Monthly Archives: November 2010

Boiling Frogs

Carson came to my class today. Via the wonders of Skype, I was able to bring my dear friend and esteemed colleague over 1,600 hundred miles and across a time zone to come and talk to my kids about the effects of decolonization. My goal was to give them an historical perspective on the destabilizing influences of decolonization in the hopes that they would better understand the memoir we’re reading that recounts the experiences of a child soldier in Sierra Leone.

As usual, it was awesome.

Well, to be more specific, it was awesome for ME.  My problem is this; I think that I get FAR more out of Carson’s lectures than the students do, and I feel that this happens with most of the guests I invite into my classes.

Here’s the thing: I try to make sure that I get a lot of different voices in my class, and I try to get other people in to talk to my kids as often as possible. I teach in a ridiculously tiny school. No, really; we have about 80 kids and only 6 full-time teachers. I want to make sure that my kids get exposure to a number of different perspectives and ideas, and I want for them to have the opportunity to hear those things from people other than me.

I go out of my way to invite incredibly smart, articulate, and engaging teachers to speak to my kids.  I want them to be sucked into these talks as much as I am, so I make sure to choose people who a) know their shit and b) know how to deliver it.   Some of these people are, like Carson and my colleague Tom from the Holocaust Center, teachers by profession. Others, like my friend who grew up in Nazi Germany and speaks about his struggles with identity and forgiveness, are people who speak from their own experiences.  Either way, though, these people offer incredible gifts to my students.  The problem is that my kids really aren’t in any intellectual position to truly appreciate them.

Take today as an example.  I invited Carson to come and talk about how the withdrawal of a colonial government is often an incredibly destabilizing influence in a country.  I wanted him to give the kids a more complete picture of the political implications than I could, as most of my experience with colonialism and imperialism have come by way of their influences on a culture’s literature and not on a nation’s government or social or economic systems.  My hope was that the students could take this information to help them form a better, clearer picture of the underlying conflict in the background of the memoir we’re reading; the book is written in the perspective of a 12-year-old boy who doesn’t understand why his country is struggling through a civil war, so that information is necessarily absent from the book.  I felt that understanding some of the causes of that conflict might help them to better connect with an experience that, thankfully, none of them will likely ever have to contemplate beyond this reading.

Carson did a gorgeous job with the time we were able to share.  He gave the kids a lot of really great, easy-to-understand examples of what drives colonialism, and what historically happens when a colonizing power withdraws from a country, and how those effects could be lessened through more careful policy.  He was incredibly engaging – sometimes even funny – and he asked all the right questions.

In a room of 18 kids, I saw maybe two or three who had any glimmer of an idea of what was going on.  Only three students had anything to say (the same three who always have something to say) and I can say with some pretty solid certainty that none of them had any clue what jingoism means.

This isn’t a big surprise.  In fact, it’s something that I’ve been lamenting about since I came to CHS last year; before just this school year, there wasn’t any a strong focus on raising the academic bar in the school and, as a consequence, the kids have had no reason to go beyond the barest minimum they’ve been expected to do up until now.  I’m thrilled that’s changing, and I recognize that it’s going to take some time to get that bar up to a level we’re satisfied with, but sometimes it’s really, really hard to be patient.  I want it to happen NOW.

I spoke to one of my colleagues about it this afternoon, and he reminded me that patience is exactly what’s required.  “It’s like boiling frogs,” he told me.  The idea is to get the kids comfy in the academic “pot” and then gradually turn up the heat such that they’re able to acclimate without too much protest.  My friend is, of course, right about this; I’m already meeting huge resistance to the work I’m expecting from my kids (because they’re used to what used to be asked of them, which was the academic equivalent of finger-paint and cookies at snack-time).  That he’s right doesn’t diminish the fact that I’M still profoundly dissatisfied with what I can ask – and expect – my kids to do.   I feel a sense of urgency that they understand MORE, and understand it BETTER.  They miss out on so much of what we have to give them because they’ve not been taught – nor expected – to do any intellectual heavy-lifting.  We have so little time with them as it is; to send them out into the world as ill-prepared as they are feels patently unethical to me.

In order for us to do any good, though, we have to keep them in the pot.  I’m already concocting plans for turning up the heat, little by little, when we get back from Thanksgiving break.  More than a hope, I have a need to see that CHS kids graduate with a far deeper, richer, and more nuanced understanding of their world than they currently have, and I’ll take all the help, advice, and suggestions anyone can give me on how to make it happen.

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Filed under colleagues, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, failure, frustrations, General Griping, I love my job, lesson planning, Mrs. Chili as Student, out in the real world, Questions, really?!, Teaching, The Job, Yikes!

Mission Accomplished!

Alternately titled, “I Told You So!”

One of the rare treasures of my job is the kid who comes back to tell me that they finally understand why I was so hard on them / I was so demanding / I was such a bitch when they were my student. Though it doesn’t happen often, every once in a while a baby will come back and tell me that they’ve had an experience that finally gives them insight into what I was trying to teach them and why I was so insistent that they learn it.

This showed up on my facebook page this afternoon. It’s from Lisa of the “I-don’t-need-what-you’re-teaching-me, I-like-my-narrow-little-box” fame. I haven’t altered a word of it:

How have you been? I hope all is going well. I’m actually messaging you because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently while in my college English class. Just last week I was assigned an argumentative essay and a 10 page research paper with an annotated bibliography. Because I took your class, I was the only student not on the verge of tears. I knew how to approach them, and because of that I have handed my paper in a week early. I also knew how to think critically and look beyond my circle of knowledge. So, I guess you could say this is me thanking you for kicking me in the butt a few times to make sure I knew what I needed to know, and also me saying sorry for putting up such a fight during the process. so, thank you. I owe you one :)

My work (at least, there) is done!

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Love Him…

I’ve got this kid. I love this kid. This kid has been, since our first class together, one of my favorites.

Last year, this kid did a poetry analysis on Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He loved boats, he told me, and decided that the song qualified as poetry (it absolutely does). We talked a little about what kind of poem we’d call it, and he wrote the paper.

While it wasn’t an objectively great paper, it represented, for this kid who’s all about the literal and plain-spoken, a vast leap into the emotional and figurative, and it geeked me right out. Since then, I’ve thought of this kid whenever I hear the song.

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank 35 years ago today. My kid isn’t going to be in school today, so I knew he’d miss the “today in history” in our announcements, so I sent him a message of the remembrance. He sent me this message back:

“with a load of iron ore 26,000 tons more than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.”

LOVE that kid.

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Get Out of My Office..

…before I pop a freaking vein.

Oh dear GODDESS!  After the weekend spent listening to students’ excuses about why they couldn’t finish all their work (and grading the work they DID do), this was EXACTLY what I needed to see.

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Filed under dumbassery, failure, funniness, General Griping, I love my job, little bits of nothingness, really?!, student chutzpah, Yikes!

Do NOT…!

…let me repeat that; Do NOT go there.

So, it’s ‘progress’ report time, and I put progress in quotation marks because only one or two made any actual progress; the rest either held steady or lost (sometimes significant) ground.  The end result is that, last week, the entire CHS community lost its collective shit.  Teachers were jumping up and down, goading, pleading, and threatening kids to get their work in, while the kids were in full-on panic mode because they were coming up hard against an actual deadline.  It was not pretty.

While I’m perfectly okay with this periodic dumbness (as Falcon so rightly pointed out over on the Blue Door, I DID choose this profession of my own free will), what I’m decidedly NOT okay with is when I go above-and-beyond, around-the-bend to make sure that my students have everything they need to succeed but they STILL try to blame me when they don’t.

Case in point?  I’ve got this kid; let’s call her Maggie.  Maggie is a freshman and she’s a great kid; she’s smart, she’s personable, she’s even funny in her own little quirky way.  It became very clear in the first few days of class that, with the right kind of guidance on our parts and some serious application of focus on hers, she could kick proverbial ass in my class; she’s shown me some really impressive (though fleeting) glimpses of the kind of thinking she’s capable of, and I have tried to keep a close eye on her to make sure that she’s got all that she needs to foster that skill.

Maggie is failing our English class, however (and I suspect that she’s tanking in a lot of other courses, as well) because she either can’t – or won’t – get herself down to business.  Every day – every single day – I have to tell Maggie to put her computer away.  Also every day, I have to remind Maggie that some comments are best kept INSIDE one’s head; while she’s very funny sometimes, she also presents an incredible distraction to the students around her, and those distractions are rude and disrespectful to everyone in the class.

The short(ish) version of a very long story is that Maggie had some trouble grasping a very specific thing that I asked her class to do.  When she turned in an assignment (5 days late) that didn’t meet the requirements I had issued, I sent her a note telling her so and offering her an opportunity to revise that work so it met the standards.

She resubmitted the exact same piece of work.  Oh, and she missed the deadline for the revision, as well.

At that point, I asked her to come and see me so I could explain to her exactly why the assignment was unacceptable as she’d done it.  She did that; we talked, she assured me she ‘got’ it, and I expected that would be the end of it.  I gave the students – all the students, not just the freshmen – two weeks’ notice that I was suspending my ‘no late work’ policy and would accept any missing or incomplete work for full credit for this grading period.  That work was due this Wednesday.

Yesterday, I got an email from Maggie’s mother.  It seems that Mags had written a note to her parents warning them that she is failing English classes and then, get this, blaming the tech ed teacher for that failure.  Check this out:

I’ll say the English thing now. If you check the web, I have a 1.9, not a good grade. It is because I asked for help and Mr. J. never got back to me. The help I asked for was for the portfolio, I recently figured it out on my own, it was difficult because it is our web system, the stupidest thing in the world. And I would have established it in time but I just wasn’t helped by the Tech teacher who is supposed to help us on this kind of thing.

(the emphasis is hers; I edited the comment to obscure identifying information)

So, Mom sends me an email complaining that her daughter should not be penalized for – and I quote  – confusing expectations with inflexible consequences. Her letter makes clear that she’s under the impression that her child was not given the information or support she needed to do what was expected of her.

Um…. I don’t THINK so.

I was able to stuff my outrage long enough to compose a detailed and professional letter (which I sent to my boss first, just to be sure) in which I informed Mom that Maggie’s problem was NOT that the computer wasn’t cooperating.  In fact, the portfolio isn’t even a part of her grade for English class.   The problem that Maggie is experiencing in English class is that she simply wasn’t following directions, and that she was unable to follow directions after having those directions transmitted over several weeks and in three different media.

Also, and not for nothing, I know that Mr. J did get back to this kid because I brought this issue up to him weeks ago and IN OUR CLASS (he had stopped by to tell me something).

I am hoping to Shakespeare that this family does not request a meeting; it will be devastating for this child.  I will ask her to explain precisely how she’s failing English because of an assignment in a different class.  I will ask her to explain the assignment she never got right, and then I’ll ask her to show me the handout – with examples! – that I gave the class (which I fully expect she won’t be able to produce).  Then I’ll ask her to show me how, exactly, her (late) assignment met the requirements I set out.  It will be an embarrassing meeting for the child, and an incredibly frustrating one for me (especially if the mother holds her “confusing and inflexible” line) and I’d just as soon avoid the whole horror show altogether, thank you very much.

Grrrr…

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