Category Archives: Education

The Key to Education?

Graduation 74

As I look toward retirement in a few days, I’ve been thinking about the most difficult class I taught in 30 years in the classroom.   I was about 20 years into my career when I was hired to lead the English Department in one of three schools that made up my district’s first experiment in choice. Our school was the new one—the one many students didn’t want because it had no history and no ties to the community.

The boundaries for all three schools were redrawn, and our school opened with only ninth and tenth graders. If students didn’t get their first choice, they were guaranteed a spot in their new home school. Because of our signature program in the arts, many creative students chose us. We also had a large number of students who didn’t want to be there, as well as some students who had problems in their home schools who came to us to get a fresh start. Those in the second group created the perfect storm that shook my confidence to the core and gave me a dose of humility that I’ve never forgotten.

Continue reading The Key to Education?

Courageous Conversations about Race and Poverty?

I Voted

“Why do you keep trying to reason with those people?” It is a question I’m asked repeatedly by my liberal friends on social media when I attempt to engage in a discussion with relatives and childhood friends who support Donald Trump.

Why? Because I believe that well-meaning liberals who dismiss the concerns of poor whites and call them ignorant might as well be the warm-up act for the next Trump rally. Our refusal to acknowledge their concerns has helped set the tone for Trump’s stage appearances.

Continue reading Courageous Conversations about Race and Poverty?

Who are the Dreamers?

Coates

Dear Mr. Coates:

As a child I, too, stood in the face of a brandished gun. Like you, “I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream.” Like you, I did not tell my teachers, and I did not tell my friends.

I did not tell my parents. Because they were there. My mother, too, stared down the barrel of the gun—a gun wielded by my drunken father.

Like you I asked, “What was the exact problem? Who could know?” It’s taken me the better part of a lifetime to understand the demons that drove my father to hold the people he loved at gunpoint. Continue reading Who are the Dreamers?

The Reading Quiz as Buzz-Kill

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Every English teacher I know chose our subject because, at some point, a great writer got us just a little drunk on words. For us, it’s intoxicating to read a well-turned phrase. We buy coffee mugs with famous first lines and tee-shirts with our favorite authors’ quotations. We get students to paint murals of book covers with insightful book excerpts on walls in the English hallway.

If words are the grapes in the hands of a skilled vintner, then reading quizzes have to be the ultimate buzz-kill. No English teacher became one because her own English teacher gave a multiple choice assessment on every homework assignment.

Tenth grade is my only year of high school that I don’t remember a single work I read with fondness. In fact, though I recognize as a teacher that some of the greatest speeches in Shakespeare sing from the pages of Julius Caesar, it remains, to this day, my least favorite of the bard’s plays.

Why? My tenth grade teacher gave a multiple choice quiz on nearly every reading assignment. And one day he announced to the class, “I’m going to keep making these quizzes harder until Estelene fails one.” I remember his toothy smile in that moment as the closest grin to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat’s that I’ve ever seen on a human face.

My friends begged me to take a bullet for the class. But knowing that I needed scholarships if I wanted to attend college, I refused. Each time the teacher handed out new paper, still smelling of chemicals from the mimeograph machine, the class erupted in a collective groan. To my classmates’ credit, they never bullied me as the teacher did, and after a few weeks we all sighed with relief when he pulled out quizzes that had clearly been handled by many grubby hands before ours.

After that experience, I wonder now why I ever gave a single reading quiz when I became a teacher myself. But I did. And when, with the advent of an ever-expanding menu of cable television channels, students became less interested in reading, I did what many teachers did: I gave more frequent reading quizzes to hold students accountable.

I remember the exact school year when I realized that reading quizzes were having the opposite effect on my own tenth graders than the one I wanted. I had broadened my reading list to a more diverse group of authors that I thought might interest my students. It helped, but it didn’t solve the problem. Faced with a large number of failing grades early in the marking period, I told students that if they hadn’t read, they’d be dining with me for lunch until they did. I enlisted the support of their parents and the administrators, and their grades came up.

But two things happened that changed my thinking about English teachers as reading police. I looked up from my desk at the sea of miserable faces jailed in my classroom at lunch while their friends were enjoying the fall weather in the courtyard below. My students were reading. But they weren’t getting a buzz from the literature I loved.

That afternoon in one of my honors classes, a few of my students displayed far more courage than my classmates and I had. “Ms. B.,” one pleaded, “I swear I read. But who pays attention to how Holden is dressed? Let me come in after school, and you can quiz me face-to-face, and I know I can prove to you that I read those chapters.” And she did. And when word got out, I had a line of students asking for the same opportunity.

The next day, I asked students to write down four or five quotations from the reading that they found interesting or that raised a question for them, and I had them write about one of those passages. I rarely led whole class discussions of books, preferring instead to give small groups topics and have them lead the discussion. But that day, I had them begin their group discussions with what they wanted to talk about. Their discussions were lively, and the surprising thing to me was that they were drawn to all the things I would have pointed their attention to had I been leading a whole-class discussion.

I never gave another multiple choice reading quiz. After that fall, I tried to find creative ways to make whatever happened in class meaningful and engaging, both for the students who had read and for those who had not. I gave choices of books more often, and some students would finish one and ask for another and then join the discussion on the one they liked best.

As I let go of policing the reading, I experienced more of what I’ve always considered my favorite moment in the classroom—when a student has an insight that has never occurred to me.

I’m certain that some students didn’t read the books I assigned, even though I never stopped expecting them to. But I’m equally certain that once I gave up demanding that they pay if they hadn’t read, I saw more students discover favorite authors and get a little tipsy as they sipped the words on the page.

So as long as we’re having a national conversation about the assessments that are imposed on us from outside, let’s also think about what we ourselves are doing either to kill or instill a love of reading and writing and learning.

How do we share with students our love of the great writers?

Who’s to Blame When Children Fail?

Siblings 1If we ever decide as a nation that none of us have all the answers, my siblings and I could be the poster children for the complexities of educating America’s youth. Born to a father who quit school in fifth grade and a mother who quit school in ninth grade, my sister and I were the first of our paternal grandparents’ 52 grandchildren to graduate from college. Like many parents today, my parents fervently wanted us to have the education they didn’t have, but they had no idea how to make that happen. Continue reading Who’s to Blame When Children Fail?

Want the Best Teachers?

Ash & Mrs. Hacker

For a moment I was brimming with hope. In a rare occurrence, an article about education made the top headline in the online version of the Washington Post homepage today. This was a particularly striking event in light of other significant news this week—the Benghazi hearings, Hurricane Patricia, the death of an American serviceman in a fight against ISIS.

Continue reading Want the Best Teachers?

Is the Accuplacer Accurate?

Dr. Shrewsbury

This week I took the Accuplacer, a College Board placement test currently used by many community colleges. Thank God, I’m “college and career ready.” I say “thank God” because I believe that my performance on that test owes little to my intellect and reasoning ability. I struggled so much with the test that I was surprised when I got my scores that I seemed to have only missed one question on reading and one question on sentence structure. Here’s the thing: I graduated both high school and college at the head of my class, I attended college on scholarships and grants that left me with no college debt, I earned an MA that certified me as a reading specialist, I taught English for 30 years, and I’ve worked in my district’s curriculum office for over eight years.

Take a moment to absorb that. Continue reading Is the Accuplacer Accurate?

Lessons from a Temporary Disability?

Brace

Five more weeks to go. Seven weeks ago, after the orthopedic surgeon repaired the crushed plateau of my tibia, he wrote in giant letters for the nurses, “NWB left leg.” For those of you who don’t get the hospital shorthand, that means NON-WEIGHT BEARING…and not just for the time I was in the hospital. Dr. Golden and his residents reiterated it every time they came to my bedside, as they listened with infinite patience to my questions while I tried to absorb the fact that it would be months before I’d be able to log 10,000 steps a day on my pedometer again.  Somehow they seemed to find a balance between talking to me as if I were an intelligent person and reminding me of the magnitude of the injury, as if I might forget the brace that went from an inch above my ankle to within an inch or so of my crotch. “No weight on this leg for twelve weeks,” they repeated to me again and again. Continue reading Lessons from a Temporary Disability?