Category Archives: Issues

Radical Love

love photo
Photo by duncan

My thoughts in this blog post are incomplete, as I am still trying to figure out how to articulate what I am feeling about teaching in our current climate. I finished reading both Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and James Baldwin’s  The Fire Next Time this week. Thinking about the implications for the future of education and for our country (and perhaps even the world) as a whole, I have realized that what we need in this political moment is radical love.

My AP Literature students just finished King Lear. I’m in the midst of reading papers. I actually assign them to write a “rumination paper.” I learned about these types of essays while at the Kenyon Writing Workshop for Teachers. It is part literary analysis and part personal narrative—an excellent way for students to connect with the literature they are reading. At least one of my students wrote about her admiration for Cordelia for refusing to flatter Lear in Act I, Scene 1, when she tells him she loves him “according to [her] bond, no more, no less” (1.1.102). The student sees Cordelia as speaking truth to power. She knows how her sisters feel about her father, and she is unable to lie as they do. She doesn’t see love as a business transaction. After Cordelia dies, Lear is inconsolable and can barely speak:

No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou ’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never. (5.3.369-72)

Lear does not say “I loved her.” But that is what he means. In her essay, my student connected Cordelia’s response to her father’s request to flatter him with her own response to a friend who lashed out against NFL players “disrespecting our flag.” Speaking up has cost my student her friendship, but she had to speak up, just as Cordelia did. Cordelia wavers for a moment, wondering what she will say when her father calls upon her to speak, but when he does, she stands firm, even in the face of his unfair treatment. When he gives her a chance to “mend [her] speech a little,” she refuses to retract her words (1.1.103). However, by the end of the play, Lear realizes he has wronged Cordelia and asks for her forgiveness, which she gives freely. It is an act of radical love for Cordelia to deal honestly with her father. It is an act of radical love for my student to help her friend understand why NFL players are taking a knee.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire argues that

The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor—when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. (50)

Later in the text, Freire says, “If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—if I do not love people—I cannot enter into dialogue” (90). He adds that dialogue cannot exist without humility, faith, hope, and critical thinking (91-92). Freire says that “love is an act of courage, not of fear” and “love is commitment to others” (89).

Baldwin tells his nephew in The Fire Next Time that “To be loved, baby, hard, and at once, and forever” will “strengthen [him] against the loveless world” (7). However, the problem we encounter is that “When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believe as we did” (40).

I don’t understand a great deal of the hatred I have seen since the election. We have slipped into loving only those who believe as we do, and we have lost our way. If we are truly to understand one another, we have to engage in dialogue with them. And as Freire says, we cannot have dialogue without empathy and love.

This lack of love leads to oppression, as Freire and Baldwin describe in their books. However, oppression enslaves not just the oppressed but also the oppressor. As Baldwin says, “Whoever debases others is debasing himself” (83). Freire echoes this argument in claiming that in freeing themselves, the oppressed also “can free their oppressors” (56). Hating others is a way of imprisoning one’s self. One of the reasons we are seeing so much hatred and so much lack of understanding is that we as teachers we are still subscribing to what Freire describes as the “banking model” of education in which treat students like “‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher” (72) rather than asking students to “investigate their thinking” (109) and teaching them to think for themselves and to listen to others, acknowledging that they may think differently, but that we can still engage in dialogue and try to understand each other. It’s perhaps the only way forward in our current moment.

Reading these two books back to back helped me understand why we are where we are—as educators, as citizens, as fellow human beings. Fear dominates our landscape. We are afraid of a group of people—any group you might consider the “other”—moving out of their “place.” As Freire says, “For the oppressors, ‘human beings’ refers only to themselves; other people are ‘things.’ For the oppressors, there exists only one right: their right to live in peace, over against the right, not always even recognized, but simply conceded, of the oppressed to survival” (57-58). We feel threatened by so many things at this moment: immigrants, people of other races, people of other religions, people with other political views, people of other genders, people of other sexual orientations. We find it impossible to enter into dialogue with others because we find it impossible to love them. We are so preoccupied with hating others that we are unable to view them as fellow human beings. I’m convinced that almost all the violence we perpetrate against others, whether physical or mental, is the result of not being able to view others as fully human, like ourselves. When we do not empathize with others, it’s much easier to hurt them. And in dehumanizing others, we dehumanize ourselves.

I wonder sometimes if we are in the last gasp of clinging to our fears and hatred before we embrace others in dialogue. I hope so. I’m not sure I believe it is so. Unlike Robert Frost, I’m afraid that ice might be quite a lot more dangerous than fire. As educators, then, we need to embrace radical love. Baldwin says that “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within” (95). We need to accept others as they are and meet them where they are. We need to love ourselves as we are. We need to talk with others so that we can understand them. We need to listen to them. We need to be open to each other. We need to love each other.

Now is not a time for teachers to be fainthearted. I know I’m afraid. It’s a difficult time to be an educator. In particular, it’s a difficult time for any educator who is taking risks that our test-driven culture does not cultivate or encourage. However, if we are to teach the next generation how to save the world, we need to be radical. As Freire says,”The pedagogy of the oppressed… is a task for radicals” (39). And we need to practice radical love.

Learning for Life

My Students

This picture shows three special groups of students. In the frame in the upper left is my last group of advisees at the Weber School before I moved away from Georgia to Massachusetts. They took this picture of themselves at the Winter Formal and framed it for me as a going-away gift. These students graduated two years after I left—Class of 2014. They were such a good group that my colleague Nicki Brite claimed them all for advisory before my last school year had ended. They are sophomores in this picture.

On the bottom are my first group of advisees at Worcester Academy. This crew graduated in 2016, and two of them were my advisees for all four years of high school. I picked up the rest in sophomore, junior, or senior year. They were a lively group. This is their senior picture, and they are wearing their college tee-shirts. My current advisees at Worcester Academy are sophomores this year.

The students on the right are standing in front of Walden Pond. Many of these students were in my class for as many as three years, and I think most of them had my class for at least two years. They are sophomores in this particular picture. At the Weber School, American Literature was a sophomore English class, and most of these students also took my Writing Seminar class as well. We knew each other well. They made this picture because we studied Thoreau in class, and I could not be there with them to experience Walden. They graduated in 2009. I was close to these students. Many of them connect with me on Facebook or Twitter. One of them tweeted this response to my last blog post.

His comment moved me incredibly, but if I’m honest, he didn’t have the teacher I describe in that blog post. I was in a different place when I taught him and his peers, and I learned a lot in the years that followed. Issues of conscience and social justice are much more important to me now. Student agency is far more important to me now. Students have more voice and more choices in my classroom in 2017 than they did in 2007. Yet this student’s comment is evidence of one of my core beliefs. Over time, we will probably forget the mechanics of how to format a paper according to MLA guidelines, what a participle is, or what the red hunting hat symbolizes. What we don’t forget is how our teachers make us feel. If we knew they loved us and we loved them back, we remember their classes fondly. And we certainly remember how they helped us grow in the most crucial ways: becoming critical readers and thinkers, effective communicators, and lifelong learners.

As department chairs at Worcester Academy, we recently read an article called “Four Predictions for Students’ Tomorrows” by Erik Palmer in the March 2016 issue of Educational Leadership. You need to be an ASCD member to view the article at the link. What Palmer argues in the article is that what we think about years after we graduate are the things we wish we had been taught. As Palmer reminds us in the article, we are preparing our students for their futures. It’s a moving target. However, we do know that students are going to need to be critical researchers (especially using the internet well), they will need to be media literate and make logical arguments, they will need to be able to speak and listen, and they will need to be good critical thinkers. None of this is new. As Palmer points out in his conclusion, “Argument, rhetoric, and oral communication have been important since ancient Greece” (22).

Thinking about how my approach to teaching has changed, I am curious: What do my students wish they had learned in my class?

Stay tuned. I just asked my students. I’ll let you know what they have to say.

What about you? What do you wish you’d learned in school?

Citation: Palmer, Erik. “Four Predictions for Students’ Tomorrows.” Educational Leadership, vol. 73, no. 6, Mar. 2016, pp. 18-22.

Slice of Life: Somewhere in America

power fist photo

I learned something really interesting about myself this week at the New England Association of Teachers of English annual conference. Sometimes we miss out on interesting educational theory tools after we’re in the classroom (which is a pity). However, I’m not sure that’s a good excuse for me because in this case, I’m pretty sure these theories have been around for a while. Developed by Michael Stephen Schiro in his book Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns, the Curriculum Ideologies Inventory is a tool you can use to determine how you approach the curriculum. There are four different ideologies he discusses:

  • The Scholar Academic believes a “teacher’s job is to transmit information deemed to be important by the academic discipline.”
  • The Learner-Centered teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to see children as individuals and provide opportunities for them to make meaning of their own experiences.”
  • The Social Efficiency teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to prepare students with skills they will need in the future to be productive members of society.”
  • The Social Reconstructionist teacher believes a “teacher’s job is to push students to interpret the past, present, and future in order to reconstruct and create a more just world.”

This tool may not be new to you, but I hadn’t seen it before. I was a little bit surprised by my results, but not entirely. I scored highest, uniformly and without a single deviation, as a Social Reconstructionist teacher, meaning issues of social justice are at the forefront of what I do in the classroom.

I found this interesting paragraph at Oregon State’s Philosophical Perspectives in Education:

Social reconstructionism is a philosophy that emphasizes the addressing of social questions and a quest to create a better society and worldwide democracy. Reconstructionist educators focus on a curriculum that highlights social reform as the aim of education. Theodore Brameld (1904-1987) was the founder of social reconstructionism, in reaction against the realities of World War II. He recognized the potential for either human annihilation through technology and human cruelty or the capacity to create a beneficent society using technology and human compassion. George Counts (1889-1974) recognized that education was the means of preparing people for creating this new social order.

You can also read more about this philosophy here.

As a beginning teacher, I can’t say I had enough models of this kind of philosophy, so it took me some time to develop my approach to teaching, but if I examine which books I read in my early education courses that spoke most to me, it’s obvious I was always thinking along these lines: Dewey’s Experience & Education, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Trillin’s An Education in Georgia.

Quite possibly anyone who has examined my American literature curriculum is unsurprised by this result. My colleagues at work certainly affirmed it sounded like me. One of the reasons I threw out chronological teaching of American literature is that I wanted to focus on social justice, and all the themes and essential questions I created for that course tied back to ideas about social justice, from starting with Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” and reading the voices of Americans to understanding the pervasiveness of the American Dream and who gets cut out of achieving it with The Great Gatsby. If I were teaching American literature this year, you can bet my students would be writing about the NFL controversy around “Taking a Knee” in connection with Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and the writings of MLK and John Lewis.

Time to admit something. I haven’t actually read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Yet. I just ordered it. I feel ready to embrace my identity as a Social Reconstructionist now that I know I am one. Might also be time to dust off my Dewey. No wonder Henry David Thoreau is one of my most important teachers.

Which leads me to a final thought. If these young women were my students, I would have felt I had been a successful teacher.

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.

Tips for Presenters at Education Conferences

advice photo
Photo by Got Credit

I’ve been doing some thinking about things I wish I had known the first time I presented at an educational conference as well as things I observe as I continue to enjoy and learn from the presentations of others at conferences. If you are presenting at an educational conference or to teachers in general, it’s worth considering the following ten tips.

  1. Share your slide deck.
    Google Slides and SlideShare make this so easy. URL shorteners make it even easier to send a quick link at the beginning of your presentation and on social media. You can try services such as Bitly, Tiny.cc, Tinyurl, and Google URL Shortener. These services are all free. In some cases, you can customize the link in the URL shortener you use. We are in 2017, and there is no longer any excuse not to share your slide deck, presentation packets, and other materials online. People who attend your presentation will be grateful, and you will make it much easier for them to implement your ideas when they go back to their schools. Many conferences offer shared folders or sites where you can upload your materials, but it’s not enough, and it’s especially not enough if you don’t do it in advance. If I can’t access your materials when I’m in your presentation, I am not likely to go back later and try. I find it frustrating when people do not share their materials, and it contributes more than anything else to a negative experience in a conference session. On the other hand, when presenters share at the beginning, I’m really happy and I engage right away because I know I will have a tangible takeaway I can look at later, and I don’t have to furiously try to capture everything in my bad handwriting that I can’t read later.
  2. Practice with your technology and equipment.
    Make sure everything works. Test the sound. Test your dongle before you leave for the conference and make sure you can project. Run through your slides and make sure everything works. Test links. Make sure you have set up proper viewing permissions in advance. Most conferences will have a few people helping with technology needs, but in all honesty, these folks are often running all over a large convention center, and there are never enough volunteers for this job. You really can’t rely on technology help when you present. It’s best if you can troubleshoot and resolve your own issues if possible.
  3. Bring any special equipment you will need.
    It’s probably safe to rely on the conference runners to provide a projector and microphone (if the room is big enough), but make sure you check that projectors and mics will be provided if you need them. If you need a dongle to connect to a VGA cable, make sure you bring it. Make sure it works. Bring a backup dongle if possible, as these cables are particularly fragile, for some reason, and even new ones can break fairly easily. If you have a newer Mac without the Thunderbolt 2 port that connects a dongle to a VGA cable, make sure you bring a dongle that connects to the new USB C ports because no one will have a backup dongle you can borrow. Trust me on this. Bring speakers if you need them, and make sure they work for the size room you are in. If you aren’t sure of the size, it might be worth it to invest in a nice Bose mini-speaker if you present (or anticipate presenting) often. Most conference rooms still don’t seem to be wired for sound. Make sure you bring materials you need. If you are displaying an iPad or other tablet, make sure you have a dongle for a projector; I have never seen an Apple TV or similar mirroring tool at any educational conference I’ve gone to, not even technology conferences. If you want a clicker to switch through slides, bring one. Most education conferences provide very little beyond a room, a projector, and a mic, so if you need anything else at all, you should plan to bring it. If you are not sure what the conference provides, and you haven’t had communication regarding what to bring, don’t hesitate to ask someone if you are at all unsure about what to bring.
  4. Make sure your slide deck is easy to see.
    If possible, test it for the person in the back of the room and make sure everything on the slide deck is visible. Avoid using dark backgrounds, which are particularly hard to see on projectors that are not bright. There are some really cool templates with dark backgrounds, but they are just hard to see in a presentation setting. Also, think about the readability of the fonts you use. Make sure they contrast well with your background and are bold, print fonts. Avoid fonts that are difficult to read. Don’t pack your slides with a lot of text. It’s better to break information down into more slides than to put too much on a single slide. Avoid putting information on the bottom of the slide, as sometimes room setups make it difficult to see the bottom of third or so the presentation.
  5. Use a professional-looking design for your slide deck.
    Templates are absolutely fine, but make sure you avoid unprofessional looking color schemes and fonts. (Comic Sans, I’m looking at you!) Use backgrounds and images that are eye-catching. There is a lot of great advice out there for design elements. Research best practices for designing presentations.
  6. Avoid relying on conference wifi for any part of your presentation.
    While it’s a good idea to make your presentation available online, conference wifi is still (in 2017!) sometimes spotty. You can download Google Slide presentations as PowerPoints, and anything you upload to SlideShare probably started as a PowerPoint, a Keynote, or another presentation tool. Download any videos you will be playing. YouTube is notorious for buffering right when you most need it to play smoothly. While you might have the capability of pairing your laptop or other device with your phone in order to have internet access, you should make sure anything you need to access online is available to use. It’s easy to get flustered when your videos won’t play or your slide deck won’t load, so save yourself some stress and make sure you have a backup plan if the wifi isn’t working well.
  7. Keep an eye on the time.
    In many cases, you have a limited amount of time, and if you go over, you may affect other speakers’ ability to share their presentations. Know how much time you have. If you are not sure, ask. Stick to the time you’ve been allotted. When you are practicing your presentation, time yourself. Adjust on the fly when you do interactive activities. Sometimes it’s hard to predict how long activities and parts of your presentation will take. If you consider time well in advance, you will be prepared to make adjustments that don’t compromise the most important things you want to share.
  8. Give people time to talk and reflect if you can.
    Sometimes time is really tight. I have learned that I really enjoy sessions when I can think about the material through writing or discussion with other participants. More and more often, conference presentations that do not include elements of interactivity or audience participation or reflection are rejected because participants are asking for opportunities to be involved and to reflect on their learning.
  9. Leave time for questions.
    People will want to ask you questions or at least share a few ideas, so make sure you give them a platform and time to do so. Sometimes, participants think of wrinkles or problems that we didn’t, and it can be helpful to brainstorm these issues with them and come up with solutions if you can.
  10. Share your contact information.
    I very rarely contact people after attending their presentations, but I have done so sometimes, and it’s so helpful if you prominently display ways to get in touch. I usually share my email, my Twitter handle, and my website link. I think I could count on one hand the number of times people have actually contacted me, but I like to leave that door open because as a participant, I would want that information. I often do follow people on Twitter after particularly enjoying their presentations.

What would you add to the list?

Overheard

 

listen photo
Photo by ky_olsen

I had weekend duty at my school on Labor Day. For those of you who might teach in other settings, weekend duty is fairly common in boarding schools. When we have students living on campus, making sure their needs are taken care of takes many hands, and the faculty living on campus cannot always meet those needs on their own. We are often given choices about which types of duty we might prefer. Sometimes we are not able to have our first choice. I was lucky, however, and was able to monitor the school library during my four-hour shift. I like working in the library, as it’s quiet, and the only real travel is checking on students who might be working downstairs.

A small group of junior and senior girls came to the library and worked for most of the four hours I was there. As I prepared to close the library and they were packing up, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. One girl was finishing up their summer reading text, The Scarlet Letter. She remarked that the book was “horrible,” and that she felt like she had to “translate almost every sentence.” A senior girl remarked, “Wait until you get to Huckleberry Finn.”

I happen to love both of those books. I didn’t read either one until I was in my 20’s, and perhaps I came to them at the right time. I don’t always think we teach books when students are ready for them, when the time is right. On the other hand, I have had some success teaching both of those texts, or at least it seemed from my perspective as if students were engaged. Every single student? Honestly, no, but it’s fairly difficult to achieve 100% from any class. Enough students that I could see value in teaching the texts? Sure.

I don’t necessarily think these texts have no place in high school. I also don’t think we should do entirely away with teaching the whole-class text in favor of all student-selected books. There are a lot of reasons to read, and the whole-class text can be taught successfully. I am curious about the approaches to these two novels, The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, in the girls’ classes. These are both hard-working, bright girls who are invested in their education, so I don’t think it’s the girls here. I’m sure if you polled more of our students, mine included, they might have similar stories.

I do independent reading in my classes because students need to make time to read, and they need choices about what they read. They need to learn what they actually like to read, and like anything else, the more you read, the better you are at reading. Having said that, I remain convinced that the whole-class text study also still has a place in English classes.

So what do we do? If we see value in teaching a text, how do we engage the students? What choices do we offer about studying the text?

Stay tuned. I feel a blog series manifesto coming on.

Imposter Syndrome and Class in Academia

imposter photo
Photo by thewikiman

I ran into a blog post, “The Coding of ‘White Trash’ in Academia” on The Establishment (originally published in Auntie Bellum Magazine)—I think a friend must have shared it on Facebook—that really resonated with me. I tweeted out a link, and because I have Twitter and Facebook linked, I also shared it with Facebook friends. One of my friends, Scott O’Neil, who is a doctoral candidate in Renaissance Drama and Literature at the University of Rochester, commented on my post with a link to his first blog post.

What Holly Genovese and Scott O’Neil describe in these two posts is something I have wrestled with myself. I think a lot of women have dealt with “imposter syndrome,” as it has been noted to be especially prevalent in high-achieving women. I can remember being in my honors 9th grade English class and feeling like I was quite literally the dumbest person in the room. I understand now that I wasn’t, but I think it was one of the first times I felt like I didn’t belong somewhere in school. I loved school. I always knew I would be a teacher one day. School was a place I felt safe. Teachers liked me. I won awards for everything from citizenship to academics. I was good at school. Until that honors English class. I should back up and say that my achievement in that class was fine. I just didn’t feel as smart as the other students. I understand now that what I was feeling for the first time was that sense of being an outsider in a place where I had previously thought I belonged. They might not have meant to (or maybe they did), but the other students in my classes sometimes contributed to that feeling.

When I took the SAT, I checked the box to receive mail from colleges, and a few colleges jumped out at me through their thick brochures full of possibilities I had never considered. However, I discovered that cost was a factor, and I would need to settle on a school in my home state so that I wouldn’t have to pay out-of-state tuition. I had started an application to Emerson College in Boston, but I abandoned in despair, realizing it was pointless to finish it and polish that piece of writing they had requested. I didn’t know what to do, and time was running out. I wound up applying to a community college so I could spend a year figuring it out. I knew I wanted to go away to school if I could. My parents hadn’t gone to college, and college counseling at my large public high school was non-existent. I settled on UGA when their College of Education came recruiting at my community college. I was lucky because UGA happens to have a great education school, and their secondary education programs have particularly been singled out for praise.

When it came time to settle on a master’s program, I was equally confused. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time, and I also couldn’t quit work as my family depended on my income. And for years, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to study. English? Library Science? When technology integration became an important issue, I knew I had found my calling, and I found a program at Virginia Tech. I had to take more classes than my advisor recommended because I couldn’t afford to go to school without student loans, and in order to qualify for loans, I needed to attend at least half time.

I always went to public school, and my college years have been spent at large, public universities.  In that respect, I am not a lot different from Holly Genovese or Scott O’Neil, who described what he termed “an undercurrent of class-based assumption at top universities.” There is this notion that certain people don’t really belong, and many assumptions are made about students—graduate students in particular, I think—at these schools. Namely, that they went to elite colleges and had private school education. While such assumptions are certainly made at the college level, I would argue they are also made in the independent school world where I work.

On a few occasions, I have noticed a sort of surprise on the part of colleagues, students, and parents upon the awkward realization that I am a product of public schools and public universities and teaching at a private school. On one occasion, a student of mine told a group of students with whom we were working in Israel that she went to our school because the local public schools were not good. Actually, this statement was not true—the public schools in our North Fulton County, Georgia home were quite good—and she either didn’t know or had forgotten that my own children went to those schools. I felt shamed by my own student.

I would argue that this notion of feeling too “low class” to belong is similar to feelings of loneliness that women in fields dominated by men or that people of color in places dominated by white people feel. However, bundled up inside of it in many cases is the fact that many working class students are white and in some cases also male, so there is a dose of privilege that makes it easier to mask those feelings of inadequacy and also makes it easier to achieve and to “hide” one’s background. Scott describes assumptions that people make about him based on the fact that he is a white man studying at the University of Rochester. People have made assumptions of me as a white woman teaching at a private prep school, too. These assumptions contribute to the feeling of being an imposter, that I don’t belong. I have begun working on fighting these feelings, but if you read anything about imposter syndrome, let’s just say I’m a textbook example.

You know, it’s funny that in America, we say that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. But we know it’s not exactly true. Our literature reflects it. Just about every high school student reads The Great Gatsby, for instance, and learns that money and race can’t make James Gatz a member of high society. Not really. We used to celebrate Horatio Alger stories and encourage kids to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and work hard. In some ways, it is true that we can work hard and achieve great things, but it can be hard to feel like we deserve to be where we are, and there are ways that society reminds us of where we come from, too. Our backgrounds can be a stumbling block in that we, like other marginalized groups, don’t start out the race in the same place as those privileged folks with private school educations.

I do an activity adapted from Paul Kivel called “Examining Class and Race” when I teach The Great Gatsby. I assign students a character from the novel and ask them to move from the line based on what they know of the character. I choose questions that would work for the characters in the novel. Students are surprised to see that Gatsby is far behind Daisy and Tom and is even behind Nick in terms of his “starting place.” Of course, Myrtle and George are near the back. It displays an interesting visual with regards to class and how class helps some characters and holds others back.

Is this where some of the heartland anger against “liberal elites on the coasts” comes from? Maybe. I am not a sociologist, but it makes some sense to me. I know I felt it all over again upon reading a comment on a post shared by one of my colleagues on Facebook. One of my students, Kaz Grala, just won the NASCAR Truck Series at Daytona. My colleagues and I were all sharing the news on social media. I noticed that someone commented on a colleague’s post in what I believe he felt was a joking way that it must be hard for Kaz to communicate with the NASCAR audience on their level given his educational background. In fact, Kaz and I have discussed this type of code-switching, and I have watched him in interviews. He has it figured out. But man, that remark, not even directed at me—though it felt like it was because I come from that part of the country—really stung. Let’s face it. NASCAR is really popular among people with my background. People like me. And the insinuation that people like me, people with my background, are dumb wasn’t even implied. It was stated outright. No one challenged it, either. It wasn’t my Facebook page, so I left it alone, too.

In many ways I feel like I am straddling two worlds. All anyone who doubted me might need to do to would be to record me talking with my family, particularly my grandmother, who was born to two teenagers in Oklahoma in the middle of the Dust Bowl. She only went to school through the eighth grade and married young herself. I don’t think it’s coincidence that nothing made her prouder than my academic achievements. I was the first person her family to graduate from college. My grandfather went, but he didn’t graduate. Same with my father, though both my parents went to college and graduated after I did. I am only member of our family with a graduate school degree. And is it any wonder I sometimes struggle with feeling like an imposter? One thing I am learning, however, is that I do have a place at the table, even if I sometimes can’t figure out which fork to use.

Breaking the Silence

silence photo
Photo by jsdilag

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.—Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am breaking a long silence on this blog to write about something really important to me. I did not consciously step away from blogging here, and I had ideas about things I wanted to write, but it’s been a process for me the last two months as I grieved the loss of my grandmother and coped with the normal business of school and teaching. Time is always a factor with blogging, too, and I need to make the the time for things I think are important. This is important.

I do not write about politics much here mainly because I know I have readers who don’t share my politics, and we have other areas in common. I didn’t want to unnecessarily drive them away. However, what I have to say is too important to worry about what some of my readers think, and if people decide to stop reading my blog or don’t want to follow me on Twitter anymore, that’s their choice. I have the freedom to speak, and they have the freedom not to listen. But I can’t be silent about it.

I start my American literature course with a reading of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” which is famously attached to the Statue of Liberty, about whom the poem is written. I want my students to examine this poem and think about whether America fulfills the promise of the following lines:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

The President’s recent executive order banning “nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries” flies in the face of what we seek to represent in America. This is personal for me because my school has Somali students and alumni who are studying in the United States. I personally taught one of these students in my American Studies in Literature class in the 2014-2015 school year. He is currently in college in Texas. I don’t know what this means for him. Will he be able to visit his family without risking being unable to return to school? This student is one I will always remember because he was so incredibly kind, thoughtful, hardworking, and polite. He is quite religious, and yes, he is Muslim. The idea that anyone could consider him a threat is repugnant and ignorant. As you might imagine, I have been thinking about him a lot these days. In frustration, I tweeted the following yesterday:

I was thinking about how the fact that the President appears to lack empathy, and I trace it to his lack of reading. There are so many recommendations I have, but one place he might start is that old standby, Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol.

The Ghost of Christmas Present has always seemed to me to be the spirit who most effects Ebenezer Scrooge’s change of heart. Yes, the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come clinches it, but two moments in particular stand out for me in Scrooge’s conversation with the Ghost of Christmas Present. The first is when Scrooge begins to feel some empathy for Tim Cratchit and wonders if the boy will live.

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge seems at first shocked by the spirit’s heartlessness, and is “overcome with penitence and grief.” The spirit adds:

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”

I find it impossible to believe that the President has not heard these lines, even if he doesn’t read. How can he have escaped one of the many movie versions of this classic text? And yet, it seems not have left an impression, for his executive order will not root out terrorism, but it will separate families. It will hurt students who study in the US, like my student. I do not feel safer because of this recent effort to keep my former student out of the country. Seeing Tiny Tim, meeting him and having a glimmer of understand about how hard his life must be changed Scrooge’s heart. He no longer saw the poor as a mass of people who didn’t take care of themselves and their children or didn’t work hard enough. Their plight became real to him because he met an individual child.

Later in the story, the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces Scrooge to Ignorance and Want:

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The spirit especially warns Scrooge to beware Ignorance, which will spell our Doom. Scrooge goes with the third spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, having already committed to changing his ways, as he says, “I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear your company, and do it with a thankful heart,” before telling the spirit “The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know.”

Though the first spirit attempts to move Scrooge by showing him his past so he might compare it to what he has become, he remains mostly unmoved until the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge others and helps him understand his responsibility to his fellow man. And this is what literature can do. It can show us the experiences of others. It translates our own experiences to us. It offers us a way to understand and even a chance to repent and change.

We cannot let Ignorance become our Doom. It’s our responsibility not to allow another witch hunt. We must fight back in whatever way we can against policies that do not align with our ideals as Americans and which will harm our fellow human beings. We are better than this. After the Holocaust, we said “Never Again.” I am deeply frightened by the direction my country is heading, and I stand against these policies.

Class Size

classroom photo
Photo by Victor Björklund

My daughter’s school recently had a “Know Your School” night, and I heard one refrain all evening—class sizes are too big. Almost all of her teachers said something like “every desk in this class is full” or “I have over 30 students in this class.”

We have a growing teacher shortage in many places in the US, and it’s not hard to see why when you examine how teachers are treated and undervalued in this country. This teacher shortage is only one reason for large classes, which are a growing issue.

My friend Mark mentioned on Facebook earlier this year that he is teaching five classes. He has four classes with 32 students each and one class with 26 for a total of 154 students. Each time he takes up a stack of writing assignments, assuming these classes are one prep (which probably isn’t the case), he is taking up 154 writing assignments. Even if you grade pretty fast—let’s say about 15 minutes per paper (not always realistic), you’re looking at a full work week just to grade those writing assignments—38.5 hours. If you’re fast. I don’t know how he manages it, but he teaches literature and writing under those conditions.

My daughter was in an English class at the beginning of this school that had over 30 students in it. Her teacher thought she might be having difficulty, and we discussed changing her schedule. Ultimately, we decided it would be best for her to be in a different class. She was in an honors class, and I honestly don’t care what level she takes—I just want her to get good writing instruction. Given the size of her English class, I think I was right to be concerned. I even told her assistant principal that I just don’t know how you teach writing to classes with 30+ students.

When her schedule was changed, she was placed in a class with fewer than 20 students. I love her teacher. He is doing some great things with a group of students who are mostly “inclusion” and have IEP’s. I am fairly confident he is going to be able to do some good writing instruction with her class.

The world of independent schools, at least in my experience, looks very different. Because I am a department chair, I teach three classes rather than a full load of four—chairing the department is more work than a single prep, I can tell you. Four classes are a full load at my school, though I have worked in schools with a five-class full load. My largest class has 16 students in it. I have one class with 15 students and another with 12. I have three preps, so I probably will not be collecting writing assignments from all my students at once, but if I did, I would collect a total of 43 essays. Assuming a fast grading time of 15 minutes per student, I am looking at nearly 11 hours of grading. It’s a significant investment of time, but not a whole work week. In fact, I can typically grade writing at school and turn it around fairly fast. Because I have 43 students, I can ask my students to do a lot of writing and give them feedback on their writing. Because I have 43 students, I can accept revisions and give students feedback on revisions.

As Mark says, “Class load and class size are important.” We can’t pretend we are doing right by our students when we pack them into classrooms like sardines and don’t give them opportunities to learn to write well. I often hear my own colleagues worry about class sizes when their numbers approach 20 in a class (never mind approaching 30, which would never happen at my school). In my years of experience, I have found that 12-15 students in a class is a great number for generating thoughtful and rich discussion that allows each student to be heard while still being manageable enough to do plenty of writing. And we are doubling and sometimes tripling these numbers in most classrooms. My daughter’s school is not unique in this respect. I would argue that teaching writing is the most important aspect of an English teacher’s job. And how do we do that when we have 154 students, some of whom are gifted, some of whom need remediation, and everything else you can imagine in between?

I don’t have a solution to this problem because to resolve the issue, there are a host of related issues we need to fix as well—increasing and encouraging professionalism among teachers, treating teachers like professionals, moving away from this toxic test-based educational system we’ve become, hiring more teachers and making their classes smaller and reducing their teaching loads, and making the profession more attractive and lucrative.

Yes, it’s true, I have known teachers who don’t seek to improve their practices through professional learning (although most teachers I know are not like this). We should be encouraging professional growth. I think part of that encouragement could come if we treat teachers more like other professionals.

As much as I like my daughter’s English teacher, even he mentioned that “creative writing isn’t on the MCAS” [Massachusetts’s test]. And he’s right. But he also told me with that comment that he has to prioritize teaching the kind of writing my daughter needs to do for a test instead of the kind of writing she needs to do for life. Students should be doing writing in every genre, for multiple audiences and multiple purposes. Not only is writing important for clear communication, but it also helps us learn and process and figure out what we think. Take a look at this article if you need evidence that we need to do better writing instruction.

We just need more teachers. Mark needs a clone—at minimum one more person—to do the job he is doing by himself. At my school, 154 students would be divided among about 10 classes. We would actually have two and half people doing Mark’s job. Mark should at least be teaching only four classes instead of five. Even if they took away his smaller class of 26, he could save almost an entire day’s work grading those essays (6.5 hours), assuming the figure of 15 minutes per essay. If his classes were also capped at 25—which would give my own colleagues hives, wondering how they’d assess such a large class—he would spend 25 hours grading those essays from 100 students. Of course, 25 hours is still a large time investment, but it’s 13.5 fewer hours than he is spending with 154 students.

We might actually attract more teachers to the profession if we paid them for doing this kind of work. However, teaching has never been a well-paid profession. While I don’t like the idea of luring less capable individuals to the profession with promises of fat paychecks, I also don’t see any reason why teachers should sacrifice the ability to support their families in order to do the job they love. They should make a healthy living wage. If teachers did earn fair pay for their work, we might be able to attract and keep more teachers. As it is, we lose large numbers of young teachers in the first five years of their career. I nearly left teaching myself four years in.

Perhaps visiting my daughter’s school and listening between the lines to her teachers’ concerns about the sizes of their classes, and subsequently, their ability to effectively teach what their students need to learn and manage the learning environment well, brought these concerns into sharp relief. Our children deserve better. So do our teachers.

On My Mind

cobwebs photo
Photo by randihausken

I’ve let the cobwebs collect around here again! All I can say is the same old thing everyone says: time. I always say people make time for things they feel are important, so for one reason or another, blogging has had to retreat to the background for me. I am always thinking about things I want to write about, but making time to do it has been a challenge. That’s not to say that I don’t feel the urge. Obviously, if I’m writing at the moment, I feel like I need to be writing.

I have several things on my mind, any number of which might make an interesting blog post:

  • I discovered in August that I have an underactive thyroid. I’ve been on medication for it, and I feel almost like a different person.
  • I have my first New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) conference coming up in a couple of weeks. I am actually presenting at my first one—on my digital storytelling project. Speaking of which, I have an article in English Journal coming out in January on the same subject.
  • I am visiting Atlanta for the first time in over four years, when I moved from Georgia to Massachusetts, when I go to NCTE. I’m really, really excited.
  • But I’m also concerned about NCTE. It’s becoming an echo chamber, and, honestly, cliquish. I don’t like to see it.
  • I am having a blast with my AP Literature class, and I’m doing a much better job the second time around. Plus, I have some cool tools to share. I haven’t participated in #aplitchat in some time. I need to make time for that.
  • I’m teaching 9th grade for the first time in a while, and it’s been interesting in some ways. My freshmen are a lot of fun. I also have a new advisory group of freshmen as well, so I feel like a part of that class.
  • I have an office. This is a very interesting development. My previous school gave me an office, but I elected to use the common desk space in the computer lab with my colleagues instead because I felt lonely. My new office is not cut off from the rest of the people in my building, so I don’t feel lonely. Plus I am super-productive. I can’t even compare the difference. Part of is a new organization scheme (plus a place of my own to put things).
  • I went to Know your School Night, and just about all of my daughter’s classes have 30-ish students. That’s too many, but it’s not just her school. It’s the norm. That’s wrong when we know what we know about class sizes and effective instruction. I heard over and over (listening between the lines) about classroom management challenges my daughter’s teachers face because of the size of their classes.
  • Also, I am noticing another issue with my daughter’s school that I have encountered before: grading behaviors instead of student work. That’s a whole blog post, for sure, but folks, we can’t hand out a list of rules and give a quiz over the rules. It shows students right off the bat that what you value is compliance and not learning. Come on. Do better.

All of these thoughts probably merit a post on their own. If you want to have some fun, you can vote below. Which one do you want to read about the most? The poll will stay open until midnight on October 9, 2016.

What do you want to read about first?

  • How much better I feel (25%)
  • My concerns about NCTE (25%)
  • AP Lit (25%)
  • Class size concerns (25%)
  • My NEATE presentation (0%)
  • Returning to 9th grade (0%)
  • My office and new organization scheme (0%)
  • Concerns about grading behavior instead of work (0%)

Total Votes: 4

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Fun fact: I have tried to spell “behavior” the British way twice while writing this post, and I have no idea why my brain did that.

Slice of Life #7: Help Me Understand…

Slice of Life

I was taking notes today in a professional development session, and I wrote down these three comments: 1) Help me understand where you are coming from; 2) Help me understand what your role is; and 3) Help me understand what is happening. They were not anything anyone else said, but they occurred to me as I was listening to my colleagues. We could understand so much better if we asked people to tell us one or all of these things.

I am attending a Critical Friends Group® training (National School Reform Faculty) at my school. The other people in my group are my colleagues. They are all either department chairs, department directors, or class/school deans—essentially middle management, if you want to think of it like that. We are learning protocols for Critical Friends Groups. As fussy as the word “protocols” sounds, it’s really helpful to have “structured processes and guidelines” in place to “promote meaningful, efficient communication, problem solving, and learning” (Critical Friends Group® Coaches Handbook, Michele Mattoon and Luci Englert McKean, eds.). Many of them, I am finding, can be used with colleagues or with students. I am getting lots of ideas for the classroom as well as department meetings.

I wrote down the three comments at some point when I was listening because it occurred to me that we often don’t know where others are coming from and why they are doing what they are doing until we ask, and we can be much more understanding and empathetic if we do. I thought they might be good questions to ask students, too. If a student is checking out and not being a part of a class, there is a reason for it. It might be they’re worried about something, or it could be that something happened which is preventing them from being present. I once took a phone away from a student, and a colleague later told me that her mother was in the hospital. I felt terrible. She wasn’t following the school rule, but she was doing it for a reason.

I also found out today that I have some wonderfully supportive colleagues, and because we hadn’t really worked together this way before, I didn’t realize I had that network. What an amazing and affirming discovery. I think we as teachers sometimes are so trapped in silos. It helps to hear others validate and support you. These kinds of groups can give us real tools we can use to support each other, which is so helpful. I’m really hoping we can continue to meet as a group through the year. I know we all do a lot. I am really involved in a lot of ways at my school, but as one of my colleagues said, a Critical Friends Group would help so much with a work/life balance.

Help me understand where you are coming from. Help me understand what your role is. Help me understand what is happening.

These three sentences are we should ask students and each other to gain more empathy with the students we teach and with our colleagues. We should also be telling people our own answers to these questions. We are all beginning or preparing to begin our new school year. It’s a good time to take care of everyone and ourselves.

As full as my summer has been (and I can’t do it again next summer), I have had some great professional learning opportunities this summer.