Category Archives: Education

Who are the Dreamers?


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


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?

Lessons from a Temporary Disability?


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?

What Do We Do When the Rioting Ends?

Today I repeat a post from November 2014. Instead of forgetting our children each time a crisis like the one in Baltimore fades from the news cycle, we must find a way to make our nation’s children–and particularly our poor children and children of color–believe again that the American Dream is possible. We can only do that by accepting the reality we have created for them and working to change their circumstances and give them hope.

Is the American Dream Just a Dream?

College Graduation

“You’ll git the education I didn’t git, so you can have a better life than I’ve had.” This was my father’s mantra. He quit school in fifth grade, and he began working in a coal mine when he was only fifteen. He was functionally illiterate, and my mother read every important document to him in the privacy of their bedroom. He went to such great lengths to hide his illiteracy that even his five children didn’t know for years that he couldn’t read.

Continue reading What Do We Do When the Rioting Ends?

A Majority Getting a Free Lunch?

Poor Kids

Today’s Washington Post reports that a majority, a whopping 51%, of our nation’s public school students now qualify for free and reduced meals. This does not, of course, include those children whose families live just enough above the poverty line not to qualify for government assistance.

I was one of those children in the second category. Continue reading A Majority Getting a Free Lunch?

Educating Children Who Aren’t Showing Promise

Twitter Globalization Article

Having spent all my professional life working to educate America’s children, I naturally bristle when I see a headline like the one that appeared in my Twitter feed from the Washington Post this morning: “Globalization isn’t America’s problem, education is.” I clicked on the link, prepared to be annoyed and to argue with yet another businessman who blames education for the country’s problems. Companies are in the business of rewarding those who show promise. Schools are in the business of convincing children who aren’t showing promise that they have something to offer the world. Continue reading Educating Children Who Aren’t Showing Promise