Category Archives: Questions

Quick Hit: Vindication

I attended a seminar yesterday on the Constitution and the ways in which the document continues to change and evolve as society does.  It was a fascinating day – much more so than I imagined it would be – and I’m eager to sign up for the rest of the programs in the series.

One of the panels featured a lawyer who does extensive work with issues of privacy.  After her session, I made my way to the front of the lecture hall to try to get a moment or two with her, which she graciously offered me.  I quickly told her to story about what happened to me at CHS last year, giving her a thumbnail sketch of the proverbial ‘facts of the case,’ but stopping just short of the fact that I was let go at the end of it all.

Her very clear and unhesitating diagnosis of the situation was that a school representative, working with the express permission of a parent, has the right to disclose personal information of a medical nature about said parent’s minor child.  It seems that  HIPA has a clause that allows for the release of information by the subject party or the subject party’s legal representative – in this case, a parent – and, in the absence of a clear school policy forbidding such disclosure (which there wasn’t), there is absolutely no wrongdoing if said school representative gives information about a student to the school community.

The attorney literally gasped when I told her that I’d been let go as a consequence of the story I told her.  She went on to tell me that I absolutely had actionable cause (which I’m not going to pursue) and that this never should have happened.

I said the things that I said that day with the express permission of Sweet Pea’s parents (and Sweet Pea concurred when she was well again and I was catching her up on what was going on at CHS).  I knew what I was doing was right when I was doing it, but I walked away from the conversation yesterday feeling incredibly vindicated.

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Themes

One of the really cool things we do at Charter High School is we choose a school-wide theme to work with during the year.  Generally, it’s something that’s started in the English classrooms and works its way through to the theatre production and music classes.

This year, for example, we chose “coming of age” as our theme.  I made nearly all of my book selections based on that idea, and the entire school read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which was discussed and analyzed in the English classes early in the year.  Later, the scriptwriting classes worked with it, putting together an original play.  After that, the stagecraft, acting, theatre production and puppetry classes took over to put on a really great show.

It’s about time to choose a theme for next year, and I’m at a loss.  Any ideas you guys can through at me would be greatly appreciated.  So far, I’ve come up with “friendship, family, and identity,” “war, politics, and diplomacy,” “Classics; stories we tell over and over,” “medicine, science, and technology,” “magic, faith, and fantasy,” and “The Journey; going away to come home.”  I’m circling around the ideas of  “duty and loyalty,” and I feel like I can make something work with “rights and responsibilities,” but I haven’t quite got there yet.

Which idea would you vote for as next year’s theme?

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Fingers Crossed!

I’m in the process of trying to reach Leif Enger, the author of the gorgeous Peace Like a River, which my juniors, seniors, and I are reading as our culminating novel for this year.

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My goal is that Mr. Enger will consent to an Skype conference with my class to discuss this beautifully written novel, his craft of writing, and life in general.  I’ve sent messages through a couple of avenues; I’m hoping one of them gets through.

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Wish me luck, would you?

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Filed under about writing, admiration, book geek, great writing, I love my job, out in the real world, Questions, winging it

Can We Teach Appreciation?

I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my freshmen.  For some of them, it’s going pretty well.  The rest of them, though, are just not that into it, and I’m trying to figure out, five chapters in, how to head those kids off at the Apathy Pass.

The thing is, I remember being a teenager and thinking that everything my English teachers gave me was dumb (I don’t remember if I used the word “lame” when I was a teenager, but that was the general idea I was circling around).  I remember having to read A Separate Peace, for example, and thinking that there was nothing in the novel that touched me; I had no connection to the book and, accordingly, I had no interest in it.  I started reading the novel again last month (I’ve since stopped because I switched that novel in my junior curriculum, but that’s neither here nor there), and I remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed the book as far as I read it.  I don’t know what exactly about me had changed, but clearly something had; I found myself settling nicely into the narrative and really enjoying the ride.

I’m trying to apply that to Mockingbird.  I read it as an adult, though, so I don’t have the same experience of slogging unwillingly through it as a teenager that I did with other novels.  I loved this book from the first chapter – the language delights me, the story unfolds at a perfect pace and pitch, the characters are distinct and delightful, and the payoff is complicated and sublime and gorgeous.  My kids, though, are not seeing it as I do; they’re frustrated by the language, they’re bored with the story, they don’t appreciate the subtlety of the text.

What I’m wondering is this; is it possible to teach someone to appreciate art?  I can MAKE them read it (well, to a point), but can I teach them to LIKE it?  I think that I teach best that which I love – I know that my enthusiasm has a tendency to rub off on certain kids – but I want to know if there’s more to it than just loving something; is there some way of conveying the beauty of a thing to someone through teaching?  Are there things I can deliberately do to help my kids understand and appreciate the beauty of a thing?  What do you think?

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What is “Reasonable”?

I’m thinking I may cross-post this on the Blue Door; it echos a lot of the thinking I’ve been doing over there, so if you read both places, don’t be surprised if you get a feeling of déjà vu.

Each of my classes is currently engaged in a unit about public speaking. My freshmen are giving purely informational presentations – I’ve tasked them with learning about something interesting and then teaching the rest of the class about it.  Since I like to do my own homework every once in a while, I’m doing this presentation with them.  Mine will be about the first round of the Nuremberg Trials.

My juniors are taking on an opinion presentation – they’ve been told to format their presentation around “here’s this thing that exists, here’s what I think about it, and here’s why I think the way I do,” and my seniors are attempting an argumentative/persuasive piece – they’re crafting an presentation that asks the audience to consider – or to reconsider – a particular topic.

Each of these presentations has three requirements – they need to have visuals, they need a written component, and the kids have to speak for 3-5 minutes or (5-8 for the bigger kids).  Additionally, they need to have at least three reputable sources, and they need to be organized such that the audiences can follow along, even if they’ve never had any experience with the topic in question.

I ended up in a conversation with my seniors this afternoon that intrigued me.  It was a bit of an offshoot of the conversation we started on Tuesday when I brought up the concepts of ethical speech and what our responsibilities are to the words that we send out into the world.  While I had planned this part of the unit to fall on this week anyway, I’m often amazed by how timely the Universe is in dropping relevant, real-world stuff into my lap at the exact time I’m teaching them in a classroom.  The Arizona shooting and the conversation about rhetoric that has inspired were just such a thing, and we had a long and interesting discussion about whether or not we can (or should) link the speech of one to the action of another.

Anyway, several of the kids came to me with topics that really weren’t appropriate for argument, and I spent a while trying to get the kids to understand that I’m looking for them to tackle the kinds of issues about which reasonable people can disagree.  It’s highly unlikely, I explained to one kid, that reasonable people are going to agree with what the Westboro Baptist Church does, so arguing against their right to do those things is kind of a pointless exercise.  So, too, is arguing against animal rights abuses; most reasonable people would agree that it’s wrong to be cruel and abusive to animals.

Just about when I thought I was getting through to them, one of my (favorite) kids piped up.  “Mrs. Chili,” he asked, “what does it mean to be reasonable?”

Yeah!  Wow!  What DOES that mean?

We spent a good long time talking about the implications of making that kind of judgment about something.  How DO we determine what reasonable means?  What are the criteria by which we judge that kind of person?

The answers the kids came up with both surprised and delighted me.  Reasonable people, they decided, are people who, by their nature, are open-minded.  They’re willing to listen to others’ ideas, but aren’t necessarily swayed by them.  Reasonable people are critical thinkers and don’t just jump on the latest and greatest ideas.  They don’t give a whole lot of credence to the people who are making the most noise, but are more impressed by the people who make the clearest and most compelling argument.  Reasonable people take the big picture into account; a reasonable person may be willing to concede to something not-so-good in the short term to ensure a positive outcome long-term.  Reasonable people are compassionate and consider the needs of others when making decisions or taking actions.  Reasonable people may well be considered unreasonable by outside observers, they decided, but it’s not one’s reputation that determines one’s reasonableness; one’s behaviors, thought processes, and actions determine this (some of my kids are very sensitive to the fact that our school doesn’t yet have a very good reputation, and they take that personally).  Reasonable people do not generally abide extremes, they decided, nor do reasonable people generally rely upon “faith” to make their decisions; they are more influenced by their own experiences and observations and the facts that they encounter than they are by scripture or the words of their particular flavor of clergy.  Reasonable people are willing to change their minds about something when they’re presented with compelling evidence to do so.

We ended the conversation by talking about the idea put forth on a church’s message board:

Learning to think for themselves, and learning to do that reasonably, is perhaps the most important thing I can encourage my students to do.  To that end, I give them every opportunity I can find, and I ask them to think in whatever ways they can, whether those ways agree with my way of thinking or not (because learning to disagree with civility is absolutely vital, and learning to disagree with those in authority is a life skill).

So I ask you, Dear Readers, what would you add to my kids’ definition of what makes one reasonable?  Do you think you embody those qualities?  If not, where can you strive to bring more reasonableness into your life?

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The Interview

My teacher- and blogging buddy Ricochet posted an interview over on her site.  I was just thinking this morning that I haven’t posted here in a while, so I’m posting this.  Thank you, Honey, for posting the questions by themselves; I wasn’t sure I could manage not peeking at your answers before I wrote my own.

My background information is that I am in my 5th year of teaching in a high school (though I have taught at the junior college and university level, as well)  in the Northeast.  I teach English, writing, literature, poetry, public speaking,  critical thinking, and film as literature.

Interview:

How was actually teaching different from what you expected it to be when you went into teaching?

Teaching is both better and worse than I expected it to be in college.  Truly, nothing that happens in a college classroom can prepare one for the experience of being a teacher; despite their best efforts to get us prepared for classroom management and curriculum design and all the day-to-day stuff that happens, there’s really no substitute for being in it.  Honestly, I don’t think that someone who hasn’t taught in the field in the last few years has any business teaching a class that prepares teachers for their jobs; I have no problem with someone who’s never (or not recently) taught giving classes in the respective disciplines, but the classes specifically designed to teach people how to function in an honest-to-Goddess classroom should only be taught by people who actually do it (or have recently done it).  Maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, I realized that I’m not answering the question.  I guess my answer would have to be that I didn’t expect to do as much on-the-fly teaching as I do.  I mean, I knew that I wouldn’t be following a plan word-for-word, but I find that I can go off on any of a million different fruitful tangents depending on what interests the students.  A kid will pick up on some little detail or ask a question that I didn’t expect, and we’ll spend a whole class period exploring where that takes us.  Personally (and professionally), I have no problem with that – in fact, I think it’s really wonderful – but it sometimes leads me to have to recalculate my trajectory for the semester.

What do people not know about schools or teaching that you wish they did?

I wish that people understood how emotionally invested in our work, and our students, we teachers are.  Of course, there are the exceptions – I know for sure that I had teachers who were just going through the motions – but I would have to say that the greater percentage of people who go into teaching do it because they love their disciplines and they love their kids.  I CARE about how well my students do; I know I have something to give them that will help them get along in the world, something that will ease their way and make their lives richer and more productive.  It matters to me that my kids are safe and well cared for.  It matters to me that they be given the space they need to grow and change and to sometimes fall flat on their faces.  I know I didn’t go into this work for the money (she says with a sharp edge of bitterness in her voice), and I resent the fuck out of people who discount the work that we do because of their perception of the hours that we (supposedly) work.  These people take no heed of the fact that teachers are building human beings – the future citizens of our world – and that is no small thing.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing educators today?

The single biggest problem that faces education is that we SAY we value it, but we don’t BEHAVE as though we do.  I won’t even tell you how much money I spent out of my own pocket because there are simply no funds for things like paper and pens and books.  I hold book fairs and bake sales and I beg my friends and family and the members of my community to give our school the things we need because we don’t have the money to buy them.  We talk a good game about how America needs to be on the cutting edge of science and technology, yet we do practically nothing to serve the kids who are in our schools right now.

There’s a bumper sticker that says something like “it will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy another bomber.” Our priorities are NOT what we claim them to be, and until we start behaving as though education matters, it will all be just so much lip service.

What is the best thing about teaching?

The kids, without question. I ADORE my students, and I bear each and every one of them a particular variety of maternal love (though I will admit to loving some more than others). I have formed great relationships with most of my students since I began doing this work, and it is the exchanges and interactions I have with my students that I find most rewarding about this job. There is little that equals the high of seeing a kid finally GET something that she’s been struggling with for however long we’ve been working on it; the look of “Oh, my GOD, I GET IT!!” that crosses their faces is just fantastic, and the fact that they’ll never think the same way again is something that I treasure. I’ve been fortunate to witness a lot of those moments (I call them “Helen Keller moments” in honor of the famous scene at the water pump), and the potential for more is what keeps me hooked on this work.

I’m also in love with my discipline, and getting to share that with a new group of kids every year is more fun than I expected it to be. I get to read and talk about books for a living! Really; how can that be bad?!

Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

My intention is to keep doing what I’m doing, though I can’t say for sure that I’ll be doing it WHERE I am now. I teach at a tiny charter high school whose long-term future is somewhat murky (between funding and the disposition of the Department of Ed toward charter schools, we’re not sure whether we’ll see ten years though, in a fit of optimism, the board signed a 20 year lease with our current landlords, so….). Mr. Chili jokes that I’m his retirement plan, so it’s a good thing I like what I do, because he plans on my doing it for a while. I’m okay with that; I’m still excited to get up and go to work every morning. Someone once said that if you find something you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I think that someone was exactly right.

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Filed under Helen Keller Moment, I love my job, little bits of nothingness, Questions, self-analysis, Teaching, The Job

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!