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.

 

 

Teachers Studying Other Teachers

In 28 years of teaching I have probably spent one year of my career attending faculty meetings, conferences, and workshops.  The bulk of the information dispensed varied from somewhat helpful to barely useful; little of it was illuminating.

The one staff development activity, however, that has always been worthwhile missing a day of work for is the walk-through.

In recent years, schools have been implementing the concept of having teachers walk into other teachers’ classrooms to observe the teaching and learning taking place.

While initially some teachers balked at the idea of opening their doors to their colleagues, the walk-through has now become standard practice where I work.  We have been doing it for so long now that newer teachers have no memory of when we weren’t doing it.

While teachers are given observation forms to fill out and concepts to watch for, teachers are on their own for most of the day, something that is not true with other staff development.

Teachers are put in pre-arranged teams, purposely from different departments.   Doing it this way ensures that people don’t gravitate towards those with whom they regularly interact.   Integrating teachers from different departments takes the walk-through to another dimension, becoming a “getting to know you” day.

One of the peculiarities of teaching is that it is a vocation performed by one person in individual rooms.  Dialoging with colleagues to discuss methodologies and students is an independent study venture.

Because of this solitary confinement, it is easy to overlook what a student’s whole day looks like.   Teachers focus on their curriculum often forgetting that at the secondary level these students have five other classes.

It’s not just the homework; it’s how adaptive students need to be in understanding the expectations from their other five instructors.   Yet, it is that variety of teachers and teaching styles that makes their day dynamic and not boring.   If one teacher speaks in a monotone and stays immobile in front of the class, the next period may have one teacher who constantly moves around, having students work with partners and in groups.

Another benefit of walking through other classrooms is coming away with fresh ideas: a creative way to have students write on the board, a decoration hung from the ceiling, an unusual table arrangement.

And it’s fun seeing one’s students in different settings.   One former student had a huge grin that I was watching her play the cello.  Another was making a sculpture, and after discussing the particulars of that work of art, good-naturedly debated where the best breakfast burritos can be found (he says Corner Cottage, I say Larry’s). Such conversation pays in dividends, deepening the connection between student and teacher.

As much as I enjoy the walk-throughs, each teacher does just one a year.   It would be wonderful if teacher observations and conversations were a regular part of the work day or even work week.

Another next step would be to record those teachers who are doing marvelous work as a video library for others to reference.

If a were a student that day, I would have gone to school and learned what makes people mammals, that what separates us from other mammals is our ability to show compassion, and it is that compassion that can be expressed through writing a sonnet, playing a piece of music and creating a work of art.

Not a bad way for a teenager to spend a day.   And it’s free.  What a deal.

Trump speaks like a Fifth Grader

If President Donald J. Trump was a student in my 10th grade English class, here is how I would evaluate his use of the English language as observed in last week’s press conference.

One major characteristic of Trump’s speaking is the repetition of words and phrases, often within the same sentence, revealing a limited vocabulary.

Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump:  The Art of the Deal, told MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid that Trump has a “200-word vocabulary.”

That is why in his 77-minute presser he repeated words so frequently:  really (14), great (19), very (87).

An easy way to impress people, I tell my students, is by using a varied vocabulary when speaking with prospective employers.  It also retains an audience’s attention when the speaker uses different words; using the same words over and over again, well, the message gets lost.

See if you can figure out what Trump was trying to say:

  • “It’s very important to me. I’ve been talking about that for a long time.  It’s very, very important to me.”
  • “We’re looking at them very, very, very serious.”
  • “Very, very strongly. Very, very strongly.”

Avoid saying “honestly,” “I’ll be honest” or “can I be honest with you” because more likely than not you’re not being truthful.

Just like declaring yourself to be 100 percent opposite of who you really are.

“Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.  Number two, racism, the least racist person.”

I teach my students to avoid the phrase “I think” because it diminishes the persuasiveness of one’s opinion, coming across as if only the speaker believes that way.  Yet Trump repeated it 42 times in the press conference.

In fact, he used the pronoun “I” 389 times. It goes without much analysis why he would refer to himself so often.

I instruct my students to avoid hysterical language; people are more likely to consider your opinions when spoken more judiciously.

Trump, however, washes himself in hyperbole, depicting the world as a “mess” or “disaster” or in “chaos” or “turmoil” where things are “horrible,” “terrible,” “horrendous,” or “catastrophic.”

When discussing people who please him, Trump uses “wonderful,” “tremendous,” “fantastic,” “fabulous,” “incredible,” the types of adjectives children would more often use than a 70-year-old man.

And look at the repetitive wording when talking about his daughter—“Ivanka who is a fabulous person and a fabulous, fabulous woman”—and his wife Melania who feels “very, very strongly, she’s a very, very strong advocate.”

Carnegie Mellon studied the vocabulary of presidents and concluded that Trump’s language is at a fifth-grade level.

“I inherited a mess.  It’s a mess.  At home and abroad, a mess.”

The same could be said of the way Trump talks.

Dr. Justin Frank, a psychoanalyst at George Washington University Medical Center who is writing a book called “Trump on the Couch,” told me that “not reading or not being able to read often has a lasting limiting effect” on one’s vocabulary development.  It’s widely known that Trump watches TV and does not read books—not a promising combination for thinking deeply about issues affecting the nation.

If Trump’s parents visited me at Open House this week, how would I diplomatically broach his shortcomings as an English student?  Most likely do what any politician does and redirect my response to a different subject: have Donald join my journalism class to learn about real news.

 

The Gettysburg Tweet?

Newly inaugurated U.S. presidents are often judged by the work completed in their first 100 days of office.

We can judge President Trump by the first 100 tweets of his presidency.

George Bennett of the Palm Beach Post reported that “more than half his tweets end with an exclamation point and more than one-quarter [have] at least one word in all capital letters.”

Take a look.

“Enjoy the Super Bowl and then we continue: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

“Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.  Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”

“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

“I will send in the Feds!”

“FAKE NEWS”

Words matter.   They can threaten or they can heal.

February 12 is the 208th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth whose words still endure today.

Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns made “The Address” in 2014 about the Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont, a small boarding school for boys with learning disabilities who each year recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a rite of passage that demonstrates their confidence to overcome their challenges.

In 272 words, it may be the best written speech by any president under two minutes.

He uses the rule of three twice, done to perfection: “we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground” and the famous coda “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln was not the featured speaker when the battlefield was dedicated as a cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863.  Edward Everett, noted orator of the time, spoke for two hours first, then came Lincoln.

The photographer assumed Lincoln would speak longer allowing him more time to focus his camera on the president.  By the time he took the photograph, Lincoln had just sat down.

Little did Americans know at the time that the Civil War would continue for almost two more years.

And it wasn’t until years later that Lincoln’s words would burn an indelible mark in the American story.  In fact, before he was assassinated, many in the country disliked Lincoln.   After his murder, however, his reputation rose.

This year I had my English students learn about Lincoln and recite the speech.

After they finished, I asked them their thoughts.

“I loved presenting this speech and learning about it and the person behind it,” one student wrote.

“It inspires people and reminds us how great Lincoln was” that “he was able to bring the country together,” remarked another.

The speech showed “how much he cared about his country,” how “he cared about the American people deeply.”

He “was very intelligent and eloquent” who “showed compassion” and “loved his country;” “a good, true, honorable man.”

And one student said “funny how in the speech Lincoln says ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here’ but people still remember the speech today.”

If only our Chief Executive could word his thoughts as well as a 15-year-old high school student.

Indeed, in the turbulent times we live in where there is a pervasive dark mood, it is comforting to read the words of someone who truly led a divided nation.

When he was assassinated on April 15, 1865, he had recently turned 56 years old.   Even with an additional 14 years of life, Trump has a lot of catching up to do before his memorial ever breaks ground on the National Mall.

Over 150 years from now, will a Trump Tweet be recited by school children, examined as one of the finest collection of words coming from a president?

Take a break from all the bad news and read over the Gettysburg Address to honor Abraham Lincoln and to remind yourself that we are all Americans.

 

 

DeVos: The Anti-Education Secretary

There I was, using 20 minutes out of my 56-minute period on Jan. 20 showing my mostly non-native English speaking students democracy in action, the inauguration of a new president, when I felt slapped in the face from Donald Trump who said, “An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

As he seems to do with so many issues, Trump took the low road with a clichéd type of sentence that connects extremes—lots of money with nothing to show for it—that reflects his deprivation of knowledge about education.

It’s one thing when the public makes comments about schools without researching the facts.  It is quite another when the man holding the highest office in the nation makes such a remark, then appoints a person to head the department of education who may actually know a little less than he does about schools.

Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos has never attended a public school, never taught school, and it is doubtful that her children attended one either.

DeVos is a billionaire, Forbes estimating her family’s wealth at $5 billion.  And she and her husband, son of Amway’s co-founder, aren’t interested in making schools better, but in promoting school vouchers which takes money away from public schools and gives it to parents to spend on charter, private or religious schools.

In other words, taxpayer dollars end up funding private companies and religious organizations.   That runs counter to the separation of church and state edict of this country.

Yet Trump is entrusting her with the highest position in education to do what’s best for America’s public schools.   Does that make sense?

At her confirmation hearing, she exhibited, to borrow Trump’s language, a “deprivation of knowledge” about the federal law that funds special education which has been on the books for nearly three decades.   She also could not explain the difference between the terms “proficiency” and “growth assessment,” a distinction even an average-skilled teacher can clarify.

DeVos also argued against gun-free school zones saying that some schools like those near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming should be able to arm themselves especially “to protect from potential grizzlies.”   Thus far, there have never been reports of grizzly bears attacking school children.  Besides, most experts agree that bear repellent is more effective than firearms.

I have long felt it inherently wrong for people who lack teaching experience to hold powerful positions in education, telling teachers how to teach.  Unfortunately, DeVos has company.

Since the Department of Education was created in 1979, there have been 10 secretaries.

Only Terrel Bell, Rod Paige and John King, Jr. were public school teachers before serving their post.  That means 70 percent of the U.S. Secretaries of Education had no first-hand experience of public schools, the institution for which they were setting policy and implementing mandates.

Since Trump thrives on having the biggest, the best, the largest, he has succeeded with DeVos in appointing the most unqualified individual as education secretary.

In fact, she is the anti-education secretary.

As Stephen Henderson wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance.”

Until her nomination, she was chairman of the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice advocacy group whose website refers to DeVos as a “national education reform pioneer.”

In a speech given at the South by Southwest education conference in 2015, DeVos listed “government really sucks” as an “inconvenient truth” about public education.  Nice language coming from the soon-to-be top “educator” in the land.

Some senators requested a second hearing on DeVos, but the request was turned down.

Her confirmation is expected to happen this Tuesday.  If only that were fake news.