Meet tomorrow’s inspirational young people

With so much ugly human nature saturating our senses these days, I wanted to give my students a different life experience.

At the start of spring semester in January, I created an assignment allowing them to explore the goodness that is within themselves.

Called the Decency Project, the months-long endeavor gave them an opportunity to pursue charitable work in any area of their choosing.  Students could decide to work alone or with up to two other people from any of my four English classes.

During the semester, students turned in progress reports.  Their projects covered a wide spectrum, from working with disabled children and the elderly to feeding the homeless and caring for cancer patients.

Since I have never done this before, I was not sure how I was going to evaluate their work in terms of a grade.  That is why I asked them to answer this question at the end:  How would you feel if I told you that after all your work on this, I decided not to award any points for it?

I was so impressed with their responses that I shared several of them with all my classes so that the students could see how the decency project impacted their peers.  And I listened to them—no grades were given.

It was one of the most powerful moments in my 29 years as a teacher.

While a few students wrote that they would be very disappointed if they did not receive points for this project, over 95 percent of the 135 students said they would be fine without.  Here’s what they said:

“If this project was graded, it would defeat the whole purpose of being a decent person.”

“Soon after beginning my work, I began to not really think of this so much as a school assignment, but an incredible opportunity for me to give back to my community and grow as a responsible, hard-working citizen.”

“Rewarding someone for doing something diminishes the values behind volunteering, turning what should be a selfless act into a selfish one.”

“I would feel very proud and glad if you decided not to reward any points.  Kindness should not be rewarded.”

“It was more of a life lesson than a project.”

The last question students answered in their final report was this:  Looking back over your efforts, was it worth it?

Here are their responses:

“It was absolutely worth it, and I am willing to do it again.”

“This project was an eye-opener as we wouldn’t have normally aided others in such an impactful way.”

“It helped me to become focused on others rather than self-focused, which is a thing we all need to do.”

“We have seen how those that are less fortunate than us live, and we are able to see the world through their eyes now.”

“I felt like I actually put my time, dedication, and hard work on something that became useful at the end.”

“Since the people we were helping were cancer patients, it was quite sobering and it made our complaints of homework seem irrelevant.”

“I am thankful that this project was assigned because of how much freedom was granted.  Students do not get many opportunities to be so creative and self-dependent in projects.”

“Nowadays, there isn’t a lot of kindness going around in the world.  I hope this project motivates other students to do this.”

“This project has shaped me into a humanitarian.”

“I feel more humbled as a person.”

“I have become a better person.”

What a breath of fresh air in today’s times.  I learned how lucky a teacher I am to work with such inspirational students who will be leaders in our society one day.  I am proud of their accomplishments, and I hope the public is, too.

 

The Not so Great American Read

Ask professional basketball fans to name the best player ever and chances are LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan would appear at the top of that list.  Meanwhile, Wilt Chamberlain, who put basketball on the map, recedes further into oblivion.  People who remember him playing are dying off; footage of him playing is usually in blurry black and white film clips.

Too often people don’t consider history before they were born.  This pitfall can be seen with PBS’s The Great American Read, an eight-part series which encourages viewers to vote for their favorite book of all time based on a pre-selected list of 100 books.

Last week in the opening episode, host Meredith Vieira informed the audience that the list was based on a survey by YouGov that accounted for “gender, ethnicity, age, and region.”

It is that pre-selected list that is problem-some.

Here are some eye-openers about the Yelp-ized list.

While 16 out of the 100 books were published before the 20th century, 18 were published in the 21st century, seven in the past nine years (one from 2016).

Many recent titles were made into movies including the Twilight and Hunger Games series.   So, did those who listed these books actually read them or did they just see the films?

The most dubious selection:  Fifty Shades of Gray.

Surely, the producers could have set some ground rules for the list such as a book has to have been published at least 50 years ago to ensure the title has lasting power.

While Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer made the list, the more adult The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did not, though it is often referred to as the greatest American novel ever written.

One could argue that as long as people read, it doesn’t matter what the book is.  But it actually does.

If all we wanted was to get people reading, they already do that via tweets, Yahoo headlines, and Facebook posts.   However, the physical act of looking at words is not the same as reading well written books that require concentration and often re-reading, works whose authors took time to craft.

The Pew Research Center survey in January revealed that 24% of all U.S. adults did not read a book in any format in the past year.

Usually the only opportunity for people to read classic books is when a teacher assigns one for a class.  And even then, too many young people bypass the actual text for websites which provide short summaries of chapters.

On the show, many people interviewed said that a book meant something special to them because a character or situation mirrored their lives. Women gravitated towards books written by women about women.

However, one does not have to find a book that is an exact replication of one’s life in order to find it relatable.

When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I connected with Atticus Finch even though I was 15 years old, not a father and not from the South.  It was his moral core that resonated with me.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was with Maya Angelou emotionally when she described the pain she felt when a dentist refused to treat her because she was black even though I am not African-American, female, and have not felt the indignities of racism.

If we all just choose to read books written by people with the same race, religion, and age, we are just like those who only watch and hear programs that espouse their own political views.

Not long ago, Angelenos participated in a Big Read of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Such a city-wide undertaking united people in the goal of reading the one book.

And that is truly the power of a writer when you can see yourself in an Oliver Twist or a Ma Joad, a person unlike you who is human like you.

 

Wanted: Teachers

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A question asked of all children numerous times throughout their growing up years.

Firemen, doctors, video game designers.

What kids don’t want to become is teachers.

Teaching is the one occupation that all students job shadow—13 years of it, 180 days a year.  Yet it is still not enough of an appeal to pull in quality candidates, a career choice not even on their radar.

Is it because they are simply tired of school, and the idea of continuing to go to school for the rest of their lives is unbearable?

I asked some of my students if they have ever considered becoming a teacher.  Some had, but few will.

The positive reasons they give to go into teaching include connecting with students and preparing young people for the future.  One student elaborated that a teacher “can impact, guide and inspire children especially those who may be struggling.”

I then asked what would change their minds.  Nearly every student mentioned that a higher salary would attract them.  Many also added that they would go into teaching only if they taught to disciplined, respectful kids.  “When I see all the work teachers put into just having to get students to quiet down, it seems stressful; students can be very disrespectful to teachers.”

Clearly, enough negative experience is absorbed by students that by the time high school graduation arrives, most will never return to a public K-12 school except as parents.

College freshmen majoring in education is the lowest it has been in nearly half of a century, 4.2 percent in 2016, according to the UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing reported a decrease of 55 percent of those students entering a teacher training program from 2008 to 2012; a 70 percent drop in the last decade.  In 2015, California needed 22,000 teachers, yet only 15,000 students earned teaching credentials.

Schools can’t find enough qualified candidates which means there are plenty of jobs to be had by those who are not properly trained.

In order to fill vacancies, districts hire people who are not fully prepared to enter the classroom.  These individuals bypass coursework and actual teaching practice, then are given the keys to a classroom to teach to young people.  As a parent, are you okay with that?

Would hospitals staff operating rooms with surgeons who did not finish medical school just because of a shortage of doctors?

Several steps should be taken to make teaching more attractive, which future columns will explore.

However, clearly students can see on their teachers’ faces that teaching, too often, is not fun.

This finding was confirmed in the most recent MetLife survey of teachers in 2012 which revealed that only 39% were very satisfied with their job, a 23-point drop from the satisfaction rate of 62% in 2008—troubling to imagine where that figure would be today.  And teacher shortages are on the rise across the country.

Teachers as a group have a golden opportunity to plant the seeds in their students’ minds of joining the ranks of educators.   No other profession has such an inherent advantage in showing youngsters how wonderful it is to teach.  Sitting right in front of them every day is a prospective employment pool.

But when so many obstacles are present in schools, it is challenging to overcome them and share one’s passion for learning with youngsters.

One of my few students who plans on entering the teaching field said “I hope that more individuals will enter the teaching field and raise our education system from where it is now.”

We need more than hope right now.  We need an army.

Professional Learning Community? First, supply teachers with photocopy paper.

Ring the bells, the Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) no longer requires elementary school teachers to do yard duty.

It has only taken, what, 50, 70 years for this condescending practice to end.

GUSD had to stop the yard duty requirement since it does not match the latest education trend that has taken over schools these days, Professional Learning Communities or PLCs.

Having educators supervise recess is not professional, a waste of their talents and their stature.  That’s like having lawyers station the security checkpoints in courthouses.

The idea behind PLCs is for teachers to learn how to collaborate with one another since most of them work in isolation.  Of course, the $64,000 question is:  where is the time for such collaboration?   Since you can’t expect teachers to volunteer during their planning period or after work, the time needs to be imbedded in the school day, meaning, students can’t be at school so that teachers can meet.

The simplest solution is to extend the school day slightly to “bank” enough minutes for a weekly 45-minute time slot for such collaboration.   While that is a good first step, that is not sufficient time for a major overhaul that a PLC requires, for just when the conversation gets down to business, teachers have to leave, dashing to open the door for students, interrupting the intellectual stimulation of the collegial conversation, shelving it for another week.

Another option would be to have a daily period of teacher collaboration.   This would be more effective in terms of taking a pulse of students that teachers have in common.  “Did you notice Jason was lethargic yesterday?” “How can we get Erika to do homework?”  Such concerns could be shared among the students’ instructors in order to devise a “prescription” on how best to aid them.

One idea I proposed years ago in my first book, The $100,000 Teacher, was to have instructors teach four days a week, each day an hour and a half longer, and collaborate the other day.   And what would happen with the students on that fifth day?   Field trips, guest speakers, tutoring, job shadowing, art days, sports days.   This would require: 1) organization, 2) parent involvement, 3) funding.  However, change is often preceded with the adjective “difficult,” and if school districts truly wish to invest in revolutionary changes, money is going to have to play a pivotal role.

But before any discussion can begin about changing the work schedule to foster a professional learning community, teachers’ working conditions must meet a professional standard.

Recently, my school ran out of copy paper. That’s like a hospital running out of syringes.  It should never happen.

Over the three decades I have been in teaching, the number one complaint from principals about teachers is the amount of paper used.   But paper is a necessity not a luxury when working with students.

The teacher walkouts that have occurred recently in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona offer a glimpse into how powerful 3 million teachers as a workforce could become in demanding improved conditions for themselves and for their students, an equal footing in the education hierarchy. It is not something that the powers that be would want unleashed, nor could manage.

This year, GUSD mandated two days of training for all English teachers.  Not one teacher was consulted about this.  It was a completely top-down decision.  Was this a model of a Professional Learning Community?

PLC is a nicely contained idea that allows teachers just enough independence and decision-making to give them the feeling of empowerment.  But it barely moves the needle.

Show teachers they matter; saying it on a pen or keychain (Teacher Appreciation Day is May 8) doesn’t make it so.

Have teachers play a leadership role at the district level.  Has a teacher ever facilitated a principals meeting?  Teachers are not the districts’ students, being assigned pre-determined work.  They are the experts on how best to teach kids.

Not until that tectonic shift occurs can there be a professional learning community.

But first, supply the paper.

 

H is for Holocaust

Two-thirds of millennials (born between 1981-1996) can’t identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp.  Worse, nearly one-quarter aren’t sure if they ever heard the word Holocaust.

What does this say about the knowledge of those younger than 22?

These are the results from a study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Not only do they not know about the largest concentration camp where 1.1 million Jews were exterminated, 20 percent of all Americans do not think that “it is important to keep teaching about the Holocaust.”  This does not bode well for it not happening again.

Amazing that people walk around with a personal computer in their back pocket, with vast knowledge literally at their fingertips, yet so much of its use is wasted on texting, social media and checking the time (younger people can’t read an analog clock).

They may know how to manipulate the devices, but are ignorant on how to sift through the detritus and distractions to find meaningful information.

Owning a smart phone does not make one smart.

In addition to the Holocaust, when six million Jews were killed, not two million according to nearly half of millennials, two other historic tragedies are commemorated this month:  the Armenian genocide and the Columbine high school shooting.  While one could explain away the foggy awareness of World War Two, what accounts for the misconceptions about Columbine which transpired a mere 19 years ago?

Most people think of Columbine as the first mass school shooting in U.S. history when actually it was a failed bombing.  The leader of the two culprits was enamored with outdoing the Oklahoma City bombing death total of 168.  Fortunately, the fuses were faulty—only one of the 40 bombs went off.

The impression of the event is that it lasted hours.  In reality, the whole occurrence lasted 47 minutes before they both killed themselves.  Yet officer training at the time was to create a perimeter around the area, waiting until it was safe for them to move in.  Today, the protocol is for law enforcement to go where the shooting is happening in order to bring down the shooter.

This slower approach accelerated the death of the sole teacher victim, Dave Sanders, who bled out over three hours.  Even though Eagle Scouts were with the fallen coach and did what they could, it is heartbreaking to learn that despite 911 operators’ reassurances that help was on the way, that help was too late in coming.

People think the two perpetrators were outcasts, bullied by their peers.  Not true.  In fact, these two bullied others, and they both had friends.  Yet, because of this inaccuracy, the topic of bullying became imbedded in school curriculums across America as a way to prevent another Columbine from happening.

And both teens lived in middle-class neighborhoods with both parents, not presumed broken homes.

The real story of Columbine conflicts with the perception of it which is why education is so vital.

In today’s times, facts and the truth have been battered beyond recognition by our political leaders.

Parents and teachers must teach their children about the past.   If nothing else, young people need to be taught how to access factual information.

Not even a century has passed since the end of World War Two, yet already younger people have lost track of significant world events of the 20th century.   What does this portend 50 years from now?  What important knowledge will be lost or distorted?

When Hitler prepared to invade Poland in 1939, he said with impunity in justifying the impending deaths of men, women, and children that “who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

 

And Now it’s Time for Teachers to Rise

As of this publishing, the Oklahoma teachers are in their fifth day of a statewide strike.  The starting salary for a teacher there is $31,600, third lowest in the country.

The teachers began their walkout after rejecting a 6 percent pay raise over three years, and $50 million in education funding. Why?  Because the last time teachers in the state received any raise was in 2008.  Several school districts in the state are only open four days a week because they don’t have the money to literally keep the lights on.  Their demands:  a $10,000 raise over three years and $200 million in funding.

It’s not just about more money in teachers’ pockets, but more textbooks in students’ hands.

Last month teachers from West Virginia went on strike for nine days to earn a 5 percent pay raise.  Last week there was a sickout in Kentucky to protest cuts in their pensions.  Now Arizona teachers are pondering action as well.

Whether inspired by the #MeToo movement or the student-led March for Our Lives, teachers now feel emboldened to speak out on the national stage about their working conditions, charging en masse to state capitals.

While I have reservations about teachers going out on strike, such action is rattling the status quo.

Upon hearing what the teachers want, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin told a reporter that teachers wanting more money was “kind of like having a teenage kid that wants a better car.”   Such a condescending comment underscores how teachers are perceived by some.

Taxpayers who have no sympathy for higher salaries base it primarily on the amount of time teachers are at a school.

While hours from 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. may not seem overwhelming, the teacher is working nearly every minute of that timeframe, hosting club meetings at lunch, tutoring students after school.

Yes, teachers have many holidays and summers off.  It is the off the job hours, however, that justifies a higher teacher’s salary.

When do teachers develop lesson plans, create assignments, and grade work?  They do it at home, at their children’s practices, in doctors’ waiting rooms, stealing away minutes whenever they can.

Then there is the mental toll on teachers, always thinking about the next lesson, even while celebrating Thanksgiving, or lugging a bag of student papers while vacationing over Spring Break.  Rarely is a teacher’s mind not thinking about how to spark students’ curiosity.

Some teachers are paid decently, no question.  California teachers do enjoy the second highest average salary in the nation at $78,711, but the state has the second highest cost of living as well. The majority of teachers who work in Glendale can’t afford to live in Glendale.

The rent for a one bedroom apartment goes for $2,284 based on Rent Jungle averages; the median home is priced at $816,500 according to Zillow.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia told the New York Times that recent teacher uprisings is an “education spring.”

Time will tell if these events are the beginnings of a sustained movement or just a passing phase.   Still, it is refreshing to see educators get out of their soft shells and show how much they care about their work with America’s youth, and how much Americans should care about it as well.

 

 

 

The Post Surgery Blues

Since you are reading a column and not an obituary you know that I survived the surgery of the century (at least for me).

As much as medical personnel tell you what to expect for a surgery, accompanied with glossy brochures of smiling patients and cartoonish drawings of incisions, nothing can prepare one for the ultimate loss of control over your life once you enter the prep area.

Shedding one’s clothes is akin to shedding one’s protection of what is to come as you lay there helpless in a large room of other pre-op patients, a drawn circular curtain the only semblance of privacy.

I lost track of how many people popped in, each with a greeting of “hi, my name is and I will be doing this to you,” introductions I only half-heartedly paid attention to; after all, these folks were opening acts to the real star of the show, the surgeon.

There’s the woman who will insert the IV, there are the residents who look more nervous than me, and there’s the man who will shave parts of my body which have never been shaved before.

I met so many employees proving how healthy (pun intended) the health care field remains for those looking for a stable career.

No matter how many movies and TV shows one has seen where the camera is the point of view of a patient lying prostrate on a gurney looking up as florescent lights fly by, when you become the camera, it acts as a lightning bolt dose of reality that this is really happening.   Luckily, by the time I was positioned in the operating room, I fell asleep, feeling terribly cold.

Waking up in recovery, there was a new nurse assisting and my wife by my side.  I didn’t know until later that my brother and sister had visited me and that I appeared awake but groggy.  I had no recollection of that.  I apologize for any foreign tongues that may have uttered from my mouth.

My post-op fear was that I was going to throw up in the car on the way home which is why I brought an old bath towel just in case.   Fortunately, I never needed that towel.

The day after the surgery was the most uncomfortable as the main drugs had worn off.  More than anything, I felt discomfort not sharp pain.  For the first couple of nights I could not sleep in bed even with added pillows; the living room chair with an ottoman was my bed.

In 29 years of teaching, and in 42 years of working, I have never taken off so much time due to my health.   Sure, I was able to read three books in five days and binge on Netflix’s “Seven Seconds.”   And my dog and I have bonded even more than before (if that’s even possible).  I’m worried about any post-surgical depression setting in for him without me by his side once I return to work.

Unlike the summer when I’m not working, however, this time felt different.  Convalescing with its restrictions on exercise, limited to small errands and short walks—the elliptical machine and racquetball off limits—bred restlessness.

In this September of my years (to borrow from the Sinatra song), the notion of retirement ebbs and flows, anticipating unrestricted time to enjoy life.  However, that fantasy only works if one is healthy.

As one ages and the future shrinks, the truth to the axiom of making the most of each living day crystallizes.

If you can wake up and feel well, that is a present that comes with responsibility to not fritter it away.   Life comes with a limited supply of those days.