Holiday Wishes

May your classroom be full, but not too full, of eager students.

May your students not be jaded.

May they have had a good night’s sleep.

May they greet you when they encounter you.

May they look you in the eye but not get in your face.

May they never say “whatever.”

May they get their work done—by themselves.

May they be fired up by sparks of interest but not by Spark Notes.

May their parents appreciate what you do for them and see you as an ally.

May you be the master, not the slave, of your classroom’s gadgets.

May your school’s and classroom’s routines serve not thwart your needs and your students’.

May your classroom’s main source of light be sunshine.

May its main source of sound be live voices.

May your bag of tricks be bottomless, and may you find no water balloons there.

May the only added value in your life be the value added to your abundantly deserved retirement accounts.

May your administrators be educators.

May they see the dangers in thoughtlessly preparing individual students for standardized tests.

May they never think that schools are a business or education a product.

May they share your horror of baloney and pink slime education.

May they back you up not cut you down.

May your school’s mission be expressible in under ten words, none of them a superlative.

May nothing in your building leak.

May your school’s IT network work.

May you possess or achieve the serenity to accept the human condition and the keenness to relish the good things you have.



Show Boat’s Coming!

Those happy tap dancers who brought you NCLB[1] and RAT[2] are now launching an educationist show boat in an ad campaign called TEACH. I mean, of course, the Department of Education and Microsoft, helped along by an insurance company and an advertising agency. We don’t know whether Arne Duncan or Bill Gates will get to be Cap’n Andy, but you can bet there’ll be lots of smiling and singing. The acts in the show boat—commercials, announcements, recruiters—will try to persuade bright young persons that teaching is “creative, invigorating and meaningful.” One way of doing so: show them films of kids capering through wildlife preserves chasing frogs and of classrooms brimming with students dazzled by whirling papier mâché planets and surround-screen projections of the solar system[3].

And on whose authority do we know the creative potential of teachers? The head of “creativity” from Cap’n Andy’s ad agency assures us that “if you find different ways to communicate with and teach kids, where it’s not just that same old thing, using a video game or projecting the solar system in the classroom… that’s what’s going to get those test scores raised.” Either the ad man hasn’t seen all his commercials yet, or in his “creativity” he is showing his shakiness in sentence construction by using gerunds not as appositives of the noun that precedes them. If the students he hopes to reach are as shaky as he, maybe Cap’n Andy should have a bigger casting call than just for STEM[4] teachers and try to bring in a few ENG teachers too.

The problem with even that plan is that since this is a show boat rather than reality, you can bet that the acts won’t include “creativity” like scripted teaching, or any “invigorating” faculty meetings for curriculum mapping, or of “meaningful” interaction with students in “virtual” “classrooms,” or of faculty meetings to discuss RAT implementation, or of grading the essays of students who have spent twelve years pointing at answers on multiple choice tests instead of writing. You won’t see a teacher at his VAM review being told that he is a failure at teaching because of his score on a “measurement” that its proponent admits bears no relationship to “teacher observables.”

If these bright young persons do their own research in addition to watching commercials, they may conclude that the problem with all those pictures of frog-chasing kids is that NCLB & RAT test for English and math but not for science, so it’s hard to see how any teaching about frogs or planets will “get those test scores raised.” They might conclude that the data, if not the song and dance, suggest that becoming a teacher is like playing high-stakes roulette.

If they watched the 1936 version of Show Boat, they might conclude that the line most apposite to TEACH is Hattie McDaniel’s: “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”



[1] No Child Left Behind

[2] RAce to the Top

[3] Yes, those very examples, which are taken as representative of the profession in two of the ads. Raise your hand if your classroom has surround-screen projection and your school offers easy and frequent field-trip access to a wildlife sanctuary for field work.

[4] Science, technology, engineering, mathematics


Little Weenies of Learning

San Francisco is among the top ten cities in the country for both restaurants per capita and bars per capita—the only city so distinguished. Years ago a single “establishment” often served both purposes, facilitating liquid dining with large but undistinguished spreads of “complimentary” food. Businesses usually closed at noon on Good Friday, though that afternoon’s foot traffic went less towards Notre Dame des Victoires than to Paoli’s, Alfred’s, Jack’s, and Sam’s. But any afternoon of the week or year was bound to see lots of lubricated togetherness ballasted with stodgy fried gobbets and cocktail weenies. You could say it was a meal, I guess.

And you could say, I guess, that it is an academic conference when Queens University of Ontario, conducting a gathering on Transforming Our Learning Experiences, has a call for proposals that includes Research Paper Presentations of twenty-five minutes (with 10 – 15 minutes reserved for “entertaining questions”), Facilitated Poster Sessions, and Educational Speed Dating[1] sessions of twenty minutes. The longest sessions in the conference are fifty minutes: anything lasting hours or a day is banished to the “pre-conference.”

Those in attendance, like the Good Friday devotees of old San Francisco, can take time off from work by using something serious as an excuse for something easy on the mind. They can while away an afternoon filling up on dubious nutrients like Educational Speed Dating, Poster Sessions, and other cocktail weenies of intellect. They can lay out empty calories by “presenting” “research” in ten-minute talks. The main immediate problem in replacing the Symposium with the Happy Hour is that the participants will probably get only bottled water to drink. The main enduring problem is the lingering worry that schooling will be transformed into something like this sort of teachers’ conference.

[1] At last: something educational!


Reference Work

For the first time in my teaching career, I am teaching only 12th-graders. What a huge distance of growth and maturation a student covers in his high-school years, and yet how vulnerable a senior can be! I share a bit in the anxiety of my students as they approach the launch of their university careers, partly in how I prepare them through coursework, sometimes in how I help them outside the classroom, and often in the work I do recommending them for college.

I have been fortunate to work always in schools that respected my choice to write, or not to write, a reference for a particular student. I understand that in some schools the teachers do not have this fundamental choice granted them. One principal grumbled one year when I refused to write a reference for a reprehensible little horror in my senior English class, but he stopped short of commanding me to write it. Students and their parents should see that choice as properly belonging to the teacher, and the parents should see that their students work and act in a way that will lead teachers to give them good references. Administrators should support this relationship.

Regrettably, I have not always been so fortunate as to avoid having to work with a dishonest college counselor. One year, after a colleague and I caught the counselor forging our names to recommendations we had not written for a couple of our students, we told the students that we would only write directly to the universities they applied to, requiring them to give us addresses and pre-stamped envelopes. When at last the forger-counselor left our school for browner pastures, I went back to posting references through the office.

Some counselors, though not criminals like this, “edit” teachers’ letters once they are turned into the office. I think the best way to ensure that teachers write good letters for their students is to show them how to do so, and then get out of their way. It also removes the temptation to “edit” out negative comments.

(If a student asks a teacher for a reference, the teacher should be honest with the student if he cannot write a good one.)

Having said all these negative things about counselors I must quickly report that my favorite “teacher” in high school was my own counselor, one of many good ones I have had the pleasure of working with. One must also note that the paperwork burden imposed on a college counselor by a class of students applying to ten or fifteen universities each is monumental. Though nightmares like the Common App breakdown this year seem more frequent than they should be, in general, IT has helped counselors manage this paperwork burden.

Where are the simplicities of yesteryear? I applied to three universities. Amazingly, these simplicities are occasionally to be found even now. One student of mine knew exactly which university he wanted. He applied to it and no other, and he was admitted. Maybe more such thinking would simplify the burden.

For, getting back to myself, even when minor editing has been made easy by word-processing, one still has to aim a letter at the intended audience. British universities? American? Other? Sometimes different approaches are required of me.

One reason that I do my best for the process in spite of the way it consumes time and attention is that I like the feeling that the universities soliciting these letters actually pay some attention to what they say. It suggests that there is a personal element, an element of thought in the process—that it is not a process at all, but a judgment.

* * *

Just after writing this posting I ran across an article about colleges that deny admission or retract offers of admission to students after discovering compromising material about them on the internet. The chief offenders seem to be presenters of material on drug or alcohol binges and vicious comments about others, particularly teachers. The article also mentioned action against the holders of obnoxious email addresses. (One year we advised a student to adopt a new email address for his admission material since his old one was horrible. I was not fond of him and would not have minded his keeping the horrible address, but a teacher is nothing if not selfless….) In another place I have written about the need to teach young people to cultivate a proper sense of audience in order to inoculate them against e-rubbish. What will happen when their essays are graded by machines that can be gulled, or when they are not assigned essays at all? I think we can already see.