Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Common Core Via Horticulture

     A friend of mine is a teacher in upstate New York; not that it matters where in New York she is teaching because they are all "racing to the top". Recently my friend posted this article link:


     While I haven't taught under the Common Core, I am a Massachusetts certified teacher and the Common Core was supposedly modeled after the Third Reich's second coming: the Massachusetts Frameworks. The article noted in the above link comes from an unlikely source but hits the nail on the head with the concept that children, like plants, need diverse environments to grow successfully.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Rant Of Fresh Air

Another GREAT article:

"Teachers are the ones with the responsibility to put the American dream within reach for all students"  

Michael, Michael Motorcycle

     Encouraging kids to read is a very positive thing to do as a human but also as an English teacher. Sure, I suggest all kinds of books, any genre, any language, any topic. Normally I have read the book before I suggest it because I want to be sure I'm suggesting something worth reading. I'm really picky about what I read but if I see a student reading I don't normally criticize their choice because at least they are reading. It's a different story however when a student is reading...during class....while I am talking. That is how I got to know Michael.

     There are students whose names fall from teachers' tongues like autumn leaves fall from trees. Michael happened to be one of those students. Obviously, he was not the only one but he was one of the more frequently named boys that I always wondered about. Who is this kid? Why do I keep hearing his name? When I saw his name on my roster I was slightly nervous. How was I going to handle him? I never let on that I was nervous but I was certainly interested to witness his infamous reputation.

     On his very first day of class he chose a seat at the back of the class. He was quiet and well behaved. This was the kid whose name I heard all over the place? This non descript boy? Well, it's always the quiet ones you have to watch and I made it a point to watch him...except he didn't DO anything. He wasn't fresh. He didn't join in the run of the mill senior male student tom foolery. He didn't even answer questions. Every time I looked up he was busy...busy reading. Instead of paying attention to me he had his nose quite deep in a book; a very good book to be exact. Despite asking him repeatedly to put his book away I was rather impressed. Here is this kid, known for troublesome behavior, sitting in the back of my class, quiet as a mouse, reading.

     After day 2 of asking him to put his book away, I asked him to come sit up front, near me so I could watch him. He smirked while gathering his things and moved up front and center. He was reading James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. I had read that and the sequel over the summer and really enjoyed them. This was all before James Frey came clean about the factual quality of his story so it was a big deal to see someone else, especially a student,  reading the book. As Michael was leaving that day I said to him, "Good book huh? I read that over the summer..and the other one after it." He nodded, "Yeah, I like it" and walked away.

     I asked my friend and colleague about Michael. He had been a student of hers and was in her class that year as well. "What do you know about Michael?" I asked. "Why was he always in trouble last year? What did he do?"

     The previous year there had been a bomb threat written on a bathroom wall and for a few weeks all bags were searched when the kids entered the building. My colleague referenced that period of time.

     "Remember that broken window near the office? At the double doors? That was Michael. He had a laser pointer in his bag and got suspended so he punched the window on his way out."

     "That's it? That's all he did?" It wasn't a terribly mature thing to do, but it wasn't the most egregious offenses students were known for.

     "Yeah. I mean, he's not a bad kid he just makes stupid choices. And they're just dumb kid things, like bringing a laser pointer to school in your backpack when you know they'll be checking backpacks." And that was it. He had no other real claim to fame, which boggled me because of how often I had heard his name.

     Throughout the year Michael really blossomed. He became one of my favorite students because he was who he was and didn't really care what anyone else thought about him. He said what he thought and if other kids made comments he shrugged them off, after giving them a look as if they were the idiots. He was still Michael in the sense that he tried to push the envelope with foolish things like wearing a black plastic bracelet with the number 420* on it. He only smirked when I told him to turn it inside out. He pulled the same thing when I handed out books with no book numbers in them. I told everyone to write any number in the book and put my initials before of after it. As I reminded them that 420 was not an acceptable number I saw Michael smirk, and scribble out his number.

*For anyone who isn't familiar with the significance of the number 420, www.urbandictionary.com defines it as, " The term 420 is used widely in Cannabis culture as a time to get high, a national day to get high, and cannabis itself."

     "Really Michael? You sit in the front row right under my nose, did you think I wouldn't see?" He just smirked, shrugged and wrote a different number. It was the perfect example of the foolish type of behavior that would have gotten him sent to the office by other teachers.

      I suggested several other books to him that he really enjoyed. He read My Friend Leonard by James Frey and was pretty disappointed when it came to light that James Frey was more like James Fraud.

     "That's pretty lame huh Miss D? I don't care, I liked the story," he said to me one day as he was leaving class. He wasn't one to mince words.

     It was about this time that both Michael and I realized how intelligent he truly was. And I say realized because he was one of those kids who was bored with school and found that if he had to be there, he might as well keep himself busy. His idea of busy had been reading during class. When he  started to take a vested interest in my class it became very apparent that there was a difference between him and many of the other kids; he began comprehending the texts we were reading and was able to answer questions while most of the other students were still looking for what page any given story was on.

     Michael's shining moment in my class was during his presentation for the senior project. Seniors could choose any topic they were interested in and were responsible for researching it, developing their own thesis, proving their thesis and presenting their thesis to the class in the form of a Powerpoint Presentation between ten and fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes is a long time, especially when many of these kids hadn't really ever presented before. Michael, however, went over the fifteen minute mark like it was his job. He researched Pablo Escobar and presented an outstanding project on who he was and his influence in the drug world. I watched with my mouth wide open the entire time. The entire class was on the edge of their seats. We were all in awe of his hard work and devotion to the topic, again, not because he wasn't capable, but because no one expected it. Some of the best students in the class could barely meet the ten minute mark, never mind going over the fifteen minute one.

     I was so proud of Michael and all he accomplished during his senior year. I was happy for him too because he was able to see his own growth and abilities. He was excited to go to college, in Italy, at John Cabot University. Both of his parents were from Italy so he was fluent in the language and comfortable in the culture. He couldn't wait. I didn't blame him. He needed the stimulation of higher education and a different culture to satisfy him intellectually and socially.

     The report I had with Michael and his growth during his senior year embodies all of the great, positive education that comes from the freedom to teach. We weren't restricted by the MCAS or a micromanaging administrator. Relationships are forged with students when you can be yourself as a human who embraces education and loves teaching. I was sad to see Michael go but glad to have the experience of being his teacher. That was trying year with several students and I decided against going to their graduation. I happened to be out of the building when Michael took his last final but he left me a card, thanking me for my help and expressing his appreciation for my class. He also suggested I buy him a drink he turned 21 and left me his e-mail address. That card is one of my most treasured teacher mementos. I look at it from time to time and reflect on my ability to be more than a puppet of the system; I have a gift and love for the connections that are made and the education provided when instructing a group of students.

Letter From A Retiree

Below is a link to a letter in the Washington Post written by a retiring teacher.