If you’ve been reading these updates about my school year, I probably don’t need to convince you that teaching is challenging—not because of anything I’ve written but because if you believed otherwise you’d be too busy spinning other fairy tales too and wouldn’t have time for my dribble. When personal complications arise though, teaching becomes near impossible. In fact, I had to miss two afternoons this week because both my mom and dad are in the hospital. I feel I need to write about that situation to sort out my thoughts as I’m prone to do, as I must do, but that will have to wait. I’m not sure I’m ready.
At the beginning of the week, my dad had already been in the hospital for several days, but when my mom was also rushed there unconscious—and after she was stable though still unconscious—I felt like I was this dual person at school. Part of me was spewing concepts and examples and asking questions, while some other part imagined I.V. drips and labored breathing and all the rest. Standing in front of class was the last place I wanted to be. But during the latter part of the week, when I knew I couldn’t do much at the hospital but wait, I went to work and found myself immersed entirely in my questions and students’ answers, as if nothing else mattered but the moment, which is a common phenomenon for teachers or any type of performer, but I was peculiarly and intensely aware, which is ironic, I think, and contradictory. Survival mode. Defenses up. In the moment yet not. I don’t think I’ve ever welcomed a Friday more.
What did we do all week? We started a unit on intelligence. Had many discussions on their definitions of intelligence. Gave them a difficult and phony intelligence test to make them feel uncomfortable for a few minutes. Shared a quote from the Chicago Tribune from a music producer who quoted Leonard Bernstein: “The recipe for doing something great is a plan and not enough time.” (Apologies to the producer, whose name escapes me. I think I got the quote right.)
On Friday, many students were decked out in orange tee shirts to celebrate the life of a student who died recently from complications of cystic fibrosis. The shirts were a small part of a plan to raise money to fight that horrible disease. Our student council joined forces with the student council of a sister school in town, big rivals usually, and great things happened. All of this was quite touching and inspiring and life-affirming. A lesson on the dearness of life. Lessons all around us this week.
Last week of the semester. Finals week. What we’ve been scraping toward for nineteen long weeks. A culmination, an accrual, a celebration of all the hard work, all the—I can hear my students: Stop already. If anything, finals are a big letdown. Some studying goes on, sure, but it’s a deadening proces—of cramming and organizing and making note cards and handicapping the likely test questions. Not much original or creative thinking happens, though some synthesis might be required on the occasional essay. For the most part, students calculate the minimum exam grade they need to preserve the quarter grades they’ve earned for nineteen weeks. Each quarter is worth 40 percent, the final exam 20. Over thirty years ago a math teacher, Len, created a chart to simplify the calculations, and this chart has become infamous in our district. This was not Len’s intention. He was a brilliant and innovative teacher who inspired students day in and day out, even during finals, I assume, and the chart is a sad and ironic statement on how a school system can take a simple math aid and twist it to guarantee rigid results. Armed with the chart, students learn to play the game exceptionally well. Earn a C/C for each quarter, and 20 percent won’t change a thing. Worse, a student can fail with an F/F but still pass with a B- on the final.
At least I’m not filling in bubbles myself. Many years ago, after an hour or two of adding scores (yes, with a calculator; I’m not that old), we teachers sharpened our #2 pencils and spent another hour darkening circles. Some tasks you just don’t miss.
I did say goodbye to one semester class, one of the most lively, curious, wild, and creative I’ve ever had. Only eleven students, but they filled that room each day with their questions and thoughtful responses and tangents that caused everyone to think, often enough at least. Thank you, 3rd period! You will not be forgotten.
I felt a little end-of-semester stagnation taking root, which I wasn’t fully aware of until one of my students asked, “Can we bring in some freshmen?” In other words, can we shake things up in here already? It’s something we do now and then, raiding freshmen study hall to gather unsuspecting subjects for some wacky demonstration or pseudo-experiment. Let me think about it, I said, not really meaning it. But I went home that night and thought about the impulse behind the question. And this is what we did.
We brought in four freshmen and pretended that we needed their ratings on a test of emotional expression. I can be a pretty convincing liar. While our guests watched slides of various facial expressions, a minor disruption broke out, followed by a major ruckus, all staged, wherein two of my students stormed out. Then the real test started. Our visitors, now eyewitnesses, had to answer a series of questions about the incident. Overall, their memories were fairly reliable, but when subtly fed with misleading information, they made several significant mistakes—and this was minutes after the incident occurred. Imagine the experience of real eyewitnesses, having to recall what they saw months after a crime. In our case, even the line-ups we staged caused confusion among a few panels of freshmen. By the way, after my two students stormed out, they recruited two others to return to class with them, exchanging sweaters and glasses and whatever else that could be easily swapped.
The next day, we had about a dozen more concepts to cover before the unit test on Friday. Instead of me explaining and describing, I asked pairs of students to present the concepts in the form of a simple skit. Given a chance to rise from their seats and act, even the quietest students shine. If you can get students laughing about concepts such as procedural versus semantic memory, you know you’re doing something right.
Difficult to return to school after a two-week break that for some odd reason moved along at a leisurely pace. I had time to read and write and play guitar (never very well) and cook and—because of the unusually mild Chicago weather—walk. I even got my bike out one day. On Tuesday, the first day back, my limbs creaked some and my mouth felt stiff when attempting to speak. I felt a little like the Tin-man. When I went downstairs to copy papers, even the photocopy machine was sluggish. There was a message in the machine’s window that said “warming up.” I think Kurt Vonnegut could have written a good short story about that.
Ah, but after a couple of days of school bells sounding and halls flooding with the masses and then emptying in five minutes—that routine—it felt as if we’d never left and our break seemed like a distant memory. We were all rushing toward another exam at the end of the week so we could squeeze in one last exam the following week before the grand finale of all exams, the final exams. As much as I hate tests, I’m a part of that system too, especially at the end of a semester. I think much of the push is based on fear. In my case, I fear that my students won’t be prepared for their A.P. tests in May, that they won’t be ready for college, that they won’t work hard unless they’re tested. I’m too timid to buck the system, but I do hope that on the days between tests sparks of genuine learning flare out here and there and that curiosity is, if not ignited, then at least fanned. Heck, on some days, I’ll settle for not dousing what’s already lit.
One of the best books I’ve read all year: The Talk-Funny Girl, by Roland Merullo. Whenever I’m invited to speak at a book club, I’m asked to recommend a book for their upcoming sessions, and Merullo’s book will be the one I recommend next. It’s a gripping and troubling and touching story that includes many rich possibilities for discussion.