Tag Archives: students

I Know Things

I had a student ask me to fill out a psychiatrist’s evaluation for her. (Psychologist? I know they’re not the same but it’s not the point of the story, so we’re moving on.) Feedback on her performance in class, that kind of thing.

So I sent it in, and the next time she came in to class, she had this shocked look on her face. I had apparently marked that she has feelings of guilt and blames herself for things that are out of her control. This was shocking to her. “I never told you about that,” she said. “How did you know?”

Well, for one thing, isn’t that part of the human condition?

And for another, kiddo, you’ve been my student for three years now … of course I know some things about you. (For better and for worse!)

We have this disconnect with the people in our lives, and students — and all young people, really, but students especially — have this pressure to be this better version of themselves. It’s weird, I guess, when they learn that the mask can’t stay on all the time, no matter how hard they try.

It reminds me of when I was in school, the first time I saw one of my teachers out “in the wild” at the grocery store. It’s so jarring to see a person out of the context you build around them. I mean, of course they’re a real person who has to shop at stores … but you never think of them in that way. You don’t see the real person, you don’t consider them in that way.

But they’re real.

And I couldn’t possibly know this thing about her, but I did.

Makes you wonder what people know about *you* that you don’t go around telling them.

The Spring Slump (Do Your Homework)

Spring is that time of year when teachers really feel like they’re spinning.

Spring break is in sight, and beyond it, the shimmering oasis of summer vacation. The long slog through the school year has taken its toll, and we either embrace or evade the exhaustion that it brings; either way, a payment is due, and that payment will be settled in extra sleep or extra stress or extra drinking or extra crying. Or extra all of the above.

Of course, the students see the same oases that the teachers do, but without any of the adult grasp of importance of finishing what you start, or long-term goals vs short-term happiness, or simple good sense. So the kids start to lose their minds a little bit, they start to embrace the summertime laziness a little early, they start to really just kind of get on your nerves.

Teaching is one of those jobs in which the working year starts off hard and only gets harder, as we have to find ways to keep students motivated while their internal motivation is circling the drain. Or, just as likely, we have to deal with a cascade of students who are suddenly failing and can’t grasp why. And of course, behind the tidal wave of suddenly incapable students is the even bigger, louder wave of parents who don’t want to believe that Johnny hasn’t turned in any homework for over a month.

It’s a tough time of year for teachers. I get a little jaded. From the start of the semester I preach and preach to my students — to my high school seniors, even! — the importance of laying solid foundations NOW. Setting good study habits, doing the reading and the writing on schedule, getting the grades of which they are capable on the front end so as to establish good momentum to carry them through the year, to insulate themselves against the senioritis which inevitably creeps in around this time of year.

And yet. It is March, and I find myself preaching again, this time that for those of them who do not see the grade they want, the time to work to fix it is NOW. The time to repair the damage is NOW, before the leaks flood the hold and become irreversible. And the next day I look out into the classroom and I see the tops of heads, their eyes aimed at their cell phones instead of the text of Macbeth. I hear them talking about whatever the kids talking about these days instead of their thematic analyses. I see them putting their heads down and sleeping in class instead of even simply trying to passively absorb anything going on in the classroom.

Soon it will be April, and their 68s will have turned into 62s and 57s, and I will rail again that grades can be recovered and redeemed, but only if they take action NOW, only if they stop the bleeding, cauterize the wound, infuse some initiative, and work to save themselves. And still, I will sit in my classroom alone at 7:30 in the morning, ready and on-call to offer them the help and the time to save themselves, but as useless and unappreciated as a street magician.

And then it will be May.

And they will flock to me like seagulls on an unattended Big Mac.

What can I do to bring my grade up?

Can you give me some points for this?

Oh, you wanted me to turn that in?

Is there any extra credit?

And that’s when teachers begin to have aneurysms.

Every year, I feel like the blind man who sees the future and tries to warn the city of the impending disaster, and who gets ridiculed for his trouble … until the volcano erupts. Of course, by the time the volcano erupts, I will be lounging on Tybee Island and drinking a very cold, very alcoholic beverage.

Cocktail, Tropical, Beverage, Drink, Glass, Summer

If you are a parent and you have a kid in school (and I mean, from elementary all the way up to college, to be frank), this is the time to watch them extra closely. Teachers can only push so hard; kids need the push from mom and dad too.

If you’re a student reading this, know that the number one determining factor in your success is yourself. Mom and dad and your teachers can push all they want, but if you don’t care about your grades (or, gasp, the things you’re learning in class), none of that will matter.

Didn’t mean to end up preaching.

Not that I’m much of a preacher.

It’ll be all right. God never gives us more than we can handle. Because God doesn’t exist. He can’t give us anything. Whatever life has given us, we can handle it. When we can no longer handle it, we die.

…Man, that took a dark turn.

Here’s a picture of a bunny to cheer things up. It’s topical, too, because of Easter … because rabbits who deliver chocolate eggs totally have something to do with this … holiday? … can you even call it a holiday since it happens on a Sunday?

Whatever. BUNNIES!

European Rabbits, Bunnies, Grass, Wildlife, Nature

This is Only a Test

Everything is a test.

No, seriously.  There are no exceptions.  If you’re not testing yourself, you’re being tested by your peers, and if you’re not being tested by your peers, then you’re being tested by your kid, and if you’re not being tested by your kid, then you’re being tested by THE UNIVERSE.  But here, today, specifically, I’m talking about academic testing, and to be ultra-specific, I’m talking about academic testing in public schools.

America has lost its mind over testing.  The education system is so twisted up in knots over the issue, it’s like a drunken octopus having a bar brawl with another octopus, except that the other octopus is just the first octopus’s own back arms.  There’s no way to tell if he’s winning or losing, it’s just flailing and drowning and sucker-arms and ink.  Is that squids?  That’s squids.  Okay, it’s like a squid…

With one hand, they (politicians and boards of education) tell us (actual educators) that it’s not supposed to be all about the test.  That the test is secondary, that there are other, better ways to assess what students have actually learned.  (What are those ways?  Hem, haw, well, that’s, you know, we don’t know.  Performance assessment?  You can grade those fairly, right?  RIGHT?)  With the other, they shut down schools for weeks at a time to do what?  Oh yeah, assess student learning in the only way that really makes sense, the only way you can really measure it.  TEST.

But we’re not supposed to teach to the test.  No, no.  Teaching to the test is teaching in a vacuum.  Bad, bad.  Connect what you’re teaching to the real world.  But is that on the test?  NOPE.  Because you can’t test that.  Not efficiently.  So we go around in circles not unlike a tremendous deuce circling the drain.  Teach this, not this.  Here’s the test, but ignore it.  Whatever.  I don’t have the answers to the problems of this testing issue, and I won’t pretend to.  What I will do is share with you some testing-related absurdities.

It’s no wonder students freak the fargo out when it’s time to test.  It’s not uncommon for schools to have counselors on standby in case some kid has a total nervous breakdown.  Like just shutting down and refusing to pick up a pencil.  Or throwing a desk.  Or staging a potato salad riot in the cafeteria.  That didn’t happen?  Okay, but the first thing definitely happens.

Other things happen, too.  Here are a few things which have happened in my school over the past week of End of Course Testing.  All of these things require a full written account by the testing administrator to justify after-the-fact corrections to an answer sheet and, in some cases, a rescheduled testing session for the student in question.

1.  A student nearly came to blows with a teacher trying to confiscate his phone in accordance with testing rules.  The student would later claim he “didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to have it” despite signs on every door in the building, a verbal admonition at the beginning of every testing session, a warning on the morning announcements, and general goldfingered common sense.

2.  Numerous students (like, too many to count) misspelled the name of the school.  And, I’m sorry, our school does not have a funky name.

3.  A student misspelled his own name.  I am not making this up.  (By the way, is it bad that as an English teacher I had to look up how to spell “misspell”?  I think that’s bad.  It’s also ironic.)

4.  A student fell asleep and drooled all over his answer sheet.  (This, apparently, happens all the time.)

5.  A teacher fell asleep and was therefore unable to call time at the end of the session, thus negating an entire classroom’s testing session.  (Okay, that wasn’t my school, but holy sharknado.)

*Heavy exhale*  It’s not my goal to be a dumper.  I really try to find positives and find productive ways forward, but this whole squid-octopus bar-brawl clusterfargo over testing is so asgard-end-up that it’s impossible for a guy like me to see any kind of light at the end of any sort of tunnel.  We are deep underground, running out of air, and at times it feels like it’s time to call off the search.  Don’t even get me started on a Common Core debate.

Aaand this is the part where I realize I’ve lost what little audience I have.  Too many education-related posts on my non-education-themed blarg and I’ve burned the souffle.  Or the souffle went rogue and attacked the chef with a blowtorch.  Don’t fargo with souffles.

FINAL THOUGHT: Testing is like a butthole.  It stinks.

No, that’s it.  You were expecting something more eloquent?

Don’t worry, next post won’t be about work stuff.  It’ll be about… I dunno.  Space unicorns.

15 Tips for Writing an Actual Graduation Speech that Actually Doesn’t Suck

Remember you're unique, just like everybody else.

Remember you’re unique, just like everybody else.

In a surprising twist yesterday, the little blarg here got a handful of hits from, presumably, high school students looking for ways to write a graduation speech.  Oh, dear.  They stumbled into my lair, hoping for advice, only to find me talking all about ME.  I cackled.  I chortled.  I guffawed.  But then I thought.  Wait a minute.  I’m a teacher.  There are students out there looking for help.  My tiny little minuscule platform, for better or worse, was a source they came to in search of that help.  Am I not obligated, then, to provide some measure of that help?

I thought some more.  Obligated?  Perhaps not.  But it could be fun, and it might even help some of them (henceforth, some of YOU) out.  MAYBE I could actually provide a service.

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How About a Graduation Speech that Doesn’t Suck?

One of my students came to me for help writing a speech today.  She’s in the running to be one of the speakers at graduation and wanted my help in ironing out some of the details.

She’d written … not a bad speech, but a boring one.  It bespoke the regular regurgitated platitudes of high school: these are the first days of the rest of our life, the things which seem so important now are really very small in the scheme of things, limitless potential, blah blah blah.  Nothing wrong with it, but nothing particularly right, either.  I asked her what her goal was in this speech:  why did she want to give it, rather than let one of her classmates give it?  Why did she feel it was a speech worth giving?

She responded by saying that she wanted to write something people would enjoy.  HMM WHERE HAVE I HEARD THAT, OH WAIT, THAT’S MY GOAL.  She said that she wanted to write something that her classmates could relate to. YEP THAT’S ME TOO.  It didn’t occur to me at the time but in retrospect, by which I mean a few minutes after she left the classroom, it struck me that her fears are the same as my own.  She wanted to write a speech with broad-based appeal, and it was falling flat.  She wanted to be inclusive to everybody, and ended up sounding placating and boring.  She wanted a speech that would be memorable, but had written something utterly forgettable.

Where had she gone wrong?  I dutifully examined the speech with her, taking it line by line and thinking of ways to strengthen this sentence, simplify that idea, and all that stuff.  But the underlying problem, the one that I couldn’t point to and say, “here’s where you screwed up,” was the absence of heart.  She was so focused on getting her audience to connect with the speech that she had forgotten to write something she could connect with.  As a result, and not surprisingly in the least, her words were bland, disjointed, and uninteresting.

What to do?  When words give you trouble, you bust out the WordHammer. Go for the jugular.  Write what’s real and immediate and bloody and visceral.  Throw judgment out the window, kick doubt right in its asgard, and write some TRUTH.

The theme of the speech is time?  I shared with her a paradox which baffles me every day.  The days are so long, but the years are so short.  Every day it feels like there are so many hours to fill.  There’s time to go for a run.  There’s time to go to work.  There’s time to do a bit of writing.  Cook dinner.  Play with my kid.  Relax with my wife.  Watch some TV.  Read a few chapters.  Do some laundry.  So much time.  And yet, it feels like my high school’s 10-year reunion (such as it was) was just a few short weeks ago.  (Spoiler alert, it was five years ago.)  For that matter, it feels like I was in high school just a few years ago.  (Spoiler alert, it was MORE THAN five years ago.)  My son is two, running circles around me in the yard and counting to ten and happily calling out the color of every object in the house, but it feels like just last month he was a newborn, red-faced and squalling and unable to even roll over on his back without help.  I told her those things and reminded her that the days are long but the years are short, then I asked her why she suddenly seemed enraptured.

“I just hadn’t considered your life before.”

It’s indicative of the human condition, I think, that we turn inward.  That we focus on the immediate, that we focus on ourselves.  But it’s that very tendency that limits us as storytellers.  It’s a bizarre paradox.  To tell the best story to the widest audience, we have to make it accessible and real.  But to make it accessible and real, we have to forget about appealing to the audience and share the gooey, tasty bits of ourselves that we never think to tell about.  Try too hard to appeal and the story sounds forced, awkward, and hollow; tell a personal and nuanced tale and suddenly readers you don’t even know can relate.

You know that old adage about the student becoming the teacher?  The other half of the equation is that the teacher sometimes becomes the student.

Things I learned:

1.  Know what you want to say.  My student was so preoccupied with giving a good speech that she hadn’t bothered to determine whether she was delivering a message worth sharing.  The message matters.  In a lot of ways, it’s all that matters.

2.  Focus on the story before you focus on the audience.  The story has to come first.  After you know the story, then you can fine-tune the words and the metaphors and the way you tell it to your specific audience.  But if the story sucks, no amount of turd-polishing or clever wordplay will make it not suck.

So she left feeling better about her speech (I think) and I got back to work on my story with perhaps a bit more clarity and confidence.  Twelve hundred words today, and I think they tell a pretty good story.

By the way, I’m not sure if it’s a bastardization of a better known aphorism or what, but I first heard “the days are so long, but the years are so short” a few years back from my dad, and it proves more and more true every long day and short year.  Thanks, dad, for helping me to see something I hadn’t before.  (ALSO, SEE, I DO LISTEN.)

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