About a week or two ago, I came across a few articles filled with emotional hand-wringing on the part of the generation often referred to as Millenials. I read about how there is a generational conflict between this younger generation, which seems to be dismayed that the world doesn't think they are entitled to anything; and older generations, who wish these kids would get over themselves.
Before I get to the meat of this, I should provide some preamble. The post that will go up later in the week is titled "Being Michael Grates," wherein I take a look at Ben Stiller's character from Reality Bites from the perspective of someone who is in his mid-thirties and see, much like Mr. Vernon in The Breakfast Club…
Just like last week's post, this is another that was an old post that I've updated and revised for this blog.
I think that if I ever actually met him, I would hate Lloyd Dobler. This is a lot coming from me. Say Anything … is one of my favorite movies of all time, so much so that I have the framed movie poster on the wall of my office at home.
A quick editorial note: This is an update of an old post from an old blog. But I was watching The Breakfast Club the other day and thought about it so I dusted it off and posted it here.
Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois. 60062.
Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong.
It was supposed to be the day everything changed, the day we had conversations, the day that we were no longer teacher and students but were human beings. At least that’s what social media was telling me.
For much of Saturday and definitely all of Sunday, I was on the blogs and Facebook and Twitter reading people’s responses to and thoughts on Friday’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Much of what was posted had to do with helping students understand what had happened, or how to deal with what you are going to encounter on Monday, which clearly was going to be a day of reflection and discussion. After all, any national tragedy is a teachable moment.
I was pretty quiet. I may have shared a few thoughts here and there, mostly in comments on other people’s blog posts, but I didn’t contribute to a trending hashtag and didn’t post to my blog. My thoughts from Friday afternoon to Monday were full of cynicism and guilt. Cynicism because I felt like it was yet another rerun of a show I had been watching since 1999. Guilt because the sentiments were out there, people were sharing thoughts and prayers and I just wanted to step away from it all and take my son to the park. Cynicism because for all of the blustering about issues, I didn’t think anything would come of it. Guilt because I shared what I thought was someone’s honest blog post about her son’s mental illness but was later shown to be wrong for doing so.
The cynicism and guilt continued into Monday. I had lesson plans. None of them included how to talk about this. Instead, I went in and took out a red crisis plan folder then started each class by re-explaining what to do in the event of a lock-down I fielded “what if” questions–what if he does this, what if this happens–which most people can’t answer because we’ve fortunately never had to deal with this sort of crisis. In some classes, we talked about how the media’s 24-hour news cycle is faster than police investigations; in another, we talked about why this is getting so much attention when other events don’t; and still, in others, we went into the planned lesson. Cynicism because I knew we’d all go back to bells, grades, Twitter drama, and waiting for Christmas break. Guilt because the important events didn’t occupy more of our time.
And guilt because I obviously didn’t do enough. I was supposed to hug them, assure them that everything would be fine, tell them that I would protect them, maybe even shed tears. But I didn’t. We simply went on and I demonstrated the system’s ineffectiveness and my ineffectiveness as a teacher and human being.
Of course, since I have a desire to constantly improve my performance, when this happens again, I’ll have a more teachable moment the day after.
Cynicism because I used the phrase “when this happens again” and guilt for assuming it will.
In the second episode of the Pop Culture Affidavit podcast, I take a look at Stephen King's It, both the 1986 novel as well as the 1990 TV movie starring Tim Curry as the evil Pennywise The Clown. It's a Halloween treat that will remind you why demonic clowns dwelling in sewers will make you swear off the circus forever.
So last night was pretty tough. Being just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, I managed to avoid any damage from Hurricane Sandy–at worst, there’s even more leaves to rake up in my yard–but I’m a Long Island native and have friends and family up and down the northeast corridor. So since we were both sick of watching The Weather Channel and the local news could only update so much, my wife and I turned on Antiques Roadshow and then Monday Night Football because they are the types of programs we can ignore when we want to. But to keep updated, we watched Twitter and Facebook. And stress ate. But that’s a whole other diary entry.
Anyway, what made me shut the computer off wasn’t that I was tired or that I couldn’t look at any more footage of a flooded street in Lower Manhattan, but a couple of tweets from people I follow, which were all along the lines of how communities are coming together for the hurricane and we should hopefully see that transfer to our school communities. And maybe my reaction was a little too much at the time, but I couldn’t help and roll my eyes and say to myself, “Seriously?! Are you really always that ON?!”
I know, I know, that sounds snarky. It sounds mean. It also sounds cruel of me as a teacher when I say that I didn’t think of my students for a single second today–okay, maybe for a second when my superintendent sent out an email saying we were open tomorrow and I remembered that I had made a ton of photocopies last week so I am good to go for first period–and instead focused on keeping my five-year-old son occupied while simultaneously trying to keep my sanity intact.
But I am glad that I’m going back to work tomorrow, if nothing else than to break the cabin fever, so being someone who studies up on his work, I logged into #edchat tonight for the weekly discussion (I think the topic was technology and creativity). And about halfway through I started to feel tired, a little annoyed, and hopped off a few minutes early because I started to feel like I didn’t want to go into work tomorrow. I stepped away from the computer for a moment (probably to help my kid brush his teeth) and came back to rejoin but really couldn’t. I was kind of deflated.
“Why?” I wondered to myself. And then I realized, I have felt like this before. Read the rest of this entry »
It is amazing how much the reading list for this particular project has expanded since I first sat down with Blue Highways a little more than a year ago. Some of that is due to my coming across books that I owned and wanted to reread (as you’ll see with my next entry on Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live) and others, such as Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, have been kind of serendipitous.
While I had known about this book’s existence for quite a number of years but never really showed that much interested in reading it, I had more or less completely forgotten about it before the day I was at my local branch of the public library checking out Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and putting Kerouac’s On the Road on hold and happened to spot it on a bookshelf. I picked it up, read the jacket copy and said, “Heck, why not?” I was neck-deep in Jules Verne, which was taking an inordinate amount of time to read, and I was pretty sure that it would be a refreshing break from long-assed tomes.
Thankfully, I was right. And not only was it a quick read, it was a very nice and very fun read. Vowell plays amateur traveling historian, visiting sites that are important to and recounting the stories behind the assassinations of presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. She goes into the motivation and psychology behind each president’s assassin as well as the feeling of the time and the reaction of the public to each death. And she does it in a way that’s engaging and entertaining while also being informative.
Which I honestly wasn’t expecting, btw, because of Vowell’s association with NPR, which I … well, I kind of share Patton Oswalt’s view on that particular brand of radio:
Anyway, I know I’m not doing it very much in the way of service with such short an entry, but the way that Vowell investigates the three assassinations (as well as mentioning the Kennedy assassination, which in itself is probably worth another book) might make this a book worth reading in U.S. history class, especially the way that she references what were current events at the time (the book was written in 2003 so there is a lot of discussion of the tropes of the Bush era), kind of showing that there is “living history” even in death.
There are some teachers you look at and say, “Yeah, he’s why I became a teacher.” Then there are those you look at and say, “I wish I was that good.”March 15, 2012
It was the first day of my senior year, a year where I was supposed to be one of the “leading” class of Sayville High School, and a day where I was supposed to do nothing except bask in my seniorness. After all, first days of school are supposed to be a wash: you get your locker combination, meet a few teachers, pick up some textbooks, probably attend a short assembly, and then go home with nothing to do.
Except that Mr. Prescia had another idea.
“Okay, you guys ready to go?” he asked after the second period bell rang and then asked us to take out that summer’s assignment. I’m not sure if I imagined this or it really happened, but I could have sworn that there was a collective groan from some people in the class and I know that I wasn’t the only person wondering if he was serious.
It turns out, he was. Mr. Prescia had been our pre-calculus teacher the previous year and took over the AP calculus classes for what I think was the very first time in his career. Back in June, he had issued textbooks and assigned a laundry list of problems that he expected us to have ready for the first day of school in September. Now, being the type of student who never missed a summer assignment (and also being the type of student whose parents made sure he never missed a summer assignment), I dutifully completed my work and was ready, but I definitely didn’t think that he was going to launch right into problems the very first day of classes. But since he didn’t need to introduce himself, it made total sense.
Not only that, the man was pumped to teach AP calculus. Mr. Prescia clearly was a math guy. The previous year, he’d shared a problem that he and a super-genius kid from an older class had worked on together (and I am not entirely sure if this was true or not, but I swear there was something about mathematically proving or disproving the existence of God), in addition to some great stories about his high school years, including the time he’d been shot. He had stories about how him and his brother came up with a card-counting system for blackjack in Vegas and did so well that they were asked, upon leaving the casino, to never come back to that casino again. He once revealed his sure-thing system for betting on horses at the different racetracks in the New York metropolitan area. He worked in logarithms and theorems as if they were a medium, and while we didn’t always share his enthusiasm, he didn’t let us forget that we had signed up for AP calc, he was going to teach us AP calc, and we were going to work.
And work we did. Mr. Prescia’s class was balls-to-the wall drill-and-kill. He would lecture on a principle of calculus, assign problems out of the book, and create tests where you had no choice but to be thorough on working out everything. When we did well on those tests, he was even more pumped and he’d take things to the next level, making the concepts more complicated in his breakneck-paced manner that dared us to keep up; when we did badly, he would lay into us. He once read our class the riot act for a good half of a class period and was so upset that two beads of spit had collected at the corners of his mouth–he was frothing at the mouth, if you will–not because he thought we were stupid or that he hated us, but because he was disappointed in us. He was, in a way, our coach.
I was one of his most inconsistent “players.” Every other one of my tests was good–I’d get a C on one test and an A on the next, which made me a B student but not a solid B student (in fact, “inconsistent test scores” was a constant comment on my progress reports and report cards). One particular test, he posted the highest point total on the board (he used some total points formula that to this day I can’t figure out, but I know that the highest one was essentially the “A” of the class and everything was curved accordingly) and when he came around to my desk, he said, “You came out of left field on this one” and revealed that I had that posted highest points total. It was as much of a “holy crap” moment for me as it seemed to be for him and I remember doing my best to repeat that performance for the rest of the year, even though I never did and remained inconsistent.
His methods, his style … they were, as I recall, all things that your average PD speaker would cringe at. There was never a single manipulative, never a single project, and we never touched a piece of technology. But in four years of high school, I rarely worked as hard to keep up with him and I never felt as wiped as when I walked out of the AP calculus exam in May, I never felt more wiped (and kinda regret not going out for Chinese with him but I did have another AP exam the next day and wanted to get in one last review session). To this day, the 3 that I scored on that exam is something I wear as a badge of honor.
Earlier this evening, I found out via Facebook that Mr. Prescia has passed away. So, I tip my hat to him. Rest in peace and thank you.
Another day, another look at my blogroll/twitter feed/myriad places I get my news and discussion about education … and another day, another spate of posts that continue to talk about how learning should be student-centered and not teacher-centered and how we need to change our practices in order to adapt. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this and it certainly won’t be the last, and every time I hear it, no matter where I hear it, it feels like a pendulum has swung in a completely different direction than when I was younger and still existed in a teacher-centered classroom. But the sentiment is that I came from a broken system and since said system is “not working,” doing the opposite will fix the problem.
I’m simplifying it, I’m sure, but I will say that such sentiments do make for good posts and tweets, especially if you’re looking to get a lot of “Right on!” and “You said it!” comments or dozens upon dozens of retweets. I don’t see a whole heck of a lot beyond platitudes and rhetoric, to be completely honest with you. That’s not to say that people aren’t taking a long hard look at the problems in the public education system and offering up practical solutions; it’s just that the people who seem to try their hardest to be profound in 140 characters are the ones who get the most attention.
I do believe that there needs to be a paradigm shift (or whatever you’d like to call it), but in these online forums, I often find myself making comments to the contrary. Part of the reason is that I like being snarky, but part of the reason is that I can’t exactly join the march if it means putting down what I thought was a quality education. Take this exchange via Twitter between myself and Ira Socol (and no, I’m not name dropping … these four tweets seriously prompted this post):
IS: why is it, whatever kids are reading, some teacher wants them to read something else?
Me: I’ll never forgive my teacher for forcing me to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Such a horrible person.
IS: its easy to make kids hate great literature. Just force it on them
Me: And yet so much great literature I thought I’d hate I wound up loving b/c of English class discussions.
I thought about writing a post about the whole “forcing them” argument but then I realized I wrote it last week, so I didn’t feel like repeating myself. Iadmit, too, that I was being a bit snarky … because in all honesty, I really did feel that taking English in junior high, high school, and college enriched me as a reader and a student of literature. Then I let it go because I did have to go into work the next day.
It was in the middle of work that I read post #8,675,309 about how we need to make school student-centric and in this one the writer compared replacing old tools with new tech to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The message was: we don’t need to change the tools, we need to change our practices. Again, like every other post or tweet like this, I pretty much agreed.
But then I thought: is that really the approach we need to take?
While a number of people remember high school and college as just one eight-year blur (especially the college part), I do remember what it was like to have upwards of eight different people teaching me a subject on a regular basis, and I remember that in most cases, they had different styles and methods of doing things. I had some teachers who were very hands-off and treated the class as self-guided, offering help when needed. I had some teachers who sat back and talked for 45 minutes (to varying degrees of success). I had some teachers who encouraged students to lead the discussions themselves. And when it came to grading? Oh man, well let’s just say that it might have taken a little while but I definitely realized that they had particular systems and quirks and playing along to them (and in some cases exploiting them) was key.
Yes, that sounds like just being a cog in the system and only going for good grades and all that, but when I think about how the world still works despite all of our best efforts, I can’t say that devotion to a new method or system that looks like it has all sorts of advantages doesn’t have its drawbacks. You can’t assume that because you have flipped your classroom or made everything project-based or truly made things student-centered that everyone else has too. The person down the hall may still be lecturing. The person next to him may still be using worksheets. The person next to her may be overloading her students with projects as well. You never know–even if you communicate on a fairly regular basis with those other teachers, you may never truly know. Read the rest of this entry »