Teachers’ Makeover during Pandemic Nothing Short of Miraculous

Friday the 13th marked the end of the 2019-2020 school year and my 31-year career as a high school English and Journalism teacher in any practical sense.

Due to stay-at-home directives, school was out—literally.

When all the books and documentaries about the pandemic of 2020 are published years from now, at least one chapter needs to spotlight the heroics of America’s public school teachers.

All across America, distance or remote learning premiered in the weeks following spring break.

Like sending a man to the moon within a decade was monumental for NASA, to some degree enlisting public school teachers to learn a whole new way of delivering instruction within as little as a week deserves to be on the short list of amazing feats performed in record time.

Yes, Ford and General Motors in a matter of weeks retooled their factories to make masks and ventilators instead of Mustangs and Silverados, quite an achievement.

But imagine a workforce of 3.2 million retooling themselves, learning new online platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom in a matter of days, not weeks.

With communication limited to emails, teacher training sessions went into emergency overdrive in just a few days, an all-hands-on-deck IT team recording and posting how-to webinars on various synchronous and asynchronous programs to assist faculty.

Lightning quick, schools organized their version of the Marshall Plan, handing out laptops and hot spots by the hundreds with the help of employees donning protective gear, echoing the Leave No Child Behind creed from the start of the century, ensuring that all children have access to virtual classrooms.

The reality that schools would not reopen for the rest of the school year hit district offices like a meteor, stunning them so that they didn’t have time to rollout training gradually.  Instead, they had no alternative but to entrust teachers to pick and choose which learning system they felt most comfortable using.

Once all systems were go, as if learning a whole new of way to teach from home was not challenging enough, teachers had to be creative and compassionate on how to keep students “tuning in” to their virtual classrooms.  It didn’t help that districts decided to freeze grades, i.e., final semester grades would be the third quarter grades unless a student’s grade increased.  Students who did not turn in work via remote learning would not be penalized, and no student would fail a class even if that was the third quarter grade.

The ‘A’ students have no motivation to produce work since they are guaranteed to end up with an ‘A’; the students at the other end of the spectrum have a free ticket as well as they magically will earn credit for doing no work.  In other words, all the work done in the final 25 percent of the school year does not count.

Yet teachers march on—posting videos, screencasting lessons, scheduling live sessions—all while working in the dark, not truly knowing if anyone is paying attention.

In a real classroom, I often have students read an article or watch a video then have them pair up with a partner and share their thoughts which leads to a whole class discussion, ensuring everyone will hear at least something.

In the virtual classroom, I post the material and create an assignment with no guarantee that students did the work themselves.  Even if I have them post comments, I have no idea how many will read their classmates’ thoughts.

Many jobs can be done at home or partially at home, but teaching requires human contact.  In all the ways I imagined how my career would end up, teaching at my dining room table was not a credible scenario.

And while car companies will eventually revert back to manufacturing motor vehicles, teaching may never look like itself again, at least for quite a while.

Already district personnel are holding emergency meetings strategizing how the reopening of schools in August will happen while maintaining social distancing.

Yes, schools will reopen.  No, they will look vastly different especially in the upper grades where students have several teachers in one day.

I often have up to 40 students in a classroom.  Measuring for six feet of separation would result in two empty seats for each occupied one.  So instead there may be 15 students.  Obviously the teacher workforce can’t be doubled in size, so time may be halved, 30-minute periods instead of 60 minutes, or some students attend school on even days, others on odd days, or some in the morning, others in the afternoon.  See the logistical nightmare ahead?

Yet judging how incredible districts quickly adapted on the fly to the challenge of no school, officials should be capable of working out a hybrid of in-person and online learning environments.  Such a model may last the entire 2020-2021 school year if the coronavirus returns in the fall or winter.  This will not please parents who will need to scramble for child care since students will no longer attend school all day, five days a week.

Never before has such an undertaking been done in the history of public schools.  Never before have I been as proud of our profession, one that I am exiting by mid-June.

That is why on May 5, National Teacher Appreciation Day, wherever you may be, stand up and applaud those who take care of America’s future.

 

I’ve Got the Covid-19 Blues; Whiteboard Jungle welcomes Glendale News-Press and Burbank Leader readers

NOTE TO READERS:  Now that the Los Angeles Times folded the local newspapers, the Glendale News-Press and the Burbank Leader, my column, The Whiteboard Jungle, will continue on my Crosby Chronicles blog.   Thank you to all who read it.  Please send your comments.

It has been 7 weeks since I last taught a class, 7 weeks since we have been in the Stay-at-Home mode.

And in 6 weeks, I will be officially retired from teaching.

With nearly two months of living this way, one would think a pattern would arise, a schedule take hold.   But why hasn’t it?  Because I feel that I am in a holding pattern.

I keep waiting for me to get into some kind of groove.  Instead, I feel aimless, waiting

for . . what . . . the country to reopen, for me to reopen?

There are only a few certainties in my daily life right now:

  1. 6:00 wake up and feed dog
  2. 6:30 walk for 45 minutes
  3. 7:30 post lessons
  4. 8:30 shower
  5. 10:00 walk the dog
  6. 12:00 make lunch
  7. 2:30 feed dog
  8. 4:00 take dog for ride
  9. 5:30 make dinner
  10. 6:30 my wife and I watch our usual “Dateline” or “48 Hours”

The above list may seem that I am indeed on a schedule.   But, quite frankly, the bulk of the time between 9-5 feels empty.

  • I should be doing more writing, but I’m not.
  • There are many parts of the house which could do with a floor scrubbing, but I have not done it.
  • The same thing with our cars. Haven’t washed one, not even vacuumed the inside. That’s 2 months and counting of dirty cars.
  • I finally bought a shredder to start throwing out boxes of old financial records from the garage. I discovered that having a shredder means spending time feeding it a few sheets at a time, and that the resultant scraps of paper take up a lot of space in the trash cans.  Shredding does not mean disintegrating.  So  I am no longer that excited about that little hobby.  It’s faster (and just as safe) to just throw everything out in the non-recycling trash can.

And so, I do a lot of waiting around for the next item on my To-Do list to arrive.  I am allowing the clock to run my life, to dictate what I’m doing, instead of me living my life and occasionally looking up at the clock.  It also means a lot of walking around the house and going into the kitchen, drinking more coffee than I should, eating more snacks (chocolate mainly) than I should.  Even laying down in the afternoon, drifting off for a ½ hour while listening to an audiobook.

I can’t wait for things to return to normal.  At the same time, I have to frequently remind myself that my life is slowly ending.  I now have 7 fewer weeks of life than I did back on March 13.   During the lockdown, that time hasn’t been put away in a bank’s safety deposit box, waiting for me to claim it once Gov. Newsom waves the green flag.  No, the past 7 weeks is just that—in the past.  So if I wasn’t that productive, the onus is on me, no one else.

I am amazed watching my wife who has the self-discipline of the sun sit at the dining room table, our default office, and not budge from her seat.  She even remains sitting when I give her lunch.

I, on the other hand, can’t sit still for long periods of time.  One problem (or excuse) is that I am not totally comfortable doing work at the dining room table because it is slightly higher in relation to the chairs, causing arm strain.  I have no desk in my bedroom, but my sons do.

Son number one’s desk is unusable because it is hard to locate it with all the stuff strewn on it including clothes and phone charger cables.  Son number two’s desk is better since it is orderly and I do use it occasionally, but the window faces me as I sit there, meaning the backlight bothers my vision.

And then there is the constant laser eyes of my dog starting around 9:00 a.m. and lasting until 7:00 p.m.  He probably can’t believe that his Alpha Male pal is around all the time all of a sudden.  If he is not staring at me as I eat, he is laying on my left foot underneath the table.  Often, he barks to be let outside, then a running slam against the screen door alerts us he is ready to come back in.

I hope that I can get more done with the next several weeks until the economy reopens in a new-normal world.   More worrisome:  what will the new-normal of myself look like.

 

Column Ends, Blog Continues

As many of you know by now, the Glendale News-Press, the Burbank Leader and the

La Canada Valley Sun will no longer be published.

This means that you are reading my last column, a column I have written since early 2011.

At that time, the Times was trying out something called the 818 Bloggers and I was part of that crew.

My column, originally called “The Crosby Chronicles,” became “The Whiteboard Jungle”  by 2013.  The main focus was education, but I covered an array of issues that impacted young people.

Even though I wasn’t compensated much for my near decade-long tenure, I took seriously the responsibility of having a voice in the community.

Every other week I would agonize over the column; as any writer will tell you, good writing comes from good revisions.

Early drafts often totaled 1,500 words, too many for a 600-word column.  However, it is easier to delete words than add them, advice I often pass on to my students.

It is also easier to have a meticulous editor, my wife Sherry.

I feel bad for newspapers who have struggled mightily the past few decades with dwindling ad revenue and readership.  Losing journalists is not healthy in a democracy.  Nowadays, more people access internet posts controlled by those who are anything but real journalists.

Next time there is corruption in the cities of Burbank or Glendale, who will report on it?

The public will suffer without the fourth estate as its watchdog, especially at a time when real news gets mislabeled as fake news.

When my editor called me Thursday evening about the paper’s demise, it coincidentally was the same day I turned in my retirement papers to the Glendale Unified offices.  How strange is that?

Yes, come June 12th, after 31 years, I will return to being a private citizen, no longer a public school teacher.  Except for the first 2 weeks in September of 1989 at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles (noted for calculus teacher Jaime Escalante), I have spent all of my career at Hoover High School in Glendale.

I had several ideas for future columns lined up including one about my retirement from teaching.  Now this is a column about my retirement from working.

When people ask me, “are you sure you want to do this” my response:  it is time.  While I still have my health and enjoy my job, I’d rather leave a little too early than stay a little too late.  Besides, as Vin Scully often commented, we are all living day to day.  No one knows what our expiration is.

Still, I do feel that I have something to share, wisdom to pass on, mentoring to perform.

Veteran teachers bring a unique view that only time and experience can nurture.  A reservoir of talented and imaginative people should be tapped at a time when invention of a new way of structuring schools and teaching students is already underway, if only districts would use them in leadership roles.  It is a precious resource too often taken for granted and overlooked.

I want to thank former editor Dan Evans who hired me as well as current editor Mark Kellam.

Most of all, I thank you for reading what was on my mind.   With apologies to Maytag repairmen, writers are the loneliest guys in town.  We perform alone not knowing if anyone out there cares about the words we string together.  Each kind email received made my day.

I cling to the belief that former students now in their 20s, 30s and 40s remember something from the days with Mr. Crosby that has made a positive impact in their lives.  I know their being in my classroom made one in mine.

For those of you who are interested, I will continue writing my blog, the CrosbyChronicles.org, and plan on writing more books.  Email briancrosby1958@gmail.com.

God bless and stay well.

 

 

 

The Birth of Remote Learning

As I write these words I am completing the first week of teaching in a completely new way—without students.

Over the coming weeks I will share with you my successes and pitfalls teaching in a virtual classroom.  Right now, my head is still throbbing with how quickly the world has changed in just a few short weeks.

Recall that old Chicago song, “Does Anybody Really Knows What Time it is?”  That’s how life feels like:  is it morning or afternoon, Wednesday or Thursday, and does the word “weekend” mean anything anymore.

Have you noticed how quiet it is in your neighborhood lately?  Eerily quiet.  Cars are parked in front of houses but there are no people, reminiscent of the first Twilight Zone episode, “Where is Everybody?”

Social distancing hits older folks harder.  Those under 25 have been practicing social distancing most of their lives through texting and apps like Skype and Face Time.  In fact, they are more comfortable not speaking over the phone or seeing each other in person.  Can you imagine how people would have dealt with social distancing just 20 years ago?

Never before has the use of technology been so vital than during this shutdown of America.  Parents who used to shudder at the number of hours their children spent on their devices now view those electronic menaces as lifelines, especially as they scramble how to do their jobs at home.

However, no workers have had to revolutionize their occupations on such a grand scale as have teachers.

Welcome to the birth of remote (or distance) learning which has kicked off all across America this week.

Teachers, students, parents, and school officials are all experimenting with a brand new form of learning all at the same time.  It must be what astronauts felt like when first going into outer space.

Imagine doing a job you have been performing for several years and being told you have one week to do the same job in a completely new way.  It is a humongous undertaking.  New York City Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza described it well, telling the New York Times that “we are literally flying the plane as we’re building the plane.”

One of the negative aspects of the teaching profession that I have addressed frequently is the lack of trust school officials have in allowing teachers to determine how best to serve their clientele, the students.  Too often top-down education trends are forced down the throats of educators with little input.  Teachers are supposed to behave like good soldiers, following the orders of their superiors.

Since this online revolution came out of nowhere so suddenly, education officials were clueless how to proceed.

Credit goes to Glendale Unified School District for stepping out of the way and allowing teachers to decide how to teach remotely.

The district provided teachers with a panoply of webinars and other resources from which an educator could pick and choose which ones to use.  For those with an advanced case of technophobia, the district gave teachers the option of handing out printed materials even though that meant figuring out how and when to deliver them to students.

Never before in all my 31 years have I been so entrusted to make professional decisions on what is best for me in reaching out to my students.

Well, teachers, I hope you are paying attention.  Take advantage of a situation which may never come your way again.   Everyone—students, parents, even principals and superintendents—are counting on you to teach kids in a way that has never been done before.

Once this health crisis is over, and school officials see how heroic teachers met this challenge, hopefully teachers’ stature will rise.

Let’s show everyone what we can do.  Make the country proud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living through a Pandemic

Incredible how our lives teeming with jobs, errands and recreation can be instantaneously wiped clean, filtered down to only one concern:  “Do we have enough toilet paper to get us through the week?”

Going to work and school, eating out, attending movies and concerts, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, observing religious traditions—all halted.  Freeze frame life as we know it.

And the places that remain open such as grocery stores are scenes from a bad end-of-the-world Netflix show.

My son and I have traveled to market to market to cobble together meat, eggs, and peanut butter, standing in lines, standing apart.  We drove by two gun stores in Burbank, each with a line of people outside.  Just what kind of world are we living in?

One where terms like coronavirus, COVID-19 and social distancing have been added to our existence.

It is dizzying to think how much has transpired in the past week.  Gov. Newsom said on Tuesday that schools are unlikely to reopen this academic year.

Funny how the last school day was Friday the 13th.  At that time, it was clear that schools would not resume soon after spring break.  As my students left, I joked to them “Happy Fourth of July!” not knowing how prescient that was.

State testing has been cancelled, the College Board plans on administering Advanced Placement tests online, and graduation ceremonies—well, who knows?

Never before will so many people have to rely on technology to keep them connected to their work and their loved ones.

Glendale Unified teachers scheduled to return to work on March 23 most likely will remain at home, watching webinars on how to design online lessons to salvage the remaining weeks of the spring semester.

A life without doing whatever we want is unchartered territory for all but those old enough to have lived through World War II and the Great Depression.   They remember rationing of tires and sugar, meatless meals and gasless days.  It was not uncommon to ask Americans to sacrifice for the greater good.

The closest most people alive today can relate to any kind of sacrifice would have been the rationing of gas during the oil crisis of 1973 when drivers were only allowed to buy gas based on the odd/even last number on their license plate.

So the idea of giving something up even temporarily is a habit alien to most.  That partially explains why some people, mainly young ones, are not heeding the advice of government officials to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

While we want to believe that during a crisis people’s better parts rise to the occasion, toilet paper hoarding proves otherwise.  How many 24-packs of toilet paper do people need?  Thinking of other people is an ancient practice it seems.

There is a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the stock market crashes and people run into the Bailey Building and Loan to take their money out.  George pleads with his customers not to drain the limited bank’s money supply, but to only ask for small amounts to get them by in the short-term.  While some take all of their money, others think about George and other customers by limiting their withdrawals.

That’s the kind of neighborly attitude we need right now.

If we are to get through what possibly may be the worst pandemic since 1918 when over 675,000 Americans died out of 103 million, we all have to sacrifice for the greater good.

As I tell my students, the one comforting aspect when studying disasters in history is that we know when they ended.   Yes, the Civil War was horrible, but it was only 4 years long.  But those alive in the 1860s had no idea how long that tragedy would last.

Not knowing how long the current health crisis will last creates anxiety in us.  We don’t know what the coming months will bring.

The one constant that has helped my family cope with this health crisis has been our dog Noble.  He doesn’t care about COVID-19, only that his bowl has food, he has a walk, goes for a car ride, and plays with rope toys.   How delightful to be blissfully ignorant of the dramatic changes we are all enduring.

 

 

Foul-mouthed Teens Pollute Learning Environment

Where I work, teachers are encouraged to stand outside their classroom doors to greet students every day, every period.   While I usually do this, more recently I end up inside my classroom with the door shut, shielding myself from the barrage of vulgarities vomiting from high school students.

Just the other day as I stood outside my door, a couple of students were shouting the s-word repeatedly.

As the boys walked past me, I asked them to watch their language.  So what did they do when rounding the corner?   Shouted the expletive even louder.

Welcome to high school 2020, where incalcitrant students run amuck and the adults have lost control of the school campus.

With the erosion of school discipline comes the rise of student misbehavior; neither fear nor shame of consequences or punishments inhibits it.  There isn’t a hair of a hesitation in some students saying whatever they want whenever they want.

I have mentioned before, the environment on public school campuses will only get worse once Gov. Newsom’s new bill kicks in on July 1 when defying a teacher will barely register a disciplinary action.

Each new law limiting schools doling out suspensions is emboldening hooligans to wreak havoc in and out of the classroom.

Smart teachers know not to engage with students who are not their own.  If a teacher chooses to interact with students misbehaving, the situation quickly devolves into a high blood pressure scenario where confrontation and defiance is the rule, and thuggery thrives.  The bad kids go unpunished while the attentive teachers who try to hold students accountable go unsupported.

Students who don’t even know me, see a man as old as their uncle or grandfather, dressed formally in a sports jacket and a tie, who clearly is either a teacher or an administrator, yet my appearance does not matter.  Respecting one’s elders or authority figures is not a behavior practiced in the home or elsewhere.

These foul-mouthed teens don’t care about the feelings of their peers who may not want to hear f-this and f-that all day long at their school.  Oddly, there is a small patch of greenery on campus called the Peace Garden.  And it is there where one will find some of the raunchiest language on a daily basis.  So much for the peace.

It doesn’t help that we have a president who is foul-mouthed, saying “bull—” on live television without concern that children will hear his words.

Schools have cracked down on bullying and sexual harassment, but need to ensure that all disrespectful language is intolerable.

During my conference period recently, I noticed two male students walking ahead of me, brazenly walking past the open gate to the staff parking lot and exiting the campus.

Not one but two security guards were there.  One of the students said “have a nice day” as they exited the campus.

I asked one of the guards if those students just cut class.

He said, “Oh, yes.  They do it all the time.  But our hands are tied.  We are told not to approach them.”

If schools don’t hold the high standard that their campuses are safe havens for non-threatening words and actions, similar to places of worship, then schools fail.  Often it is the one place where they will learn how to be decent and empathetic and kind.  Foul language pollutes the atmosphere of learning which all schools should aspire to.

Once they graduate high school, the opportunity to teach young people how to behave civilly will have vanished, and they will march into society at large, less humane than earlier generations.

 

 

Say Goodbye to Election Day

The March 3 Presidential Primary Election will be the first to comply with the 2016 California Voter’s Choice Act giving voters more flexibility but less connection to their community.

No longer does one have to wait until Election Day.  Now, voting centers (replacing polling places) open for business Feb. 22.  That’s 10 days to cast your votes.  It almost makes campaigning up until Election Day irrelevant.

Plus, you don’t have to vote in your neighborhood; anywhere in the county is okay.

Now, there is less chance you will see the people who live on your street casting ballots.  Just what we need in today’s community-starved times, eliminating one of the rare opportunities to observe with one’s own eyes democracy in action and sharing it with fellow Americans. The patriotic pleasure of going in person during the designated hours on that one day and bumping into neighbors will become a story to share with your grandchildren.

If convenience supersedes community, why not allow everyone to vote via their cell phones, any time, any day during an election year?  That way no one has to ever vote in person again.  Democracy lite.  Already people are spoiled buying everything they need online, not having to mingle with humans in a mall.  Soon, people won’t ever have to interact with others.

Cell phones and the internet have trained people to turn themselves inward, not looking up literally, cocooning themselves away from others.

How bizarre it is to be out walking my dog and instead of saying “hi” to people, watching blank stares past me, earbuds transporting them to someplace other than the here and now. The person right in front of them does not exist.

However, in trying to make voting as painless as possible, they are inviting more uninformed people to join the democratic process.

It doesn’t bother me if only 60% of the electorate chooses to participate.  What is troublesome is how little so many know about the country they live in.

I was shocked to learn that my journalism students, who one would think would be the most aware teenagers on campus regarding issues in the world, did not know the name of the Vice President.

Further, they did not know who their representative was.  Imagine not knowing that the most famous congressman today, Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who spearheaded the impeachment inquiry on President Trump, represents the area in which they live.

In just one week, I learned that students know very little about Abraham Lincoln even though they benefit from staying home on a day dedicated to his service to America.

Not one of my students have ever seen Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland.   Shouldn’t their parents have taken their children to such an entertaining yet educational attraction?

And when Vermont appeared in a lesson, I couldn’t find one student who knew what part of the country that state can be found.  “The southwest” and “the northwest” were the answers I received.  From honors students.

How can a 16-year-old go through 11 years of education and not know basic information?

One of the primary reasons for free public education to all is to ensure that students share a common base of knowledge, including what is means to be an American.

We should put more time in educating our youth about the country they live in in order to ensure the future electorate be informed, productive citizens.

And we should expect people to make a minimum effort to walk to their neighborhood polling place.  It is one’s civic duty.

Early Death Freezes Kobe in Time

“Hey, Dad, you won’t believe who just died?” my oldest son shouted from a neighboring room.

I immediately thought of someone famous who I admired who was elderly.

“Vin Scully?”

“Kobe Bryant.”

Given 100 guesses, Kobe’s name would not have been on that list.

Barely two weeks have passed since the tragic helicopter crash on Jan. 26 that killed nine people including Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and a mother, father and daughter from one family.

Of all the ways to die, dying via an accident must be the worst way for a life to end.   The people who die in accidents had plans later that day.  The victims’ families had plans later that day.  The last text, phone call, spoken words were not supposed to be the last ones.

This wasn’t like Alex Trebek’s year-long battle against pancreatic cancer, allowing fans to savor each of his “Jeopardy” appearances, nor was it like 103-year-old Kirk Douglas drawing his last breath.

Those who know they are about to die from an illness or old age have the opportunity to say their final goodbyes, for closure of some kind, before leaving the living behind.

What makes people react so deeply to the death of Kobe Bryant is that he was larger than life, a worldwide icon.  And if someone is larger than life, we fool ourselves to think that they can’t die, and if they do, most definitely not when they are young.

Unlike Elvis Presley (42) or Michael Jackson (50) who died from self-inflicted means, to die in an instant via an accident that comes out of nowhere shakes our foundation of life.

He didn’t make it to his imminent Hall of Fame induction this August.

He didn’t make it for the unveiling of his Staples Center statue.

He didn’t make it for any of his children’s high school graduation ceremonies.

Some other celebrities who have lost their lives in aircraft crashes include:

January 16, 1942 – 33-year-old actress Carole Lombard whose plane leaving Las Vegas crashed into the mountains killing all 22 onboard.  Because of the fear of a Japanese attack, safety beacons lighting the mountains were turned off.

December 15, 1944 – 40-year-old bandleader Glenn Miller with two others disappeared in foggy weather flying over the English Channel from England to France to entertain the troops in newly liberated Paris; a faulty carburetor may have been the culprit.

February 3, 1959 – Rock ‘n’ roll stars Buddy Holly (22), J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (28) and Ritchie Valens (17) died in a Beechcraft Bonanza shortly after taking off in Clear Lake, Iowa.

March 5, 1963 – 30-year-old singer Patsy Cline and three others died in a small Piper Comanche aircraft 90 miles outside of Nashville due to inclement weather.

December 10, 1967 – 26-year-old singer Otis Redding died in a Beechcraft H-18 with six others flying in rainy and foggy weather just four miles from their destination in Madison, Wisconsin, crashing into a lake; one person survived.

December 31, 1985 – 45-year-old actor/singer Ricky Nelson along with six others died in a DC-3 near De Kalb, Texas; both pilots survived the crash.

About the only positive that comes from such horrible events is that it reminds us of how precious our limited time is on earth.

One of the poems I teach to my 10th graders is A. E. Housman’s 1896 ode “To an Athlete Dying Young.”   The poem centers on an athlete who dies while still in the prime of life.  Because of an early death, he will always be remembered in people’s minds as that sparkling youth forever, never withering.

That is true of Bryant who now will forever remain 41 years old.

 

What’s paragraphing? Don’t ask a 15-year-old.

The other day I asked my students what they knew about Herbert Hoover, the name emblazoned on their school.   Besides a few rudimentary things such as he was a president, few knew anything else.

Then I asked about Mark Keppel and Eleanor J. Toll, names of their elementary and middle schools, respectively.

Nothing.

Isn’t it odd that students can attend a school for several years yet not be taught anything about the person whose name graces the building they enter and exit day after day?

They were never curious enough to Google these names even though they have libraries of information at their fingertips on the phones they carry.

Just another reminder about the paradox that surrounds us living at a time when information is everywhere, yet people seem less knowledgeable despite the technological advancements.

Unfortunately, from my view in the classroom trenches, the downward trend of what kids know is not surprising.

Exhibit A:  student writing.

Picture a piece of notebook paper with printing (no more cursive handwriting) that starts on the first line all the way on the left-hand side and continues down the entire page without any indentations, paragraphs or blank lines.  Just a block of text.

I even have students who turn in multiple pages of their work without stapling them together.

If I were talking about a third grade class, you wouldn’t be surprised.

But I’m referring to 10th graders in an honors class, two years away from entering college.

Yikes!

How can a 15-year-old get this far in school and not know how to follow the most fundamental rules of writing?

Students’ lack of paragraphing carries over to more critical areas of writing such as formulating a thesis, organizing topics, supporting opinion with evidence, and so on.

With each passing year that I teach, I have seen a degradation in students’ writing skills.

It’s not that students don’t know how to write, it’s that teachers haven’t asked them enough times to practice it.

Kids aren’t getting the instruction and practice they need to become more effective communicators.   The amount of writing a student does depends on the individual teacher.

If a student writes one paper per quarter, four papers a year, in grades 9-12, that totals 16 papers in one’s high school career.  But more often than not, students receive even less writing practice than that.

For the most part, students write papers in their English classes.  Imagine how much stronger their skills would be if they were practicing them in history and science classes.

The writing doesn’t have to be multiple page opuses.  Even a one-pager regularly assigned can provide sufficient practice in exercising their writing muscles.

Years ago, I was asked to coach social science teachers on how to grade short pieces of writing using rubrics.   There was resistance.

If only English teachers are expected to give writing assignments, students will continue floundering.

After all, today’s English teachers must deliver differentiating instruction for three types of student populations—regular ability, special education, English language learners—in a classroom bulging near 40 pupils.

And it is expected those instructors will assign writing on a regular basis?   Where is the time outside of work hours to grade 175 papers?

As I have written in this space before, Glendale Unified used to support English teachers with lay readers and paper grading days to ease the heavy workload.  However, those programs have long been eliminated.

Why should the average person worry about these things?

Think about where these less than qualified students are headed:  the workforce.  The people who will be our caretakers in law, accounting and medicine.  It is not just about indenting paragraphs.

 

 

To Catch a Thief

Strange how one alteration in a long-running pattern can turn everything upside down.

After 30 years of regularly playing racquetball early Sunday mornings at the Hollywood YMCA with a longtime friend, we had to switch to Saturdays in 2020 due to a later opening time—change #1.

Because the on-street parking in front of and across from the Y was taken, I ended up parking one block further north, an area I had never parked before—change #2.

Because the metered parking begins at 8:00 a.m. on Saturdays instead of 11:00 a.m. on Sundays, for the first time I had to put money in the meter—change #3.

Because I needed to retrieve coins from my car, I neglected to relock the vehicle (which I did not know at the time)—change #4.

My friend set an alarm on his phone for 7:57, allowing me enough time to run downstairs, cross the street, and feed the kitty for both our cars.

As I walked across from the main entrance to where my friend’s car was parked, I noticed a beat-up white sedan pull up next to mine which was one block up from where I was.  It appeared to be in position to parallel park; however, there wasn’t a place to park behind me.

Without thinking much about it, I stepped on the sidewalk and took out coins to put into the meter.

Suddenly, my eye caught a peculiar sight—my trunk had just popped up!   In a flash, my eyes quickly zoomed in to see the front passenger door open with someone half inside my car.

Instinctively I rushed over shouting, “Hey!  What are you doing?!”

Like the head of a jack-in-the-box, the rest of the man jumped out of my car.  He was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, white, disheveled looking.

“Oh, is this your car?  Sorry.  I thought this was my buddy’s car.  He said he left something here for me.”

At that point a voice inside of me said, “Brian, do not say anything else.  Get in the car fast, turn it around, and get the hell out of the area.”

Before I knew it, I made a U-turn and drove two blocks to a church parking lot, my heart pounding and my mind racing.

Lucky for me I never leave anything visible inside my car except for a pair of sunglasses and a water canteen.  And the only item in my trunk are reusable shopping bags.

But what about my registration and insurance card inside the glovebox?

I opened it up and discovered nothing had been disturbed, everything was there.

Did what just happened happened?  Was I a victim of a car burglary?

What hit me like a brick was the strong odor of cigarette smoke that must have been absorbed on the crook’s clothing.  It was so powerful that even after driving several miles with all the windows down I still could not get it completely eliminated.

I carefully walked back to the Y, looking to see if the man would still be there.

He was gone.

Within 60 seconds, he had pulled up next to my car, sized it up, pulled in front of my car, exited his, opened my unlocked passenger door, reached over to the driver’s side and pushed the release button to the trunk—clearly an activity he had mastered in record time.

I must have left the car unlocked because there was no sign of forced entry. That explains how he quickly got into my car without breaking a window.

However, if I had arrived a minute later, who knows what condition my car would have been in?

It wasn’t until I told this story to people that I realized how fortunate I was that the guy wasn’t confrontational or didn’t have a weapon.

There must have been a guardian angel watching over me that day.  How 2020 could have easily gone sideways in just four days old.