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.

 

 

It’s the Most Busiest Time of the Year

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is unlike any other of the 52 in the year.

Even if you don’t have to work, there is so much to do that you don’t feel like you have had time off.

First, every speck of seasonal sparkle needs to be put away.  Nothing is more depressing than Christmas decorations still up after the first of the year.

Now it is time to take down the tree.  Remember to put each ornament back into its correct compartment of each cardboard box.

Saw off the larger branches so that the heart of the tree can fit through the door on its way to the green garbage bin.

Vacuum the fallen needles.  Sweep them off the porch and driveway.

Remove all of the delicate Christmas knickknacks decorated throughout the house and re-pack each one back into its own container until next year.

Get the ladder out and retrieve the giant plastic red boxes that store everything.

Keep the ladder out to take down the outdoor lights; you don’t want to be that one house on the block with them still attached to the eaves in March.

No matter how one tries to carefully fill each box with the same contents in the same position, it seems that you still need one more box to fit all of the Christmas decorations.

Then it’s off to the after-Christmas sales. You buy wrapping paper and greeting cards, not because you need them, but because you fell in love with the candy cane pattern or the old-fashioned Santa face.  You also buy because in some way you want to continue the good feeling of buying gifts that has just concluded with Christmas.

Once arriving back home, time to reward yourself with a ham sandwich, leftovers of the Honeybaked ham.  Once the pre-sliced ham is gone, give up carving the remaining meat around the bone, so throw the rest of it away (unless you like to make soup).

And the sugar.  The See’s candies, the Lindt chocolates, the tin of caramel and cheese corn, the red and green M&M’s, and the hazelnut (fill-in-the-blank).   There is a part of me that wants to get rid of it all.  No worries; my students will enjoy them.  In the midst of a sugar high I try to figure out the last time I ate vegetables.

When you finally get to the end of the day to pick up the new biography of Ulysses S. Grant or the latest Jack Reacher novel by Lee Childs, you find yourself too exhausted to get past 10 pages.  Maybe you can wake up before anybody else tomorrow morning and find some golden time to absorb all of the joy you have just experienced.

Outings need to be arranged with out-of-town guests.  It’s not that the visits are obligations, it’s just that you would like time to watch that new DVD.

Don’t forget to take down the 2017 calendar and replace it with the 2018 one—but not before significant birthdays have been written in the squares for each month.

You blink and New Year’s Eve arrives.  Can you enjoy yourself at home or must you join the throngs at the Queen Mary celebration?   Make a reservation and don’t look at the credit card statement.   Drive yourself or take Uber?   Watch out for those driving while intoxicated.   You want to be around for all of 2018.

On New Year’s Day, TV viewing is essential for either the Rose Parade or the football bowl games.   Too bad that resolutions begin on Jan. 1 and not Jan. 2 because it is difficult to plant one’s self passively in front of a screen without overeating.

One final task remains:  to plan a real vacation months down the road so you can truly relax.

 

Dreaming of a not-so-hot Christmas

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful.”   That’s how the 1945 Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne “Let it Snow!  Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” song begins.   For those of us in Los Angeles, “frightful” has taken on a new meaning.

Ever since the 92-degree day on Thanksgiving, rarely have we had normal weather for this time of year.  It seems that the average temperature for weeks now has been 82 degrees—in December.  For the past several months, we have had record highs set so often that having hotter temperatures have become the new normal.  Remember the 103-degree day on October 24 for game one of the World Series?

When you live in the Los Angeles area, especially the San Fernando Valley, it is expected that most of the year will be summery which is why I look forward to late fall when we have cooler temperatures.  This year I feel cheated.

Raise your hand if you have worn a sweater lately.  Or built a fire in the fireplace.  Or sipped on a cup of cocoa.

For those of us who like variety in our weather, last year was a treat with all the rain and cooler than normal temperatures.  In fact, I bought new sweaters since I didn’t want to keep wearing the same ones.  About a week ago, I forced myself to take one out of my anti-moth protected storage bin when it dipped down to a frosty 69 degrees for about an hour. I did not want December to pass without wearing a sweater even once.

It’s depressing to check the 7-day or 21-day forecast to see 83-, 85-, 78-, 82-, and 83-degree days approaching as winter officially kicks off.

My students make me laugh when they arrive in my classroom in the morning and complain about how cold it is.   Then I have to inform them that if they lived anywhere in Wisconsin it would be nineteen degrees on a warm day.

Oh sure, if you wake up early enough, there is a chill in the air though not low enough to generate frost warnings (keep your flora covered).  But don’t fret because by 10:00 a.m. the temperature outside will already be at 70 degrees and rising.

I wonder if the Gas Company is going to raise rates since people aren’t using their heaters that much.

I also wonder what lyrics to Christmas songs would change in order to more accurately match our weather:

  • from “baby, it’s cold outside” to “baby, it’s hot outside”
  • “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” becomes “chestnuts roasting where there is no fire”
  • “I’ve got my love to keep me warm” becomes “I’ve got my love to make me sweat” (though that line could give off a different connotation)
  • “walking in a winter wonderland” becomes “walking in a sweltering wonderland”
  • “Jack Frost nipping at your nose” becomes “Jack Flame burning on your neck”

Of course, some people don’t believe in climate change.   I’m no scientist, but I have lived here my entire life and I know that the weather is getting warmer with fewer days of rain.

Meanwhile, keep wearing those t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.  Of course, so many people already wear this attire 365 days a year, whether attending a play or eating at an upscale restaurant, why should any day be different from the rest?  For me, to borrow from Irving Berlin, “I’m dreaming of a below-eighty Christmas.”

 

 

A Thanksgiving Pie a la Mad

Have you ever had one of those days which does not go as planned?

That happened to me the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

My sister hosts our family’s get together and does most of the cooking.  My contribution is to bring pies (no, not made by me).

There used to be Marie Callender restaurants all over the place. Glendale, Burbank, and Toluca Lake all had one.  Now, the closest one is in Sherman Oaks.

When I called to buy my pies, I was told that there were two ways of ordering:  online or in person—not over the phone.

So, I filled out the online form, paid with a credit card, selected the time, 7:00 a.m., and waited until the 22nd.

It was a wonderful cruise on the 134 West that early in the morning since traffic was light.  I got there under 15 minutes.

When I walked up to the door, I was surprised to notice that it was locked.  Then I noticed the hours—it opened at 8:30 a.m.   Yet I was given a 7:00 a.m. option for pick-up.  Oh well.

I tried making the best of one and a half hours in Sherman Oaks by walking the neighborhood.  I was amazed at how many homeless people were sleeping on the sidewalk on Ventura Blvd.

I headed over to Gelson’s to have a cup of coffee.  Even though the day hadn’t gone as planned, I was trying to enjoy the adventure of it all.

In this market, tables and chairs are located immediately near the front entrance on the right, adjacent to the salad bar.

No one was around.  Soon, an older couple in their late 60’s sat down. The wife told the husband that she would set up the table with napkins while he went to get coffee and Danish.  I thought it pleasant the interplay between the two.  Maybe that could be my wife and I in a few years.

All of a sudden, the woman went over to the salad bar and deposited a scoopful of bacon bits into her hand and ate them.

I could not believe what I had just witnessed.   While I was the only person in the sitting area, there were Gelson employees around.  Surely one of them must have seen her do it.

The man came back with their food and beverages.  Then the woman returned to the salad bar and helped herself to another scoopful of bacon bits—free of charge.

Now my morning peacefulness was shattered with inner turmoil over what I should do about this woman’s thievery.   Locate the manager and tell him about it?   Confront the woman myself with something along the lines of “you shouldn’t do that”?

What amazed me was the brazenness of her actions more than the theft itself.   Even though I was two tables away and workers were close by, she still stole the food.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen people “graze” through the market.  You know those plastic containers which contain nuts and raisins with scoops inside?   There are people who put their naked hands in those areas and steal food, contaminating the rest of the contents.

Twice I have notified the managers about these incidents.   But this morning, a morning which already felt a little off the axis for me, I remained silent.

If only the strangeness of the day ended there, for when I returned at 8:30 a.m. to pick up my pies, the employee told me that since I had pre-paid, I would have to return at 11:00 a.m.  Meanwhile, there was another line at the counter with people who had not pre-paid for pies who were buying pies right off the shelf.

This time, I was not mute.   I asked for my money back unless I was able to get the pies.  After talking with her manager, the pies were no longer held hostage and I was able to leave Sherman Oaks by 8:40 a.m.

Next year, I plan on baking the pies.

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.

 

Suffering the Dodger Blues

“As a lifelong Dodger fan, I am in blue heaven.”

That was supposed to be the last line in my column this week, celebrating the Dodgers’ first World Series championship since 1988.

Instead, “I feel Dodger blue” is more apropos after they lost the World Series to Houston on Wednesday.

It has been 29 years since the team’s last appearance in the Fall Classic.   Despite having the best record in baseball and home field advantage through all three rounds, they came up one game short.

The media’s spin is that the Dodgers lost to an offensive juggernaut.  Yet in the three Astro defeats, the Dodger pitching staff limited them to four runs in three games.

Actually, the Dodger and Astro teams were almost identical.

Houston’s team batting average was .230, while L.A.’s was .205.

Houston’s team pitching ERA was 4.64, L.A.’s was 4.45.

While Houston had 56 hits compared to L.A.’s 41, each team scored the same number of runs:  34.

The Dodgers’ three victories were games that they had won without a challenge:  Game 1, 3-1; Game 4, 6-2; Game 6, 3-1.  The Astros’ victories in games 2 and 7 were likewise unchallenged:  5-3, 5-1.

Games 2 and 5 were the battles, exciting for the casual fan, gut-wrenching for the Dodger fan with the team on the losing end both times despite having the lead in the ninth inning of Game 2, and giving Kershaw a four-run cushion then a three-run cushion in Game 5.

The Dodgers should have won five of the seven games.

As horribly disappointed as I am, there were positives that came out of the month-long marathon of playoff games.

For the first time, my youngest son got involved in watching the games, riding the emotional roller coaster that Dodger fans know too well.

The Dodgers put on a show that my whole family sat down to watch together on TV in real time (no DVR-ing).   At jubilant moments, we yelled and jumped up and down; at heart-stopping moments, we turned off the TV.

In following the Dodgers and their October run, I didn’t even get a chance to enjoy Halloween.

I was in a Dodger coma.

Reading every article I could find on the Dodgers, even skimming comments posted on the Houston Chronicle website by Astro fans after their losses, did not satiate my cravings.

On game days, I found it hard to focus on my work.

I would tune in to the Dodger pre-game show on radio, then hear callers voice their opinions after the game concluded.

And I did cross off an item from my bucket list when I got two tickets for my oldest son and I to see the first game of the World Series.

Donned in Dodger jerseys and caps, we sat in the reserved section on the third base side halfway towards the foul pole.   It was a record-breaking 103-degree scorcher of a day; even in the shade, my body glistened with sweat.

The game ended up being one of the shortest played in recent World Series history, clocking in at 2 hours and 28 minutes.

Eight days later, the dream season ended.

Still, the Dodger odyssey gave me a respite from Trump’s tweets, natural disasters, and vans mowing down bicyclists.

And that is the beauty of sports—to take you away from the ugliness in the world and give you hope that your team will win.  For if they do, we are all winners.   And if they don’t, after the dust settles, it was still worth it.

Hey, I got to go to a World Series game with my son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.