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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Speaking of Patience, John, Ten Months Later

In an earlier blog, I described a student I had in class who said he didn’t want to read our text (The Color of Water) because he couldn’t relate to it and thus he didn’t know what to write about in his literary letters to me or to peers. Though I tried to show him, I was unable to get him to internalize the issues that James McBride or his mother dealt with. John wrote no literary letters and eventually had to repeat this developmental writing course. He had come a long way in learning how to expand on a piece of writing but he had, perhaps stubbornly, decided that there were some things he wasn’t going to tackle. I was as stubborn and John received a D in the course, not allowing him to move on to Freshman Composition. He would have to repeat the course and, “Oh, no,” I thought, “with me!”

Though I explained to him at the end of the term how I didn’t consider him a loser but that he needed to master more things before moving on to the next level and we had parted amicably, I still anticipated that John would come to class the next time with a chip on his shoulder. I thought he might harbor a desire to cut corners this time by using many of the things from the previous course.

John didn’t do any of that. This time our class started at 11:00 instead of 9:00 and you could set your watch at his arrival to class. By 10:25, John would enter the room, pulling his backpack-on-wheels behind him. He would arrive 35 minutes early to receive response on his latest piece of writing and to get started on his work. He found a very conscientious beginning student named Jon and the two of them began exchanging poignant, well-developed literary letters. When John gave in the first of two letters written to me, I was floored at the length and depth that he was reaching in his comments. He was learning to trust me in the things he included in the letter and I responded with personal comments meant for only him. He began to search for connections he could make to the text. His responses grew longer as he explained how incidents in the text corresponded to his own life. I was amazed at how great a student John had become. I told him this often, both in writing and in person. He always beamed, this 29 year old student who had had nothing short of a miserable elementary school experience until two teachers in a “last resort” school touched his life in different ways. Still, he was never a good student in the years that followed. Thus he was placed in my developmental writing class.

As John continued to shine, I began to refer to his work more in class and he worked even harder. He actually began to inspire me to work even harder, to anticipate his needs, to be prepared for him. I told him several times how he was inspiring me. He is not very good at showing his emotion but he told me that he had been telling his mother how he was inspiring me and how pleased his mother was with his progress. He confided that he had used several of the poems that students had written as “gift poems” and had given them to his parents. His final portfolio was stunning. He received a perfect score for his work during those fifteen weeks.

Last week, I saw John in the hallway and asked him if he would come in to my new class and speak to them about what to expect, “giving them the straight truth” on the course and me. He beamed when I asked him and he showed up at my door 30 minutes later, ready to give his talk. The students sat listening to him with rapt attention and had questions for him at the end. John left feeling very good about himself.

I learned once again that things don’t happen over night. It takes persistence and patience. If you speak the truth, have faith in students, continue to praise them for the things they can do, most of the times they will work hard to meet your dreams for them. Patience doesn’t come easily. That’s why it’s called a virtue. May I have it more often.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

It Takes Patience

I’ve been doing this blog thing since last January and have created about 8 blogs over that period of time. For the most part, I’ve been discouraged over the lack of response, though I’ve come to realize that it isn’t always easy to sign on to this site or to post a response. I have to exit my aol account and go to Explorer to log on. It certainly is not as easy as replying to an email. Many don’t even realize that I’ve made a post, though it is possible through Feedblitz to sign up for an email announcing any positing. It takes about 24 hours to get this email so patience is necessary. I even found the most recent notice in my spam folder this morning. Yikes!

Anyway, every so often, I look to see if anyone has commented on the latest blog and usually no one has. I stop checking soon. My only hope is that even though the responses are very few, perhaps they have struck a chord with some silent readers, propelling them into some action.

This morning, as I procrastinated with some papers and watched outside for the promised rain to bring life to my parched flowers, I reviewed past comments and I found that long ago posts have received some thoughtful responses that I hadn’t seen before. Louann had written a prompt response to the leadership issue in January but then Vincent responded in July, telling the story of his growth and subsequent work as a literacy leader. I liked the way he admitted that his initial vision of what a literacy leader would do at the high school level was very vague but, with the help of his principal, he persisted. Often we don’t know exactly where the road will take us but we go ahead, as Tom Romano says about writing, with faith and fearlessness.” Leaders need to be bold, even when they don’t have all of the answers. Often we figure things out as we go.

The first blog on the topic of complaints of teachers being paid well for “part time work” had five comments and most of them came early. I have remembered Louann’s quote of Jeff Golub who said, “Teaching is a twelve month job squeezed into nine months.” Nellie in hartland, Corey Joyce, and Joan had good stories of “comebacks” for Emil’s statement.

Nobody responded (yet) to the blog on personal response to literature (probably too broad a topic and the answers are obvious) but four responded to the blog on tipping points. Dave Arbogast, you touched me with the passion and empathy you showed about not getting responses to your work and still being understanding of the problems teachers face with all they have to do. It’s good to hear that you are willing to persist. I’m wondering now if I should have responded immediately. I can’t get straight if a blog is a column, an email, or a chat session…or something else. Marby, two weeks later, sympathized with Dave about how teachers are overwhelmed and Michele, two months later, agreed with Marby but suggested encouraging others to participate so that a critical mass can be created. Anonymous two weeks later suggested looking for positive places to establish tipping points, rather than dwell on the negatives.

There were two poignant responses by anonymous writers on school lockdowns. The first looked at the term and suggested that if we treat students like prisoners, we shouldn’t be surprised that they behave like prisoners. The other recalls being startled by the sight of a sawed off shot gun carried by a small boy in an elementary school. The question is, Where did we go wrong to allow this environment to exist?

The most recent post has no responses and maybe never will. I was feeling a little angry or something as I wrote this and I don’t know if it has a point so much as it seems to be complaining, or whining, really. We’ll see.

What I have discovered is that I never know who is listening in and what kind of response might follow, even months later. I’ve learned in a small way to be patient. In the meantime, thanks to all of you who have responded. It is at least for the ten or so respondents that I plug away…and have patience.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Becoming a Bard

“The training to become a bard or file (an Irish poet-seer) was long and arduous: it could involve lying in a dark hut for hours, or sitting in cold water to force inspiration to come. But a poet had to have natural talent before he could be trained. There are many tales of the favoured one receiving his gift from a woman of the Otherworld, as in the Scottish border ballad of Thomas the Rhymer:

Then they came to a garden green,
And she pulled an apple from a tree:
“Take this for your wages, true Thomas;
It will give you the tongue that can never lie.” *

Can we be a bard and still be a teacher? Can we speak the truth as a bard, showing the mysteries of literature, and, in the very next move, pass out a test on the text or switch to a worksheet on reading comprehension skills? We are not honest with our students if we just go along with a curriculum set before us with no real concern for students but only for content. Submissive students file into classrooms, plop into seats arranged in rows like assembly lines, many willing to have content poured into their vessels, convinced that they are learning. Teachers follow guidelines set forth by district office personnel and turn learning opportunities into testing procedures. There is no real investigation of an issue, discussion often consisting of a question answer session with three or four students as the rest of the class hangs their heads, sleep, sneak peaks at their cell phones. The thing one student remembers most about school was the clock. It never moved.

How can we go through training and forget about or ignore how students can find their voices in authentic writing, not repetitious literature essays? Have we forgotten our own voices and no longer write anything, not even literature essays? We ask them to do it but we don’t do it ourselves. Are we hypocrites, lying to our students about what is good for them? Have we found passion in our own voice, our own writing? Have we told them, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader?” Is their writing voiceless because ours is voiceless? When was the last time our blood boiled as we wrote something or we cried at the memory of a lost love, or at the slippage of time and our fear that we haven’t done enough?

We are free to choose our own books but are our students? Are we afraid that they will read trash and won’t be exposed to the rigors of the great works? When was the last time we decided to read Othello or Twelfth Night on our own for our own enjoyment and not as preparation for a lesson? How about the works of Thoreau or Emerson? If we read, do we reveal the truths of our reading lives to our students? Do we even know if they have reading lives or whether they would know how to find a good book if given the chance. Do they have favorite authors and genres? Can they learn this in our class or do they have to do that “on their own time?” We say reading is important but do we truly honor that by setting up our classrooms to foster reading or do we lie there too?

Until we return to being bards and being honest with students about their reading and writing, providing genuine opportunities for time in class to read and write, ownership of books and topics, and in-depth responses from us as well as from their peers, we are living out the lie of education in the 21st century. Have we become slaves to NCLB, simply giving in and then giving up, collecting our pay checks, taking our summers off “to detach and oil our prosthetic psyches,” going through the motions, following the curriculum?

I vote for the life of the bard.

* Lyn Webster Wilde writes in Celtic Inspirations—Essential Meditations and Tests, (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 2004)

Monday, June 11, 2007

School Lockdowns

Lockdowns and Teaching

I’ve been remiss, for what it’s worth, in my blogging duties lately. I’ve been too depressed to put anything down on paper. Here is something to consider.

In mid-March, while observing one of my student teachers in a middle school in an urban setting close to NYC, I had my first real lockdown experience. I’ve been in other buildings before which have been said to be in “Lockdown Mode” but this was nothing more than a principal deciding that the only way to keep order in the school was to have the students in the middle school escorted by their teacher to their their next class with the students remaining silent the whole time that they marched through the hall.

This situation was different. The announcement came over the PA by the principal who announced the lockdown, emphasizing that no one would be permitted to enter or leave the building during this period of time. Images of prison films bounced around in my subconscious. This news came halfway through the eighty minute class so I wasn’t worried at that point that I would be detained. Besides, I would have a forty minute post-observation conference with the student teacher before I would be ready to leave. However, I saw my student teacher turn off all of the lights, pull down the shades, and sit with the students in silence for the first fifteen minutes after they heard the announcement. Then she began to talk in a very low voice, guiding her students through some of the elements of the lesson. It was a cloudy day to begin with so the room was very dark as I sat an observed education continuing under difficult conditions. The students were clearly affected by the news but the student teacher did an excellent job of keeping her seventh graders settled and focused on the lesson, despite their fears. I was impressed.

In time, another announcement came, reassuring all that they weren’t in imminent danger, though the lockdown remained in place. The students were escorted to lunch at the end of the period and I had my post observation conference. Part way through our discussion, we learned the lockdown was over. The incident had been about a custody case and someone had threatening to enter the building with a gun but was apprehended. I soon left for my car and was out of the troubled area shortly. As I drove away, I didn’t turn on the radio as usual. Instead, I thought about issues. My student teacher did a wonderful job of allaying the fears of students and continuing instruction. I wondered though what life must be like for many of her students who live in the projects and face threats of violence every day.

I also thought about all of those teachers who experience things like this often. I read in my local newspaper every day about the chaotic situations that exist on a regular basis in some of the nearby schools of Philadelphia. I wonder how teachers maintain their sanity and their drive. I question whether I could persevere in schools like this, schools which exist all around the country in many of our big cities. But I also thought of all of those teachers who have no idea what it must be like to try to teach in such settings. Many of the suburban schools are light years away in temperament from settings like this. I have students in my developmental writing classes at another college where I teach who blame their high schools for failing to prepare them to do college level work. They lament that they find it hard to self-discipline themselves to work and study when they say they were never asked to do this in high school or middle school.

The governor of Massachusetts thinks that community colleges aren’t graduating enough students and wants to pour money into these schools. The teachers at the college would say that many of the students aren’t ready to graduate in two years, for all sorts of reasons.

This topic of effective high schools is just one of the issues that has my attention these days. I don’t know what we are to do.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Critical Mass, Tipping Points, and Other Social Science Theories

While thinking long and hard about our three to five readers of this blog and why others don’t visit this site (putting aside the pedestrian nature of the writing) or why so few respond to any of the posts, mine or others’, I kept recalling two terms I came across a few years ago in The New Humanities Reader, (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) in an article called “The Power of Context—Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime.” This article was in the text for freshman writing students at Rutgers University but was actually a chapter from a book by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, 2000). In epidemiology, “tipping point” is used to describe that instant when a virus reaches critical mass and becomes an epidemic. Gladwell wondered if the same principle could apply to ideas that could spread through a culture in the same way that a disease could. We might think of a critical mass in a classroom or a faculty or department as that number of people that it takes to allow a reasonable exchange of ideas.

Perhaps you were lucky once to have a small class but then one day, a number of students were absent and the rest of the students, as well as you, perhaps, wondered “whether we are going to do any real work today” and perhaps all of you acted differently because the class dynamics had changed. You no longer had that critical mass that was necessary to conduct business, at least in the eyes of many involved. This summer, I had only two students in an advanced business writing class that met partly on-line and partly in class. We discovered that with only two students and me, it was hard to keep the threaded discussions running that were built into the curriculum. We lacked a critical mass.

So I’d been wondering for weeks about whether we had a critical mass at this blog site and what it would take to reach a tipping point where many more people would flock to the site and a fair percentage would post a response. How could I create an epidemic? How could I bring about big change? I went back to the article and I reviewed some of the other principles that Gladwell used.

Gladwell’s chapter presented an incident on a NY City subway train in 1984 when Bernard Goetz shot four young black men who were being rowdy on his train and eventually harassed him for money. Goetz was easily acquitted of the charges the first time, even being called the “Subway Vigilante” for standing up to these kids who typified the perceived troubles that NYC residents faced both below ground and above. Some would argue that Goetz was emotionally and psychologically predisposed to this kind of violent action because of the way he was raised.

Gladwell points out how horrible the subways were in those days with their dim lights, lack of transit police, steaming hot trains or freezing cold cars in the winter, an inability to stop people from fare-beating, the presence of muggers and drug dealers, and many other declining conditions. The Transit Authority brought in David Gunn to right all of the wrongs and told him to fix the big problems. Gunn, however, was familiar with the “Broken Windows” theory that holds that if there are broken windows in a building, the longer they remain, they also become an invitation for others to break more windows. The theory is that such visible destruction is a clear sign of chaos and lack of law and order. Others often not inclined to break a law will do so more easily when there is nobody running the ship. Gunn used the broken windows theory and decided to begin with the graffiti which was an outward sign that chaos ruled the subways. The TA enacted a vigorous campaign to take out of commission all cars that had graffiti painted on them. Since the culprits were kids and it took them three evenings to first paint the outside or the car white, then draw the outline the next night and finally fill in their designs on the third night, the TA had crews that would paint over (or scrub off) this paint the next day, leading these kids to break down in tears when they kept getting thwarted. Soon, the graffiti stopped appearing both on the trains and on the subway walls.

The TA undertook a number of other very concerted efforts, including going after fare cheaters. The police had considered it a waste of the great amount of time that it took to arrest and book these offenders but when they got a bus converted to a police van-station house, they could round up a large number of fare cheaters, book them all at once, discover some as having other records, and, in general, put an immediate stop to this problem. The people who would ordinarily pay their way but would follow others when nobody stopped the cheating were the first to stop and the rest saw that such cheating didn’t pay.

Gladwell’s point is that once small things lapse and people perceive that things are declining or out of control, many people will begin to withdraw, show fewer signs of caring, and even contribute to the rapid decline. But Gladwell also showed that just as there is a tipping point for decline, so there is a tipping point for turning things around. He shows how this is environmental, that is, based on our surroundings and that these are little things.

In our schools, classrooms, departments, and faculties, people will respond favorably or unfavorably, based on the conditions. It may be in the perceived lack of personal concern for them, the way the physical room, office, or plant is run, kept up, maintained. It could be the coffee and refreshments with a nice table cloth at meetings or the care taken in written announcements or in other ways in which people are greeted and communicated with. How our students respond in the classroom may be based on how the room looks and the care given. I remember talking with a middle school teacher at the end of the day as we sat in the last period class room, the very one I started in during first period. The room was now filthy with papers and scraps all over the floor, so much that you would have to lift your feet to avoid stepping on some of the papers. The chalk board was a mess, partially erased, full of white smudges. When I commented on the paper, she said, shrugging her shoulders, that she saw it as “the sins of the day,” the natural build up of the “graffiti” of each class. Nothing had been done to eradicate the mess so others continued to contribute to it, creating a declining condition that I believe contributed to a general decline in other things. This could have been reduced any where along the day by a teacher, creating a tipping point by policing the room, with or without student help, making the room presentable for the next class and reducing exponentially the mess at the end of the day that may have resulted in a more difficult group of students to teach.

I don’t want to dwell on papers on the floor but to consider our environment and the little things when we want to institute change or redirect a group. How much we can change things may depend less on whether we are born leaders with great charisma, giving evidence to the term the “Law of the Few.” Many of us may not be one of those special few people who can lead by means of our charisma but we may be able to change the environment. We may be able to create tipping points for positive action.

Recently, a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer read, “Harvard Looks to a Woman” and on another page, “Harvard poised to name its first female leader.” Drew Gilpin Faust will be named shortly as the president of Harvard. Not only does she have roots in the Philadelphia area, having taught at U. Penn for thirty years, but she represents the fourth women to be appointed to the top position in the eight Ivy League schools. The current president of Penn, Amy Guttman, in anticipating Faust’s appointment, said that this would be “an important tipping point” in higher education.” For the longest time, women were not permitted to be part of the environment that led universities. That seems to be changing now.

For seventeen years, I’ve operated my workshop classroom based on the three principles that Nancie Atwell first established in In the Middle—time ownership, and response, but I realized some years ago that for me, there was a fourth. I read that Donald Graves talked about invitation and he said that all the great teachers, no matter what their approach, operated by inviting students into the classroom and the work of the class by working side by side with the teacher. So I include invitation as my fourth principle and I find that it begins with a genuine invitation to do the things that show writing and reading to be powerful tools, inviting others to participate in the literate feast. I’ve also learned that the invitation includes a setting that is warm, respectful, and encouraging. I don’t always accomplish this but that is my goal.

I wonder how to create these conditions with this blog when blogging is so new and/or alien to most educators and, with all of the other demands on them, most feel they don’t have time for such activities. Can a blog site be an oasis for refreshment and reflection rather than a huge mountain to climb? I wonder how that could happen.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Literacy Leaders Institute

NCTE this year is holding its second Literacy Leaders Institute, featuring Kylene Beers and Bob Probst in June.... Those names speak for themselves. Maybe some of you attended last year and might have a word to say.

You can get more information at the following link: