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.
Another tough week. Dealing with many difficult decisions regarding my ailing parents. Somehow I’ve been able to maintain focus during classes, though I did receive a few ill-timed calls from doctors and social workers and nurses, all of which were returned after the bell rang. Ignoring the buzzing phone in my pocket was a challenge. Luckily, my sister arrived in town this week to handle things during the day.
Most amusing moment in class, for me at least. I discussed the cover story in Time about shyness and asked if they viewed me as an introvert. They were nearly unanimous in their assessment of me as an extrovert, which is not even close to the truth. I suppose when a person is put into a particular role, that person must perform. I should be flattered? Another amusing moment. We began a unit on development, what it means to be “old.” I asked them to guess my age. Many guessed ten years younger, and I told those people that I loved them. But one student had no idea whatsoever. Sixty? When I shrugged he tried, Seventy? These past two weeks may have taken their toll on me, but please. I am 54, which in 2012 translates to about 38. I’m a little immature at times so I’d bring that number down further to about 33. And I’m an expert at denial, so let’s make it a flat 30.
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.
This was our last week before winter break. By Thursday, the air seemed festive, students walking around with holiday wear and exchanging candy canes and cookies. My standard joke: “It might be embarrassing to leave your big presents for me on the desk here, so you can bring them to my office tomorrow instead.” It’s downright hilarious because this ain’t grade school, where teachers make out like toddlers on Christmas day. I did receive a few gifts, which is always touching.
My biggest challenge this week: keeping students chugging along on the AP train that included a test on Monday (a stupid idea on my part) and a new study guide on motivation and emotion. Come May they’ll be glad we pushed. This week though they weren’t so sure.
I did get to teach one of my favorite psychologists, Abraham Maslow, best known for his theory on a hierarchy of needs. When he was a boy, according to a fine biography by Edward Hoffman, his father would introduce him like this: “This is Abe, ain’t he the ugliest kid you ever seen?” His mother, not exactly the model parent herself, would lock the refrigerator with a thick chain to keep him out. She was literally a refrigerator mom, a name coined decades ago by psychologists to explain, incorrectly, the causes of autism and schizophrenia and other maladies suffered by children. Imagine leaving the doctor’s office with that diagnosis. On top of that, Maslow would get beat up by the neighborhood toughs in Brooklyn.
And yet. Maslow emerged as one of the main proponents of humanism, a branch of psychology that examines human potential. Who would have thunk?
His theory inspires all sorts of questions. How does it feel when we do our best? If it feels so good, why don’t we do our best more often? Part of the answer lies in our self-efficacy, or our belief in our competence. Not our actual competence! Our perception of our competence. Which raises further questions. Why do some maintain robust self-efficacy, even when faced with multiple rejections? Why does a writer like William Styron for instance put aside a safe career as an editor and spend nearly four years of his life working on a first novel without a single guarantee of success? According to his daughter Alexandra in Reading My Father, a wonderful biography, “Without faith, talent is a fugitive thing.” You can probably easily think of a dozen other examples. But where does that kind of faith come from? On the other hand, how do some delude themselves into believing they have talent in a particular field when they clearly don’t? Think American Idol auditions. It’s painful to watch. In some cases, it might be wiser not to chip away at those protective layers of sediment that hide reality. A little delusion is fine. Yeah, yeah, sure, you’re a fantastic singer. But if you are going to let others chip away, maybe don’t let it happen on national television.
Happy holidays. Peace and goodwill.
About a week ago, Time magazine reported that in South Korea, government officials were cracking down on studying. No, they weren’t trying to implement programs to encourage more studying. They were raiding tutoring centers that stayed open past 10:00 p.m. and shutting them down! It’s a national problem! I asked my students if overstudying could ever be a problem here. They laughed. Of course not. Not here. Yet many of them are spending hours after school on extracurriculars and hours completing homework for five A.P. classes and studying for tests and not getting to sleep until the late hours of the night. Some of them don’t even have a lunch in their schedules, eating between notetaking during classes. This week students have seemed especially exhausted, and I’m not surprised.
When I hear pundits complaining about the state of American education, I want to invite them to our school. Hard work and inquisitiveness and ingenuity are very much alive, not only at my school, but throughout the country. Maybe we’re not as intense as other countries in our pursuit of higher test scores, but I would suggest that we turn out a more well rounded graduate. Also, what the complainers conveniently forget is that in America, everyone’s scores are included in the holy data, unlike many countries that only report the top tier of scores. If we played by the same rules, I suspect we’d fare very well. (I don’t deny that some of our lowest performing schools need major rehauling—today—but I’m tired of hearing people assume that young students today are unmotivated.)
Let me offer an example of the maturity I witnessed this week. During this unit on learning we’re plowing through, I asked them if they would be motivated to study harder if the school paid them for grades. Many of them admitted that maybe they would, but the general consensus was that paying for grades would place too much emphasis on the reinforcement, the money, maybe even encouraging cheating, and not enough on genuine learning. Did you catch that? I feel I should copy and paste that last sentence, italicize or boldface it for emphasis. Young people are curious; they want to learn; and they can smell bullcrap a mile away, usually in the form of state assessments that measure information devoid of context to their lives. The worst are the boring writing prompts that are collected and graded in minutes. Why should any student extend much effort on such foolishness? On an essay they will never see again? On a prompt created for the masses? For some end goal that is meaningless?
We did have some fun this week. Students volunteered to be pigeons in the huge Skinner box that our classroom became. One student would leave the room, while the rest of class decided on a target behavior: pulling down the projector screen, waving out the window, dancing on the desk. Skinner had pigeons playing ping pong and bowling with miniature pins. We used applause rather than Skinner’s food pellets to shape behavior, but the similarities between students’ quirky and halting behavior and that of real pigeons was uncanny.