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Posted by on in General

I walked into the high school as a seventh grader in 1969. I walked out of it as a retiree in last week.

You get asked a lot of questions when you retire, many of which have the unintended consequence of poking you right in the feels. (I'm definitely not  crying at least once a day, but if I did, I would at least manage to do it when I'm not in front of anybody.) Some are pretty basic (what are you going to do with that filing cabinet) and some dig a little deeper, like the comments about my legacy. Some folks have even offered to watch after my legacy, to preserve it, and I just don't have the heart to tell them that I have no legacy in that building.


I'm the longest-serving member of the current faculty, which means that I've seen a lot of people head out the door, and I know exactly what kind of mark they leave behind them.

Teachers are not billionaires or politicians. We don't generally get to build giant structures and slap our own names on them in hopes that some day we will leave a mark behind us. We don't generally get honored with statues and monuments, not even in a broad Tomb of the Unknown Teacher way, let alone as specific individuals. Nobody is out there carving his third grade teacher's face into the side of a mountain.

A teacher in a school is like a post driven deep into the bed of a river. The current bends around her; maybe it cuts into the bank and certainly it carries river traffic along paths affected by that post. Even the bed of the river will be cut and shaped by the current as it bends around that post. People even start to navigate by the post, as if it's a permanent part of the river.

But something happens when the post is one day removed.

Maybe folks are so impressed by the post that they put a special commemorative marker in place of the post. Maybe some big boulders rolled into place against the post and stay in place long after the post is gone, even when folks don't remember how they ended up there.

But mostly there's a momentary swirl of dirt, a quick rush of water and then, after a brief moment of time, the river bed is smooth again and the river flows as if there was never any post at all.

I don't imagine I will leave much of legacy here, and what little there is will be worn away over time, and that's okay. I do have a legacy, but to see it, you have to look downstream.

I figure that I've worked with, roughly, 5,000 students. Some of them are still carrying around bits of skill or knowledge that I passed on to them, or parts of their lives that grew out of something I passed on to them. They grew up to be living, breathing, growing, active men and women who worked at finding how to be their best selves, how to be fully human in the world. Undoubtedly some of those students didn't get much out of being in my class, and some have less-than-positive memories of me, but I have to believe that some got something out of their time in my room.

That's my legacy. People who felt just a little better about reading, or just a little better about riding. Here and there some students who actually pursued writing or teaching as careers. Some students who built a foundation of confidence in an activity. Some I hear from now and then, some I talk to regularly, and some whose lives took them far from here, and I have no idea how their stories have unfolded.

My legacy-- and every teacher's legacy-- is not here in this building. This building is just brick and mortar and rules and procedures and "traditions" that sometimes last less than a decade, all carried out by a constantly-changing cast of educators and students. Names and awards are created, but they carry on names even as the person whose name it is is forgotten. My legacy-- and every teacher's legacy-- is out in the world, in those students who passed through this building, and it's not for anyone to "preserve" because it has a life of its own-- as it should.

If I can switch metaphors for a moment-- as teachers, our job is to light a fire, to pass along a flame. Passing on a flame is a curious activity-- the new flame is not a piece of the old one, but its own new thing, with its own new life, even as the old fire continues to burn. Spreading a flame multiplies it, but the new flame is not shaped or controlled by the old one.

If I walk back into this building ten years from now, I don't imagine that I'll find anything to indicate that I was ever here. But, "God help and forgive me, I wanna build something that's gonna outlive me." Teaching has always let me do that-- but not here, not in this building. Not in this stiff structure of unliving steel and stone. Out there in the world, where the water carries us to the sea, new fires spring up to illuminate the world, and human beings full of life and breath roam and grow. If we're going to have a legacy, that's where it will be.

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Posted by on in Assessment

thermostate

Here's another analogy to help understand why test-centered accountability doesn't work well.

All the heat in my house is run by a single thermostat. My house has three stories and a basement. The thermostat is on the first floor. The furnace runs into two out of four rooms on the second floor. There are no furnace runs to the third floor (a converted attic space).

The thermostat is supposed to turn the furnace off and on based on the temperature in the house. But it only measures the temperature in one room. In a second-floor bedroom, the temperature may be uncomfortably cold, but the thermostat doesn't measure that. In the attic room, a space heater4 may have the room super-warm, but the thermometer doesn't know that. The thermostat is by the front door-- if that door opens and cold air comes pouring in, the thermostat thinks the whole house is cold.

In short, the thermostat is an inaccurate measure of the temperature in my home because it only measures the temp in one place.

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Posted by on in School Culture

You may have heard this in a discussion of education policy in general, or if you're a teacher, you may have heard it in internal discussions of curriculum and instruction.

It shouldn't make any difference.

It shouldn't make any difference which teacher you have. It shouldn't make any difference who teaches that course. It shouldn't make any difference if we have to replace you with a new hire next year, or next week, or tomorrow.

It's a variation on the dream of the teacher-proof classroom, a hope for standardization so rigorous that individual teachers can be switched like cogs in a machine or bricks in a wall. And it's wrong. Really wrong.

It is a call to bland mediocrity. Anything that sticks out about a particular teacher, anything that they do better than their peers, anything that is a special strength they bring to the table-- those things must all be lopped out and ground down, because they would be a difference. Do you (like my colleague) teach a unit centered around reading Paradise Lost and putting John Milton on trial in front of a jury of local attorneys and educators? Well, not any teacher who stepped into your job could pull that off, so that unit should not be part of your class.

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Posted by on in Teaching Strategies

It's January, and I am still confronting the junk left in the wake of the dreaded Five Paragraph Essay.

Mind you, I have danced with the Five Paragraph Essay on more than few occasions. Early in my career there were few teachers I my building teaching composition at all, and it seemed like a good place to start. And the Fiver is still an improvement for those students whose preferred format is the Uniblob-- a mass of untethered words and sentences that spreads out across the page with no regard for order or sense.

To my students, I compare the FPE to training wheels-- they may be useful when you're starting out, but leave them on too long and they become a hindrance rather than a help.

The problem with the Fiver is that it leads a student to approach writing exactly backward. Instead of asking "What do I have to say and what's the best way to say it," the student says, "Okay, I have these five paragraph-shaped blanks to fill up-- what can I fill them up with." And that backwardness infects the entire process. As I slogged through my students' last paper (about symbolism and theme in The Awakening), I can see plainly that they did not ask "Have I made my point and buttressed it with solid support and evidence." Instead they have asked, "Does that paragraph look full enough yet? It does. Okay, then on to the next one."

Structure in writing needs to flow from the function. Start talking about an idea, a part of an idea, a step in setting up the discussion of an idea, and then when you're completed that task, start a new paragraph. It's simple.

But for all my decades of teaching, I have had to keep answering versions of the question "How long does this have to be?" (which is itself a version of the question "What's the least I can get away with doing on this assignment?"). The only answer is "Long enough to get the job done."

You don't measure a nutritional value of a meal by measuring how many minutes you spent eating it.You don't turn to your romantic partner and ask, "How many minutes do I have to talk to you in order for this thing to work?" And you don't determine the quality of a piece of writing based on how many pages you filled up with words.

You cannot put structure ahead of function-- unless, of course, the only thing you feel comfortable evaluating is structure. In which case you are not teaching writing at all-- you're teaching Making Marks on Paper. And you are contributing to the students' sense that school is some sort of Kafkaesque exercise in following odd instructions that are unrelated to life on planet Earth. Oh-- and you're also preparing students to do well on the Big Standardized Test, which also does not know how to evaluate good writing. So I guess there's that.

So, die, five paragraph essay. Die painfully or quietly, with a bang or with a whimper, but just die. And let's fill the space left behind with the goal of saying something clearly, effectively, and vigorously, according to the structure that best suits what we have to say.

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Posted by on in General

My first long-term sub job was finishing the year for a teacher who had passed away in her sleep. Her school-age daughter went to wake her, and she was just... gone. This was at my old high school, the school where I now work. I knew the woman, her co-workers, many of the families of the students. It was April, and my job was to coax grieving eighth graders into a classroom that would, for them, be haunted.

I have only encountered the death of a still-working teacher a handful of times in my career. Some hit closer to home than others. My friend Susie and I went back to Fourth Grade together. A gifted performer, she went to college to train professionally and spent a few years criss-crossing the country with professional touring companies of major shows. Eventually she decided that was not the life she wanted; she came back home and took a job as a high school chorale director. She enjoyed it; she was good at it. Then she discovered the cancer.


She worked as long as she was able. One door of her choir room opened directly to the side yard of her school; while she was doing chemo, she would step outside between classes, throw up, and then go back to work.

It's hard on students. Of course, it's enormously hard on students when other students die; when you're a teenager, you don't think about the limits of human mortality very often. But the death of a teacher packs a different punch, perhaps because they mostly don't think of us as humans, exactly. They think of us, expect us to be, immovable pieces of the landscape, as intractable as the ground they stand on. When a student dies, they feel a shudder in their own hearts; when a teacher dies, they feel the earth shift under their feet.

So that's where we are today in my building. A colleague I have taught with for over twenty years is gone. He had battled cancer for a few years now, and in fact had left the job a few weeks ago when his doctors told him he was almost out of time. The students didn't know that; they figured he was just getting healthy again, and would be back in his room, at his desk, again.

He was a former marine who returned from service and got a teaching degree. I can't say that he was the greatest teacher who ever set foot in the building-- we taught in adjoining rooms for years and to this day, most of what I know about National Lampoon''s Christmas Vacation I know from hearing the movie blaring through from the other side of the wall. His teaching methods were very different from mine, and not methods I'd endorse for anyone.

But he cared tremendously about the students. He coached runners for his entire career, investing himself in their efforts. He ran with them until he couldn't any more. He hosted the team at his house for big team meals, even after folks told him, "You know, you really shouldn't do that." You could count on him to show up to chaperone every single school dance. This fall, he defied doctor's orders and with his family keeping watchful eye, traveled to states to support one of his runners. He was a quiet, private person, but the students felt real affection for him. Their teacher-radar told them he was all right.

His obituary is in this morning's paper, and at the beginning of the day we will each read an official announcement from the school. His students will understand that the sub they've been with for a few weeks will now finish the year with them; God bless him for handling that gig. Some students will cry; some will go to the guidance office to take a moment. Many will show up for visitation tomorrow, maybe even the funeral. I will set this to auto-post  later, so that I don't get myself all emotioned up before I work with the students.

Years ago they started telling us that when a student dies, we should just leave their seat empty in the classroom, that students find it disrespectful to "erase" the lost person. I suppose an empty teacher's desk is a similar matter. Hard to say. We haven't been through this many times. Teachers usually retire before they pass, fade from the collective memory of the school they served, move on to some other place in their lives. For those who pass while still in the job, it's different. They will never not be teachers, and their place will always be in the classroom, there, at that empty desk.

This is why education is properly about the big things-- how to be more fully yourself, how to be fully human in the world. Because life is short, and people die, often unfairly and almost always before their work is done. Be kind. Be better. Remember, you only have so many chances before the desk is empty.

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