Category Archives: Issues

Censorship in School Publications

According to the Seattle Times, Shorewood High School in Shoreline, Washington recently shredded remaining copies of the student literary magazine and reprinted it minus a poem with an offensive expletive in the title. A 35-year veteran teacher of the district, Steve Kelly, was asked to step down as the magazine’s advisor.

Here is the poem, as reprinted by the Times:

My first (expletive) sure he claims he loves me
and holds me oh so tight
he makes me believe this is special
that he can hold on all night
he claims he isn’t pressuring me
but his hand is down my pants
temptation rises and I give in
he turns over
checks the time
gets up and drives me home
no kiss goodnight
no I love you
and no telephone call

— Zoya Raskina

In the 1988, the Supreme Court decided one of the most important cases involving student publications. Hazelwood High School’s newspaper, Spectrum, printed printed some articles about teenage pregnancy, including personal experiences of Hazelwood High School students. The administration decided to censor the articles, and the students fought the decision, as the expression goes, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court decided in favor of the district:

In a 5-3 decision, the majority of the Court found that the students’ First Amendment rights had not been violated. The Court decided that Spectrum was part of the school curriculum and school administrators could control its content. The newspaper was not a “public forum” and school officials could impose “reasonable restrictions.”

Depending on your point of view, this decision may have overturned part of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, which asserted that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” According to David B. Rubin, an attorney who specializes in school law:

[O]ne of the main criteria in dealing with school censorship cases relates to what is called the “Tinker disruption standard,” that the Court outlined in the case’s ruling.”Students do have First Amendment rights to express themselves as long as it doesn’t interfere with the order of the school day,” Rubin explained. “The question is, does the student expression cause disruption in the school,” he stated. “Censorship issues depend on what is being said or expressed to whom, and in what context.”

Rubin noted that what is called the “forum issue” is the second criteria in deciding school censorship cases, namely whether student expression is part of a school function regulated by the school district, or whether it is entirely initiated by students.

“If it’s a school-sponsored function or forum, then school authorities have the right to set their own standards,” Rubin said. “The school districts have a certain leeway as to how vigorously they exercise their legal powers.”

Rubin clarified that schools must have “legitimate pedagogical [educational] concerns” when dealing with censorship issues.

Personally, I don’t see that the school crossed any lines. They exercised their right, according to the Supreme Court, to impose “reasonable restrictions” upon the content of the magazine. To be honest, were I the advisor of that magazine, I probably would not approve a student work containing that sort of profanity — and I think it is fairly clear what the “expletive deleted” was. I know many students and possibly teachers believe that is a violation of First Amendment Rights, but I don’t agree. By excising the poem, the school is not prohibiting the student from publishing her work elsewhere. And frankly, deciding what to publish is a right exercised by every publishing company in America — yet no one complains about not being given a voice if their work is denied publication by one house. They simply submit the work to another house.

I believe students should have access to reading material without censorship. I don’t agree with preventing access to works of literature. However, I also don’t think the school is necessarily required to provide students an outlet for their work, especially if it might be considered offensive. In my opinion, the school district needs to consistently enforce its own rules about censorship, which the article implies it has not done, and the magazine advisor should have used, well, a little bit of common sense. Technically, he didn’t lose his job, and there are schools in America that would have fired him for this — teachers have lost their jobs over similar issues. Cissy Lacks, a 25-year veteran teacher was fired from the Ferguson Florissant School District in Missouri for allowing students to use expletives in dialogue written for drama exercises. She was ordered reinstated by a jury, but her school district appealed, and her reinstatement was overturned. The Supreme Court refused to hear her case. Considering the precedent the Cissy Lacks case established, Steve Kelly is fortunate.

Sources: Objectionable Content vs. Freedom of Expression: Battles of School Censorship and FileRoom.org — Cissy Lacks, high school teacher

Teach to the Test

The New York Times (free registration, or BugMeNot) reports that even when teachers are enthusiastic about new teaching methods and would prefer to implement them, they feel too much pressure to teach to the test — in this case, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP.

Becky Karnes, a 16-year veteran high school English teacher explained,

“MEAP is not what writing is about, but it’s what testing is about. And we know if we teach them the five-paragraph essay formula, they’ll pass that test. There’s a lot of pressure to do well on MEAP. It makes the district seem good, helps real estate values.”

Well, it’s good to have our priorities straight — helping the district look good and increasing real estate values. No criticism meant toward Ms. Karnes, as I’m sure she’s feeling considerable pressure to teach to the test.

The National Council of Teachers of English has warned that standardized state tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, as well as the College Board’s new SAT writing sample, are actually hurting the teaching of writing in this country. For their part, the makers of these tests emphasize that they don’t mandate a writing formula, and they, too, say it would be a mistake if schools taught only by the formula.

I wish, wish, wish I could say more about the SAT writing sample, but there is a good reason I can’t.

Kristen Covelle encountered the specter of teaching to the test during job interviews for English teaching:

The interview will be going great, and then MEAP will come up. They want to know will I teach to the test, that’s what they’re looking for. They asked how I feel about using “I” in writing. Would there ever be a case when “I” is appropriate in an essay. I knew the answer they want – you’re not supposed to use it. But I couldn’t say that. I said there could be times, you just can’t close the door. They didn’t say anything but it was definitely the low point of the interview.

I feel very fortunate to be outside the burden of tests like these, as a private school teacher. I know what it’s like. I can vividly remember the curriculum director at a low-performing school where I used to teach coming in my classroom and reviewing the five-paragraph formula with my students. It looked a lot like the one in the Times article. Her visit was part of the counselor’s pre-test workup. Karnes is right: “For kids struggling, if you can give them a formula and they fill in the blanks, some will pass the MEAP test who wouldn’t otherwise.” But what is our ultimate goal as teachers? To teach students how to write more effectively or to teach them to pass a test? Karnes added, “It turns into a prison. It stops you from finding a kid’s potential.”

Prison is such an apt choice of words. I distinctly remember feeling constricted by testing demands on the curriculum.

Male Teachers

The Boston Globe reports that only 20% of teachers in public schools are male; in elementary schools, the number is a mere 9%. Think fast — did you have any male teachers in your elementary school? We had one. Mr. Veach. My sister was in his class in 5th grade. The numbers seemed to gradually increase until college, when the teachers were predominantly male.

Some people believe that teaching is “woman’s work.” It’s too nurturing, too maternal. However, men who teach young children have another issue with which to contend: accusations of child molestation.

According to Bryan Nelson, founder of the Minneapolis-based MenTeach:

[S]ome men who might want to teach fear false molestation accusations, and … society looks at men with suspicion. That view of men has been worsened, he said, by recent attention to priest abuse scandals and even the trial faced by Michael Jackson. “Society has a narrow view of men,” Nelson said. “We think men are dangerous.”

One might argue that lately, it seems like female middle school teachers are looking kind of dangerous in that regard. My daughter had a male kindergarten teacher for a couple of months. He had an accident and was unable to continue teaching that year, but I will admit I thought it was kind of odd — I asked myself why a man would want to teach kindergarten. I have to come clean with gender biases of my own. I don’t think men are any better or worse than women at teaching. But I will admit that I did scratch my head over a man teaching kindergarten. And why should that be? Sarah has had male music and P.E. teachers since then, but not a full-time classroom instructor; however, I can say unequivocally that her male music teacher is one of the best teachers of elementary school children I’ve come across. In addition, he is also very caring with Sarah, and I can tell he has made a significant impression upon her.

One of the most caring teachers I ever had was Mr. Velando, my homeroom, math and reading teacher in 6th grade. He bought me an autograph book when I placed first on our team/second in 6th grade/4th in the school in the spelling bee. He, along with Mrs. Van, my Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, took me to my favorite restaurant, Crystal’s Pizza (sadly defunct) with another student to celebrate our awards as Students of the Month (I was, I think, January, and the other student was December). He was a truly great teacher.

I found this story interesting, too, because I will be the only female teacher in the English Department next year; however, the Science Department will be totally female. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the position of being the only female in my department. I’m not worried about it, but I am wondering how it will be different.

London

I want to extend my sympathy to the victims of the London bombings and their families. I first learned of the event in the Blackboard Jungle, then turned on the television. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to teach during a crisis like this. When 9/11 happened, I wasn’t teaching at the time. I admire Lectrice for keeping the students calm and putting them first.

Teacher Education

Reforming teacher education or preparation programs is critical to the future success of education. I have heard inducting new teachers into the profession compared to dropping them into the gladiator arena and stepping back to watch until the carnage is over. Those that survive the first several years will probably make it as educators. One-third of teachers quit within the first three years of teaching, and almost half quit within five years. I almost quit after my fourth year, but I came back. I don’t think I would have if I had not had excellent teacher preparation. There was something inside me that was different as a result of my teacher education program, and it saved me from becoming a statistic.

I wonder if teachers who happen by this site could comment and tell me how they were prepared for teaching and whether they would consider themselves well prepared (I started to write “adequately prepared,” but then I thought to myself that “adequate” isn’t enough).

I feel extremely fortunate to have gone through what I have come to believe was an excellent, innovative teacher education program at the University of Georgia called UGA-NETS, the University of Georgia Network of English Teachers and Students (the website has been under construction for a very long time, which is something that makes me nervous). This teacher education program was pioneered by Dr. Sally Hudson-Ross and Dr. Peg Graham.

UGA-NETS is a year-long teacher education program for BSEd and MEd candidates seeking certification in secondary school English. Teacher candidates (TC’s) in the program are paired with mentor teachers (MT’s) in UGA’s surrounding counties’ public schools. I student taught at Winder-Barrow High School. I did not actually participate in pre-planning, because I was not yet enrolled in the program. Perhaps one of the most serendipitous moments of my life, a TC dropped out of the program, already having decided teaching was not for him, and a vacancy opened up just as I moved to Georgia and applied to continue my interrupted education. Sally called me the day before the quarter was set to start to tell me about this vacancy. I didn’t know what to think — start now? But… was I ready? She said it was now or next September, because I couldn’t enroll in the program mid-year. So I took a deep breath and jumped in the pool.

It was an incredible experience. I kept a fantastic dialogue journal with my MT and Sally about experiences and observations I had in the classroom. I observed long before I began teaching in the classroom, which is something that TC’s don’t really get to do enough. We wrote weekly “think pieces” about issues that concerned us and used those think pieces to generate discussion. We conducted research, participated in collaborative inquiry, and developed true camaraderie. I really felt much more prepared for my teaching experiences, and I look back on my preparation with fondness — and not a trace of resentment.

As I entered the program, Sally and Peg were in the final stages of writing a book about UGA-NETS: Teacher/Mentor: A Dialogue for Collaborative Learning (also available from NCTE). My first year of teaching, I participated in a discussion forum: ETEACH-L: Dean’s Forum Discussion for High-School and College Teachers of English (you can still read my contributions under my former name, Dana Cooke — it has been entertaining to review my thoughts as a first-year teacher seven years later).

I think perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned in my teacher education program was the importance of participating (through conferences, professional development, professional organizations, and reading) in my profession. I am always amazed at the number of teachers who do not participate in their profession. Conferences, to me, are energizing. I love to discuss ideas with my peers. Another critical lesson I learned at UGA-NETS was the value of honest reflection. Constant evaluation of my practices has been critical in my improvement as a teacher. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Sally retired in June 2004, and Peg went on sabbatical. To mark the occasion, UGA-NETS had a gathering of participants — MT’s, TC’s, and professors. It was a celebration of the work Peg and Sally have done in English Education. I will never forget one of the participants fighting tears as he expressed fears that the program might not continue, now that Sally and Peg were not going to be able to run it. “And that can’t happen, because it just has to continue,” he said.

I would love to hear from any past or current participants of the program who want to share their thoughts.

Of course, preparation is key, but another critical element is implementing a mentoring program in schools for new teachers. I cannot say I ever had a really solid mentoring experience in school, despite participating at one school where I taught in a mentoring program that looked good on paper, but didn’t really accomplish its goals.

You can read more about UGA-NETS at these sites:

Americans Concerned About Public Schools

A poll conducted by Educational Testing Service (ETS) demonstrates Americans’ lack of confidence in their public schools. Some figures, courtesy the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

  • Only 9 percent of Americans believe high school students are being academically challenged by their course work.
  • An overwhelming 76 percent of adults surveyed believe the country will be less competitive in 25 years if reforms aren’t made.
  • While 54 percent of adults and 60 percent of parents feel unified standards should be applied to all students, only 26 percent of teachers and administrators agreed.
  • Without being given a description of the law, 45 percent of adults and 46 percent of K-12 parents favored No Child Left Behind.
  • In contrast, 75 percent of teachers surveyed who gave unfavorable opinions, including 50 percent strongly unfavorable.

The results of this poll are not surprising to me. I taught for six years in public schools before making the move to a private school, and the struggles were legion. It worries me that parents do not feel their children are challenged, but often complain about teachers who have high standards. I don’t think most parents really know what it would mean to apply unified standards to all students. All students? Meaning that special education students and ESL students must meet the same objectives as gifted students? Or am I just reading too much into that statement? It seems really sweeping, and it is no wonder so many educators disagree with it. It is disturbing to me that more people do not educate themselves about NCLB. If parents really understood what NCLB was measuring instead of what sort of accountability they are looking for (and deserve), they’d be shocked. In a time when fears about school violence are at a high, my former principal avoided suspending violent students at all costs, because she was afraid it would affect our absentee rating for Adequate Yearly Progress. That’s patently ridiculous — that suspensions should count against AYP. If she’s right about that, then it is no wonder so many schools are failing to make AYP.

Public perception that schools are not doing enough is nothing new. I would hope that the concerned parents surveyed by ETS are doing everything they can to be involved in their child’s education, but somehow, based on the numbers of parents who attended PTA meetings, Open House, and non-sporting school events, or who contacted me with concerns, I doubt they are.

However, I was pleased to see the following, courtesy ETS:

  • 74% of the public strongly favor measures to ensure teachers are experts in the subjects they teach.
  • 80% strongly or somewhat agree we should increase teacher salaries to hire and retain more well-qualified teachers even if it means increased taxes.
  • 64% strongly favor emphasizing real world learning opportunities in high school through work study, community service, and vocational courses.

Standardized Testing Hurting Our Students

The Montgomery Advertiser reports that students are increasingly unprepared for college, and many blame standardized tests. It should come as no surprise to any teacher that our nation’s focus on standardized testing is hurting our students’ success in college. Instead of teaching real critical thinking skills and writing, we teach to the test out of fear. Ideally, if we teach objectives required by our curriculum, students should be prepared for standardized tests; however, many of us with jobs and schools on the line because of NCLB are too afraid not to teach to the test.

One of the things I’ve noticed since teaching at a private school is that students are much better served by learning how to write well than by taking a language arts test mandated by the state. Georgia has high school graduation tests, as well as writing tests in the 5th, 8th, and 11th grades, and end-of-course tests. Over time, the curriculum has been eroded by all the test preps. My students are mandated to take the PSAT and have the option to take the SAT or ACT. Most do, because they are college-bound students. It has been so freeing not to worry about constant tests.

I wish we could figure out how to hold schools accountable through some other means. It would be better for our students, many of whom wind up in remedial classes in college because we have not properly prepared them.