How many papers does it take an English teacher to grade before he collapses?

For the first time in several years, I feel exhausted.  Fatigue is normal for the first few weeks of the school year, returning to work after an extended vacation.

It takes a month or so for a teacher to get his “sea legs.”  Then, a certain comfort level sets in, and the teacher locks into a rhythm that can carry one through the rigors of a school year.

Well, after eight weeks, I still haven’t found it, making me think about Father Time.

Similar to an athlete whose body can’t work or heal as well as it ages with a lot of usage over the years, I must be experiencing the cumulative effects of being in the game of education for over 28 years which is why I’m still seeking my footing.

Besides, without disparaging my colleagues in other disciplines, the work of the English teacher is formidable.

I have four classes of 10th grade English: 35, 36, 36, and 32 in numbers.  This means that every time I give a test or assign a paper, I am collecting 139 handwritten papers—all with unique printing; some legible, some not.

Within the past two weeks, I have graded 139 tests and 695 one-page essays.  No wonder I am having stomach problems.

I often ask myself, do I really have to work so hard this late in my career?   Why push myself?  I certainly do not get paid by the pound of papers I take home.

If I were to add up all the days off I have had in close to three decades, easily one-third of the days were mental health ones, where I just needed time to breathe, time not to assign any more work, time to get through the pile of papers that like a landfill can easily rise as tall as a mountain.

GUSD used to support English teachers with two programs to help ease their paper load.  One was the lay reader program and the other was paper grading days.

The lay reader program worked like this.  Teachers would farm out class sets of essays to college students majoring in English.  Instructions would be given to the student evaluators to correct all grammar and spelling errors.   Within days, the essays would be returned, and the teachers would then focus on more specialized areas such as organization and content.   Not having to fix mechanical mistakes saved time on the grading.

Additionally, the District used to allocate a certain number of substitute days, labeled paper grading days, to each secondary school with the idea of relieving the teacher from the classroom in order to grade essays.

Both of these programs were wonderful not just for the assistance given to teachers in getting their work done, but the recognition by GUSD that English teachers do have a higher amount of student work to evaluate than other teachers, an acknowledgment rarely given.

Unfortunately, several years ago funding for both programs stopped.  Yet, English teachers’ assigning writing did not.

The bulging briefcase I bring home every night and every weekend remind me of what I need to do before I read a book, watch a show, write this column.

Overwhelming?   There must be a stronger word for it.

I know colleagues who give multiple-choice tests and envy them a bit.  Within minutes, their grading is done, the numbers of correct answers printed on a silver platter.

Others like me who have students write detailed responses written in multiple sentences with supporting evidence have hours ahead of us to read handwritten work and to evaluate the merits of each response.

Ultimately, teaching requires faith that what one does is going to benefit young people.   I still believe I’m doing the right thing.  Even if it kills me.

 

My son, the high school graduate

The end of high school for seniors is often bittersweet for their teachers who may have known the students for up to four years.

The end of high school for a parent of a senior, however, resonates deeper for it marks a significant rite of passage.

One senior graduating this year in particular means a great deal to me.  He is my son.

People who know Ben frequently comment that “he’s a good kid.”  Any parent would be proud of a child who generates that reaction from others.

Goodness is in short supply in today’s world.  It does not show up on a standardized test.

Ben is very polite, always responding to a meal at home with a “thank you for the tacos” without any prodding; it comes naturally to him.

I overhear him talk to grown-ups on the phone asking “How are you?” interested in having an adult-like conversation.

He makes his own breakfast of eggs and oatmeal each morning, and often assists me with dinner.

He engages in adult-like perceptions on politics and the world.  Our family TV time is watching Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN and “60 Minutes” on Sundays.

He knows cultural history, recognizing an Ella Fitzgerald vocal or an Alfred Hitchcock film.

He has a taste for long-established restaurants such as the Smoke House.

He doesn’t mind getting dressed up to go out for dinner, or picking up after the dog in the backyard.

He rarely wants anything.  His iPhone is not new, his car as old as he is.

He still sleeps in the same bed that he got back in elementary school, though lies diagonally accommodating his nearly six-foot frame.

His only luxury is a flat screen TV that his uses primarily for playing videogames on his PS4.

Something else Ben does:  when he is out, he always calls us (not texts) when he is coming home.   This is not something that we have demanded; it comes from Ben’s own sense of responsibility.

What is the recipe for a good kid?  Along with love and support from family and friends, Ben’s teachers deserve recognition: kindergarten teacher Ms. Solyom, third grade teacher Ms. Rostomyan, fifth grade teacher Ms. Essex, sixth grade social science teacher Ms. Lamb, sixth grade P.E. teacher Ms. Asmussen, seventh grade English teacher Mr. Martin, eighth grade English teacher Mr. Rothacher, biology teacher Mr. Margve, astronomy teacher Mr. Movsessian, AP Psych teacher Mr. Collazos, AP English Lit teacher Mr. McNiff, and AP U.S. History teacher Mr. Thomson.

My wife and I were amazed as his maturity blossomed earlier this year.  Within a matter of weeks, he made the decision to attend CSUN and got his first job.

It was a surreal feeling to have my photo taken with my son in front of CSUN”s Oviatt Library where I graduated 35 years ago.

Back then, the idea that one day I would have a son who would attend the same college as I did was not even a flicker of a thought in my mind.

When we moved into our house 18 years ago, Ben was three months old.  Today, in that same bedroom lives an 18-year-old.   Oh, the baby still lives in the man.  You can it in his eyes, his smile, and the way he speaks.  And you can see his younger brother looking up at him from an early age, absorbing Ben’s life as a textbook on how to grow up.

Ben, you have had a good life so far.  I hope you continue being good and doing good in the years to come.

Sept. 11 quickly turning into a page in a history textbook

Fourteen years ago today an incomprehensible tragedy struck the United States—a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

When the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, those who were watching the news on television assumed it was a horrible aviation accident. But when a second plane struck the South Tower, the unimaginable became real.

In 102 minutes, both skyscrapers had collapsed as did the idea that America was immune to foreign terrorism.

Like many, I went to work the morning of Sept. 11 in a daze not quite knowing how to begin my first class. Obviously, I would have to acknowledge what transpired.   And I knew that I wanted students to have a way to express what was going in their minds.

So I did what any English teacher would do, had them write down what they were feeling.   Then I offered my lectern to any student who wished to share with the class. We spent the whole period talking about it.

As the day wore on, I spent less time discussing it with students for when Period 6 came, the kids had pretty much their fill of the disaster.

For those of us who lived through that time, it may be incredible to realize that more and more young people have no first-hand recollections of it.

The 15-year-olds currently in my classes, while alive in 2001, only learned about the tragedy in the fifth or sixth grade when a moment of silence took place at school on the anniversary date. To them, 9/11 might as well be the assassination of President Kennedy.

How quickly a flash point for some yellows into a page in a history textbook for others.

That is a key role museums play in bringing to life a historical event so it remains relevant.

My wife and I visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York over the Labor Day weekend. We were fortunate to have Mark as our tour guide because he was a young teen when 9/11 happened and now as a man in his 20s shared personal experiences.

He talked about how New Yorkers were friendlier to one another immediately following the event, recalling how neighbors who were strangers joined in a spontaneous candlelight walk.

Equally emotional are the museum exhibits including the curled up front of a fire engine that had melted from the heat, and the chapel-like room which projects a victim’s photo on a wall with the voice of a loved one remembering that individual.

Then there are the walls with all of the faces of the nearly 3,000 people lost, most of whom were in the prime of their lives and, if still living today, would still be middle-aged.

And then there is another wall to a room that contains the unidentified remains of over 1,100 people.

According to the museum’s website, about “40% of the WTC victims” have not been identified, with the most recent person being identified as recently as this March.

Walking through the museum and viewing videos of a time that I actually lived through makes for an eerie sensation, a reminder that those of us with first-hand experiences will one day pass away, with only this museum to serve as an eyewitness.

I wonder if future generations will fully grasp how unsettled we all felt during 9/11 as it unfolded.

The Sept. 11 Memorial comes close to bottling those terrifying moments.