People keep asking me how many days I have left, as if I have a terminal medical condition. They seem disappointed when I don’t have an answer. I don’t count. I’ve never counted. Now that we have three weeks to go with a day off for Memorial Day, the number comes easily of course, but in a few days, if someone asks, I will have to pause again to calculate. It’s not like I’m striving to drink the most from each moment, though that does happen occasionally. And I do try to enjoy every sandwich, as the late singer Warren Zevon advised when interviewed about his terminal condition.
The next question that invariably arises: what are you going to do after you retire? I shrug because I have never been much of a planner. I wouldn’t call myself spontaneous and certainly not adventurous, but I’m averse to mapping out nearly any kind of destination, which is why I don’t budget and why I hate outlines and why I don’t pay attention in meetings. But I need to dredge up a better answer because people must think I’m pathetic. I can finally pursue my dream of going to medical school. I’m going to be a movie star… a rock star. I’ve told people that I wouldn’t mind delivering potato chips to stores. I’d get to drive around in one of those trucks without a driver door and banter with customers who smile when they see all those bags of chips—and the product is light and won’t strain my back. You can tell I’ve given this some thought! I feel compelled to try something entirely different from teaching. Suggestions are welcome.
Another crazy week of AP testing and low attendance. One student sent a Tweet during a break in one of the tests and potentially voided the scores of our entire school, and this after hundreds of hours of classroom time and early morning study sessions. The AP gods decided not to nullify the entire slate. Who was more relieved? The multitudes or the Tweeter?
I spent every free minute cleaning out filing cabinets. I may not be a planner, but I am a collector. And 31 years of files provides its own history lesson.
First there were mimeograph machines, which seemed ancient even in 1981. But the fragrance of that ink!
Then my documents went straight from my snazzy electric typewriter with the light touch to the photocopier. No personal computers yet. I can’t quite remember what that was like, other than we used to be much more careful when typing.
With the advent of personal computers came dot-matrix printers. While mimeographs provided pungency, these newfangled printers offered a satisfying rhythm, which shook desks with their urgency. But no one misses dot-matrix, especially lining up the holes at the end of the perforated sheets to the pronged rollers, which caused some cussing. And the quality was a step down from the typewriter.
Not much has changed since laser printers appeared in the 90s, except for speed. A ten-page document back then might take about three minutes to print.
My found collection of computer disks offered a similar history. Personal computers began with ugly 4” by 4” floppy disks, which magically spun when they worked, which occurred about fifty percent of the time. I remember making a big show of crushing and shoe-grinding one of these disks at the beginning of each semester to remind students not to store their only copy on those pieces of crap. Next came 2 x 2 disks that were sturdier and somewhat more reliable, followed by thick zip disks that really did zip along. Now, everything will be stored in some ether cloud that I don’t quite understand and that will come with its own hurtles, I’m sure. The cloud is down?
As you may have surmised. I both love and hate technology, and nothing better exemplifies that than the cell phone. While cleaning, I came across my first phone, which I’d brought in to show. But that phone could only make and receive calls. That’s a throwback I’d welcome. We teachers must constantly battle the “smart” phones for attention, and this doesn’t seem like a fair fight.
Other items found: notes on napkins, which seems cliché but it’s true; plastic overlays for the overhead projector; a few handwritten tests; old versions of tests that I never intended to use again because I’d revised them; paperclips that had rusted the corners of papers.
What kind of warped security did I achieve by keeping all this stuff?
On Monday afternoon, students took the Big AP Psych Test. Last year students traveled by bus to a neighboring junior college that has better testing facilities, but this year we improvised and held the test at our own school, so I got to witness the panic. In my first two classes, we devoured bagels and reviewed, then crammed more in just before they all entered the testing area, which turned out to be fortuitous—and then I had to let go, not unlike a parent seeing a child off at the door of kindergarten on the first day. Nothing I could do anymore. They were on their own.
In the meantime, I cleaned my desk, stole glances at the clock, and felt compelled to burst into one of the testing rooms to tear a test from someone’s hands to peek. This was mostly a selfish impulse. I wanted to make sure I had prepared them well. And it turns out I probably did. As they were streaming out, most were relieved. The multiple choice questions, which make up two thirds of the test, were easy, they said. The written section was trickier, and though they couldn’t offer details because of the sacred pledge they’d taken, they confirmed that I had not guessed correctly on the questions, though some of my guesses helped overall.
Of course, there was one term on the free response part that no one knew, not even we teachers, as we discovered once the questions became public later in the week. Every year this happens. My theory: the psych test is not as rigorous as chem or physics or any of the others, so to boost self-esteem (or test-esteem?), the committee throws in a term that will tighten the gut, like the bullied kid who rears up to throw in a little bullying of his own. On Friday, I attended a local psych conference for teachers, who echoed the same reactions about the ease of the first part and the challenge of the second—and none of them knew the rogue term either, which was prospective memory, by the way. Students around the country were collectively scratching their heads over that one.
On Tuesday, we didn’t collapse, we didn’t flee the school, we didn’t curse the AP gods—not too much at least. Most of them were a little tired. Of testing. Of psychology. Of me perhaps. We spent most of our time regrouping, finding our footing. Some of them couldn’t afford to relax too much because more AP tests were hurtling their way. Nine more days of testing still awaited them.
Here’s the big challenge now. How do I keep them engaged now that our goal is behind us? We have four weeks left before break!
For starters, we watched Ron Howard’s masterful movie, A Beautiful Mind, about John Nash’s descent into and recovery from schizophrenia. The movie takes several liberties but a literal depiction of his suffering, which included mainly auditory hallucinations, would have been tough to show. So the voices become imaginary characters instead. Next week I aim to have a day or two of high level discussion about the movie, and though they’re tired, I have great faith they will have something worthwhile to say. Otherwise, the clock will loom large.
Next Monday afternoon, my psychology students finally will take their AP exam. As you might imagine, we had a grueling week of preparations. Not just in my class. I saw bleary-eyed students arriving at 6:30 a.m. for review sessions with teachers in government and econ and history. And this is just what I witnessed. I’m sure there were students on the other end of the building cramming for bio, chem, calc, Spanish, and more. Plenty of study sessions broke out after school, too. When all the tests end in two weeks, a collective fatigue, which I already feel, will set in.
This evening I had dinner with my daughter and her two college roommates. I mentioned the flurry of AP preparations, and having gone through the flurry themselves two years ago, they shook their heads and talked about how little the tests mattered. I’ve heard other high school graduates echo these same sentiments.
While a big part of me agrees and views the tests as a public relations tool for high schools and profit for the test makers, I can’t help admiring the work ethic of these young people who are genuine in their aspirations, not only to get ahead, which seems refreshingly quaint, but also to enrich their lives. I’m proud of them and glad for the opportunity to play a tiny role in their success. And even if the bulk of the content is forgotten in a month or two, their arduous efforts will serve them well at every turn.
Inspired by good friend and colleague Gina Enk, who has successfully predicted two AP test prompts, I made a few guesses on the likelihood of certain concepts appearing on the free response portion of the test. I don’t have a crystal ball and don’t have any inside glimpse, but I’m a competitive jerk, and I can’t wait to find out if my guesses pan out.
The week began normally enough but was followed by two of the worst days of the school year. You guessed it: standardized testing. In the middle of the week. Freshmen and seniors were allowed to stay home for a day and a half, while sophomores were packed into the gym for a practice ACT test and something called a Prairie State Achievement Test, which includes questions that, without exaggeration, many second-graders could answer. Everyone walks around cowed, pretending that any of this matters. And no one ever protests. The tables in the gym never fail to conjure in my mind scenes from Orwell’s 1984. It’s dehumanizing, deflating, and entirely without worth. Juniors take an actual ACT test on the first day, but why we need to wipe out an entire school day for this is beyond me. Remember the days when we had to make our own arrangements to take the test on a Saturday?
Then we wonder why other countries report higher test scores? Our response to lower scores? We simply throw more tests at students rather than address the issue of lost class time. It’s like a cop taking the pulse of a dead victim for the 13th time rather than pursue possible culprits.
Back to our regular scheduled update. On Monday students in small groups role-played various cognitive distortions that all of us fall victim to now and then: “I’m not good enough…I’ll never amount to anything.” Then we discussed various treatment methods used to challenge these beliefs.
We’ve been doing role-plays throughout the year, and when I informed them that these would be the last ones, I heard a ripple of sadness from a few students. The same happened when I mentioned that there’d be no more study guides! These are twenty-page study guides I’m talking about! There were plenty of other students who I’m sure were thrilled by this prospect, but I was touched by those who said they’d miss my comments. When I speak at teacher conferences, one of the lessons I try to impart is that every paper teachers hand out to students is an opportunity to communicate. You’re not just handing out an assignment; you’re speaking in a particular voice to a particular audience. Here’s what I wrote on page 1 of their last study guide.
“How fitting that all this ends with therapy because if you’re on the A.P. train, those daily hassles and other stressors have done a number on your coping strategies, which I’ve seen in your droopy eyes and slumped bodies, and you can probably use some consolation about now, the nonjudgmental assurance that everything is going to be all right, a reminder that in the larger scheme, you will forget not only the difference between a variable ratio and fixed interval schedule, but also your score—OK, maybe not the number itself because not many numbers make up the scoring system (a piddly 5!)—but the significance of the score, which will pale because one day, if you decide to start a family, a child will reach up to grab your fingers with her little hand and will want to walk with you, and that child ain’t gone care about what you knew in the spring of 2012 on a paper and pencil test because in her mind you know everything, and if you don’t start a family, you’ll have your moments as well because life is full of them if you pay attention and turn off that cell phone once in a while—or that computer or whatever the heck is distracting you from looking at the person across from you—so finish strong, but have fun and put this test and every other test in perspective.”
Speaking of tests, for our last unit test on treatment, I allowed students to work in pairs for the last 25 minutes, which worked very well. Students were discussing the material in meaningful ways, clarifying fine points, defending this or that answer, just the kind of engagement we teachers love to see. Then why didn’t I allow students to take tests in pairs throughout the year? I’m not sure. I’m afraid, I suppose. Afraid I’ll get a reputation for being too easy, afraid students will take advantage and not study hard enough. Having succumbed to those fears all these years is a regret I’ll have to live with.
Next week, all week: review for the big A.P. test in eight days. I usually hate review, but I’m competitive, and I want my students to beat that damn test.
School Week 32. Year 31. Big numbers. I suppose I should have noticed this last time, when I could have written week 31 of year 31, but I don’t see any special significance to that other than the symmetry.
We had a rare full week. Monday through Friday. No breaks. No late starts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen students so tired, a direct correlation, I’d argue, with the erratic schedule we throw at them. Hard not to feel sorry for them. They need to be alert at 7:30 a.m.; many will be taking multiple A.P. exams in a few weeks; some of them don’t even have a scheduled lunch. But soon they will reach the mountaintop and decide which other peaks are worth scaling. I hope there’s more than an exam waiting for them next time.
We capped off our unit on mental illness, squeezing in schizophrenia, personality disorders, somatoform disorders, and dissociative disorders (which you may know as multiple personality). Whew.
While schizophrenia and personality disorders are relatively common, the latter two are rare, especially multiple personality (MPD), which I’d argue is not a real disorder but a condition nurtured during therapy by a zealous, misguided—though well-intentioned—therapist. Poor folks who can’t afford therapy don’t develop MPD, and families of those who allegedly suffer from MPD don’t even notice any personalities until well into therapy.
Schizophrenia, on the other hand, afflicts about 1% of the population and is all too real. In their study guides, I asked students to write a short journal entry from the point of view of a schizophrenic. Two students wrote they felt uncomfortable completing this task, fearing it might be disrespectful, which I honor. I was impressed by their empathy and maturity. And they reminded me, again, which happens daily, how much I learn from them.
Another truncated week. Monday was institute day, a day when students sleep in and teachers endure unnecessary meetings on matters that matter to no one and that will never benefit students in even the remotest way. And I’d like to talk to the person or committee that decided we needed a student late start on the very next day, Tuesday, so teachers could continue their critical meetings! The higher powers did schedule three full days to finish off the week, so I suppose I should be grateful.
OCD and mood disorders were on the docket this week. We had a contest for the most unusual OCD behavior, and I heard some good ones, though I don’t feel at liberty to disclose those here. If you’d like to list yours, feel free to comment. I tend to count and organize. For example, if I’m at a choral concert, I will count the number of singers on stage, from left to right, then section by section to see if I arrive at the same number, then maybe right to left. It’s not a frenzied counting, and I’m still able to enjoy the music, but I’ll admit this is unusual and irrational and cuckoo. I’m also a tile counter, a cabinet door closer, a divider of letters to see if words are symmetrical (TOYOTA is a perfect word, three letters on each side, and—this is really cuckoo—the three letters require nine strokes each).
Depression is a little trickier to talk about because of the stigma that still pervades. Do I invite sufferers to share their stories? Or do I remain clinical and more impersonal? There’s some middle ground, of course, and that’s the area I treaded. Coincidentally, our award-winning school newspaper featured on Friday a first-person account by a student who had been hospitalized for depression. This was a brave and generous gesture that I trust will go a long way in lifting the stigma of depression in our little world at school.
We had a pretty good discussion, I thought, students offering mature and balanced insights into the reasons for the stigma and possible causes and treatment. But I’m always amazed by how much we have all bought into the medical model for depression, specifically, that some chemical imbalance exists and that magic pills exist to alleviate the depression. All one needs to do is find the right pill and the precise dosage. The evidence for a chemical imbalance as the cause of depression is mixed at best. But I don’t think anyone disputes that the drugs themselves create imbalances in the transmission of neurotransmitters. The commercials don’t mention that part. They also don’t mention this: if the drugs are working so well, why has the rate of depression soared in the last 40 years, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)?
I’m not advocating that we trash all our prescriptions, but I do fall in the camp that suggests that depression is more symptom than disorder. I’m not minimizing the suffering; the symptoms are severe and brutal. But before we start popping pills, let’s find out about vitamin D levels and thyroid functioning, and let’s examine our diets and sleep schedules.
We also discussed bipolar disorder, another devastating affliction, one with which students were less familiar. I showed them a clip from a Frontline episode that highlights this interesting fact: since 2005, there has been a 4000% increase in the number of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And the psychiatrist who led this movement by proposing a comorbidity between ADHD and bipolar received $1.6 million by Johnson & Johnson for his consultation fees. Without his published report, no increase occurs, in either diagnosis or sales. Which calls to mind what every person who has suffered a serious illness knows: you have to take charge of your own health and not blindly entrust it to this company or that expert.
Over a million children are now diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which strikes me as criminal.
First week of the final quarter. Hope renewed. Effort doubled. Commitment deepened. Actually, we’re limping along. A little slaphappy. Thinking about the A.P. psych test looming in May. One final push, and we’ll get there, the promised land, where the grass is lusher and skies are bluer than here, today, now.
But we have to wade through a long chapter on mental illness first, a fascinating and troubling unit because it applies to all of us to some degree or in some respect. For me, I’m an expert on anxiety and phobias, which I first discovered after a claustrophobic MRI experience many years ago, followed by an unfortunate seat assignment at the back of a jet and adjacent to one loud turbine engine. (I’m not sure if it really was a turbine engine or what in fact turbine means, but I like the sound of the word.) Over the years, I’ve been working on my panic and getting better (flying in the front row of the plane helps, and Southwest Airlines has been accommodating; no, I’m not earning free miles for the plug). What I’ve discovered and what I hope was useful for students to hear, especially the ones who also have High Anxiety (a great Mel Brooks movie) is that we are not in fact afraid of the things we think we’re afraid of. Really.
Here’s a simple activity I use to clarify what I mean. I had them write down on a small slip of paper the thing that causes them the most panic and dread. Spiders, needles, small spaces, Lady Gaga outfits. They then crumpled their papers and tossed them to the middle of the room. This was not some 1960 feel-good mantra session where fears are shed like flowers in her hair, flowers everywhere (if you can identify that song, you are over 50). What I mean is that you don’t fear the needle but the physical dread that accompanies the needle. If someone could guarantee that your pulse wouldn’t rise up into your throat when you saw a spider, you’d be fine, yes? It’s the dread and the anticipation of the dread that you fear because that’s a terror you don’t wish on anyone. This seems like a subtle shift in perspective, a cognitive sleight of hand, but the effect can be remarkable. This little trick allows you to examine the dread as if it’s outside of you. And it’s up to you whether you’ll let it in.
Before doing this activity, I had them fill in a fear inventory and asked them rearrange their seating according to their level of anxiety, from lowest to highest. The low group got a chance to convince the high group why they shouldn’t be so anxious, mainly to demonstrate that everyday logic isn’t usually effective in trying to alleviate another’s fears (the previous activity notwithstanding). Interestingly enough, sitting according to one’s anxiety level creates no anxiety for students. I point out to them that I would never suggest such an arrangement for next week’s topic, depression, and everyone understands immediately. Why is there still shame attached to a condition that afflicts nearly all of us from time to time?
If you happen to be an expert on depression, feel free to comment and I will share your wisdom with students.
The air is festive in the week before spring break. But there’s also a letdown—in studying, in attention, in students’ concerns over their quarter grades. Teachers avoid giving their final tests of the quarter on Friday because attendance is an issue (it’s a week, people, not a week and a day), so students end up taking 19 tests on Thursday. Sorry to pile on. I was impressed that not a single student was absent in one of my morning classes on Friday, though I was missing about half in another.
A Beatles song comes to mind: I used to get mad at my school / The teachers who taught me weren’t cool / You’re holding me down / Turning me round / Filling me up with your rules / (But spring break arrives and) / It’s getting better all the time.
Thursday tests worked out for some students who went to the midnight show of Hunger Games. They could sleepwalk through an easy Friday, they probably thought, though none appeared tired.
Friday before break is often a throwaway, but I decided we’d have an ordinary class and discuss birth order. Here’s the general consensus from each group. Firstborns said they were burdened with expectations and urged to be role models for their younger siblings. They also claimed they were better looking. Only children were content. They had close ties with their parents and got along well with adults. Youngest admitted they were spoiled and used tactics to get their way that oldest children could never use. Middle children? We almost forgot about them. They liked that they were able to hide in plain sight and they agreed that they were good negotiators.
And now begins our well deserved break.
We spent the week discussing the many fascinating and quirky ideas of Sigmund Freud, some of them simply outlandish. When I first began student-teaching over three decades ago, Freud was my initiation, my first unit. And when you’re young and diligent and scared shitless, you over-prepare. Which has served me well in my career because while the youth has vanished, the other two have remained fairly constant—okay maybe I’m not quite scared shitless anymore, but I do still worry about walking into a class unprepared, which is why I never do.
Because Freud was my first, and you never forget your first, I always feel a degree of comfort when teaching him. While the material hasn’t changed, I still find ways to keep the material fresh, probably for my own sake so that I don’t go mad. For example, when talking about his psychosexual stages, I show pictures of me as a kid at each stage, which gives me a chance to show off my cuteness, which peaked at about age seven.
Because some of his ideas are so ridiculous and extreme, I do marvel that they gained traction. No one else was willing to write about sexuality so openly during his Victorian time, so there is that. And he was prodigious; sometimes we pay attention to sheer volume. But I do wonder if there was some obscure Viennese psychologist working on a street just behind Freud’s who outlined his own theories of personality that no one else will ever read because he came on the heels of Freud or because he was too polite or too shy or not ambitious enough. When we examine the past, it’s tempting to view one event after another as inevitable. But it’s illusion, I think. Freud could have been the obscure one, and we could have played out our Oedipal conflicts in our unconscious, where they belong. Right, Sigmund?
We returned to the classroom after a week in the auditorium for Writers Week. You’d think returning to what had been routine for 25 weeks would be easy, but the long faces made it clear that this Monday would seem longer than usual. We finished our unit on stress. And we discussed the usual steps one needs to follow to better deal with stress, all of them obvious but hard to follow: sleep well, eat right, exercise. I could have added my father’s warning: Everything too much no good. I asked if they had any peculiar and particular symptoms that arose after prolonged stress: the twitch at the corner of the eye (my left eye twitched as we talked about this; it’s twitching now); the irregular heartbeat (recently that lasted about a week for me); unusual aches, especially in the back and neck (how I’ve avoided this astounds me); the shakes, similar to what happens when you haven’t eaten in a while (I’ve avoided this for the most part; incidentally, in the past nine stressful weeks, I don’t think I’ve missed a meal. Hurried them, yes, but never skipped. My parents would be pleased.) I showed two short TED talks, one by Shawn Achor that I’ll provide here. It’s about ten minutes, and I guarantee you’ll laugh and learn something.
Shawn Achor Ted Talk
WW letters to presenters started pouring in, several of them addressed to me. Here are some of my favorite lines from those letters. Please forgive me, colleagues, for omitting quotation marks. (By the way, during my own presentation, I performed a song I wrote, along with Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, which inspired my song. Also, to honor me for being named Illinois Author of the Year, my good friends in the English department hosted a tribute during one of the periods.) Top 20 excerpts:There are always unique and unforgettable performances [at WW] which might teach me about life in general or coincide with something I’m going through. WW is without a doubt one of my favorite weeks of the year and I will miss it. I don’t think you will ever realize how important WW is to the thousands of kids at Fremd. I know this week inspires many to pick up a pen and write.Another WW, poof, flash, zoom, gone. Without a doubt, the shortest but best week of the year…I thought I might be getting to sleep at a reasonable hour tonight, but my pen had different ideas. See what WW has done to me. The greatest challenge for me to write has always been having the courage to be truthful and meaningful in my writing. If you were to receive a grade on your life I would give you an A+. I didn’t know you were such a big deal here at Fremd! (I also have a big following in Turkey.) Your ability to do something different and overcome your anxiety is something I will always admire. I even preferred your song over Johnny Cash’s. (!) You are by far the best Johnny Cash impersonator. (Double !) (Before beginning my song, I apologized to all the guitarists and singers in the audience.) I am also not a good singer so I feel for you… I can’t believe anyone could be at this school for 18 years. I am already tired of it and I have only been here one and a half. (Before singing, I mentioned I’d be trying out for Italian-American idol.) Your song…got stuck in my head for the rest of the day and it made me fee really optimistic about the rest of the week. I hope you make it on that show you were auditioning for. I know you probably don’t have much free time, since you’re a teacher and all, and I want to express my thanks… I never knew teachers could have talents speaking honestly but you changed my point of view. You used the old fashioned Italian way of explaining things to show people what they can do to be successful in life while having fun along the way. I am inspired by your inspiration. I was…inspired by how well you were able to keep your composure throughout the presentation, as well as in the classroom, with the recent news of your father. I know many students, myself included, read your blog on a constant basis and we are very sorry to hear about it. (“Many” comes as a surprise, so here’s a shout-out to you if you’re reading: HEY! Did you hear that? In my head, the HEY came out in my low voice, so that’s how you should hear it, too. Thanks for reading.) Le scrivo questa lettera per congratularmi con lei per la sua notevole performance a Writers Week. (I have an Italian exchange student who speaks and write English very well. She thought I’d get a kick out of an entire letter in Italian. I did. I’m still translating it. But I decided I want to learn Italian. Really learn. So this is a good start. She said that WW made the school seem more like a family.) (And one of the letters was signed by a student with the same name as one of my characters. A little eerie.)