Power of the Students

Through the Great Depression, World War Two, Korean and Vietnam wars, and 9/11, one thing was for certain:  that in the fall each year Glendale and Hoover High Schools would meet for the final football game of the season.

That tradition ended last week.

Hours before game time, “out of an abundance of caution” Glendale Unified School District cancelled it “due to increased rumors of possible disruptions . . . that put student, employee, and spectator safety at risk” as stated in a prepared statement.

Fallout from the Oct. 3 fight at Hoover ultimately led to GUSD’s decision.

The 88-straight game streak was broken as were the hearts of students and alumni and anyone else who has a link to the city’s storied history.  Even the homecoming dances were postponed.

It wasn’t just a football game that never happened.  For the Hoover senior football players, it meant a chance at history by beating Glendale all four years of their high school career, a feat never before accomplished.

Much preparation goes into this one event each year whose purpose is to instill school spirit, the major sporting event no matter the football team’s season record, with an early morning ceremonial poster drop from three floors up and a school-wide assembly of skits performed by each grade level.  All of this work done by a small group of dedicated students, all leading up to the game, the game that was not to be.

If there was a serious threat of violence, then cancelling the game was the right move.  However, if the cancellation was based on rumors, something the district admonished everyone after the fight at Hoover not to fall prey to, then questions should be asked.

After all, when a rumor on social media spread following the fight caused a huge amount of absences, school was not cancelled “out of an abundance of caution” so why would the game not happen?

If you are trying to make things go back to normal, the last thing you want to do is to end a positive, long-standing tradition between the two oldest high schools in the city.   Not having the football game is abnormal.

Then, guess what happened?   Just when the TV news minivans stopped parking in front of Hoover, they returned on Monday.

Students organized a walkout to protest the district’s cancellation.  Well over 100 students walked two miles to district headquarters wanting their voices to be heard.

“What really happened on Oct. 3?  Why was the game cancelled?” were questions never fully addressed.

Three days later, GUSD attempted to answer these questions in their first press conference on the matter four weeks after the initial incident.

The district is moving forward to facilitate communication with all members of the school community.  Let’s hope such efforts succeed.

Give credit to the district for doing this.  However, even more credit goes to the persistence of students who felt that questions remained unanswered and issues unresolved.

Would there have been a press conference if there was no walkout?

The motto at Hoover is “be responsible, respectful, and engaged.”  The students who organized the peaceful demonstration embodied that standard, and adults should embrace these young people for speaking their mind and reminding all that this is their school.

 

 

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.

 

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.

Words of Wisdom from Teens

Going back to work this week reminds me of how much I still enjoy my job after 29 years of teaching.

As a teacher, there are two beginnings to one’s work year:  the kickoff in August and the return in January.  It is one of the things that makes teaching different from other occupations.

The two-week holiday in December and the extended layoff in summer takes adjusting to, though each has its own feel.

While the very start to school requires a reserve of energy including mental acuity in getting to know up to nearly 200 new faces and names, the second start in January feels more like getting reacquainted with old friends.

As a way to get the students re-focused on their goals after New Year’s, I like to open with a reflective lesson, one that uses an essay by Edmund N. Carpenter II which received wide circulation when he passed away in 2008.

Published in the Wall Street Journal in 1938, Carpenter contemplates about all the experiences he wishes to have, both good and bad, before he dies.  What is remarkable about the piece is that he was only 17 years old when he wrote it, a fact that I purposely withhold from my students until the end of our discussion.

I then have the students follow Carpenter’s structure, writing about what they want to do before they graduate high school.

A majority mention getting good grades, volunteering in the community, joining clubs, attending school events, getting their driver’s licenses and that first job. And a few wish to experience boyfriend/girlfriend love for the first time.

Here are some of their thoughts.

“High school is a one of a kind story that everyone makes.”

“Having a couple of friends that support you and respect you is exactly what every high school student needs in order to get through high school peacefully and easily.”

“This is where I hopefully discover myself.”

“Knowing that I worked hard and that my job as a student was well worth the late nights full of tears, stress, and my Starbucks Mocha Chilled coffees.”

“Cherishing the moments where the only responsibility I have is to keep my room clean, and the biggest problem I face is having to write an essay.”

“I hope to forgive myself like I can forgive others, accept my flaws, and kindle sparks of passion and joy into roaring flames.”

“High school is a love letter to my youth, a final goodbye on my childhood years.”

“I want to learn to be independent and to provide for myself.  I do not want to trouble my parents with having to pay for me any longer; they do not deserve that tiresome task.”

“I want to change a life; I want to know how it feels to give someone hope.”

“The fear of making a mistake is the biggest mistake of all; it is the mistake of denying oneself of a valuable life lesson that cannot be learned from books.”

“I want to accomplish something so monumental that everyone is aware of my achievement and that I somehow inspire them to set higher goals.”

“I want to make my parents proud of everything I did.  Out of all my goals for high school, this is the most important and most valuable.”

“I will apologize to someone I treated poorly.  I will make amends with anyone whom I neglected, insulted, or hurt.”

Looking over what they wrote reminded me of why I still feel fortunate to be working with such inspirational young people.  We will be in good hands.

 

 

High School Classes are not College Prep

Over the years that I have been an English teacher, there has been a steady decline in students’ writing skills.

Every time I assign a major piece of writing, one that is multiple pages in length, I brace myself for the avalanche of papers about to be turned in.   It’s not the sheer volume of 100 plus essays submitted in one day that blows me back; it’s the poor quality that is troubling.

It can be quite disheartening to read student writing from advanced students and realize that these young people, the best in their class, struggle to organize their thoughts, unable to form a clear argument.

Reasons for this decline does not require a Brookings Institute study.  Kids are reading less and teachers are assigning less writing.

In the most recent round of essays I graded, one-third of the papers did not mention the literature being written about in the introduction, and when they did, these 15-year-olds did not properly punctuate the book title.

Like turning a car engine on and off, their papers began, ended and began again in just two paragraphs, each paragraph reading as a new beginning, lacking transitions or threads to the thesis.

They often bounced back and forth between present and past tense, singular and plural pronoun forms in the same sentence.

And some students decided to analyze the film version, not the book itself, perhaps because they did not read it.

I teach my students that the best mistake prevention tool when writing is to read their paper out loud; few did it as evidenced by the scores of typos not caught by a spellchecker.  What else explains not capitalizing names of characters or misspelling the names altogether.

I asked my students how many of their teachers (other than me) require them to write an expository essay:  53 percent said one, 14 percent said none.

Of course, students don’t have to write full-fledged essays to practice writing.   Students can show their thinking by writing multiple sentence answers to test questions.  So, I queried my students on this.

While 40 percent replied that they have two or more teachers who administer these type of tests, 32 percent have just one teacher who does so, while 28 percent have none.   That means, for the majority of the time, students are taking multiple choice tests which require no writing beyond a fill in the blank.

Remember, these students are taking other advanced placement classes, the most rigorous courses the school has to offer.   Think about how little writing must be happening in the regular classes.

The teachers at the secondary level, especially those who don’t teach English, need to have students read critically and write analytically as often as they can.   With so little writing being practiced, students enter college with a huge handicap.

My freshman son volunteered that only a couple of his high school classes prepared him for the level of writing and the amount of reading required in college; this coming from someone who took several Advanced Placement classes.  Even though all the courses were labeled “college prep,” few deserved that distinction.

If one of the missions of high school is to prepare students for university-level work, we are doing a miserable job.

Could this partially explain why only 21 percent of Cal State University freshmen finish college in four years?

Finding a student paper that isn’t riddled with errors is as rare as finding a parking space at the Glendale Galleria on Black Friday.   And when there is a crisply written paper with an eye-catching opening, a strong argument, and quotes which support astute observations, a teacher wants to shout “hallelujah,” with hope in America’s youth restored.

Until the next paper on the pile.

 

Make Teaching Attractive Not Ugly

If one wants to attract the best talented people to teaching, the recipe is to make teaching attractive.

But that recipe concocted by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing is not what is happening in teacher training programs.  Gordon Ramsay, where are you?

This week I drove out to CSUN for a three-hour late afternoon meeting with other cooperating teachers (those who work with student teachers), a rare chance to share triumphs and challenges of assisting up and coming instructors.

Instead of having a forum with free-flowing conversations, we were corralled into three separate pullout sessions on new strategies introduced in credential courses.  One was on how to differentiate instruction, one on how to incorporate UDL, and another on MTSS.

What, you don’t know what UDL and MTSS stand for?  Neither did I until that evening.   The initialisms stand for Universal Design for Learning and Multi-Tiered System of Supports.  Has quite a ring to them, as in “my head is ringing with more education gobbledygook.”  Now I know what my teaching has lacked over the past 28 years.

Instead of recruiting vibrant people to the profession, allowing them to flourish with their natural ability, credential programs often tamper that energy with endless training on the latest learning strategy du jour.

They keep demanding things of teachers that sucks away the joy of working with young people.

More of “be sure you to do this, this, and this” instead of exploring the wonder of working with kids.

They keep laying on more work for the student teacher to do, as if it isn’t stressful enough to require student teachers to work for nothing for a whole year while taking several courses in the evening.

When I asked what requirements were removed to make room for the new ones, the facilitator looked stumped.

The demands of the profession rise as positions in math, science and special education remain vacant.

Much of this nonsense is coming from the state.  In fact, there is a new mandate from the Commission that all cooperating teachers have 10 hours of training to ensure they are qualified to work with student teachers.

So, for those of us who have been doing it for years, none of that experience evidently counts.

Funny how that was never a requirement before.  In fact, usually the way a credential program finds cooperating teachers at school sites is by contacting the districts who then email the administrators who then email teachers with an “anybody want to do this” query.  Experience and quality not necessary.

Here is where the state should step in and expect that the cooperating teacher has a certain amount of ability working with or training other teachers.   But to come up with a random 10 hours of training along the lines of UDL and MTSS is BS.   Even the credential folks are at a loss on how to pay people for the required amount of training.

Frankly, I can’t see how a young person full of beans survives intact after going through the shredder of a teacher training program without losing heart.

A teacher who sparks learning in young people does so not because of MTSS but because that individual connects in a human way that can’t translate into a topic on a college syllabus.

I asked my current student teacher if she is getting any sense of enjoyment from any of her classes.  She said only one professor inspires her.   That’s not enough, and not the way to attract people to teaching.

On a side note, the cooperating teachers were paid $50 for the three-hour workshop and travel time to and from CSUN.   That breaks down to $16.66 an hour.   Just another reason to earn a teaching credential.

 

Life Lessons: How to say “goodbye” to students

At the end of the school year, I often struggle finding an appropriate way to sum up all the work with the students.

Thanks to my son’s seventh grade English teacher at Muir Middle School in Burbank, Lynn Rothacher, the proverbial light bulb went off above my head.

At the end of the course, Ms. Rothacher passed out a handout entitled “life lessons from the literature we’ve read this year,” a brilliant idea that crystalizes all the important literary works students studied on a single page.

The lesson to “open your heart (and your pocketbook) to others” derives from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

This inspired me to create a similar document as a way to say “goodbye” to my tenth grade students.  In addition to listing the life lessons and the works, I added a quote from each piece of literature that supported the lesson.

First, I modeled an example. For Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one lesson is to be tolerant of those different from you:  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Next, I had my students come up with their own lessons and quotes for the other works including Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address.”

After they shared and presented these, I had them write reflections.  What they had to say made the previous 179 days of school with its ups and downs all worthwhile.

“This is my favorite thing we’ve done the whole school year.  I feel like at school, the place we’re supposed to be preparing for the real world, we’re never really taught life lessons.”

“I love these quotes so much I plan on keeping them with me because I feel that they can be seen at any point in life and give hope, or inspire you to do certain things. Reading them really made me reflect on life.”

“With these lessons and morals in mind, we can make ourselves better people and influence others to become better also.”

“This creates more of a long-lasting positive impact than anything else we could have done.  This activity reminds us of all that can be taken from literature.”

“School is not great on covering how to apply our knowledge in the real world.  This class had a purpose.  Now I know the importance of literature and I am more aware of life.”

“This is something that will stick with us throughout the rest of our lives.  We probably won’t remember the technical aspects of literature as well as the life lessons they provide.”

“I have gained an immense understanding of human nature as a result of these pieces of literature and I know for a fact that I will never forget any of the life lessons.  I feel like I know how to be a better person and hope others do as well.”

“This shows us why we spent countless hours reading and understanding these books.  It puts all our work into perspective and makes it worthwhile.  In this class I’ve learned the most about myself and what kind of person I am.”

“Talking about this definitely has an emotional element to it.  You don’t realize in the midst of reading, annotating, analyzing, and taking tests on these works that they’ve actually been specially chosen to teach you things that aren’t required by the school.”

“I loved doing this.  It made me explode with happiness and excitement.  No one really notices the meaning of why we read the books we read and why our teachers assign these books.  This lesson really opened my eyes.”

Even after nearly 30 years in the classroom, I am still learning new ideas.   Thank you, Ms. Rothacher.