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.

 

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.

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.