I was very lucky to get a job right out of college in 1976. I was even luckier to get a job at a school with an amazing principal.
Jack was a product of the Dale Carnegie program. He set out to remake himself when he got a new job as a high school principal in a different district. He lost weight. He got a hairpiece. Most importantly, he thoughtfully examined his own educational philosophy, and he applied it to his own life, his school, and the way he treated his staff and his students.
Before he arrived, our school was fairly typical of what you would expect in the 1970’s. In response to the radical ideas of the Sixties, there was little school spirit and even less reason to display any love for a boring school. Jack understood that the community wanted “Rah Rah,” and he was going to find a way to supply it. He started calling our school “The Big C.” He brought back pep rallies and school dances. He made the school the center of the community with more activities on campus. Pretty soon, we believed we were better than any other school in our county, and quickly we had the sports results and test scores to back up our belief.
Instead of settling in and becoming just one more gray principal, a man the students couldn’t pick out of a line up, Jack spent time in the halls, learning the names of all the students, not just the athletes, brainiacs, and trouble-makers. He believed that it was harder to misbehave when there was someone who cared enough to call you by name. He encouraged his faculty to learn their students’ names quickly, too. Jack made it a point to attend as many school events as possible, not just football, basketball, and baseball games. He went to concerts, plays, art shows, and track meets. Since he was there, more teachers were as well, at first just to suck up to the new principal, but when they saw how their presence made a difference to their students, they continued to show up and cheer on their kids.
Jack believed in his staff, even the staff he hadn’t hired. When a parent called, and parents called even back then, he stood up for his teachers immediately. After he had calmed the parents’ worries, he spoke to his teacher. Privately. In confidence. With no threat of putting a report in the teacher’s file. He asked what had happened. He inspired us to tell him the truth, no matter what. He believed us ahead of a fifteen-year-old who went home after a bad day and blamed his teachers for a failing test grade or a missed homework assignment. We knew Jack had our backs, and if we were at fault, his disappointment was enough punishment. We never let him down a second time. He was loyal to us, so we were loyal to him.
Perhaps the most important change was a shift in the attitude toward students themselves. Jack believed that 95% of students behaved correctly 95% of the time, and even the remaining five percent only acted out five percent of the time. He believed that students deserved our trust, and he extended freedom to his students. He initiated an open campus where seniors could go out to lunch. This plan alleviated much of the crowding in the cafeteria, a financial win for the district since it avoided expensive expansion and renovation, but it also encouraged seniors to respect the rules because they had something to lose if they disobeyed. He understood that the standard punishment of suspension didn’t make sense. Think about it—a student hates being in school, so she doesn’t report to class. What is her punishment? Kicking her out of school for a few days. How is that a punishment? But if the punishment is keeping her in the building during lunch when all her friends are having a good time at the local pizza joint, she is going to make sure she goes to class where she might even learn something.
Jack believed in catching students in the act of doing something good, and he encouraged us to recognize them for their good deeds. He set the example with his teachers. We often found envelopes in our mailboxes with Jack’s distinctive script. He wrote personal notes to teachers when he saw or heard about something we were doing well in our classrooms or outside. He thanked us for taking on extra-curricular activities, he complimented us on a snippet of a lesson he listened to outside our doors, he commented on news clippings where we were mentioned. We knew how much those notes meant to us, so when he suggested that we contact a parent a week with positive news, we were willing to give it a try. At first, parents were suspicious when we called, mainly because the only calls they ever received from teachers were negative, so no calls meant good news. With this initiative, parents could actually hear that we noticed their chldren, and if a time came when we had to report a problem, the parents listened to us and were cooperative, knowing that we weren’t just out to “get” their child.
Jack only called faculty meetings when they were needed, and they lasted only as long as necessary. He understood that we had better things to do with our time than meet weekly for hours on end. He shared his agenda before the meeting, and he allowed for faculty input, but he didn’t let blowhards take over. The meetings always ended with his standard slogan, “Have a large day.” And we did have large days back then, in large part because he was a larger-than-life principal who knew how and when to wield his power.
The only time I saw a crack in his armor was the day our son was born. My husband and I both taught at the same school, met there, and now it was the first day of school for teachers. My husband decided he should go to school to get his room set up, even though I was in the early stages of labor. After all, he would have less time when the baby was born. He made arrangements with the principal’s secretary that she would find him if I called. When I could tell that the baby was not going to wait for his daddy’s day to end, I called the direct line, the line that only the secretary would pick up. I was surprised to hear Jack answer the phone. Between contractions, I explained that I was ready to deliver. Jack was frantic. I expected him to show up at the house in scrubs to boil water. When the baby was born, he was so proud of his role in getting the father home in time, anyone might have thought he delivered the baby himself.
One Sunday afternoon a few years later, we got a phone call from school. Jack had been in a fatal car crash the night before. No one else was in the car. No other car was involved.
Our school was not the same after that day. We are the top school in the state academically, and we have more state athletic championships than ever, but the spirit is different. Parents call the shots, and teachers have no opportunity to defend themselves against claims made by dissatisfied students. Faculty meetings occur whether they are needed or not, and they usually involve berating the faculty for the infractions of a small number of teachers, teachers who often aren’t even in attendance. Worst of all, students are numbers who can’t recognize their principal unless they have been caught in some offense and have been called into the office for punishment. Rules are made just in case one of the five percent acts out.
Yes, I was lucky to get a job in 1976. But I was even luckier to work for one of the finest principals ever, one who led by example, one who believed in his school, his students, and his teachers. It was a close as a teacher could get to Camelot, and I was there.
I have the best of intentions to get together with friends and relatives. I really do. At my stage of life, I tend to run into them at funerals and viewings, and we always end the conversation with some variation on, “We must get together.” These exchanges have happened so often that I could have them on tape and skip talking altogether. They remind me of the Harry Chapin line from “Taxi” when he sings, “And she said we must get together, but I knew it’d never be arranged.” This summer I swore that I would try to do better.
Even though there were six girls on my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, there are only a handful of female descendants. For years, my mother has wanted to get together during the summer to share photos and stories. Why summer? Because three of us are teachers, and it would be easier to schedule when we weren’t in the middle of the school year. Now, two of the three teachers are retired, but my mother and I still talked about getting together during the summer.
This summer, I swore I would host a tea party for my mother and her cousins. After a brief consultation on a date, we agreed to get together the week after Independence Day. We sent out invitations, and everyone was available. My mother and I planned a luncheon menu, and on the morning of our event, we had fun setting the table, making floral arrangements, and getting ready. With both of us working together, the time flew, and we were laughing and enjoying ourselves so much that we didn’t feel as if we were working at all.
At noon, the other four people arrived with bags of photo albums. After eating, we started to browse through the pictures and tell stories about our relatives, some that we had heard often, others that were new to me. We noticed how much we looked like our mothers, sisters, cousins, and aunts. We tagged the pictures that we wanted to copy for our own albums. We cried as we remembered those who were gone. Before we knew it, four hours had passed, and no one really wanted to leave.
As we gathered our notes and pictures, we decided that we must get together again. I don’t know if it will happen, but it doesn’t matter. It happened once. We know more about our families and about each other than we knew before we sat down together. We had four magical hours where time stood still, where history caught up to us, where our family, past and present, joined us at the table. We can share the photos and tell these stories to our children, and another generation will carry the torch of family history, today, tomorrow, sometime, and forever.
For those of you who know me, and by “know” I mean if you have ever sat in a staff development meeting with me for more than two minutes, you are probably wondering what alien has abducted me and sucked out all my moxie. Don’t worry. That Linda is back.
I spent the last week with over 1300 other English teachers in an unnamed Kentucky city scoring an unnamed high-stakes test. (Both are unnamed in case I need to rant against them sometime later on.) I read well over 1000 first drafts of essays where students were asked to evaluate if college is worth the high cost. They were given six sources to support their claim.
By an overwhelming margin, these albeit biased students supported going to college, even if it left them in debt (or dept, as many wrote, but that’s another story). Their reasons included the need for time to transition from the protection of high school to the real world, the chance to learn about themselves, the knowledge that is only available at this level, the opportunity to take a wider variety of classes, the contacts they make, and the good times they will have in and out of the classroom. They were passionate in their responses, looking forward to the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Then I returned home. My son has gone back to college, dipping his feet in the community college pool. He was diligent in going to the pre-planning sessions and looking forward to his classes. My son is not comfortable or confident with computers. He told his “advisor” that (and I am not using those goofy air quotes here–this person was only there to look at the list of requirements and plug in courses. There was no advising going on). He specifically said he did not want to take an on-line course. Two days before the semester began, he was notified that one of the two courses he had been “advised” to take was not running for lack of enrollment. The “advisor” had by default placed him in an on-line history class.
Because he didn’t feel he had an alternative, he accepted the change. Colleges do not have to include families in course selection decisions, which I believe is wise in general, but this lack of involvement means that students do not have an advocate when some school official makes a decision not in students’ best interest.
The syllabus for the online class is only posted as assignments are due, so there is no opportunity to plan ahead, an essential part of the skills one should take away from college. The professor posts assignments on Saturday morning that are due by midnight on Monday and on Tuesday morning that are due by midnight on Friday. The general assignments include reading both a chapter in the text and essays found on the internet, watching YouTube videos, and viewing Powerpoint presentations. To prove that he has done this work, he is expected to outline a 50-page chapter (using complete sentence outline format, making sure to include all headings, subheadings, and highlighted text). According to the biweekly assignment sheet, that should take “two to three pages.” These chapters are long enough that just typing in the headings makes for six to eight pages, and my son was marked down the first week because his eight-page outline did not include enough detail, so the professor’s written expectations and his real expectations are distinctly different. In addition, he has to answer three to four questions that apply what he has learned. He has to write a one to two page essay on yet another question related to the topic, and he has to participate in an online forum. Even if he were to read ahead, he doesn’t know what the questions will be until two days before the due date. The comments he has received to date have been cursory, and if I were a true cynic, I would argue that the professor has a stable of remarks that he cuts and pastes into the comments section of the grade book.
My son is in a panic, not knowing if or when there will be a final exam or a final paper. He has no one to turn to because it’s an online class, and he doesn’t have a network of classmates to help him. I can look at what is online, but I can’t see into the future, except to see that after the experience of this online course, he is turned off.
Of course he is turned off. It is a history class, one of his favorite subjects. He is studying about the history of our government, a topic he loves. He is posing thoughtful questions to me and to his father about the differences between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. He is talking to us about the ways minorities have not experienced equal protection under the law. But he does not have a community of scholars with whom to debate his ideas except in the very artificial and graded forum. He doesn’t know his professor and can’t anticipate if his discourse will be accepted or if it will result in a loss of points. He can’t see who wrote the comment that dismissed the Equal Rights Amendment or who didn’t understand why Plessy v Ferguson was an important decision. Each comment is carefully vetted before it is posted, because these people don’t truly know one another. Plus, at the end of three days, they can no longer see past comments to see a thread and get to know the other students. Because there is no true conversation, each forum posting seems to be with a completely new group of people. There are too many people in the class to really remember who is who.
My son is just one of many students who are forced into online classes that do not embody the true college experience. My former superintendent of schools threatened his teachers by saying that on-line education is the future and that the country will only need a few master teachers to deliver instruction and drones who can do the grunt work of taking attendance and grading papers. He used college statistics showing that many students were enrolled in these classes and that the number is growing.Sure, the number is growing, especially if colleges can dump students into an online course whenever they decide to eliminate a bricks-and-morter class.
While there are some students who need the flexibility of online classes and some shy students who don’t like to engage in verbal discourse, these classes do not meet the needs of most individuals. The virtual classroom defeats the purpose of going to college. If a student can only “meet” with your professor by sending emails, many will not ask questions because they are too difficult to formulate in a coherent fashion, and the recipient of the email may be judging your competency, not trying to help. If the only contact a student has is through an internet forum, it is very difficult to form the bonds of friendship that might make for a contact after graduation. If the materials are presented in a canned fashion (often old videos that have not been reviewed for this specific class), students don’t have the advantage of the most recent statistics or of current events that might have significantly altered the attitude toward the topic. And when the material gets too difficult, it is easy for an invisible student to drop out without anyone noticing. Of course, the student has already paid his full tuition, so the institution isn’t hurt, is it?
I would argue that the institution is grievously hurt by these on-line classes. In the virtual universe, the individual no longer really matters. There is no reason to belong to an alumni association, to recommend your alma mater to young students. It hurts the teacher or professor who is literally phoning in the instruction. It hurts the teachers because class sizes are larger. It hurts the teachers because they have not way of reaching their students other than over the internet, which can be easily ignored. But the real hurt belongs to the students themselves. They miss out on the discourse. They miss out on the impromptu discussions. They miss out on the opportunity to meet with professors after class. They miss out on making contacts with other students.
Colleges charge just as much for on-line courses as they do for in-class instruction. No wonder they waited until the last minute to dump my son into an online course, after his tuition was paid and when he would not get a full refund and didn’t have an advocate to get that money applied to a future semester.
What about the students who wrote so eloquently (and some not so eloquently) about the value of a college education? I can only suggest that they run for the hills if one way of saving money is to take on-line courses. They certainly do not live up to their promise. And who but an arrogant, money-hungry administrator could think that a virtual experience is better than a real one?
Signing off for now.
Our suburban backyard does not boast a pool or a hot tub or a swing set, but it does have bird feeders. Right outside our breakfast nook, I can see a small birdbath and two suet feeders. The combination of water and food ensures that birds will visit on a regular basis. We see robins, sparrows, catbirds, and jays. We see cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice, and finches. We see pigeons, mocking birds, wrens, and doves. We see downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red breasted woodpeckers, and flickers. Each bird has its own habits. Some prefer to eat early, while others show up later. Some are brave and chase away much larger birds if it is their turn at the feeder. Others are timid, flitting in for a brief dip in the water and a quick bite of suet. Some are comic, jumping between the two feeders and the nearby bushes. Their voices range from the chipping of the cardinal to the mimics of the mockingbird. A tiny investment provides endless hours of entertainment.
Some birdwatchers keep life lists, travel to exotic locations to boast a sighting of a rare species. While I do pay attention when I travel to the local flora and fauna, I haven’t used a bird as an excuse to visit a particular environment, and I do not have a list of all the birds I’ve seen. I prefer a more casual approach. Sure, we have a couple of guide books, but those are to help identify the outliers, the birds who only come to the feeder on occasion, or the ones we spot on walks. Birdwatching is not an obsession.
Birdwatching allows me to look outside, to take a deep breath, to take stock of the world. As the birds come to the feeder, I notice what is going on in nature on those absolutely normal days that are far from ordinary. The days, the months, the seasons go by too quickly if I do not take the time to really absorb what is going on. The birds force me to notice the changes that happen every day. Lilacs and lily of the valley have been replaced by columbine and peonies. The maples are putting out helicopters in the May breeze. The backyard is full of violets and buttercups. Without the movement of the birds to draw my eyes outdoors, I miss too much.
One of my favorite poems by Wordsworth begins with these lines:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
When I watch my birds, my heart is connected to Nature (yes, with a capital N), and I forget about the world and its pressure to get and spend. I’m a happier person, a more relaxed person, a nicer person to be around.
I just noticed a goldfinch at the feeder. It’s time for me to pay attention to the birds.
I dread beginnings, the uncertainty, the commitment, the difficulty of bringing something to completion. Each project is fraught with perils, whether it is a pair of socks (Will this color work with this stitch pattern? Will these needles produce the right gauge so they will fit? Will I remember how to turn the heel, to pick up stitches to form the gusset?), a set of placemats (Are they big enough for my dishes? Will the color look good in the kitchen? Will the binding provide the right amount of contrast?), or a piece of writing (Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Is my topic just silly?). Part of my trepidation is because of my inbred desire to please, but I also detest wasting time on an undeserving project. I should devote my energy to something that matters.
This morning I began a sewing endeavor, a graduation present. I can’t say exactly what I’m making so the recipient will be surprised, but I can say I am worried about its outcome. Sewing requires careful attention to detail, especially at the beginning. Once the fabric is cut, it cannot be uncut. The carpentry mantra of measure twice, cut once is equally true with sewing. So it is with great anxiety that I place and pin the pattern pieces and cut into the cloth. There are curves that must match, so even a fraction of an inch can introduce an error that can’t be corrected later. That is probably why I spent most of the morning circling the project before cutting into the fabric. But now the deed is done. There is no turning back, other than abandoning the project altogether. Abandonment is certainly an option, but I’ve invested in the pattern, the fabric, and the worry already. Since I was so very careful in the cutting, I’m reasonably certain that the technical parts will succeed. After all, I’ve been sewing for over 40 years, and the pattern is not that difficult. Practice might not make perfect, but at least it takes away surprises.
Writing is a different beast. Beginnings do not predict success or failure. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott gives her readers permission to write “shitty first drafts.” Unlike sewing, it is more important to put some words on the page than to wait for just the right words. The honing, the craftsmanship can come later. Writers will still procrastinate, but we should not stop ourselves from writing because we don’t have a perfect draft in our minds. In fact, the very word “essay” comes from the French “to try.” Writing gives us an opportunity to figure out how we feel, and it is only after making complete hash of language and ideas that we can discover what it is that a particular piece of writing is about. I would even argue that words that spring from our brains like Athena fully armed from Zeus’s forehead are often without merit, just so much fluff.
Writers need to struggle with their thoughts, with their intentions. A piece of writing that begins in one place often justifiably ends up somewhere far, far away, mainly because we are often not sure of what with think or what we feel about our topic. Our students might begin writing an argument against the current education system because that is what they heard on Fox News, but as they warm to their subject (and begin researching and actually thinking), they might discover the problems in education can be traced to poverty. If they had limited themselves to writing what they thought they knew, their writing would have merely parroted a single source. Their first draft might have followed the rules of argument and grammar, but it would not bring the students to a better understanding of the problem.
Writing is not about following a pattern to get to a predicted outcome. It is about struggle and discovery. It is about the joy of putting together words in a unique way, a way that only this writer could express herself at this particular moment. It is about telling our own stories in our own words. When we share our writing, it is inevitable that we find something we would like to change, but if we wait for perfection, we will never be a part of the discussion.
Thank you for letting me be a part of the Slice of Life discussion.
For over 30 years, I taught literature. I never flinched as I introduced classic books to my students, and almost without exception the kids loved them. At the end of the school year they asked me for a list of my favorite books, even though they knew it would not influence their grades. As an extension of my job, friends have asked for book recommendations, and I have never hesitated to suggest challenging books. I have been known to say, “You have to read A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Or “The Things They Carried is an amazing read.” Or “I think you’ll love Consider the Lobster.” I have argued with a university professor at an airport over the necessity of teaching The Scarlet Letter and Shakespeare. In other words, anyone listening would consider me a literary snob. And the listener would be right.
However, just as gourmet chefs sometimes have a secret love for junk food, English teachers may also enjoy books that would not appear on the top-100 list for Ivy League students. At least this English teacher does. I can get absorbed in mysteries set in tearooms or knit shops. The protagonist can be a caterer or a pet groomer. I can usually guess the murderer on page two, but I still enjoy watching the story unravel—if the characters are interesting.
My two reading worlds have been a little like Berlin before the fall of the wall, and there has been no reason for me to acknowledge my guilty pleasure. However, my husband and I have been spending a lot of time in the car, and when we are driving eight hours to visit friends, we don’t always have access to our favorite NPR programs. We’ve filled in the gap with books that I’ve downloaded to my smart phone. It is not that easy to find books that we both enjoy. First of all, the esoteric history books that my husband usually prefers are not good candidates for listening. The same holds true for the books on my A list. A case in point is Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road. It is one of the greatest books written in the past twenty years, so I thought it would be a great book for us to share as we drove to visit friends. It is a powerful read, but it left us too depressed to enjoy our vacation.
Some books have been successful. Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures was the perfect combination of story and history to keep both of us entertained. The Swan Thieves, on the other hand, did not hold my husband’s interest at all. The True History of the Kelly Gang was good, but we missed a lot of the story because it was told in a heavy Australian accent. They used “adjectival” the way someone today might use a particularly harsh expletive, but I haven’t been able to find where it comes from, and hearing it bothered me throughout the 15 hours we listened.
I knew we would be driving this week, so I decided to take a risk and share one of my favorite mystery writers with my husband. This decision was more serious than you might imagine. Yes, he knows that I read books with lurid titles (Scones and Bones is one that he found particularly humorous), but I don’t want him to think that my reading taste is completely frivolous. So, I’m introducing him to Louise Penny through Bury Your Dead. The protagonist is a police detective, at least, and not a caterer who solves mysteries on the side. The setting is in and around Quebec, where we spent our honeymoon. As we started listening I worried that it would not engage my husband who never reads mysteries. I worried that he wouldn’t have enough background to follow the characters who reappear in most of the books that are set in Three Pines. I worried that he would find the story too fluffy, too unsophisticated. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the story jumped around from one set of characters to another without any apparent link, and I could see a furrow form. But before long, Penny’s beautiful prose, her quiet humor, her deftly-handled characters had my husband smiling, chuckling, and even talking about the characters when we stopped to stretch our legs.
Now I’m sharing my story, and this book, with you. This disclosure has given me the courage to reveal what is actually on my nightstand instead of the more literary book that is waiting in the wings for me to have the concentration required to complete a difficult text. I hope you don’t think any less of me. Maybe you’ll even look for a copy of Scones and Bones.