Sixteen to One

Twelve-hour days are really killer. I don't know how nurses do it. There's really only one a year for us: the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when we teach five hours of classes and follow that with five hours of parent conferences. In the lull between the two, I squeezed in an impromptu gathering of my French Club officers to plan an upcoming outreach project, wrote the last of my college recommendation letters, and got to use the bathroom approximately three seconds before I exploded. 

The meetings fell into a comfortable rhythm after an hour or so, and there were lots and lots of moments worthy of the Secretary's Report. The first mother had made an appointment and come to school just to tell me how much her daughter appreciated my sympathy after she had become emotional in class over a sick family member. Others told me how much my students loved the class, loved me, even loved the tests I gave (I promise I would never make up something that absurd!) They had discovered an unknown passion for the French language or American literature. Some of them were hoping for higher grades next quarter, but they were inspired by the online resources I suggested for extra practice, impressed by the detailed syllabi I provided each quarter, supportive of my high standards and desire to challenge my students to take an active role in their own education. They thought I was doing a great job.

Buried among sixteen wholly productive exchanges, however, was one laced with frustration and negativity. Sixteen to one. In baseball that would be a massacre. In craps it could win you a small fortune. In the grand scheme of things, you can't please everyone, and because one student is just not up to par in one class, one family is clearly not pleased.

So why on earth was I so haunted by the one? When my principal came by to ask how everything had gone, I shared this with her -- and even though it was late, she sat down and commiserated, and reminded me that sometimes there's just nothing you can do. I remarked that because teachers (for the most part) care so deeply for our students and feel each failure and triumph so acutely, it's even more painful when parents imply that we haven't done enough to help their child succeed. It's hitting below the belt. It's kicking us when we're down. It's a guilt trip down a well-worn mental path. Because really, there's a grain of truth in what they're saying: we probably could have done something more, and if we'd thought it would end like this, we would have found a way to.

Finally I promised my principal I would let it go and rethink the situation in the morning, and we said goodbye, and on the way out she promised to say a prayer for me and for my student. I stacked up my papers and turned off the lights and bundled up against the cold and stepped outside into the night, twelve full hours after I'd stepped in.

On the way out in the darkness, the convent chapel was a beacon, flooded with light, and through the window I caught a glimpse of a lone figure in white, kneeling before the altar.

The next morning I received an email of apology. A promise to work harder on communication. A step toward a positive resolution. Why was I so shocked by this development? I'm not sure. There was no reason to be. Sixteen to one is pretty fabulous, but seventeen to nothing? That's nothing short of a miracle.

Helicopter Confessions

Cheers to Judith Newman for her charming honesty about who really does her son's homework:

“Listen,” I hiss. “People pay me to do this. I have a master’s in literature from an Ivy League school.” I continue, pathetically. “I write for all the major magazines. I write for The New York Times, for God’s sake.” Oddly enough, this doesn’t mollify him.

How I found myself justifying my career to a 12-year-old was this: I wanted him to ace his “To Kill a Mockingbird” essay, and I was nervous. I am always nervous; you might be too, if your son’s highest intellectual aspiration involved beating his friends at their daily lunchtime poker game. He usually won’t let me near his homework. But this time, after much pressure, he did. Because, as I calmly explained, I knew just what this essay needed.

I read the whole piece with a knowing smile. One of my favorite things to watch when I taught piano lessons was parents, while their children were engrossed in an activity. Take, for instance, the aptly-named Solitaire. The child is patiently making stacks of note and rest cards, building down on the bottom and up on the top. If he makes a mistake, I will correct him in time -- that's the way he learns. But while he dithers, or if he misses a move -- oh, my, how the mothers squirm, knowing they should keep quiet but unable to avoid a "Honey, look carefully, now . . . " and the fathers tend to just blurt: "You've got a sixteenth note there!" I would give them my best Patiently Suffering Teacher look and they would sheepishly zip it up.

On one hand, as a recovering perfectionist / control freak, I totally understand why it must be hard for parents to allow their children to miss something -- a comma splice in the essay or a key move in a card game. But on the other, it really isn't missing anything; it's simply learning naturally. Somehow the child will grasp the concept in her own time, using her own methods. When I'm tempted to intervene with that process, I remember the thrill of working something out on my own -- tying my shoes in elementary school, or using a table saw in college -- and I watch the student calmly, waiting for the moment she figures it out alone. A triumph.

The Classroom in Cinema

It's a strange thing, as a teacher, to have time on your hands, but it so happened that during a recent free period, I had nothing to grade, plan or print. So I reached for the huge stack of educational articles I have been meaning to wade through all year. At the top of the pile was the annual AATF review, including articles in both French and English. I flipped through it at random and became engrossed in a piece about a recent Quebecois film, Monsieur Lazhar, about an Algerian emigre who fills in as a substitute teacher. Although the article concerned the use of formal and informal address between teachers, colleagues and students, I found myself so interested in the characters that I sat down that night and watched it.

Later, as credits rolled up the screen and tears rolled down my face, I thought about how many dozens of movies I had seen about teachers. Some have been good and some very, very bad. Just for fun, I made a list. 

Good: these movies are not only realistic in their depictions of classroom struggles, but they are also inspiring and uplifting -- even when they're tragic. 

  • Butterfly: Although the politics of the era in which it's set (the Spanish Civil War) heavily influence this movie, it remains for me a story about the profound wonder that makes education so beautiful and necessary.
  • Dead Poets Society: I still remember sitting in shocked silence with my best friend in high school after having watched this movie. It had such an effect on us, especially because of our interest in the arts. Robin Williams manages a completely, disarmingly honest portrayal.
  • Monsieur Lazhar: As a fairly strict teacher myself, I appreciated Lazhar's high expectations of his students (he has them practice dictation from Balzac on the very first day; they're in the third grade.) Of course, they come to appreciate his desire to see greatness in them, just as he comes to appreciate their forthright affection.
  • The School of Rock: This may seem an odd choice, but Jack Black is completely convincing as an awful substitute teacher whose students end up teaching him how to educate them. It's also a fantastic, if unrealistic, advertisement for project-based learning!
  • The Wave: Based on a novella I read in grade school, this German film examines the sobering possibility that a new Nazi Party is just one ideologue away. The teacher who starts the experiment, although he fails in many ways, gives his students an invaluable lesson in the sinister power of solidarity.
  • To Be and To Have: In a tiny town in rural France, a one-room schoolhouse is about to shut down. Modern amenities notwithstanding, I could have been watching a dramatization of Little House on the Prairie. It was inspiring to watch education unfold the old-fashioned way.

Bad: don't waste your time here; these are the same tired Chicken Soup for the Soul cliches you've already heard too often.

  • Akeelah and the Bee: The main character was really adorable, and Laurence Fishburne cannot turn in a bad performance, but it was just too trite to enjoy.
  • Children of a Lesser God: I had such high hopes for this film about a hearing teacher at a school for the Deaf, but again, I felt it was trite, especially the affair between the professor and student. (Sorry for the spoiler. No, not really. Now you don't have to watch it.)
  • Freedom Writers: I am making it a personal goal to warn lovers of this movie and / or book that it's NOT ALL TRUE. Students in her class did keep journals, but they edited them as a group, placing emphasis on powerful writing rather than truth. I will never understand what makes people desire to blend fact and fiction. Also, Hillary Swank just comes off as insincere: um, what happened to that husband she moved to LA with?!
  • Mr. Holland's Opus: Could Richard Dreyfus ever be a teacher? No. The end.
  • To Sir, With Love: My cousin and I watched this with our moms when we were young. I actually liked it right up until the end when one of the characters sings an ORIGINAL SONG by the same title as the movie. I'm feeling sick just remembering that awful moment.
  • Good Will Hunting: Robin Williams is a caricature of himself in this movie. Not to mention, the distillation of an entire profession into one simple, repeated question that magically causes an emotional breakthrough?! (I think this is a real improvement.)

Unqualified: although these are not movies about teachers in the classroom, they are compelling enough that you should watch them anyway!

  • Lean on Me: There are plenty of cliches here, too, but Morgan Freeman has enough memorable lines to redeem it, and I'm partial to the true-to-life story that's close to my church home. Bonus: the faculty meeting that ends with the kind of verbal dressing-down most teachers dream of delivering.
  • Waiting for Superman: The only movie that ever inspired two blog posts, it is more about the educational system than education itself -- but still, everyone should watch it, because if you think you're not a part of that system in some way, you're dead wrong. 
  • Spellbound: This movie is actually a complex character study cleverly disguised as a documentary. The only downside is the knowledge that, out of eight charming children, only one will win the National Spelling Bee -- and truly, you are rooting for them all.
  • The King's Speech: Out on a technicality, because an SLP is not the same as a classroom teacher, the recent Best Picture is one of the few winners that actually deserved that honor. Geoffrey Rush is transcendent, and Colin Firth is maybe even more attractive with a speech impediment than as his normal brooding self.
  • The Life of David Gale: A bold political statement about capital punishment, this sleeper is only tangentially about a wrongfully-accused college professor. Kevin Spacey doing his in-your-face Kevin Spacey thing, and Kate Winslet being the luminous, visceral presence she always is, makes the film riveting to the last moment.
  • Rushmore: I am sorry I waited so long to see this movie about a bizarre love triangle between two teachers and a student. I thought I wouldn't like it. I was so wrong; in fact, it opened the floodgates to a long, torrid affair with Wes Anderson's work. Bill Murray is inimitable. Jason Schwartzman redefines precocious. Be ye not so foolish: watch it now!

Cheerleaders, Not Helicopters

Well, isn't this something:

When we examined whether regular help with homework had a positive impact on children’s academic performance, we were quite startled by what we found. Regardless of a family’s social class, racial or ethnic background, or a child’s grade level, consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades. Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse. 

I can't say I'm surprised. At the high school level, many of my students regularly receive help from their parents, and the results are frequently negative:

  • Parents complain that the work is too hard or the assignments are unclear. Since they have never attended my class or received my feedback, I can see why they think so! But, likewise, I find this kind of criticism unfair. I would much rather hear from my students.
  • The corrections parents make to their children's work are often incorrect. In particular, they have a predilection for the passive voice (e.g., "Edgar Allan Poe is known for his impressive writing,") which I have made it my mission to eradicate in student writing.
  • If students assume their parents will be helping them with their assignments, they will put forth less effort in communication, time management and locating resources -- the three main components of a successful homework assignment.

The article goes on to say that parents can be great motivators, and that they should go out of their way to communicate the value of education to their children -- insisting they keep their grades up, limiting leisure and extracurricular activities during the school year, and choosing schools where their children will be able to succeed with hard work and determination. But this helicopter parenting, in which parents are constantly communicating with teachers about their nearly-adult children, is detrimental to all three parties -- children, parents and teachers.

As Robinson and Harris conclude, "What should parents do? They should set the stage and then leave it."


Six Ways to Sunday

Every day these little vignettes pass me by, when Sunday's peace seems a distant memory and I'm just trying to make it through another week. But now that I have a five-day weekend to reflect (thank you, late winter storm!) I find them coming back to me, making me smile all over again.

  1. We've just finished learning venir, to come, and bid goodbye to the early-dismissal track star; as she leaves, I explain to the class that revenir, to come back, is conjugated the same way. "So if you want to ask someone to come ba--," and inspiration cuts me off. I stride to the doorway and shout, "REVIENS!" She halts, bewildered, and the class dissolves in laughter. Meanwhile, the students in the hall get a sneak preview of my new advertising campaign for the French program.
  2. My favorite lesson of the whole year happens to be the day of my annual observation. I guide the class in the rhythmic tapping of iambic pentameter, the beating of the heart through the poet's words. Da-DUM. Da-DUM. Da-DUM. Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince! Oh no, it is an ever-fixed mark. Titania waked and straightway loved an ass. Hyperbole, metaphor, double entendre. Richly-laden lines twist over and around them until their own are pouring forth: Australia is a lovely place to be.  My doggie loves to play and roll in snow. Morning coffee suddenly sounds poetic, and sunburned afternoons call to them from future summers. When the bell rings, my department chair apologizes for staying through the whole period: "I just didn't want to leave."
  3. Midway through a quiz, a student decides to reword a sentence and spends a good three minutes crossing it out. Her laborious scraping of pen on paper is finally interrupted with the clean smack of a whiteout pen on her desk, delivered with silent reproach by her neighbor who doesn't even look up from her own work. I can't help but laugh: that girl will make a great mom someday.
  4. During a "free" period as I'm hustling through the next batch of papers, I comment on one: "When I die, I want you to write my obituary." I am completely serious. If she can make a paper about Salinger sound as fresh and hopeful as he wasn't, I imagine she could do a lot for my posthumous public image. 
  5. Two separate parents, within a week of each other, thanked me for being hard on their children. "This is part of growing up," one said. "She needs to take responsibility for her actions," said another. My faith in modern parenting ceased its precipitous freefall and actually took a few halting, hopeful steps back toward the light.
  6. In the stairwell, as students jostle each other to get to break and I attempt to keep out of the way, I spot one who is particularly pained by the tangle of backpacks and ponytails. "This is SO not ideal," she huffs. I suppress a smile, but as I consider her words over the next few days, I realize it's a perfect thesis statement for my life. Maybe for yours, too.

The Unexpected Answer

This is one of my favorite things about classroom teaching. Sometimes students just miss the boat.

Teacher: So "equivocate" can be split into two Latin roots: "vocare," or "speak," and "equi," meaning --
Student: OH! Water!
And sometimes I miss it.
Teacher: In the first scene, we find Oberon and Titania engaged in a power struggle with disastrous consequences, bickering endlessly over trivialities. What does this behavior remind you of?
Student: High school!
(I had meant for her to say, "Greek Mythology," but had to admit I liked her answer better.)

The Picture of Adolescence

When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself.

I pause. "What's strange about the things Basil says here?"

An uncomfortable silence. Finally, one student clears her throat.

"Uh . . . he's talking about another dude."

They're not sure what to make of the slightly-more-than-bromances that fill the story with tearful sighs and long, brooding stares. And they've had enough of the drama. "Look," says one. "Here, 'He flung himself down on the couch . . . ' and before, 'She flung herself on her knees, sobbing . . .' Why are these people always flinging themselves everywhere?"

But they also say brilliant things: When Lord Henry walks with Dorian in the garden and plants the seed of vanity in his soul, it's like he's Satan speaking to Adam in the Garden of Eden, ruining him through temptation. Dorian is afraid to present himself to the world as he really is, the same way that we need to confess our sins before approaching God in Communion. There is something beautiful in the brokenness that Sibyl leaves behind in her suicide -- she had one glorious moment of unadulterated understanding just before her constructed reality implodes on itself.

I listen, laugh, shake my head in awe. I don't say very much. I don't have to.

Comment le dire?

Remember your first French class? Did the teacher sweep in, chattering in another language,  scaring and exciting you all at once? Mine didn't, but I've heard enough of those stories that I wanted to try it. So, despite the impossibly cramped quarters, I snaked my way through the lines of desks and introduced myself to each student individually, using bisous en chocolat (a powerful motivator) to encourage everyone to try the introductory phrases of bonjour, je m'appelle and merci.

Then, on their get-to-know-you cards (an old trick for learning names faster) I asked for one phrase they wanted to learn in French. Here are some of my favorites: 

  • More candy, please. (I told you it was a powerful motivator.)
  • I'm sorry.
  • Grapefruit. (She had heard and forgotten the word, which is a pretty cool one.)
  • I believe in God.
  • I would like some food.
  • I volunteer as tribute.
  • My name is Bonnie and I'm 15 years old.
  • I love you.
  • What school do you go to?

Besides the thrill of arriving in my very own classroom to the smell of freshly-brewed coffee (thank God for automatic timers!) this was definitely the highlight of my week.

College and Community

Of all the ways in which I've changed my mind since grade school, my opinion of community colleges is probably the most surprising.

When I was applying to schools, community college wasn't even on the radar. It seemed to me one step away from "taking a year off," which was itself one step away from not going to college at all. 

Then I married an adjunct faculty member at a community college, and within a year he had been offered a full-time position there. I listened as he told stories of second careers, rededicated focus and failures that actually taught more than they punished. He himself was a community college success story, having entered as an average student with very little direction and exited into a respected university and, later, graduate school.

Now, especially in this economic climate, I can't picture swallowing the tab for a four-year university, period -- but for a seventeen-year-old with little to no life experience? Unthinkable. She needs a place to experiment with learning, where she can try out classes and schedules and the Real World without the blinding fear on which so many university professors feed or the enormous debt that will almost certainly saddle her for a decade or more. Beyond that, if her parents have done their job, she still needs them as she navigates her first steps as an independent adult: the world of newly-unsupervised grown children is getting scarier with each passing year.

This lengthy piece about a new community college in New York (called, aptly, The New Community College) describes a sort of hybrid between a demanding prep school and the open-enrollment standard that has given community colleges their slacker reputation:

All students will take the same classes for the first year, though they will be separated into two levels of math. At other schools, students who need extra help can get it from skills labs, peer study groups, tutors or advisers. Here, none of those resources will be optional. “This is absolutely crucial because so many students appear at the door of community colleges completely clueless about what is required of them, or available to them,” said Ms. McClenney of the University of Texas. “They don’t know they need to do work outside of class. They don’t take advantage of tutoring and mentoring services. They don’t know about peer study groups or interacting with faculty.”

Students will be required to spend 90 minutes a week in “group work space,” working with classmates and building on what they learn in class, with help from peer mentors — more experienced students from other CUNY colleges. Much of that time will be devoted to writing and language skills, a particular weakness at this level. (When a professor in one information session asked for a definition of the word “urban,” she had to call on three applicants before getting a correct answer. One thought it meant “what’s going on now.”)

Students will also have mandatory weekly 90-minute group sessions with advisers, called “student success advocates,” addressing issues like study habits and stressful situations outside school.

“We’ve found that students usually try to confront problems alone, and they often make damaging long-term decisions, like dropping out, in response to temporary problems,” said Donna Linderman, director of a CUNY program that has tested some of the ideas behind the new college. “It makes an enormous difference to have them sit down regularly with an adviser who says, ‘O.K., how many hours are you working? How long is your commute? Let’s make this work and keep you in school.’ ”

I can't think of a better way to help introduce apprehensive and ambitious students to higher education, while simultaneously preparing them for the next rung on the academic ladder. (Well, maybe a privately-funded institution with the same goals. One thing time has not changed is my opinion about the perils of government bureaucracy and the ensuing mismanagement of funds.)

Interestingly, the college where Rob teaches has launched a very similar initiative, which the Wall Street Journal profiled earlier this spring (in fact, fast forward to 3:30 to see a glimpse of his department!) 

The difficult part about being enlightened later in life? Seeing students come through my classroom, and knowing they are just as I was -- totally unaware of what they really need, and totally unwilling to listen to someone who does.