Thursday, April 23, 2009

When students "get it" -- fabulous!

I have been grading non stop for hours. The great thing about this is that I've been grading Book Club papers. Students self-selected into "book clubs" to read professional books and discuss them in small groups. I suggested about four to five titles for students to choose from; they discussed the book on their own schedule, group members posted reflections of the discussions during the semester, then everyone wrote a reflective paper on the experience. This is the pay off - students are making connections between class activities and discussions and the books they read; they are making connections to their own student teaching experiences. These have been the best papers I've gotten on this assignment in a number of semesters.

I don't know whether students are just giving me what they think I want or whether their connections, inferences, and assertions truly represent their views. The optimist in me chooses to believe that they do - that the assignment has made a difference for them. I hope so. We need every good teacher we can get in middle school classrooms.

Truly, it was a pleasure to read the papers I graded tonight - makes grading them easy!

Saturday, April 18, 2009


I watched a video on YouTube today - I've watched it five times and am still hitting replay - the URL is -- it is the most inspiring performance I've ever heard. I just wish I could download the audio to my iPod.

Here is this dowdy, older, graying woman - unemployed 47, and never been kissed -- everyone was judging her by her appearance, expecting little. She began to sing and the audience [and the judges] were on their feet, applauding. How unbelievable that someone so unassuming could take that song - I Dreamed a Dream - and knock everybody's socks off!

It makes me think of all the students that are judged unfairly because they are unkept, unwashed and/or untutored. We overlook their needs and we overlook them, sitting in our classes among smartly dressed, smartly turned out kids who have had all the advantages. So often all it would take is a kind word, a little positive attention. What is it about human beings that makes us overlook what people have inside them and focus only on the surface?

I remember a student I taught 25 years ago. She was a student in what was then [and remains] perhaps the worst class I've ever had to teach - mostly kids from the "wrong side of the tracks" - many could barely read, and they had been passed on from grade to grade up through the years with little expected from them, until they landed in my 9th grade "basic physical science" class. I kept Chris after school during the first week of class because she had not done her homework. Immediately, she had a hundred reasons including that she had 13 sibblings that she had to take care of when she got home from school - getting supper for them, getting them ready for bed [which they all shared] - it was intolerable that children should live in those conditions, and unimaginable that a 14 year old would have those responsibilities. But I made her stay until her bus came - that day and every day after. She stayed in my room instead of going to her "bus room" and did her homework, not only mine but for all her classes.

Fast forward five or six years. One day I got a letter with a return address that said "from the last person on earth you ever thought you'd hear from." In the enclosed letter, Chris apologized for the class - she knew they had really tried my patience -- but she also said thanks; I was the first teacher who had ever made her do her homework, the first teacher who believed she could do her homework. Because I believed in her, she said, she could believe in herself. She went on to say that she had gotten involved in the Salvation Army and had continued to do her homework and study - and that she was at Belmont Abbey College on a Salvation Army scholarship, studying to be a psychologist. Had I not paid attention to her, and made her do her homework, she might well have simply slipped through the cracks as so many students do.

And I wonder how many other students didn't make my radar - that I didn't do what was needed for them. What happened to them?

In spite of the regrets for students I perhaps did not reach, I have to say - this is the paycheck, folks - one letter in 40 years of teaching. But it is worth it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Life in a movie

I watched a movie the other day – Lions for Lambs – a film by Robert Redford with three story lines that were connected, but in the beginning you couldn’t tell how. Essentially, the movie was about engagement. It was one of those movies that, after it was over, you wanted to discuss with someone – it left so many ideas swimming around in your head – the movie itself was engaging.

And I started thinking about what passes for education in so many of our classrooms today and the most common complaint I hear from teachers: apathetic students – students who are not engaged, who are physically present but mentally absent without leave. Students who complain about mindless “busy work” assignments that are unrelated to anything they know about [or so they think]. Students who are bored and restless. Teachers who are tired and frustrated. And who can blame either students or teachers? Teachers who feel they are at the mercy of the almighty End of Course tests, High School Assessment Program, and the PASS [replacement for the PACT]. Students served a steady diet of worksheets, “answer the questions at the end of the section,” or “look up the words and write a definition” – and the miracle is that anyone ever does any of that mind-scalding stuff.  Sometimes I wonder – if the tables were turned, and teachers had to complete the homework they assigned, would they?

How is it that we have so many interesting things going on in the world – and all those interesting things are at our fingertips via the Internet – and yet so little of it makes its way into a classroom?