Friday, September 7, 2018

Recommending Mr. Fitz

The other day I mentioned here that there were times when I taught when I was certain no one else knew what I was going through. Well, there is someone else who really seems to get it: David Finkle. He is the creator of the Mr. Fitz comic strip.

Finkle is a former middle school/current high school English teacher. He knows what he’s drawing and writing about in this strip. I would like to suggest you give his website,

He covers the gamut of what it is like to teach in an age of growing demonization of teachers and teaching. And he does it in a really funny way. In addition to being a loyal reader, I’ve bought two of his Mr. Fitz books, which collect the strips from the web. 

Here are a couple of his strips he said I could use for this post. 

So look for Mr. Fitz on Facebook and on the Web. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Book Recommendation: Adequate Yearly Progress

There were times when I taught when I was certain no one else knew what I was going through. It is strange that in a profession where you are surrounded by other humans all day long, that I could feel so lonely and isolated. Roxanna Elden gets it. Maybe because she taught for eleven years. That perspective I only get when talking to other teachers, I got here in this book as well.

The essential loneliness of the job came through to me. So many characters going through individual crises all by themselves, even when surrounded by colleagues. Lena Wright, the African American, spoken word artist, English teacher who wants so desperately for her students to see the power of language, touched me. Kaytee Mahoney, the young, overly-idealistic TeachCorps teacher, caught between the perfection of her goals and the reality of her students, embodies many young teachers I knew. Hernan D. Hernandez, the laid back science teacher, who was always tongue tied in Lena’s presence, was the teacher who pretty much ignored the testing insanity and really taught his students. Even characters that in other hands could be seen merely as antagonistic were given depth. The assistant principals were pretty much cut outs, but I have worked with so many who fit the two in this book to a T to feel disgruntled there.

Told with wit and understanding, rotating to a different teacher in each chapter, this is the story of a school in Texas that has a new superintendent, a man who has never taught but has written a best seller about how to fix education, who turns their school on its ear. Insane initiative after initiative being forced down the teachers’ throats—I thought that the continually increasing number of things they were required to write out on their boards throughout the book was a terrific metaphor for all the foolishness teachers are saddled with. 

It was a story about people. Each in their own way a dedicated teacher. Each in their own way trying to survive another year in the classroom. Each in their own way reminding me of so many I have taught with.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who teaches, especially middle and high school. It was funny and sad at the same time. I think you’ll like it.

I received a free electronic ARC of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 3, 2018

This Guy Has Some Good Ideas

I just read an editorial in the Sadiego Union-Tribune, "On Labor Day a modest proposal to keep stars in classroom" by Logan Jenkins. He has some ideas on keeping retired teachers in the classroom. I'm afraid this type of thinking is all too rare these days. Give it a read.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Students: Product or Customers?

Every year, as the school year starts, all the teachers in my district are brought together to be addressed by various members of the central office.  Our accomplishments are celebrated.  The areas on which we need to work are defined. The challenges of the near future and our ability to meet those challenges are explicated.  This year as I sat in the darkened auditorium, I heard a person for whom I have much respect refer to the students as “our product.” My immediate, instinctual response to that was inappropriate/unprintable (albeit silent).  It was followed by the thought that students are the customers, not the product.  The product is their education.  
I cannot really blame the speaker for making this reference to student-as-product.  This has been the dominant cultural metaphor regarding education for some time.  With it has come the ascendancy of multiple-choice, standardized, norm-referenced testing.  After all, if the students are the product, we need a way to measure the value of that product.  This mindset has come more and more to dominate the way educators and the populace think about education.  
But there is a major problem with this dominant cultural metaphor.  
In an article in The Atlantic OnlineNicholas Carr ( introduced me to Frederick Winslow Taylor.  Taylor made his name by breaking down tasks in industrial production into small discrete steps.  Then he experimented to find the most efficient way to do each step.  In The Principals of Scientific Management(which was published in 1911), his goal was to figure out the “one best method” to do every job.  Then the work of standardization should begin.  Each worker should be forced to work in the most efficient way possible.  He explicitly placed the system above the people who performed it.
As an educator, I am already familiar with the concept.  I have seen it at work in schools for years.  Thinking of students as a product makes the teachers little more than workers in an “education factory.”  The teachers are not respected as professionals.  New “teacher proof” methods of “educating” are touted. Scripted courses, where teachers are not allowed to deviate from the script even if it would benefit the students, have been adopted throughout the country.   Even something that was originally used as a guide has become more of a straightjacket.
I am reminded of a round-and-round discussion I had with a math teacher several years ago. We both taught seventh grade.  He taught math.  One day he was complaining—again—that his students were, for the most part, failing his class.  He was upset about this.  He wanted them to do better.  I, having practically no talent for math, asked him if he wanted to talk about it. I thought that maybe as a math-struggler I could see something that he, as a subject matter expert (no sarcasm—he was really an expert in his subject), might be missing.  Sometimes a person is just too close to the problem to see it.
“The main problem,” he said, “ is that they are missing some fourth grade skills.  They never mastered them.  Without those skills, they have no real hope of doing the work in seventh grade.”
“Are these skills tough?” I asked.
“No, not really. “
“How long would it take you to teach them those skills?”
“A week, maybe two.”
“Would having this background knowledge help them to be more successful?”
“I think it would, yes.”
I thought I saw a solution.  “Then why don’t you take a week or two and review those fourth grade skills?  Then you will be able to teach the seventh grade skills and they would be better able to catch on and pass the class.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” I was curious.  It seemed so simple.
“Those skills aren’t in the Course of Study for seventh grade.” 
I asked if the students, having mastered the fourth grade skills, would work faster.  Probably.  I asked if he could make up the time it took to teach them those skills.  He again agreed he probably could.  So I asked again--why not do it?   Again he told me that it wasn’t in the Course of Study for his grade level.  We kept going around and around, always to end in the same place.
I want to emphasize here that this man was far from incompetent or uncaring.  It was tearing him up that his students were not succeeding. But the Course of Study, as issued by the State Department of Education, was a document he followed religiously. He could not and would not deviate from it.  This way of thinking is all too familiar to many educators.
I see this as a consequence of treating students as the product and not as the customers.  He had the instructions issued for his product (a laTaylor’s paradigm) and he was going to follow them.  In fact, there could be serious consequences (especially as he was not tenured) for not following them.  He could receive low evaluations.  If his students did not perform well on the standardized tests, he would be called on the carpet for deviating from the approved course.  By following the Course of Study, he was trying to cover his own behind.  Hey, he did what he was told, when he was told, the way he was told to.  It couldn’t be his fault, could it?
Seeing students as product, not customers, leads to the problem of standardization.  I believe in educating people.  I want all my students to achieve to the best of their abilities, but all of my students have different abilities.  Students come into all classes with differing abilities. If they are product, the problem is to force them into a conformity with a norm that they may or may not fit. Then the students and their differing abilities are the problem.  If they are customers, the problem is to figure out a way to get each of them from where they are at the beginning of my course—to help them each make as much progress as they can.  Am I always successful?  Nope.  But I try my hardest and I do feel it is worth the effort. 
Until we can shift the metaphor to students being the customers of our educational system, many of the current problems are apt to remain, even worsen.  We will continue to focus on test scores, not the students behind them.  We will continue to blame teachers for not producing a viable product.  We will continue to blame students for not meeting arbitrary standards.  We will continue to treat all children as cookie-cutter copies of each other rather than as individuals to be nurtured.
 More important than my role as a professional educator is my role as a parent; I do not want my beautiful, quirky, intelligent daughter to be treated as raw material for the educational factory.  She is an individual.  The only way to help her achieve her potential is to treat her as an individual.  If you are a parent, don’t you want your child (or children) to be treated as a customer instead of a product?  Whether you have a child or not, don’t you want to be thought of as an individual? I think this is only natural.  And I believe that if we, as a society, can make the shift to a different way of thinking about the students in our schools, it will do our society an incalculable amount of good.

Friday, August 17, 2018

This I Believe

As long as I am restarting the blog, I may as well start off with a bang.

This I Believe

I believe that tossing my students into the deep end of learning is the best way of getting them to succeed.  

When I was four years old, my family moved to South Florida, and my grandparents bought a house with an in-ground pool.  I had gotten into it many times, sitting and standing on the steps with my parents or grandparents there to watch over me. I would jump in to them, or pull myself along the wall to them.  If I had an inflatable tube around me, I would “swim.”  But I wasn’t really swimming and I knew it.  I was just pretending.  It was fun, yes, but I wanted more.

One day my father and I were out by the pool and I again expressed my desire to learn how to swim—probably for the thousandth time that day.  A little exasperated, my father asked me, “Do you really want to learn how to swim?”

In a flash I thought about all the times I had seen him and the other adults in the pool having a good time.  I had been in there, imitating them, wanting to do what they were doing. As much fun as they appeared to be having, it still looked a little scary to me, though.  At four, the backyard pool was enormous.  But I really wanted to, so I answered, “Yes!”

My father said, “Okay,” picked me up, and tossed me in the middle of the deep end of the pool.  In seconds I was swimming and dogpaddled my way to the other side.

While that might seem a little harsh, it wasn’t. It was a safe environment; my family was all around.  There was support if I needed it; my father was ready to jump in and make sure I wouldn’t drown.  I had shown some beginning skill at being in the water, so my father had an idea of what I could do, but knew I had to get over the anxiety of my first try; so, he tossed me in and I got over it like that.  

Often in my classes, there are students who are hesitant to start writing.  Students who are not sure that they can get off the steps and give up the inflatable tube of worksheets and heavily structured writing assignments. When told to just write, for many of them, it is the equivalent of being thrown in the deep end of the pool.  

Sure, it can be a little scary, but we work to create a supportive environment.  I am there (as often are other class members) if anyone has real difficulties they need help with—so they don’t wind up drowning in their own thoughts.  We start with some more guided assignments first, giving us all an idea of what we are capable of, so I know how to better help them. 

And they “swim.”  Some produce little “dogpaddles” for days or weeks; others are diving in on their own in no time.  And, just as swimmers differ in the way they enter the water, some always content to jump right in others acclimating themselves to the water a bit at a time, students who have found they can write enter assignments differently. Sometime they jump right in, sometimes slowly work themselves into an assignment a bit at a time.  

Just as I couldn’t learn how to swim correctly before being exposed to it, before getting a chance to try it out on my own, so my students won’t learn to write any better unless they get to read good examples, talk and write about them, and get a chance to write in a stress-free environment, like a journal.  

Eventually I was taught that some of what I was doing in the water wasn’t as effective as it could be.  I was shown ways to improve my kicks and taught different strokes. But I spent days and weeks of summer in pools by myself, swimming as I wanted and learning new and better ways on my own as well.  Sometimes asking for help, sometimes not.  

In the classroom mistakes can be dealt with and the writing can be improved.  They learn and practice better usage, different types of writing, different ways of getting from here to there in the ocean of words.  More importantly by writing they learn how to help themselves improve.  Sometimes they ask for help, sometimes they don’t.  They dive more deeply on their own.  Swim more freely.

Sometimes they still need to be pushed a little to get them move to a deeper level they are capable of.  Sometimes they need to see the strokes performed by one who knows how to do it—by someone who is in there swimming with them.  And sometimes they just need to be set free to swim as they please and have a little fun.  When they are doing that, they’ve learned the most important lesson I can teach them.