I offer unlimited extra-credit for dressing up like a character in a book and double unlimited extra-credit for staying in character for the entire period. Juan, who needed points, came as Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. He had the wig and knee-high combat boots and a little scowl that never left his face….He looked good! He jumped on my desk and gave a rousing speech to the class where he compared our school to an Orwellian state that exploits and represses kids. I don’t remember the details of what he said–it might have been lines from the movie or a series of disconnected ideas that he made up on the spot (I couldn’t tell)–but he ended by waving his crossbow and telling us to “burn this mother to the ground!” Then everybody cheered and ran out screaming, presumably to destroy the school. I fell back into my desk applauding and pumping my fists into the air. After a few minutes I decided that I better check up on them, so I went to the admin building and there was Juan lying on the ground with handcuffs on. Apparently you are still not allowed to bring a crossbow to school. The rest of the kids watched him get put into the back seat of the cop car and driven away. Zoie T. told me that it was just like the movie.
I am so excited about my “Pen and Pencil” initiative which aims to bring back the lost art of cursive handwriting to schools! As a people we have become so caught up in the newest thing–the newest gadget, the newest app, the newest theory of how the brain works…And I have a theory that all of this newishness is actually making us old. We no longer memorize facts because we can look them up on Google, and so now–surprise!–we have lost our memories. What did you have for breakfast three days ago?…See! Your brain is melting! You have Digital Alzheimer’s!…
We ignore the classic traditions such as cursive handwriting, navigating with stars, milling wood into paper–all essential skills. And if one day the lights go out–and one day they will, rest assured!–how will you survive?
Since forcing my students to submit all of their work in longhand cursive I’ve noticed that they spend more time working on projects. Essays that would have taken them 30 minutes to write now take two hours–a net increase of 1.5 hours of thinking about their subject! I do allow students with illegible handwriting to submit work using an MS Word handwriting font but make them type with one pinky finger on their left hand. So much has changed! Yesterday it was so quiet that I started sneaking up on students and screaming in their ears to watch them jump! Just like the old days!
Pens and Pencils
Yesterday I got into an argument with a Science teacher during one of our professional development sessions. I don’t like to get into arguments with colleagues but sometimes I get so fired up about trivial academic questions that I can’t stop myself. Criticisms become feuds, feuds become wars–and now I have many people at school who won’t talk to me. But that is the price you pay for being a truth teller.
Yesterday, Mr. Science asked for feedback on a lesson where he had kids debate the safety of GMOs using research that he had gathered from both sides of the argument. I interrupted: “Since the days of Prometheus mankind has meddled and tinkered with Nature and no good has ever come of it! We now stand on the brink of apocalypse because we have lost control of Technology and the machines are enslaving us. It’s all Sciences fault!”
He countered that the students were merely learning how to formulate and present arguments from a set of facts and that incidentally he could point to numerous scientific developments that improved life on the planet. I challenged him to name one. He said synthetic fertilizers developed in the 1940s allow us to feed billions of people. I said sure, but thanks to synthetic fertilizers we have overrun the earth, destroyed the ecology, polluted the atmosphere. “Science is like the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that we should never have eaten!” I said.
He asked if we could simply focus on his lesson, but I told him that his lesson was poisoning kids with false knowledge. Then he asked if I would leave the room so that he could continue his demo. I refused.
Being an Educator means sticking up for kids twenty-four hours a day at any cost. Sometimes we risk our professional relationships but as I mentioned before that is the price we pay for keeping our school’s safe from bad ideas.
Agree to Disagree
The secret to learning is asking questions. Students should train themselves to ask ten thousand questions a day, I model this for them by answering all of their questions with questions. “What are we doing today, Mr. Newhart?”
“I don’t know. What are we doing today?” I reply.
“Should we read the next chapter or are we still talking about this one?”
“Should we read the next chapter?” I ask. “Or should we talk about this one?”
Pretty quickly the students realize that the best questions elicit more questions and that those who want easy answers are not learning or adventuring through a learning experience, but are merely shutting out possibility and short-circuiting the thinking process.
Recently I gave a test to see if my students had read Book One of Homer’s Odyssey and the students answered with challenging questions of their own.
“Who is Telemachus?” I asked on the test.
“Who IS Telemachus?” they wrote back. “Do we really know? And does Telemachus really know who he is?”
My students have begun to think. I am so proud!
So once word got out that Trivia Crack was not my thing, the entire class challenged me to a game because everybody wanted an opportunity to beat the great teacher. I did not let this occur. Instead I wrote every single student a detention for using their phone without permission. Vice Principle L came down to tell me that that there was a rumor circulating in the office that I had invited the students to use their phones and that I wrote the detentions only after they started beating me in Trivia Crack. I said that this was true, but that I was embarrassed about losing to children and that I am a very competitive person who does not handle failure well. He said that I couldn’t assign detentions merely because I felt fragile and wanted to change my policy and that I should think hard about having an open cellphone policy because many other teachers have been complaining that their kids were texting me during their classes.
I told the VP that teachers have always and will always fear change, but that cellphones are The Future and kids are The Future and I wasn’t going to be stuck in The Past by silencing them. Then VP L said that maybe if I spent a little more time in The Past I might be better at Trivia Crack. I acknowledged that this was true, but that poor Trivia Crack performance was a price I was willing to pay for living in The Now. Then he said that he was confused about what my policy actually was and I said that the cellphone policy, like Education itself, was a Work in Progress. He said that he didn’t know what that means and that I needed a consistent policy that everyone could follow. I said that since he was putting me in a tight corner I had no choice but to allow for cellphone use in every situation except challenging me to Trivia Crack.
VP L stood there a long time without speaking, shook his head and walked away.
And that, rookie teachers out there, is how you handle micro-managing administrators.
Yesterday we entertained numerous friends of K–none of whom are educators– for New Years, and found that we had nothing in common to talk about. Michael S. told several stories about fighting in Vietnam during the late 60’s, how he lost his leg, how he coped with losing said leg and overcame severe depression and other stuff I can’t remember because I tuned out; Stewart R. had just returned from a humanitarian mission in Brazil where he was negotiating the release of child hostages from guerrillas in the jungle and we were all supposed to be riveted by that, but I took the opportunity to retreat to the bathroom with my Iphone and set a new Critter Crunch record. Peter G. told a long boring story about riding a bus with Merry Pranksters and his involvement with Tim O’Leary and Bucky Fuller—whoever they are. I could not contribute anything to these conversations because my life is consumed with solving actual educational problems in the here and now. I tried to interject stories from the school trenches–you know, the fight over homework, the funny spellings on their essays, the theory behind my progressive tardy policy that really has changed the culture in my classes, but people just kind of nodded, took a swig of beer and continued chittering about their own lives. Finally I got drunk, finished off the pie in the fridge (K got angry about that) and pretended to fall asleep in the recliner until they left. Can’t wait to get away from these boobs and back to class!
This year I resolve to be a better teacher than I was the year before. This is the fourth year in a row that I have made this resolution and I must admit that it is getting difficult to continuously improve myself. When somebody with my level of experience and raw talent commits to bettering himself in the classroom he is modeling a formula for excellence that students can emulate. For example, last year I gave zero detentions, suspended zero students and eliminated all disciplinary action. This year I resolve to pass 100% of my students by giving special extra credit to unmotivated or severely untalented kids. This will of course improve our school’s graduation rate, which in turn raises our school’s academic performance. I used to think that I needed to fail a few random stragglers to let the class know that I meant business, but I have since realized that a failing student is a returning student and that is not good for anyone. No need to beat a dead horse!
It’s Christmas Eve, 2014. Today I’m not going to think about school. Instead I want to reflect on my year–the ups and downs, the magnificent achievements and dismal failures. On the magnificent achievement side I would have to count every day. Maybe I didn’t bring my A game every day, but I did bring heart and intention and compassion and high expectations! Every day I said to students: Currently you are down here, but in order for you to be successful you will need to be up here (standing on my tiptoes, raising my arms). Now jump! Jump over this bar!… And often times they would fail and perhaps if indeed I am honest with myself I should call these moments my failure. But I never dropped the bar. I just held it out of reach and barked: “Jump!…Jump!, you cur!” because sometimes you need to call children out on their failing behaviors. Looking back I can’t say that I had many kids jump over the bar–and that is probably because that when they got close to achieving their goal I would move it higher, away from them. But even if they never accomplished the ever-changing standard that I set for them, I know that my students experienced growth. They know what it feels like to fight through frustration and hopelessness to pursue an elusive, delusional dream. Merry Christmas, everyone!
I’m often asked: should great teachers receive bonuses? Answer: Yes! Great teachers should be rewarded for their greatness!
If I am able to inspire my students to greatness then I should be compensated for that. Just like those teachers who got stuck teaching poor kids or low achievers should be docked for not raising them up. Remember: you are teaching in a great place because you are great and you are teaching in a bad place because, well, you are probably a bad teacher. Or you have self-esteem issues.
I think we could all agree that if a policeman can single handledly lower the murder rate–he or she deserves a raise, but if the murder rate goes up on his watch or her watch he or she should be held accountable. If a doctor lowers the death rate of his or her patients he or she should be rewarded for his or her success, but of course we wouldn’t praise that doctor for killing people. So it is simple. Great teachers should be praised because they have great kids who achieve great things. And bad teachers who teach bad kids need to get better. And I guess that is where I come in because I can advise those bad teachers about how to move to a better school.
Well, we all–and I mean educators everywhere–felt bad about the bullying incident at our school. A poor defenseless boy–who apparently wanted to be a cheerleader and whose favorite movie was The Wizard of Oz–killed himself and investigators believe that he was a target of hatred by jocks and other popular kids. I had this boy in my class and I always supported him whenever he would say something gay. Like I remember very well one time were having a discussion about the story of Adam and Eve–I don’t remember why we were talking about it, but the story comes up a lot in poetry and literature and I asked the question directly to this boy–we’ll call him Pat–if he thought Adam and Eve could be Adam and Steve. Well, he got very shy and wouldn’t answer so I started to clap and chant: Pat! Pat! Pat! until the entire class took it up–and he just ran out of the room. I gave him a detention for leaving class without a pass and now I’m wondering if I did the right thing. Instead of an automatic detention I should have sent the other gay boy–we’ll call him Gabriel–to go console him. Anyway, I should have seen the red flags–the fact that he had a zero percent in my class or that Romeo and Juliet made him cry–I now know that he must have been crying because he knew that he could never fall hopelessly, tragically in love with a woman. I plan to call the parents tonight and offer to speak at the funeral. I want to apologize to the world for everything we did, as a world, to make Pat’s life bad.