Friday, 6:00: Connie Willis on foreshadowing. She's been doing an hour on different narrative elements for several years is a row. I so, so wish that I had them all recorded, or a transcription. She's a brilliant, funny and insightful teacher. I also like that she doesn't reference her own work when she's talking about narrative. I can't oversell this programming item!
Friday, 9:00: Carrie and the Midnight Hour. Carrie Vaughn assumes her character's personality and becomes Kitty, a late night radio advice counselor for the supernaturally challenged (Kitty is a werewolf). This is always hysterical. Audience members come up with problems for her to solve.
Saturday 10:00 and 1:00: The blind submission panels. Authors have presubmitted the first page of their stories or novels. The page is read out loud to five editors who each raise their hand when they would have rejected it. Then they explain what they heard that was off putting. Or, the manuscript makes it to the end, and everyone applauds the author.
Saturday, 3:00: The Rusch hour. An hour with guest of honor, Kristine Katheryn Rusch. I've heard Kris talk before. As a writer and editor, she has a wealth of experience and wisdom.
I've highlighted something for every hour of the convention that I want to attend.
And, of course, there's the masquerade, the Critter Crunch, 160 presenters, a huge diversity of paneling, an organized bar con on Friday, signings, dealers room, art show (and art presentations), gaming, movies, science, kids programming, and everything else that is wonderful that happens at a con.
Here is my schedule, including my toastmaster duties: Opening ceremonies 7:00 on Friday. Autograph alley at 8:00 Friday (authors signing their books). Guest of Honor comments at 11:00 on Sunday. Post-remarks autographing at 12:30 Sunday. A “Why am I not Writing” panel at 1:00 Sunday. An hour with James Van Pelt 3:00 Sunday. Closing ceremonies 5:00 Sunday. There’s a link to the entire schedule at the MileHiCon webpage.
A couple years ago, a parent of a senior started e-mailing or calling me every week. She wanted to know if her son had turned in assignments and what the next week’s work was going to be. I thought that was obsessive behavior for a senior’s mom, but I answered her questions and sent her the material she asked for. Later, after the class ended, I talked to her about it. She said that she loved her son, knew he was capable, but he was a terrible procrastinator. He would be going to college next year, so she felt this was her last chance to be a parent and to help him develop the work habits he would have to have.
There was a sense of desperation in her voice that I totally understood.
On a related note, I have an ongoing argument about ParentVue with a friend of mine who teaches middle school math. He thinks that teachers posting their gradebook online feeds two evils: student irresponsibility and helicopter parenting. Since I disagree with him, I have a tough time paraphrasing his point of view. Basically he thinks that by the time a kid gets to middle school that he should be adult enough to take care of his own grades. My friend believes that the high stake nature of grades creates responsibility since if the kid fails he will pay the penalty. Paying the penalty is the lesson. ParentVue makes it harder for kids to fail so an irresponsible kid won’t learn the important lesson by failing.
See, I told you I wouldn’t be able to make his argument well. It sounds silly to me to even say it.
At the same time, ParentVue encourages too involved parents to become truly intrusive, where they call all the time, question the teacher’s grading policy, and never give their kids a break.
My friend believes that the quicker we treat kids like adults by making them solely responsible for their grades and divorcing them from their parents, the quicker the kids will become adults.
In theory his arguments make sense. here’s why I think he’s wrong.
One of the best things to happen to me as a teacher was to become a parent of a school-aged child. Suddenly, in a very concrete way, I understood that every kid in my class was somebody’s baby. When students sat in my room taking notes or reading their texts or writing essays, I saw like a ghostly presence the image of their parent or parents behind them, hoping, praying, agonizing over their child’s fate. Even the kids who were doing well—or maybe most particularly the kids who were doing well—had parents who still wanted to be involved in their student’s academic life.
They want to parent. I think I’m shortsighted if I don’t involve them.
My administrator friend who asked me for “easy wins,” the things we can do to make education better that don’t break the bank, will appreciate this: I believe that the most underutilized force to improve high school are the parents. We made a stride forward with ParentVue by putting the power of the gradebook in parents’ hands. It’s only a single step, though.
Somebody asked me once what changes I’d seen in education during my career. There weren’t many, and most of them were negative, but ParentVue was a positive. A concerned student or parent could query me if the kid’s grades were going south. One click on an e-mail link, and we were suddenly in a dialogue. Parent-teacher conferences were no longer “gotcha” moments where a kid’s bad grades ambushed parents whose kids had kept them in the dark. ParentVue gave parents a chance to be parental.
Here’s the next step I would like to propose. In high school, there’s a tacit conspiracy of silence toward parents. ParentVue exists, and an active parent will take advantage of it, but ParentVue is passive and impersonal, providing only grades without explanations. No nuance. The silence comes from the teachers.
A weird feature of high school (and I suspect this is true in middle school too) is that most teachers do not communicate directly with parents. The change I propose is that they should.
The quickest way to change our students’ learning, especially for struggling students, is to involve the parents. I know that sounds obvious, but how often does it happen? I’ll bet (a lot!) that most middle school and high school teachers do not initiate even one personal parent contact a week.
If I were an administrator who wanted the quickest way to both improve student achievement and to raise the school’s reputation in the community, I would require that every teacher phone (not e-mail or text) five parents a week every week of the school year. The calls wouldn’t have to be to the lowest performing students, although why wouldn’t you call the lowest achieving students’ parents? They could be randomly chosen. The call might just be the teacher telling the parent about a highlight from the student’s week.
Most parents would appreciate the information and the human contact. Kids would be held more accountable. Phone calls could help to initiate an active, coordinated conspiracy of adults working in concert to help the kids.
Five phone calls a week. It’s not a radical suggestion. It’s an easy win.
I am completely, totally, and irrevocably tired of the narrative that says kids today are in some way less than the kids of yesteryear. It’s a false assertion supported only by the tint of nostalgia-infused glasses. The core kid is not lazier, more disrespectful, or less bright than kids were from when I was in high school in the late 60s and early 70s.
We have always had dropouts, underachievers, confused loners, bullies, rebels, and the apathetic. Reading for fun has always been considered odd by the majority. In the same way, there are still overachievers, hard workers, geniuses, and the ambitious, audacious, inventive, clever, honest, humorous and idealistic kids.
I have come to wonder if the adults I talk to who argue the opposite aren’t actually saying that they don’t like kids: that they’re the kids-only version of misogynists.
That’s my starting premise. And even if I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter to my job as a teacher or my evolution in thinking about students.
Right now, this quarter, I have way more students who rock my world and make me glad to be in front of a classroom than I have students who don’t. If my classes are typical, I’m optimistic about the future or our country when I’m sitting in a rocker at a nursing home (in about fifty years!).
I’ve always been kid-centered, but my thinking about them has changed through time. My first year, I started with a tough-love attitude. Deadlines and discipline were important. Part of this may have come from my coaching background. My classes were like my teams. We set goals. Everyone had to work hard for the common good, and the expectation was that everyone was equally motivated.
With those attitudes in mind, I met with my students. Sheesh! In my first class, right after the starting bell, a sophomore boy called across the room, “Hey, Alice, that sweater looks good on you. It would look better on my bedroom floor.” In my second class, which was just called READING, I asked the kids how many of them liked to read for fun. I expected all the hands to shoot up. Two kids out of thirty raised their hand.
That began my evolution in thinking.
My initial breakthrough was that I had to adapt to conditions that I found. Clearly I couldn’t teach my sophomore class as if they were all equally mature, or that reading class as if they all already loved to read. I trashed my lesson plans I’d been working on for weeks and went a different direction. My “adjust to the conditions on the ground” attitude stuck with me for the rest of my career. That’s why I’ve always been at a loss when a kid tells me that they will be gone in two weeks, and can he have the assignments. I have to say, “Ask me when we get there.” I don’t know what the conditions might be in two weeks. It’s possible that I could have totally new handouts and assignments, ones I’d never done before, two weeks from now.
Most of my handouts, assignments and tests are ones I’ve created myself. I went digital early. Not only does each class have hundreds of files, but each concept has numerous variations as I’ve created different approaches.
I may be guilty of many things as a teacher, but being stuck in a rut isn’t one of them. Even my first year, I was horrified by a long-time teacher who showed me her yellowed lesson plan book. She said, “These are my lessons from when I started teaching, and I’ve never changed them.” She spoke with pride. The teacher who copied all of his handouts and tests for the year before school started equally baffled me, although I had to admit that his boxes full of class sets, organized by subject area and quarter, was impressive.
My second breakthrough came when my oldest boy turned five. It’s an embarrassingly late breakthrough, since that was 1995, fourteen years after I started teaching.
I had always been annoyed by squirreliness. This is why I knew I couldn’t teach in the middle school. It drove me crazy to watch freshmen or sophomores poking each other, grabbing each other’s stuff, squirming around in their seats, talking when other people were talking, etc. I even made handouts defining immature behavior and went over them with classes that were particularly bad.
The problem was that I knew by the time they were seniors, for most of them, squirreliness would disappear. I could see the seniors in them that hadn’t expressed themselves yet. When my boy turned five, though, and I had to be patient with his five-year old behavior, I suddenly realized I’d been thinking about the younger students incorrectly. I shouldn’t be mad because of the seniors they hadn’t become; I should be patient because of the five-year olds they still carried around with them.
It was a revelation!
I learned a ton of other lessons along the way, each with their own stories. They include the following what should have been obvious conclusions:
• Small-group and one-on-one interactions with students are more powerful than large-group presentations.
• Sometimes large-group presentations are the way to go.
• Don’t make rules because of bad behavior that punishes kids who haven’t behaved badly.
• Don’t point out mistakes without teaching them how to fix them.
• Kids grow at uneven rates. You might not be the teacher to see the greatest growth with that kid.
• A one-on-one conference with a student who is having problems can solve many of them, and if that doesn’t work, a phone call home can solve many more.
• Classroom culture is the teacher’s responsibility. If the teacher is unhappy with a class, the teacher needs to take responsibility for the problem and fix it (and work on it immediately).
• Give students multiple ways to demonstrate learning.
• Retakes, rewrites and redos should be the norm. It’s not, not, not important that a student demonstrate learning on the first try. What’s important is that they demonstrate it on the last try.
• These are high school students, not adults. That means that some of them need help learning timeliness and responsibility. If that’s the lesson they need to learn, teach it. Their college instructors and employers will thank you later.
• The gradebook is not the only place to teach timeliness and responsibility, and it’s weak teaching if that’s the teacher’s only tool.
• Students respond to genuine enthusiasm.
Where I arrived in my evolution of thinking about students is that they are individuals. I have to treat them as individuals. Large class size works against that. An eight-period day where I only see them for forty-five minutes works against that. Standardized tests that encourage me to think of kids as statistics, and that tell me what to do with this year’s kids based on last year’s results work against that.
I see I’ve gone on for a while about students, as well I should. The pity about retiring is that my thinking about students has been evolutionary. I’m still learning. Now that I’m getting an inkling about kids as learners, I’m moving on.
I know, though, that in high school I’m a better teacher when I see the student as a person. Teaching is a person to person interaction. One of my many weaknesses as a teacher is that I’m terrible with names. I think I would have been better if I could have always been able to greet each kid by name by the end of the first week.
I wish that when I see them on the street years later that I still know who they are.
I’ve worked with a handful of terrible teachers over the years. Probably the worst was a teacher who when he neared retirement gave up on teaching altogether. This was the time when we ordered films we were going to show for the week from the district media office. They’d come in their big silver cans in canvas bags on Monday. This teacher would go to the delivery room and sort through which films other teachers were using that week that he could show.
Once, he showed FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF for three weeks straight in all of his classes. He was so bad that in his last year, the administration assigned him only study halls. He had a master’s degree and over thirty years in the classroom, so he was one of the highest paid teachers in the building, and he was just supervising study halls.
By that last year, he’d piled up so many unused substitute days that he called in sick on the first teaching day in January, and then called in sick for the rest of the year.
There’s a really long story about how a good system to protect teachers from administrative whims ended up protecting this awful teacher long enough that he could end his teaching career that way.
He wasn’t the only bad teacher I worked with, but I bring him up because he was so rare. I’ve seen so many hard-working, caring teachers over my time that I remember the bad ones vividly. They stand out.
Overall, my experience with teachers highlighted my career, and I so, so underutilized the opportunity I had to learn from the teachers around me.
A Facebook friend, a former administrator, said that he was interesting in hearing my list of things that can improve education without having to move a mountain. He called them “easy wins.”
An easy win for me would have been to spend even more time in other teachers’ classrooms. I know amazing stuff must be going on there, but I was so wrapped up in my own room that I hardly ever observed other teachers teaching. In the same way, I didn’t invite other teachers in to watch me. What I wished I had more of was the kind of thing I get from a writers’ workshop. In a writers’ workshop, a group of peers gets together to review each other’s work. The idea is that we’re too close to our own writing to see what is going on. We need an outside set of ideas to see where we’re not clear, where we misstep, where we flat out miss the boat. In my teaching utopia, teachers would act like a workshop. There would be a lot of observing and a lot of commenting.
Some people criticize writing workshops because they say they can be stifling. A writer might become too aware of the workshop’s tendencies and start bending the writing to avoid criticism and attract praise, and thereby squelch the writer’s voice. I think that’s a legitimate concern, but that’s also a bad workshop.
In a good workshop, the writers are all fans of each other’s work. They want the writers’ stories to succeed on their own terms. They get what the writer is trying to do, and they offer their observations with that goal in mind. That’s a cool workshop. I think that would be a cool teaching atmosphere too. I’ve always liked to coach and to be coached. I wish I’d done more of it with other teachers.
Luckily, I did learn from extraordinary teachers, and what I learned is there are numerous ways to do this job well. Some of the first teachers I worked with blew me away with their competence: Patty Halloway, who could run small groups and make them shine; Linda Cates, the professional’s professional, who not only dressed more businesslike than anyone I knew, but whose lessons were monuments of planning and clarity; Sandra Haulman, whose intelligence, intensity and passion lit classrooms on fire, and a host of others. My list of great, influential teachers is long.
I’m working with some of my favorite teachers now. Thank you, FMHS English Department for being the eccentric, dedicated group you are.
There’s also a small group of teachers I admired because they knew when to quit. Occasionally, what some teachers want to do, what they know to do is right, runs afoul of circumstances. I know several teachers who could not work in the current environment. The constraints of changing curriculum, an emphasis on testing, the vagaries of administration were too much for them. They walked away from teaching because they didn’t feel like they could do the job they expected of themselves.
I didn’t always agree with them, but I think that anyone who cares enough about doing the job right that they quit is the kind of teacher you want to hang onto.
There’s a great scene in a Nick Nolte film called TEACHERS. An inmate of an insane asylum escapes, and through a series of unlikely events, becomes a long-term sub in a social studies class. The thing is, in his insanity, he’s brilliant. He comes to class dressed as historical figures. He makes the kids reenact historical moments. His approach wakes kids up, gets them involved, leaves them talking about what they learned. He was awesome!
Of course, it couldn’t last. The asylum catches up to him. He’s teaching his class about the Battle of the Little Bighorn dressed as George Armstrong Custer. The doctors rush in and grab him. Stunned, the class watches him being lead out. Custer straightens in their grip. He says something like, “Unhand me. Don’t you know who I am?”
We all wait. He’s wearing buckskin, a 7th Calvary jacket, a blond wig. He says, “I’m a teacher.”
God, I love that moment.
I started my career in District 51 in 1981. Arnold Hayes was the principal, and he interviewed me during the summer. Two elements from that forty-five minute meeting stuck in my mind: first, I was interviewing for an English position and to be the boys and girls swim coach. What struck me about that interview was that Arnold only asked me questions about coaching, mostly coaching girls. During the forty-five minutes, he didn't ask a single question about teaching English. After that, I coached the boys team for four years and the girls for six.
The second memory that stuck is that for some reason I got it in my head that he was Irish. All the way through the interview, I called him "Mr. O'Hayes." Bonnie Noble, the secretary, corrected me as I left the office.
Still, he gave me the job. When he called to tell me, he asked which school publication I wanted to teach: newspaper or yearbook. I said, "Mr. Hayes, I have no journalism classes, and I've never been a newspaper or yearbook staff member."
He said, "What's your point?"
I owned a camera, so he said, "Great. You're yearbook." I did the yearbook for five years. Later I took over the newspaper for eleven years.
When I stepped into the English office my first day of school, Steve Congdon looked up from his desk and said, "Where are the donuts?"
"First year teachers are supposed to bring donuts on Mondays. You're off to a bad start, Van Pelt."
It took me a week to figure out he was pulling my leg.
Thirty-four years of my life have been spent in the service of Fruita Monument High, my permanent teaching home. During that time I married twice and divorced once. I became the father of three boys who all graduated from FMHS. I started and nurtured a writing life outside of the school. I lived in five different houses and taught under seven principals. My classrooms are now sprinkled with children of students I once taught. I haven't seen a grandchild yet.
In retirement I will become the full-time writer I dreamed about being at ten when I walked through the science fiction section of our public library and saw that my book (when I wrote it) would be shelved between Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt. Pretty good company.
My plan is to post over the next four days what I think I've learned about the most important parts of my teaching life: teachers, students, parents, and authority.
I hope all my teaching friends have a great last week. Once again we've pulled off the impossible trick of handling multiple classes a day, juggling the progress of way too many students, and not only survived but thrived.
Hang in. You're four days from wrapping up 2014-15.