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.)
When we try to explain Writers Week to people outside our school, words don’t suffice, which is a little ironic. In fact, Gary Anderson and I, along with Jodi Moeller and Douglas Jameson from our adopted sister school near St. Louis, presented a session at a national teachers conference last fall describing Writers Week. Many teachers were excited, some of them spurred to action, but to understand the power of the week, you need to be there. In fact, one teacher who was at the fall session visited one day last week and left shaking his head in awe. He kept saying, “It’s so simple.” He was referring to the format: a microphone, a talented tech crew, a supportive audience, over 100 students who risk sharing their work before 550 of their peers, faculty presenters, and talented writers from around the country. We didn’t measure the results of the week with any test scores or exit slips, but the many hugs, smiles, and tears we saw each day were probably sufficient markers. Or maybe I could mention the throng of students that surrounded writers afterward to ask another question or to get a book signed. Or I could add that many students continue their conversations with writers through email or Twitter. One of our favorite presenters, Mary Fons, reported that one student, after hearing Fons last year, started writing; another said she finally addressed some pressing personal issues that were hurting her. Not sure video can capture the week well either, but our tech department worked their own magic and streamed the entire week live to the world. You can catch clips here:
http://www.ustream.tv/channel/fremd-writers-week-2012 If you’d rather rely on words to understand WW, you won’t do any better than from my good pal, Gary Anderson. Check out his blog: http://whatsnotwrong.wordpress.com/ Another colleague and another Anderson, Russ, will probably weigh in too: http://imteachingenglish.wordpress.com/ Yet another colleague, Jaclyn DeRose, has embarked on her own blog, which I highly recommend: http://arrangewhateverpiecescomeyourway.com/ You can also visit our Website: http://fremdwritersweek.ning.com/ Or visit Twitter: #ww18 My highlights:
1) Students baring their souls. Writing tributes to moms, dads, nieces, teachers, and friends. Sharing joy, grief, tribulations, and funny stories. Making sense of the world through their words, through their point of view, which we adults sometimes stifle or obscure or minimize or simply don’t take the time to understand. Their courage is inspiring. 2) Generous faculty members braving it out, revealing sides of them that usually remain private. Thunderous applause greeted each one, which doesn’t happen in class, though this would be welcome, albeit, distracting. 3) Wildly talented guest writers, some of whom should be household names. Many of them never forgot what it’s like to be young and fearless and ridden with anxiety about the future and in love for the first time. 4) A selfish highlight. The best English department in the world honored me with a lovely presentation, full of joy and camaraderie and love. My gratitude is boundless. I am a lucky man.
We began a unit on stress, a topic on which I’ve become an expert these past six weeks. While I did offer a few personal tips I’ve gleaned, we stuck mainly to the game plan: they completed inventories to assess their own stress (which turned out to be interesting but not surprising to them); I outlined different theories about stress; students shared their own methods for dealing with stress, because as AP students, they are experts as well. My favorites: Get swole (as in swollen, as in exercise; I learn new things every day); wait for the drop (as in the drop of the bass in dub-step music; more education, as they played me a sample); breathe (not as obvious as you might think, as in breathe deeply). One student reported that she reenacted an experiment we discussed earlier in the year: smile, even if you don’t feel like it. The muscles used for smiling may trick the brain into making you feel a little brighter. I was jarred by the coincidence because I’ve been trying this very method in the car, unfazed by what my fellow motorists might think if they glanced in my direction. My fake smile probably looked real to them. And I swear, it does seem to work.
One theory that especially rang true for them: Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome. Our bodies do a pretty good job of fighting stress, resisting the many ill effects, but if the stress is chronic, the body becomes exhausted, especially after the stress eases. And this is when we become sick. One can almost predict the illness and perhaps take preventative steps before any actual symptoms appear.
On Thursday, during the last period of school, thick snowflakes began to flurry down with a delicacy that seemed dreamlike. I couldn’t compete, so I made a deal: let me finish this little lesson…and then this little worksheet…and then…we could step outside for a few seconds. Several students were beyond excited, and when we got out there, they were spinning with arms out and baring their faces to the sky. I guess glee might be a good word to describe those expressions.
I feel as if I’ve been flattened by a bus. The past four weeks have been a blur of driving: to school, to the hospital, to the nursing home where my mother now resides, to my parents’ house to retrieve mail. Five months ago, they were both at home, well fed and warm and reasonably comfortable.
On Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, my father passed at 10:40 a.m. in his own home, in his own bed. My mother, who fell four weeks ago and who remained largely unconscious until quite recently, doesn’t know. She’s disoriented, and we’re still not sure about her prognosis. As my father repeated at the hospital before he was released, it’s complicated. And it becomes more so each day.
When I gain a bit more distance, I want to write about the past four weeks and about my grief.
For now, I want to at least mention school since this is a school update. I haven’t told my students about my parents. And apparently none of them read this blog, not that I’ve told them about it. (And they don’t see me as an introvert!) I’ll probably mention the blog near the end of the school year. I suppose I’m worried that they will become self-conscious if they know I’m reflecting and writing about what we’re doing each day.
Until last week, I haven’t missed many of my morning classes, always receiving calls about 10:00 a.m. and then cutting out. I want to ask them if I seem any different to them, less focused perhaps. I could be wrong, but I think I’ve done a good job of pushing aside the personal for 50-minute little compartments and running my normal routines. The afternoon classes? I think I’m focused with them as well, though I’ve had to scramble to convey my plans to my very able and wonderful department chair who has saved me several times. So while the afternoon classes may have had disruptions, I think I’ve been diligent and organized.
I take back (temporarily) all the moaning I’ve done about shortened days. This week we had two, and I felt fortunate because I didn’t miss as much as I could have.
I find my desk littered with notes related to death: doctors’ phone numbers, medication schedules, hospice hotlines. Ordinarily, my scattered notes include ideas about lesson plans or story ideas, all life affirming. I look forward to getting back to that normal mess. I think that’s what my old man would have wanted. If I ever called him from work, he worried that the call was interfering with my job. Family and work were utmost to him. The last few days, this refrain keeps hitting me: whatever goodness there is in me came from him.