Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” Not a Children’s Story

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” first published on Dec. 19, 1843.

I am teaching the Dickens classic for the first time in my career.  When I planned this out back in the summer, I thought how apropos it would be to finish the fall semester with a holiday story, one most of my 10th grade students knew from films but likely never read.

I usually end the school year with “Oliver Twist” so adding “A Christmas Carol” would serve as bookends to the spring semester.

However, when re-reading the book as preparation for teaching it, and imagining it through their lens, reality hit me.  I am teaching to teenagers who, for the most part, don’t like to read and whose primary language is not English.

Studying “A Christmas Carol” in some ways is more challenging than “Oliver Twist.” While only about 60 pages, the novella is full of antiquated terms related to jobs that no longer exist, sayings that no longer make sense, and a highly descriptive and complex writing style that firmly cements the work to 19th century literature.

Here is Dickens’ Preface:

            “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which

            shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the

            season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay

it.”

The first problem will be explaining the difference between American English spellings and those overseas as in “endeavoured” and “humour.”

The idioms “ghost of an idea” and “out of humor” would have to be clarified.

“Haunt their houses” does not refer to a literal house but the reader’s soul and mind.  And “no one wish to lay it” is a joke by Dickens that a reader would not want to put the book down or away.

Once we get past the comprehension hurdles, we can focus on connecting the story’s themes to their lives and times.

For example, health care and living wage issues remain current.   The main reason Dickens created Tiny Tim was to call attention to the need for better health care for the poor.  Back in the first part of 19th century England, nearly half of all funerals were for children.  Tim represents the child that is doomed to die because his father’s boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t pay Bob Cratchit enough money to sustain his family.  Employers were perceived as greedy.

The concept of giving to those less fortunate permeates the novel, and is the ultimate lesson Scrooge learns through the three ghosts.

While the word “scrooge” has come to mean a miserly person, “ebenezer” symbolizes one who helps, a word from Hebrew, according to Merriam-Webster, “used by Samuel to the stone which he set up in commemoration of God’s help to the Israelites in their victory over the Philistines.”

In other words, Scrooge’s name represents the before and after aspects of his character in his transformative journey through the story.

Upon finishing “A Christmas Carol” we will attend a live theatrical performance of it at A Noise Within in Pasadena to further extend the students’ understanding of the story.  Then, as a culminating activity, students will present to the class their own 15-minute versions of it.  By that time, hopefully, students will have gotten something meaningful from the book.

So, if you romanticize reading aloud “A Christmas Carol” to your family on Christmas Eve, you had better preview the actual text first and pass out some handouts.  Or choose Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” instead.

H is for Holocaust

Two-thirds of millennials (born between 1981-1996) can’t identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp.  Worse, nearly one-quarter aren’t sure if they ever heard the word Holocaust.

What does this say about the knowledge of those younger than 22?

These are the results from a study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Not only do they not know about the largest concentration camp where 1.1 million Jews were exterminated, 20 percent of all Americans do not think that “it is important to keep teaching about the Holocaust.”  This does not bode well for it not happening again.

Amazing that people walk around with a personal computer in their back pocket, with vast knowledge literally at their fingertips, yet so much of its use is wasted on texting, social media and checking the time (younger people can’t read an analog clock).

They may know how to manipulate the devices, but are ignorant on how to sift through the detritus and distractions to find meaningful information.

Owning a smart phone does not make one smart.

In addition to the Holocaust, when six million Jews were killed, not two million according to nearly half of millennials, two other historic tragedies are commemorated this month:  the Armenian genocide and the Columbine high school shooting.  While one could explain away the foggy awareness of World War Two, what accounts for the misconceptions about Columbine which transpired a mere 19 years ago?

Most people think of Columbine as the first mass school shooting in U.S. history when actually it was a failed bombing.  The leader of the two culprits was enamored with outdoing the Oklahoma City bombing death total of 168.  Fortunately, the fuses were faulty—only one of the 40 bombs went off.

The impression of the event is that it lasted hours.  In reality, the whole occurrence lasted 47 minutes before they both killed themselves.  Yet officer training at the time was to create a perimeter around the area, waiting until it was safe for them to move in.  Today, the protocol is for law enforcement to go where the shooting is happening in order to bring down the shooter.

This slower approach accelerated the death of the sole teacher victim, Dave Sanders, who bled out over three hours.  Even though Eagle Scouts were with the fallen coach and did what they could, it is heartbreaking to learn that despite 911 operators’ reassurances that help was on the way, that help was too late in coming.

People think the two perpetrators were outcasts, bullied by their peers.  Not true.  In fact, these two bullied others, and they both had friends.  Yet, because of this inaccuracy, the topic of bullying became imbedded in school curriculums across America as a way to prevent another Columbine from happening.

And both teens lived in middle-class neighborhoods with both parents, not presumed broken homes.

The real story of Columbine conflicts with the perception of it which is why education is so vital.

In today’s times, facts and the truth have been battered beyond recognition by our political leaders.

Parents and teachers must teach their children about the past.   If nothing else, young people need to be taught how to access factual information.

Not even a century has passed since the end of World War Two, yet already younger people have lost track of significant world events of the 20th century.   What does this portend 50 years from now?  What important knowledge will be lost or distorted?

When Hitler prepared to invade Poland in 1939, he said with impunity in justifying the impending deaths of men, women, and children that “who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

 

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.

 

Why I Did Not Renew My National Board Certification

Back in 2003, I earned my National Board certification.

If you don’t know what that is, you are not alone.

Established in 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is an independent, nonprofit organization working to advance accomplished teaching for all students.

Its noble goal was to elevate the teaching profession to the level of doctors and attorneys by offering teachers a PhD of sorts.  And, like the bar exam, create a certification process rigorous enough so that not all applicants would pass on the first attempt.

The certification process requires videotaping multiple classroom lessons and writing dozens of pages analyzing student work and reflecting on one’s practice.

While sometimes grueling, I found the process more rewarding and relevant than the work I did for my master’s degree.

Plus, the NBPTS encouraged school districts and states to reward those who earned certification with a bonus, something unheard of in the teaching profession.

Many did reward teachers, though to varying degrees.  North Carolina was a standout in the country, giving five-figure annual bonuses.

GUSD provides some additional money, but expects the National Board (NB) teacher to work extra hours, which makes no sense.   Teachers with master’s and doctorate degrees receive annual stipends without having to work more, so why should NB teachers do so?

Also, the district never promoted the practice by offering to pay for part or all of the $1,500 fee to go through the process (when I applied the fee was $2,300).

The goal of NBPTS was to have 100,000 board-certified teachers by 2003.

That didn’t happen.

By 2007, only 60,000 teachers achieved certification.

Ten years later, the number is finally above 100,000, equating to just over three percent of total teachers in the country.

One catch, though.   Unlike a college degree which once earned never needs renewal, the NBPTS requires teachers to renew their certification every 10 years—at a cost of $1,250.

That I did not do, yet still view myself as a National Board certified teacher.  Once earned, no fee should strip that designation away.

This past summer, NBPTS was soliciting board certified teachers to work over the summer at the professional rate of, get ready, $25 an hour.   My electrician charges me $100 an hour.

The Princeton Review pays high school graduates $22 an hour to tutor, yet the NBPTS pays just three dollars more for a teacher with a college graduate, a fifth year of college earning a teaching credential, and national board certification.  It doesn’t make any sense.

Which is why I contacted NBPTS President and CEO Peggy Brookins.

Here is a portion of the letter:

As much as I would like to work with other noted educators around the country, I wanted to let you know why I am not submitting an application to do this work:  the low remuneration of $25 per hour.

What surprises me is of all the organizations to spotlight high quality teaching talent, one would think that the NBPTS would be the one to recognize the importance by compensating NBCTs adequately, commensurate with their expertise to the field of teaching.

I never received a reply.

Imagine that.   The head of the organization that purports to lead the charge for the best and brightest in the land, yet has no time to respond to one of its own.

Beyond higher pay, NBPTS’s hope was for those in charge of running schools to view NB teachers as resources, experts in the field of education.

I would like to tell you about all the exciting opportunities my school district offered me in helping them shape education policy and set curriculum standards.   But I’m still waiting.