figured out a way to use legislation or rules to keep us safer.

Yet each time children are killed in school, we are told it’s not the time to politicize the issue, it’s a mental health problem, and that their thoughts and prayers (but not their actual spines) are with us. If their thoughts were really with us, they would do whatever it took to prevent the next one. I doubt their prayers even exist. I can’t see into their hearts, but I “know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). “Thoughts and prayers” is an empty phrase they trot out to appear to be doing something instead of the nothing they are actually doing—well, aside from taking donations from the NRA to continue to support our right to bear arms.

I recognize the Second Amendment is in the Constitution. I don’t think it should be, but my government has a lot of rules I don’t agree with. This one just happens to be the one I feel most strongly about, perhaps because I do worry one day I will go to work, and it may be my last and because I worry when I send my children to school. However, I also recognize that the Second Amendment is here to stay. So I really can’t understand why we cannot pass common-sense gun legislation in our country. Nothing in the Second Amendment prevents it. It doesn’t mean taking away your guns.

Don’t tell me this is a heart problem, not a gun problem. Try killing 17 people with a knife in a school. You’d never be able to do it before someone tackled you. Guns make it very easy to perpetrate mass killings.

Do my students wonder if I’d be willing to take a bullet to protect them? Do they wonder if I know what to do if someone tries to enter our classroom with an AR-15?

Our president claims no child should ever be in danger in an American school. Yet he revoked a measure that might have prevented the mentally ill from obtaining guns. I don’t suppose I’ll get into how little empathy the president has for others. I’d be here a long time, and frankly, I didn’t expect anything more from him.

I don’t care what your politics are. I don’t know how you can watch these tragedies repeat themselves and think that doing what we are currently doing is the best we can do and that it’s much more important to worship the almighty gun than it is to love one another. We should really be ashamed of ourselves.

Our children are crying out for our help.

I’m leaving comments open, but I’m warning you now—you can share your pro-gun arguments with the NRA. I’m not listening to you anymore because you have never listened to people like me, not if it meant putting people before guns. I will not give you a forum on my blog.

Tim O’Brien: Story Truth and Happening Truth

My AP Lit students read Tim O’Brien’s story “How to Tell a True War Story” from the novel/collection The Things They Carried for today. I used the ideas O’Brien expresses in his story “Good Form”—that there is “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth”—as the center of my class’s discussion of the story we read.

I began class by showing students Eddie Adams’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photo Saigon Execution.

Saigon Execution, Eddie Adams, AP Photo

I asked them what they thought the story of this photo was. I gave them a few minutes to think (and write, if they wished). Then we had a class discussion. The students generally came to the same conclusions that many people do when they see this photo: that it depicts the execution of a civilian, that it represents the brutality of war.

The true story behind the photo is more complex. Really, read the article I linked. It’s quite an incredible story.

I used this introduction to set up O’Brien’s ideas regarding “story-truth” and “happening-truth,” and then we discussed O’Brien’s story, starting with the students’ own selections for lines they found particularly powerful. They had many lines to share, and we took the conversation where they wanted to go for a while. I shared a few of the notes I took at Tim O’Brien and Lynn Novick’s session at NCTE last November, mainly his ideas regarding the obscenity of sending young men to war and condemning them for their use of language when a student noted a line that really stood out to him was Rat Kiley’s description of Curt Lemon’s sister as a “dumb cooze.” Why does that word work so much better than “bitch” or “woman,” which O’Brien says Rat Kiley did not say? I asked them. Because it’s truer, they said.

They totally got it. Tim O’Brien would have been proud.

We talked about Rat Kiley torturing the baby VC water buffalo. They argued it was somehow important that it was a baby. That it was VC. That it never made a sound. Somehow, if it made a sound, the story becomes something else. I read them “Good Form,” and we discussed the ideas he presented in that story.

I showed them this interview with O’Brien:

We came full circle at the end of class with the image Saigon Execution. So this image’s “happening-truth” is that the man holding the gun was a South Vietnamese general named Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. He executed the young man because he was a VC terrorist or guerrilla fighter, for lack of a better word, named Nguyễn Văn Lém who had participated in killing 34 people that day.

But the “story-truth” is that the man is a civilian caught up in the brutality of war.

And in a way, that story is also true. Maybe, because it’s the narrative that won the day, it’s “truer than happening-truth.”

As they were packing up, students expressed how much they enjoyed the story. “I liked it so much I read it to my parents,” one student said. Another said, “I could talk about this story for a week.”

Slice of Life: Twinning

This week is our Winter Carnival Week, which is much like spirit week in some other schools. Each day has a different theme, and we can “dress down” as long as we are adhering to the theme. Today’s theme was “Duo Day.”

This morning, I walked into our History/Social Science Department office to pick up a few items, and I noted that two of the history teachers were wearing gray sweaters, just like me. “Oh, I see you got the gray sweater memo,” I said, and one of my colleagues replied, “I wish we would have planned to be duos today so I could have dressed down.”

Cathy and Dana
Cathy and Dana

It’s bizarre how when you work with people for a while, you start dressing like them. A few months ago, my colleague Cathy and I showed up to work dressed alike nearly head to toe. Except for our shoes, we were identical.

Years ago, I had a colleague who had the same denim dress and a similar green flowered skirt, and we invariably wound up wearing our “twin” outfits on the same day.

Why is it that this happens?It never seems to be planned, or at least it’s not in my case. What psychological impulses or weird twists of fate cause us to reach for the same outfits as our colleagues on the same day?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

Slice of Life: Maker Space

Oat and Maple Bread

My kitchen is a maker space. If you have been reading my blog for a while or know me in person, you might know I make soap. I haven’t made it as often over the last year—mostly just for my family and me. One of the beautiful things about making something like soap yourself is that you can control everything that goes into it. I also make lotion, and if you knew how cheap and easy it is to make, you’d never buy expensive lotion at the store again.

Over the last six months or so, my new favorite thing to make is bread. I have long been intimidated by baking bread because I have zero skills coaxing recipes that need special attention. I can’t do kneading or rolling things out (don’t ask me about my attempts at pie crust). I ran into a great no-knead recipe, and I was sold. I’ve been baking bread ever since, and nothing beats homemade bread. The picture above is my flour mixture and oats for an oatmeal maple bread that happens to be my favorite one to bake… and eat.

So why am I writing about this on my education blog?

I’m on winter break, which means I have time to bake Christmas cookies and bread and whatever else strikes my fancy. Teaching is such an exhausting profession. When I come home from work, most of the time all I want to do is read. I try not to bring work home.  And honestly, I try not to give a lot of pointless homework. Preparation for class in the form of reading and writing is pretty much the extent. Occasionally, students study for quizzes in my class. Over the two weeks that they are on vacation, I have asked them to read what they choose. I have explicitly told them not to work on revising their essays. The only work I want them to do for me is to read… and to read what they want to read. Maybe they’ll make a few things, too, with the time they have. I hope they do.

My friend Jared says in his Statement of Teaching Philosophy that if you “ask [his] sophomores ‘How many of you are painters?’ there might be a few hands raised in a class.” On the other hand, he adds, if you ask young children the same question “a swarm of hands would shoot into the air proudly and enthusiastically.” So what gives? As Jared asks, “What happens between Kindergarten and 10th grade? Where do all the painters go?”

We all need an artistic outlet. I never felt like a very confident artist. I have been a pretty good musician (though very out of practice). For the past five years or so making soap and then learning to bake have been artistic outlets for me. With all the buzz in education about maker spaces, one thing we seem to forget is that elementary school classrooms are tremendous maker spaces, or at least mine was. We need to figure out how to give students the time and the space to continue to be creative. My answer to Jared’s question is that over time, we devalue creative projects in school. I know English teachers, for example, who think I waste time with creative writing in my classes. I don’t care what they think because I feel in my gut that they are wrong.

A good case in point: my last AP Lit class right before winter break. I didn’t have high hopes. They meet at the very end of the day. Some of the students likely wouldn’t be there or would leave early as the dorms closed at 5:00. We would wrap up our short unit on Love and Relationships after a great discussion about “Brokeback Mountain” the previous day. But I pulled out a great lesson idea from writer Jason Reynolds from NCTE 2016. I gave students Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 and asked them to rewrite it in the idiom of their choice. To sweeten the deal, I brought them homemade gingerbread using Emily Dickinson’s own recipe. Wishing I had Jason Reynolds’s mentor text from that session, I plunged ahead anyway. I wrote with the students (I chose 1980’s Valley Girl slang). One student asked, “Is it okay if I cuss in my poem?” I grimaced and said, “Sure.” Another student asked, “Is it okay if I curse a lot?” Why not? In for a penny…

With around 20 minutes left, the students said it was time for everyone to share. We had poems in the voices of a robot, a pirate, a resident of Southie, and a more modern take. Honestly, I knew they understood it perfectly when I overheard one student reading the first line to another: “When bae swears that she ain’t lying…”

I asked the students what they got out of the exercise, and one student said, “I understood the poem a lot better because I had to in order to rewrite it.” No, she wasn’t a paid shill, I promise.

The students were still in the room at 3:30 at the end of the period. I practically had to kick them out. On Friday right before break. In senior year, no less. I couldn’t believe it. We had a lot of fun creating together that day.

I often say that we make time for the things we value. I am asked a lot how I have time to read, to bake, to make soap, to do creative activities with students when there is just so much to cover. We can’t “cover” it all, folks. Students will not learn everything we think is worth knowing in our classrooms, and that’s okay because if we stopped to think about it, we’d realize we didn’t learn everything worth knowing in a single class or even in ten classes, or maybe not even in a class at all. But if we value creativity, we need to make time to create, to allow our classrooms to be maker spaces.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

The World Might Be Better Off if We Rethink Education

I want to discuss an article my friend Robert tweeted about yesterday.

This paragraph in particular:

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

One of the best compliments I ever received from a student (thank you, Tali!) was that my class was “relevant.” And she said it because we studied literature (poetry is, by the way, literature, so I’m unclear why the two were separated). We read The Bluest Eye, and Tali wrote an essay about how the novel reflected modern unrealistic notions about beauty standards. She researched the lengths people go to alter their appearance and the mental health effects of being unable to accept and love ourselves as we are. Don’t try to tell me literature isn’t relevant. It shows us who we are, and it shows us others who are not like us. It gives us an opportunity to understand our world. It is one thing for school to prepare us to make a living. It also needs to prepare us to make a life, which is a point Professor Caplan seems to have missed in his argument that the humanities, in particular, are irrelevant. I would challenge anyone in Professor Robin Bates’s English class to tell me what he teaches isn’t relevant.

I can’t understand anyone who would argue we don’t need to study history. A lack of understanding of history is precisely how we wound up in our current political situation. I suppose I want to know who the typical student is, also, because I would argue we should all be well-rounded. The content is not as important as wrestling with the ideas, developing critical thinking and communication skills, and having a greater understanding of our world and all the ways in which it works. It doesn’t make studying the content “useless.”

Caplan argues that “Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory [of educational signaling],” meaning that it doesn’t really matter what you study in college—you will exhibit certain traits employers are looking for just because you have done college work at a certain level. The first thing that’s wrong with the argument is doing work to get grades. People who are intrinsically interested in a topic will do the work regardless, but people who are doing the work for a grade are not intrinsically motivated. The work is a means to a different end. And that’s exactly what is wrong with school. Grades. We need to get rid of grading because it gets in the way of learning.

Caplan also mentions learning loss:

The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t. Teachers often lament summer learning loss: Students know less at the end of summer than they did at the beginning.

What kind of learning are we talking about? Memorizing facts? Students will not forget what they apply and what they teach to others. Caplan adds that “Human beings have trouble retaining knowledge they rarely use.” True. What kind of knowledge are we talking about, though? If I can look it up or store it somewhere, I’m not going to stuff it in my brain somewhere because I have a lot going on, and I am not wasting space remembering what I can look up. That’s why, for example, if something I need to remember to do isn’t on my calendar, it doesn’t exist. We do need to make a compelling case for the relevance of what we teach students, or rather, what we ask students to learn. That does not mean college isn’t for everyone who wants to go.

Caplan truly reveals his hand when he remarks, “I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines.”

Frankly, if this is your attitude, you should not be teaching because you do not love your students. It’s classist garbage.

Caplan maintains, “Those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world. This scarcely occurs.” Then the problem is the way college professors teach the scientific method (or whatever else you care to use as an example), right? It stands to reason we should at least examine that it is possible that college professors are not helping students apply what they are learning. After all, Caplan says, “Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world.” That’s because EXAMS ARE NOT APPLICATION. They are not good assessments if we want students to learn what we hope they will learn. They are easy to grade, but as I said before, grades don’t have a connection to learning. I haven’t given an exam in years, and I don’t anticipate ever giving an exam for the rest of my career. Why? Precisely because it teaches students to cram a lot of information into their heads, dump it out on the test, and then forget it. Just as Howard Gardner argues in a quote Caplan uses in the article:

Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.

Being “formally instructed and tested” on a topic doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Are instructors asking students what they have learned? They might be surprised. So what is Caplan doing to change things? Not much. As he says, “I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life. My exams are designed to measure comprehension, not memorization.”

Caplan is expecting that because he lectures, students are learning. What is he asking his students to do to apply their understandings of economics? What research projects are they taking on?  What sorts of research-based writing are they doing? What sorts of questions are they wrestling with in Socratic discussion?

Caplan adds, right after his remark about being cynical about students, that he’s “cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring.” I don’t disagree with Caplan here. I’m not sure if I think the vast majority are uninspiring, but I do think teachers who lecture and expect students will retain everything they say and then measure understanding with exams are probably uninspiring. And a large number of teachers do assess in this way.

Educators—at all levels, including and maybe especially college—need to take a hard look at themselves and understand how they teach affects the results they are hoping to achieve. They need to know who they are teaching. They need to stop shaming their students and blaming them for not learning, especially when the way they are teaching students results in the lack of learning and understanding that they decry in their students.

Slice of Life: The Highest Form of Mastery

Sophia teaches 9th grade
Sophia interacting with students as they read (and listen) to music lyrics in groups

My school has an advisory system. We have from six to eight students whom we advise, which means looking after grades, social and emotional wellbeing, and disciplinary issues that arise as well as being part of a support system for these students.

One of my advisees loves poetry. Sophia read a collection of poetry for a summer choice read. She is involved in our literary magazine and the Poetry and Prose club, which has produced ‘zines for the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays this year.

Sophia with the Halloween 'Zine
Sophia with the Halloween ‘Zine, photo credit Charley Mull

Sophia asked me if she could teach my 9th-grade class a poetry lesson. She confessed to me today that she was joking initially, but as she started thinking about it, she wanted to give teaching an English class a try. Keeping in mind what I learned from the Bow Tie Boys at NCTE, I agreed.

I know what you are thinking. This could go south pretty quick.

You have to have a great deal of trust in students to turn your class over to them. Sophia and I met in advisory to discuss what she would do, and she showed up to class prepared.

She started the lesson with a short reminder of how poetry connects to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories? She asked my students to journal for ten minutes about one of two topics:

  • What is your favorite song right now? Why do you like it? What are some lyrics you like?
  • Write about a song that takes you to a different place and time.

I thought her journal prompts were great. She called on students to share their journals, and then she led a discussion about the song “Feel it Still,” especially noting which poetic devices the students found and what they thought the song might be about.

Then she asked students to get into groups and identify a song they liked. If they were stuck, they could use the Billboard Hot 100. They combed through the song lyrics looking for literary devices.

She ended the lesson by reading Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”

Not only did my students have fun, but they also got to apply their understanding of literary devices in a way that was authentic and offered them agency and choice.

One of the Bow Tie Boys said at NCTE (and I regret I didn’t write down his name) that teaching something is the “highest form of mastery.” He said he felt he really learns from his peers when they teach him and when he teaches them in order to study for his AP World History class.

Sophia prepared an engaging lesson. She shared with me that she was worried about filling 70 minutes of time (60 once we take out independent reading), but she did great. I had a backup lesson ready to go just in case, but I am thrilled I didn’t need it. My students seemed to enjoy the lesson, and I know that Sophia did.

Frankly, both my current 9th-grade students and Sophia learned much more about how pop music and poetry intersect than they would have with the lesson I had planned. My lesson wasn’t as interactive. Sophia herself introduced the lesson by stating she didn’t really like the way the subject was approached last year when she was in World Lit I. Ouch! But it was honest.

We should let our students teach more often than we do.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.