Thursday, December 13, 2007

Adventures In The AP Audit

In a letter dated December 4, 2007, I was informed that my second AP class, formally AP Literature and Composition, had been “authorized to us the AP® designation for the 2007-08 academic year.”

That Santa Ana wind you hear is my sigh of relief.

“The AP Course Audit was created at the request of secondary school and college members of the College Board who sought a means for the College Board to: 1. provide teachers and administrators with clear guidelines on curricular and resource requirements that must be in place for AP courses; and 2. help colleges and universities better interpret secondary school courses marked ‘AP’ on student transcripts.” (from the AP Audit website)

I did not buy this for one minute. The AP Audit was instituted to try to control and prevent teachers from teaching to the test rather than offering a truly challenging college-level course. Students were doing well on the exam, so well that many colleges were no longer taking the passing score of three for course credit. Once they hit the actual college classroom, the deficiencies in their training became evident. A student could do well on the test because that was what he had been trained to do. But when it came time to demonstrate wide and deep reading, superior process writing and editing skills, the façade crumbled.

The College Board does not change its procedures easily. Just a few years ago, when the University of California system announced they were considering dropping the SAT test, a benchmark for college admission for decades, the College Board promptly rewrote the test to UC specifications. The UC system has decided to continue to use the test after all.

The real joke in all of this is under the website section labeled “Benefits of the AP Course Audit for Teachers.” These benefits include “A clear definition of elements required in a college-level course; support materials for developing or refining a college course syllabus, such as sample syllabi that illustrate the variety of ways a course can meet the curricular requirements of your course; validation of curriculum through external review by college faculty; a means for AP teachers to receive updates, new materials, and the latest information about course/exam updates; leverage to ensure students have the resources, such as college-level textbooks, that the course requires; defense of college/university admissions benefits for AP students.” Some of these items are clear; others are meaningless jargon.

If the goal of the AP Audit was to ensure a measure of quality control in the classroom, examining what is on paper can differ from the reality of day-to-day instruction. The only way to know what is going on in the classroom and ensure a college-level educational experience for students is to be in the classroom for several days, or maybe even every day, and observe the class in action. Reviewing a syllabus means little. Without being present in the room, how do they know that what is on paper is what happens in the class?

The College Board has added simply more paperwork to an already bureaucratic situation. When we should be prepping to teach, we are instead typing up syllabi to fit a uniform standard that has only marginal application. My school already demands a certain syllabi format, so now I am writing up two documents instead of just one.

I spent six months, from January to June of this year, writing and revising my syllabi to follow the suggested format provided to me by the College Board. My actual course syllabi did not have the required information included on it because students need just the facts: what do they do when absent? How is their grade determined? What is my policy for late work? The AP Audit wanted so much more.

By June 1, 2007, the College Board’s deadline, I submitted two course syllabi over the Internet to the College Board. By the end of June, my AP Language and Composition course (Grade 11) had been approved.

At the end of August, I received an email announcing that my second course, AP Literature and Composition (Grade 12) had not been approved. Evidently, there was not enough evidence presented. I needed to show exactly how the students learned what I said they were learning. I also neglected to show how the writing process was utilized on every assignment. How did students learn from their mistakes? In addition, there were not enough American authors included on the reading list.

The whole evidence issue was not clear. They read a book, they took a test or wrote a paper, and then possibly did a project or some activity to extend the learning. That was the lesson plan. I was not sure what else to add.

As for the writing process, the test in May does not allow them to use the writing process. They go in blind to an empty classroom, receive a topic and passage, and create an analytical essay of some detail in forty minutes. There was no time for drafting or revision. I utilized those skills when students wrote papers in my class. I taught them how to reduce the process down to one step for AP writing.

Finally, the American authors were part of the eleventh grade course. Twelfth grade focused on British and world writers.

I made what I thought were the required revisions and resubmitted the syllabus. Sometime in October, I received another missive, this time from a live person. My draft had yet again been rejected, but now he would help me. I sent my information to Paul by email, and he contacted me back by email within twenty-four hours.

“You need to include more American authors,” he wrote.

“But Americans are covered in the eleventh grade course.”

“Well that needs to be mentioned somewhere on the syllabus.”

“Let me get this straight,” I wrote him. “You want me to add the eleventh grade reading list to the twelfth grade syllabus?


“And then it will pass?”


So right there in the course description, without any rhyme or reason, I have listed the books students read in eleventh grade. I have also listed the required reading for twelfth graders. All of this on the twelfth grade syllabus. Within the month, the class was approved.

The students who pass the AP exams in English almost always top out at 50-75 percent of my class. It is not a great average, but for a class with almost 100 percent English-as-a-second language learners, I feel this is a solid achievement. Considering this is a private school that draws from a small community in a Los Angeles suburb, I feel the passing rate is even more impressive.

I do not think the AP Audit will make a difference in my passing rate. It has not made a difference in the way I conduct my classes. It just required more paperwork.

Are my classes college-level courses? I model them after my undergraduate courses in English, so I would say yes. But the skills required on the AP exam in May are not what was required of me in those classes all those years ago. So I recognize the inconsistencies. In a sense, a teacher has to teach a little of the test. That is the benchmark.

I applaud the College Board for trying to introduce some consistency in the coursework from school to school, but if they were trying to introduce some uniformity into what the grades in an AP course mean, I believe they have largely failed. The only way to know for sure what is happening in the classroom is to be in the classroom and keep your eyes open. Every teacher is unique, therefore the meaning of the grades will vary, maybe even dramatically.

If the College Board was simply trying to keep the AP exam viable and please their college and university constituents, then my work on the syllabi was an exercise in futility. The work has not led to better instruction. The AP Audit was simply much ado about nothing.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Words Like Feathers In The Air

Once words are out there, it is very difficult to gather them all back, as Brian Christopher Wilcher, age 38 discovered recently. According to the Los Angeles Times, Wilcher, a teacher at Brea Junior High School, told a twelve year old student in his class that “next semester you’d better find another teacher because if you’re in my class I’m going to kill you.” Easy there, Tiger. We have all been there.

More and more, in this age of cell phone cameras and tiny digital recorders, teachers and students need a list of words and phrases that are appropriate and acceptable for classroom interaction.

The first thing that happened once I had been hired by the Archdiocese way back when was that I had to attend a workshop on proper classroom etiquette according to the law. We were instructed that a teacher never told a parent “your child is lazy.” He is “unmotivated.” A teacher never threatened a student with bodily injury or death. Detention or time out after school, or a face-to-face meeting with parents were the most potent threats a law-abiding teacher could make.

Still, words slipped out. During a parent meeting I was involved in at one school, the father turned to me and said, “If my kid gets out of line again, just beat him. You have my permission.” When I insisted that no one would be beaten, and that to raise a hand was against the law, the parent reiterated that it was okay. “Everyone needs a good smack now and then, and you got my permission to just lay into him. I don’t care if you leave him black and blue!” The principal and I spent the rest of the lengthy meeting trying to convince the parent that if we saw any “black and blue” marks on the child, the police would be called. I am still not sure he got the message.

Years ago, I made the comment to a high school class I was teaching that a certain student was absent “every other day.” It was only a slight exaggeration. For months, the student had attended school barely three out of the five days each week. Within twenty-four hours, I had the parent in the office telling me that it was just such comments that made his son stay home all the time. This discrimination had become unbearable. He never denied that his son missed at least one day per week. He was upset because I had verbalized it in the classroom.

In the course of heated exchanges in the crucible of the classroom, things can often be misconstrued and misinterpreted. I do not know if that is the case with Wilcher and his student, but a misunderstanding is possible. Still, a death threat is serious stuff in this day and age. People threatening to kill others can’t be taken lightly. The news footage of Columbine haunts our dreams. How many times have such incidents been repeated. Just yesterday, the shooting at the mall in Nebraska became a perfect example. By killing a number of people, the shooter thought that at least he would have some notoriety. As one of my students reminded me, the situation was similar to Meursault’s, the main character in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. After he murders the Arab man, he feels his life has meaning. Why else would so many people hate him?

What I am most concerned about is that there is equality of punishment for teachers and students when they make dangerous threats in the classroom. Students are often given more leeway than teachers when making statements. Would a student who threatened Mr. Wilcher be thrown in jail for a felony? I would hope so. I know that the one time a student threatened my life, it was a far different story.

I had handed back some papers to a junior class. The bell rang, and one student who was upset with his grade walked passed me at my podium and said “I’m going to get a gun and come back and shoot you.” He was staring right into my eyes. The comment and to whom it was intended were very clear.

Since I met this particular class twice each day, and this threat was made in the morning class, I went to the dean of students and the principal and demanded that action be taken immediately. I wanted the kid suspended from my class pending possible termination, as the school rule stated. The principal told me that the student did not mean the threat as stated. “So what does ‘I’m going to get a gun and come back and shoot you’ actually mean?” I demanded to know. He did not have an answer.

We called the student into the office where he promptly admitted making the threat in exactly the words I related. “I’m sorry,” he said to me, not making eye contact. “You made me mad with the grade.” That was his defense. His punishment? He was removed from the afternoon session of the class, but the next morning, he was back in his seat. I was not satisfied, but I had no other recourse. I did, however, drop in to see the principal.

“In the future, if that student, or any other makes a threat against me,” I told him, “neither you nor anyone else will stop me from going down to the police station four blocks away and filing a police report. This might be a private school, and you may control this world, but even on this patch of ground, no one gets away with making death threats.”

I consider it my “Clint Eastwood” moment, probably overheated and overblown in my assessment all these years later. At the time, I was very emotional about it.

What I have come to realize is that language is a weapon. It is sharp and dangerous. Just like a firearm, if its use is not controlled, it can lead to disaster. Once the words are out there, like the ruptured feather pillow, one cannot put the words back where they came from, and the only recourse is to deal with what was said. Wilcher now faces such a situation.

The pen and language itself, is mightier than the sword. Words can be hurtful. Words can introduce fear and intimidation into a situation. That whole thing about sticks and stones breaking bones, but words are harmless has been refuted. Words are dangerous.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


In the midst of all the reports and test scores I have examined over the last few weeks, the best evidence that reading and writing skills are slipping away from my students is right in front of me. To me, since the Thanksgiving break, the steep decline in skills and attention is palpable. This is the time of year when everyone’s energy is flagging. We all hate each other at school, and wish we could be left alone. No one wants to answer in class, be tested on anything, read books, or complete assignments. I do not want to grade papers or reread books for teaching. We all need a huge television set, a soft couch, and all our food brought to us courtesy of our favorite restaurant. It is holiday burnout.

My seniors are frantically putting finishing touches on their application essays. Some of them have had me read three and four drafts. It is the most important piece of writing they have done, and therefore many of them are well into the writing process. Others are beginning their efforts on only the first draft. The heartbreaking thing is when I have read several drafts and the student is still way off the mark. I try to be encouraging, but time is so short. Many of them resist the urge to write about themselves; they think it is narcissistic. I try to explain that this is what the colleges expect because they want to know more about them as potential students. In fact, as they write, they need to be cognizant of that: every story or experience must somehow add to their profile as potential students.

Today, they took an essay test on the first fifteen cantos of Dante’s Inferno. This is a test I postponed before the Thanksgiving break due to all the events and schedule interruptions. The problem is that today was not really a better day for them. Many of them were up late working on the college essay. They were desperate to use their books and notes to write the exam, but I told them no. They had to do this one like the AP exam—forty minutes with a blank piece of paper. I felt bad about that, but they need the practice. It is that constant dilemma between the way real writers write, and the way students must write for the AP exam.

When we were reviewing yesterday, I could tell many of them had not read the work. So I had one of those frustrating teacher experiences: I feel bad for them because there is so much pressure on them at this moment, but I was also disappointed that more people are not embracing the reading.

In all of my classes right now, I am forcing the issue of engaging the text, often going sentence by sentence through a book to examine the writer’s style. When I do this, some kids benefit from it; others are bored because they have read ahead and have already finished the book. I am pulled in multiple directions—we need to read faster, we need to read slower, we need to read less, we need to read more. I am spinning in space.

Maybe I am being cranky, but I feel assaulted. And this siege mentality has led me to doubt my students, made preparing for class a chore, and the worst, made my brain numb. I am too poor to pay attention this week, and I border on the “I don’t care” mindset. Looking around my classroom, I see I am not the only one who feels this way.

We need to get back to the basics—the life of the mind. It is always about reading, questioning, thinking, testing those ideas in argument, and engaging ourselves in the process. It is not about test scores, or grade point averages, or college acceptances. Hopefully, those things will work out on their own if we continue to engage ourselves in intellectual exploration. We need focused effort and self-discipline.

Right now, everything feels daunting and difficult. We just have to push through.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.
Edna St. Vincent Millay

I first met Matthew when I was a young teacher at a small Catholic elementary school on the west side of Los Angeles and he was a newly elected member of the student council of which I was the moderator. Our relationship did not last long. Matthew was a practical joker, a mischievous kid whose escapades, by today’s standards, would seem rather tame. I do not remember what he did to get himself kicked off the council; he might have placed a younger student in the bathroom trashcan. In any case, he did not last through the fall under my supervision, and that was that. He spent the remainder of his eighth grade days off my radar. We passed each other in the halls with barely a nod.

Two years later, the local Catholic high school hired me to teach English. I would be reunited with most of my former students because my old school sent nearly all its graduates to this particular institution. When I arrived on campus, one of the first people I saw was Matthew. He did not say hello, and I prayed he would not be in my class. I was not looking forward to the awkwardness.

We started school, and I quickly discovered that Matthew was in my colleague’s tenth grade English class. Even though I dodged one bullet, I found many more challenging students waiting for me. Every day, I had a journal topic on the board when my students came in so that they would get in the habit of immediately writing in their notebooks. We would then share our responses. Pat, the other tenth grade teacher, came into my room often during those days, and we brainstormed for topics, considering current events, news reports, and things we heard on the radio commuting to campus.

The day before Thanksgiving, I asked my students to write about their views on God. I first asked them to explain if they believed in God, not a certainty even though this was a Catholic school. Then I asked them to explain where they felt the presence of God, a higher being, or spirituality, and how this helped them cope with day-to-day challenges. Pat liked the topic and borrowed it for her class. The students wrote, we shared, and off we went for the long weekend.

On Sunday, I came home to find my answering machine blinking. The secretary from the school was on the line. In a small, quiet voice, she apologized for interrupting my weekend, but I should prepare myself for Monday. It seems that Matthew had been involved in a car crash and was dead. We could expect major disruptions first thing Monday morning. We should meet our homeroom classes and accompany them to the church on campus for a special memorial service.

I was shocked and numb. The kid was only in tenth grade. I did not know what to expect on Monday, and I was struggling with my own feelings. I did not particularly care for Matthew, so I felt guilty. He was not in my class, and I had never technically been his teacher. I felt a bit distanced from the situation as well. I knew he came from a large family and had several brothers who had attended the school before he did. I thought he might be the youngest.

The next morning, all hell broke loose. I was not prepared for what I saw that day. Students were sobbing, collapsed in the hallways. The teachers were literally carrying them to the church. Once inside, the wails and moans increased. I did not realize how popular Matthew was. He was on the football team, and had recently been promoted to varsity, even though he was only a sophomore. A priest tried to offer words of condolence to the students, speaking about Matthew going to “that big football field in the sky.”

Students were allowed to go home after the service, but almost all of them stayed around school, hugging each other and crying. It did not matter, male or female, people just sobbed and clung to each other. I went up to my classroom and sat there with all the windows open and the lights off. The cold, crisp air from the ocean seven blocks away felt like it blew right through me. I let it swirl my papers off my desk and scatter them all over the classroom.

The week went downhill from there. First came the rumors and stories of the accident. Matthew had gone to the snow in the mountains north of Los Angeles with his girlfriend and three other friends, two of whom were brothers. They were traveling down a narrow highway, coming back from a good day when a drunk driver crossed the line and hit them head on. Their SUV rolled over several times, and Matthew was ejected. One of the brothers was driving, and had been badly injured in the chest by the steering wheel. Matthew’s girlfriend was injured, and possibly thrown from the vehicle as well, depending on who told the story. In any case, Matthew was killed instantly. There were stories circulating that his girlfriend crawled to him and held him in her arms while he died. It took paramedics a considerable amount of time to reach the rural accident scene.

The next wave of stories that hit involved the aftermath of the accident. We heard that Matthew’s father and brother drove the eighty or more miles to the high desert to get to the hospital. They did not know how badly Matthew was hurt. When they arrived, he was dead, and they had to identify the body. Then, they drove back to Los Angeles. I wondered what that drive had been like, all those miles back home.

The family decided to have two funerals, one for the school, and one for family and friends. They also decided to donate Matthew’s eyes for transplant. His casket would be open for viewing at a local funeral home, and the students would have specific hours they could go to see him.

We tried to resume classes. Many students did not come to school, or if they did, they did not attend classes. I just let the students ask questions. They wanted to know what would be done with Matthew’s body at the local funeral home. Did he feel pain? What did it mean to be “killed instantly?” Did it really happen that quickly? I was completely out of my league. I did not know these things, yet I felt like I should. It did not matter that I was only an English teacher. My students wanted to know.

One evening, I stayed at the school late. My wife was busy at her school with a parent meeting or some event, and I did not want to go home to an empty house. Often, the staff of the cafeteria left food for the faculty in the small kitchen off the main faculty room. I went there, found nothing, and wound up sitting in the dark in the faculty room thinking about Matthew. The science teacher came in and sat with me, and I asked him some of the questions the students were asking me in class. He patiently explained the embalming process, how organs are harvested, and other intricacies of the funeral industry. I remember his voice in the dark room, the hum of the furnace, the way he told me, fatigue evident in his voice, like he was telling a time-worn story. He saved me. The next day, I retold the story word for word to my students.

One of the days that week, the students came tumbling into the building, shouting and crying. My nerves were frayed and jagged at this point. When I got them settled down, they told me a heartbreaking story. It seems that Matthew’s father told them that when they went to see Matthew at the funeral home, they could put mementos, notes, cards, and letters in the casket with him. As the week progressed, slips of paper, blueberry muffins wrapped in cellophane (Matthew’s favorite), and small remembrances filled the spaces next to the body. As some of the students were gathered around the open casket and crying, they noticed a small drop of clear fluid fall down the side of the corpse’s face. Matthew was crying with them. He could hear them. “Isn’t this what it meant?” they demanded to know.

I found myself explaining that when they removed Matthew’s corneas, fluid was present. It was probably this fluid that they saw on his cheek. I gently tried to explain that the dead do not hear us, and if they did, it would not be the way we hear each other when we are alive. “He knows and understands your grief, but he no longer inhabits that body. He is not there.” They were not satisfied with that answer.

I attended both funerals. The church was packed each time, and most people attended twice like I did. At one point, Matthew’s father read from his journal. It was the entry made the day before Thanksgiving. “Of course I believe in God,” Matthew wrote. “And I know that one day I will be with him in heaven.” I remembered the day Pat and I came up with the topic. We just wanted to fill the time, to get the students writing, to finish the day and go on the long holiday weekend.

The graveside service was scheduled for the next day. The administration wanted the faculty to drive students to the cemetery and make sure everyone got back to campus when the service was over. I had a small hatchback at the time, but I took three large football players with me. As we drove to the cemetery, I noticed that one had a blueberry muffin on his lap. “Breakfast?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I kept forgetting to bring it to the funeral home to put it in the casket with Matt. I thought I could slip it in with the flowers today.”

When we arrived at the cemetery, everyone gathered around for one last goodbye. Someone produced a guitar and the students sang. Matthew’s girlfriend was there, battered and torn. She collapsed on the coffin and cried.

When the time came to leave, the students would not go. I tried to collect my group, but they refused, saying they would remain at the cemetery and find another way home.

Back at school, the rest of the year became a challenge. I continued to ask my students to write journal entries, but no matter what the prompt was, the students always brought it back to Matthew.

One student in my class was a boy named Enrique. He was Matthew’s best friend. After the death, he became sullen and withdrawn. His girlfriend was also my student, and I could tell Enrique’s worsening moods were troubling her as well. Enrique began to miss school frequently, and when he was present, he was checked out, staring out the window, and refusing to participate in class.

After school one day, Enrique’s girlfriend, Lisa, came to see me. “You have to do something about Enrique,” she said. “I’m afraid he is going to hurt himself.” I promised to talk to him.

I had Enrique come to see me late one afternoon after weight training. We were the only ones in the building. “Look,” I began, “Matthew is gone. You have to let him go.” I did not get much further into the conversation when he exploded. He did not think I had the right to say those things to him. He accused me of not understanding what he was going through. He stood up and threw his chair across the room. He was a big, muscular lineman on the football team, and for a moment, I thought he would come at me. Instead, he stormed out of my classroom, and I did not see him again for at least a week.

Class became torture. I felt responsible for Enrique’s absence, and when he was there, he glared angrily at me. I was the focus of his rage. Others in the class wrote of their dreams with Matthew. Enrique would leave the room, or sit there, crying quietly. Lisa looked equally miserable.

Some time around Easter, the dam broke. I gave my students a journal topic, something weak like “Write about your life as a windshield wiper on your mom’s car.” Stupid. Enrique was there. The students wrote in silence for a while, and when I thought they had finished, I asked for volunteers. Enrique’s hand went up. It was the first time he had volunteered since before Matthew died. I called on him.

“Last night, I finally had a dream with Matthew,” he started. He looked around the room at the other students, many of whom were holding their collective breath. “You all have had dreams with him,” he said. “I kept wondering why he did not appear to me.” He looked down at his notebook and continued reading. “He was sitting at the lunch tables outside under the trees eating one of those round pizzas. I could not believe he was there. He laughed and then threw his pizza at me and ran. I chased him down and tackled him. I pinned him down on the grass and he was laughing his head off. I told him I loved him and he said, ‘I know.’ Then he just disappeared.”

Enrique’s voice caught, and for a moment he did not know where to go or what to do. I looked around the room. Everyone, including the boys, was crying.

I decided, for a number of reasons, to leave the school at the end of the year. It had been a tough year, with challenges in the classroom and in my personal life. I felt scraped up and raw.

As the last day of school approached, I prepared my classes for final exams. One day, as I was teaching, I looked up to see Enrique come in the back door of my classroom, go to my desk, and leave something. He waved at me as he left. When the class was over, I went back to my desk and found a picture of Matthew and Enrique in their football uniforms, taken at the start of football season back in August. They both looked mean and tough, and Matthew wore the number 90, the year that he died. I turned the picture over and read the back: “Dear Mr. Martin, well I guess I won’t be seeing you around anymore. I just want to thank you and hope you become a famous writer. I’ll buy all your books. By the way, I really enjoy your stories. Maybe someday you could write something about me and Matt. Excuse me, Matt and I. Love, Enrique #61. P.M.S. Good luck!”
Enrique, I finally wrote something about you and Matt. I tell your story every year to my students, and your photograph is framed on my desk at home. We always wonder what happened to you. I tell them you’d be about 32 years old now, probably with your own children, a wife, and hopefully, a good life.

A few years ago, I went back to see Matt’s grave. I noticed that his family used his last journal entry as his epitaph on the stone. I knelt down next to it, and discovered four small, round stones placed carefully in the margin of his granite gravestone. On each was painted one word: We. Still. Miss. You. Someone remembers, even now.

I think of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. “To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died, / who neither listen nor speak; / Who do not drink their tea, though they always said / Tea was such a comfort…/ Your tea is cold now. / You drink it standing up, / And leave the house.”

In the end, we all must let go of what we have lost.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Technology of Failure and Success

In a recent Doonesbury cartoon strip, Garry Trudeau made his statement about technology in education. Two characters are in a college classroom. The professor is conducting class. One of the students is typing furiously on his laptop when the other instant messages him that the professor has asked him a question. “About what?” he asks, without breaking off his typing. The other student has no idea, having only heard the laptop student’s name called. He decides to ignore the professor and pretend he did not hear her.

“She just asked you again, man,” his buddy messages back. “Four major greenhouse gases.”

“Stall her while I Google it,” laptop replies.

In a few seconds, the computer brings up the answer and the tension passes.

“If this keeps up, I’ll never get through my email,” laptop thinks.

In the last few weeks, I have seen the best and worst of technology in the classroom. My seniors have started to lose focus. They are finishing applications and admissions materials, including their student essays. Fatigue has set in, and with the holidays approaching, many of them are not thinking of school. We have also had some high profile events in the last week that have further distracted them. So I am desperately trying to keep them on point as we make our way through Dante’s Inferno.

Many of my students, this year, use laptop or notebook computers during class to, allegedly, take notes. Most of them do take notes, or at least appear to be taking notes. When I am talking, or writing something on the board, they are typing on the computer. When I pause for questions or clarifications, they pause and stare at me expectantly. Occasionally, one of these students might quickly look something up on the Internet. There is a wireless connection they tap into in the neighborhood. Often, they will offer the information to the class, or read it to me to clarify a date or point in the discussion. I appreciate this because it is what the technology is made for: to put information at our fingertips.

There are two students in my senior class who I am sure are deep into cyberspace every day during my class. If I ask them to read a passage, they will do so, and then return to wherever they were on the computer. I have noticed that their grades have dipped slightly this year. But here is the deal: one of the students was a class disruptor last year; now, he is less trouble. I actually prefer that he lose himself in cyberspace and allow me to teach without inhibitions. Last year, he taped me with his cell phone and posted the footage on youtube; this year, he is no longer interested in what I have to say. Better for me.

In this case, the use of technology in my classroom has failed, but he is keeping himself amused and off my radar. Several teachers have brought this up at meetings—evidently, he does the same thing in their classes as well. The faculty has asked for new rules to cover this distraction. I did not say anything to support this, as I feel that students benefit from using technology in the classroom, and in the two cases where they are using the computer as a distraction, I am pleased not to have to deal with them.

In addition to this situation, I have witnessed something else happen in the last few weeks that I find encouraging. My tenth and eleventh grade students have been assigned class presentations on different magazines. They must read several issues of the publication, prepare a ten minute report detailing the history, current masthead, kinds of articles with an in-depth analysis of one or two pieces, submission policy, and possible importance to American culture of the selected magazine. Then, on a scheduled day, they literally teach the class.

The reports have been a tremendous success. Students get to know magazines and journals. They receive a crash course in journalism and American culture. At the end, many of them decided to subscribe or at least buy the magazine again to further their reading.

The real success of these reports, however, is that the students use Microsoft Power Point and other technology to teach the class. They have made good use of my new computer projection equipment, and the presentations zip along with interesting graphics and visual displays. I find students who are not terribly organized writers becoming very organized in their visual presentations. I think it has something to do with the individual screens and pages for each step of the presentation. It forces an organizational structure on them. In any case, I am so proud of them. They are demonstrating what I think is a prevailing job skill for this century: the ability to find, categorize, organize and present information.

In an article in The New York Times entitled “New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology” (November 7, 2007), writer Samuel G. Freedman discusses this issue of students using or abusing technology in the classroom setting. Cell phones and laptops are now part of the classroom mix in every college, and some high schools and middle schools across the country. Yet many teachers have a problem with situations like the one in my senior class.

He cites the example of Professor Ali Nazemi of Roanoke College, who staged an elaborate subterfuge in his classroom recently when he pretended to confiscate a cell phone from a student and smash it with a hammer. The other students were mortified. “There are certain lines you shouldn’t cross,” the professor said. “If you start tolerating this stuff, it becomes the norm. The more you give, the more they take. These devices become an indisposable sort of thing for the students. And nothing should be indisposable. Multitasking is good, but I want them to do more tasking in my class.”

The article takes a decidedly negative view of technology in the classroom, dividing students who use computers and cell phones into two groups—“those who want to use technology to grow smarter” and “those who want to use it to get dumber.”

“All the advances schools and colleges have made to supposedly enhance learning,” Freedman writes, “supplying students with laptops, equipping computer labs, creating wireless networks—have instead enabled distraction. Perhaps attendance records should include a new category: present but otherwise engaged.”

The student defense against these charges is also clear. Teachers who lecture are boring; there is no interaction; students can just read the book and get the same material, or go online to get background and other notes. The classroom should be a place where students are engaged and active, even, some kids say, entertained.

“One of the great condemnations in education jargon these days, after all, is the ‘teacher-centered lesson,’” Freedman responds. He quotes Professor Michael Bugeja, director of the journalism school at Iowa State University. “The fact is, we’re not here to entertain,” says Bugeja. “We’re here to stimulate the life of the mind…Education requires contemplation…It requires critical thinking. What we may be doing now is training a generation of air-traffic controllers rather than scholars. And I do know I’m going to lose.”

Freedman closes his article with the question most of my colleagues asked at the recent faculty meeting: “What teacher or professor can possibly police a room full of determined goof-offs while also delivering an engaging lesson?”

Technology will not go away. We are being shortsighted if we think we can legislate it out of our classrooms, or control its use. Computers, cell phones, PDA devices, projectors, DVD players, have all changed education, and the way teachers conduct classes. It is better to embrace the change than fight against it. Most of our students have grown up with this technology. It is second, or even first nature to them. The use of technology in the classroom offers far more opportunities than problems. I have always noticed students who have “checked out” of my lesson; they are drawing in their notebooks or staring off into space. I move down the aisle and gently urge them back on task. If it keeps up, I call them in to discuss the situation one-on-one. The next step is to involve the parents. I cannot stop it. I can only encourage the student to remain focused, and present opportunities where a student is graded on how closely he has paid attention to class.

And for that one student in my senior class, his lack of attention will be his loss. He has demonstrated a lack of maturity in several areas over the years, and I have strongly urged him many times to grow up and embrace his responsibilities. Maybe that is a lesson he will not learn until college. For now, it is to the benefit of my other students that he is lost in cyberspace. Far be it for me to call him back, once again, to reality.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Open Letter To Parents

Dear Parents,

The English Department teachers have come to the following conclusion: our students are not reading enough.

These days, it is not uncommon for students to spend hours in front of a computer. Yes, they might be reading online, but it is not the same as reading books. Numerous studies have demonstrated that students who read voraciously have higher test scores in vocabulary and reading comprehension. They also tend to be better writers. There is a direct correlation between student success on future-determining tests like the SAT and the ACT and how much a student reads, both in school and for fun.

In class, every day, teachers are assigning reading, allowing periods of class reading called SSR, or sustained, silent reading, and encouraging a culture of reading by modeling the behavior for students. We read a variety of texts, look up unfamiliar words, and practice critical and analytical thinking skills in writing and discussion of the books read for class. But we need to do more, and to do that, we need your help.

I need you to create a culture of reading in your homes. Some of you do this already, but we need to increase the effort. We need each household to shut down, for thirty to sixty minutes every evening, and have every family member read. If fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters—or even grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins—could devote one hour each night to reading, an entire culture of reading will spring up. Turn off the television, the computers, the cell phones, and just read. Possibly, every one could read the same book and discuss it at the dinner table. Newspapers, magazines, and books are all possible reading selections for this family reading time. This is reading for enjoyment, so allow each family member to read what he or she likes.

Take your son or daughter to the bookstore and let them browse. Let them make their own selections, and do not worry if they are not selecting classic literature. Any reading will help. The library might also be a regular stop for the family to select books. Again, I know that many families support their children’s reading already, but we are looking to increase our commitment.

If you need suggestions for reading material, let me direct you to a few websites for booklists: (LA Public Library booklists for kids) (LA Public Library booklists for young adults) (Amer. Library Association booklists for all ages)

We believe that this enhanced reading, in the classroom and at home, will also affect other subject areas such as history, science, problem solving in mathematics, and ultimately, lead to higher test scores on the SAT in multiple areas and disciplines.

Any effort you can give to this endeavor will be greatly appreciated. I know in this fast-paced society, our time is a precious commodity. We are committed to giving our students the best possible opportunities to excel in the classroom now and in the future in college. Working together, we can introduce an enhanced culture of reading and encourage the life of the mind in our children.

Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into your child’s education.

Paul L. Martin

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Things They Carried

Veterans’ Day, 2007

The burden carried by the characters of Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried extends beyond the physical items of necessity listed in the first chapter. It is clear these men carry psychic baggage as well. O’Brien expresses many of these psychic, emotional, and spiritual issues through recurring motifs that run through the chapters. One of these motifs is the idea of death, dying, killing or being killed.

There are five deaths in the novel that O’Brien returns to time and again: Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, Kiowa, Linda, and the slim Vietcong soldier. The latter, O’Brien himself killed with a grenade. Lavender, Lemon and Kiowa die as a result of combat. Lavender is shot in the head; Lemon steps on a landmine; and Kiowa dies in the field of human excrement after taking shrapnel from an artillery shell. Linda is the only non-Vietnam casualty; she is O’Brien’s fourth grade schoolmate who dies of brain cancer.

Lavender’s death is more the lieutenant’s burden to carry. Jimmy Cross blames himself for Lavender’s death because he was preoccupied with thinking of his girl back home. He feels that because of his negligence, his man died. In this motif, O’Brien is a witness to the destruction this guilt causes for Cross. Years later, when Cross visits O’Brien, he still has not freed himself from the guilt over Lavender’s death. “At one point,” O’Brien writes, “I remember, we paused over a snapshot of Ted Lavender, and after a while, Jimmy rubbed his eyes and said he’d never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death.”

It is clear from the chapter entitled “Love,” that O’Brien cannot help Cross with his guilt. There is some indication that Cross cannot get passed his guilt because he has no outlet to work through his burden, as O’Brien is able to do with his writing. “ ‘You writer types,’ [Cross] said, ‘you’ve got long memories.’”

The thing that seems to stick with Cross is that Martha, the girl he was preoccupied with when Lavender is killed, never was his girlfriend and did not love him. When he encounters her years later, she does not reciprocate his love, nor does she even feign interest. She merely wishes him well, replacing the picture of her he burned in his foxhole in Vietnam after Lavender’s death. So his mental preoccupation was a waste of time, and it cost a man his life.

The chapter closes on a poignant note. Cross tells O’Brien, “Don’t mention anything about…” He trails off, never speaking the unspeakable guilt he feels, and O’Brien promises he won’t. It is clear that Cross has lost his psychic battle with guilt over Ted Lavender’s death. O’Brien, as witness to this lost battle, realizes that some things must be carried forever, that one can never be free from the obligations of the dead.

Curt Lemon is blown up, his body parts left hanging in a tree. He is playing a game with another soldier, a game of toss with a smoke grenade, when he accidentally steps on a landmine. O’Brien speaks of him stepping into the light, and then the blast sucks him up into the trees. Just like that he is gone. What bothers O’Brien is that Curt Lemon is just a kid. He did not understand war, had indeed only been there a short while. This idea of innocents exposed to the horrors of war recurs throughout the novel. But he speaks of Curt Lemon’s death as a senseless act, something that exists as more image than reality in his brain after all of these years. In this way, some deaths defy explanation or rhyme or reason. They exist as these moments of blinding light, and we are left with unrecognizable pieces of flesh hanging in trees.

In the story of Kiowa’s death, we find a combination of the senselessness of war with the guilt that must be carried by others. Once again, it is Jimmy Cross who feels responsible for Kiowa’s death. Tactically, they make a mistake; they set up in a field that under heavy rain and artillery bombardment, quickly turns into an excrement-crusted quicksand. When he is injured by a falling mortar, Kiowa is unable to free himself from the muck and drowns. The soldiers search for his body the next morning. Kiowa is the one who sleeps with the New Testament for a pillow, yet his Christianity meant nothing in war. He is still dead.

When they find his body, they must work to free it from the waste. They find that he probably died from his mortar wounds. But there is the possibility the field of human waste finished him off, that he drowned in the bog. Norman Bowker sums of the lesson: “ ‘Nobody’s fault,’ he said. ‘Everybody’s.’”

O’Brien’s guilt over the man he kills comes from questions his daughter asks him about the war. He feels the sting years later when he returns to the country with her to re-examine his past. When she asks the question, “Did you kill anyone in the war?” O’Brien wants to tell her no, but that would not be the truth. He remembers one man he killed, a slim soldier. He killed him with a grenade. Even though he knows that in war, it is killed or be killed, the enormity of taking another life is still with him. It is made clear in other chapters that he considers himself a coward for going to war instead of fleeing to Canada. In his confusing and convoluted thinking, killing this man is part of his cowardice, even though he has no choice.

“I did not hate the young man,” he writes. “I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty.” After he throws the grenade, he feels like he wants to warn the man. “It was not a matter of live or die. There was no real peril. Almost certainly the young man would have passed by. And it will always be that way.”

Actions are forever. We carry them forward from those fateful nights when we are forced to make choices. In O’Brien’s case, a simple question from a child sends him back.

The final death is actually the first one O’Brien witnesses in his life. Linda, a girl in his fourth grade class, dies of a brain tumor. This is the girl he took out on his first date. He writes that he loved her with a pure and intense love. It is she whom he sees in his dreams. She speaks to him and tells him to stop crying.

“But this too is true; stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive.” He goes on to mention the others. “They’re all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.”

Linda is the only dead person who dialogues with him. Her words are beautifully metaphoric. She speaks of being dead like being a library book that no one is reading. It is just there, on the shelf, waiting. In the end, Linda tells him, being dead is not so bad. “I mean, when you’re dead, you just have to be yourself,” she says.

In his dreams, O’Brien is ice skating on a frozen pond at night with Linda. He realizes that all of these stories are a way of coping with what happened to him in Vietnam. One gets the sense that O’Brien is hanging on by a thread, and that this writing in The Things They Carried, saves his life.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Grades, Grades, Grades

I finished compiling my first quarter grades at 3:30 PM today. I wish I could say I am relieved. Instead, I am facing six or seven other things I need to do immediately that have been let go in all the last minute grading and calculating. I already have three new sets of papers waiting for me for the two-day old second quarter. Add to that the dozens of students who are beseeching me for their quarter grades.

It is amazing to me that some of these people I barely see in my classes. They have shown no interest in coming to my office hours during the last nine weeks. They take little interest in class. They barely mumble a hello when they enter my classroom. Yet, two days after the quarter ends, they come to see me three separate times outside of the class meeting to ask if I have the quarter grades prepared. And they are worried. Why were they not worried during the nine weeks of the quarter?

Many of these students want to use my class to balance their overall grade point average when they have blown their grades in other classes. Therefore, they argue and beg for the B+ instead of the B- to counter the D they received in math. I told several of them today that my class is not the great equalizer.

I also warn them that I do not award grades. I simply write down the grade they have earned. Inevitably, they thank me when they hear the grade. They should thank themselves.

This quarter marked the first time my school has used the Blackbaud software program for school management. This program allows us to keep all student records in a single database. Therefore, we can enter our grades directly into the system from our desktop computers in the classroom instead of writing the grades onto grade sheets and submitting them to the registrar for her to input into the computer. There were several glitches, as could be expected. At one point today, all the grades entered so far were erased, so anyone who logged on yesterday, or last week, had to reenter all that material one more time. Any time new software is piloted, there are problems. It cannot be avoided.

In the middle of all of this grading, I had to teach five classes, and accompany my students to an anti-bullying assembly that could have been a cure for insomnia. The presenter was a magician, former engineer with a headphone microphone and an amateur comedian’s timing whose basic message was “Don’t bully,” or maybe “Just say no to bullying.” The students were restless and the whole thing made me sleepy. I do not think it will be a successful deterrent against bullying. These kinds of assemblies rarely are all that effective.

So tonight I am trying to get caught up on my reading and planning for teaching. Tomorrow, it is back to the grind of grading the three new sets of papers and pushing the students forward in the curriculum. Oh, and we have a department meeting at lunch. Will the fun never end? That is the thing with teaching. The job continues on and on; I can never finish with grading papers, finally and completely. Only when I retire, I guess.

Meanwhile, we are all looking forward to the three-day weekend. The time change and a slightly cooler temperature have made everyone, students and teachers, feel the fatigue more. It is a struggle to stay focused in class for all of us. I started on part of Dante’s Inferno today in class and wound up discussing the screenwriters’ strike. I do not know how I went from point A to B, except that Dante is a cinematic writer. Go figure.

Hopefully, we can all find the strength to carry on the life of the mind and assault the ever-more dangerous learning curve. I hear for Christmas, we are all getting As.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

End of the Quarter Blues

Where is B.B. King when we need him?

Friday marked the end of the first quarter of the 2007-2008 school year. The students are exhausted and suffering from burn out. They giggle uncontrollably in the hallways, scream and shout, cry for no reason, behave erratically, jump on each other, become talking heads in class, fail to do their homework, find themselves unable to concentrate and the most frustrating, exhibit more than usual irresponsibility.

The teachers are also exhausted. Colds, flu, and just general mental fatigue plague us causing absenteeism and the dreaded need for those of us who are present to substitute teach for the sick ones. We find ourselves suppressing the need to laugh hysterically at nothing, or sob uncontrollably for no apparent reason. We cannot concentrate and deadlines are looming. There are too many meetings and conferences stacked up against doctors’ appointments, car servicing appointments, family obligations, and a hundred other things that must be done all right now.

So how long until Thanksgiving?

This weekend, I find myself mired in grading papers. I am a little behind. The first set I did Friday night was from September. Yes, that’s right—early September. I want desperately to give my students immediate feedback on their writing. Giving papers back nearly two months after completion is not my idea of immediate.

I teach four different grade levels in English: nine through twelve. I see the ninth grade six times a week. I see the eleventh grade ten times a week. Tenth and twelfth see me five days a week. I teach all these grade levels literature, writing and grammar skills, vocabulary skills, and test-taking skills, including SAT and Advanced Placement test preparation. I have a full time job simply preparing to teach.

During the school day, I usually have two class periods devoted to preparation. On Thursdays, I have only one. The problem is with concentration. I teach every day from 8:30 AM until 12 noon straight through with only a fifteen minute nutrition break. Every day, except Thursday, I have from 12 to 12:50 PM free. I have yard supervision at lunch (12:50-1:25 PM) on Mondays and Wednesdays. I teach a class every day from 1:30-2:15 PM. Monday through Friday, I have the last period of the day, 2:15-3:05 PM free for preparation. Mondays and Wednesdays, I have office hours from 3:10-3:40 PM. So my preparation minutes come in drips and drops. I am usually correcting papers, reading memos, reading or rereading texts to teach, all while eating my lunch. I could easily skip breakfast and lunch and never miss it as I do not have much of an appetite, but this is not a good idea if one is diabetic. Coffee is my best friend.

To people who do not teach, this all might sound like a busy day. It is so much more. Imagine having to give a speech with interaction and questioning from the audience, for a minimum of five hours every day. Every speech must be different, yet extremely detailed. While you are giving the speeches, you must be cognizant of every move of your audience members. They are dependent on you for permission to leave the room for the bathroom, or to take care of a number of personal things. You must hold the attention, or completely involve in the discussion, every audience member. Periodically, you have a break between speeches to do at least two detailed tasks, mostly involving concentrated reading for layers of meaning. Meanwhile, at any moment, your boss can call you into her office for a discussion about something that happened several days ago, and that may have a profound effect on something that will occur several days in the future. You are expected to remember all the details as well as the dates. People are also emailing you with specific requests. Some may also drop in unexpectedly for a conference. At this point, the chaotic picture should be clear.

Teaching is demanding. It takes everything you have and more.

So I am behind on my grading. I have three sets of essays, about 18 in each set on average, and one set of vocabulary quizzes—a spelling test, really, which makes for easy grading. I finished the early September set Friday night, or actually Saturday morning at 3:30 AM. I finished another set of essays from mid-October and the vocabulary quizzes this morning at 1:30 AM. I will try to finish the remaining two sets of essays from late October today into early tomorrow morning. School resumes Monday and final quarter grades are due.

Why do I work so late into the night? I am a night person. I like working into the morning hours because the phone does not ring, and my concentration is undisturbed. The downside is that I am not a morning person, and my first class is 8:30 AM. Now you know why coffee is my best friend.

In addition to the grading I have yet to do, I am behind on my lesson planning. I have a semester overview that I can follow, but the day-to-day planning is where I need to focus my attention as soon as the grading is done. Usually, I must choose between grading papers in a timely manner and preparing for class. I would rather be prepared for class and give papers back later than be caught standing in front of restless teenagers with nothing for them to do. Preparation involves drafting assignments and tests, reading or rereading texts and background information, updating notes, preparing slides or audio visual materials, and planning activities. My friends are surprised to learn that I reread much of the literature I teach every year. There are some works, like Shakespeare’s plays, that I have been through so many times that I remember the text. Over the years, I have accumulated excellent background notes and resources for his work as well. But other works I need to refresh every year. So rereading is essential and necessary. I wish I had a photographic memory, but I do not.

I am also an avid reader on my own—books, newspapers (at least three dailies), magazines, and Internet sites. I have this blog to write for, at least once a week (my own requirement).

The other major activity that takes up time at work is the student magazine. I edit and publish a student magazine once per quarter, or whenever I have the time. I am not paid extra for this; it is something I feel makes kids want to write better. If they know their work will be published, they are very willing to work on drafts of their writing and perfect it. I am a big believer in publication as a teaching tool for writing. Seeing a response in the school community to what they write has a profound impact on my students.

So at the end of every quarter comes the logjam. I find there is no way to avoid it. We just have to muddle through and finish it off. Then, we can start all over again for the second quarter.

For the second quarter, I will make the following resolutions: I will return papers sooner; I will read more new books to look for potential texts for the coming years; I will make better use of every minute of the day.

The reality? During the second quarter I will be writing teacher recommendations for my college-bound seniors. I will be teaching Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Inherit the Wind, Dante’s Inferno, Skellig, The Things They Carried, The Great Gatsby, the poetry of William Blake, The Kite Runner, and Death of a Salesman. I will grade essays, multiple essays, from each of the four classes. There will also be quizzes, homework to check, class work to proctor, and all manner of personal disasters and crisis.

The challenge never ends.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Library Violence

I am dreaming again that I am flying. It is a late afternoon, may be fall or spring, the weather warm with promise. I am pedaling furiously through the streets where I grew up to the library. The public library was one of the few places in the city my parents did not try to keep me from visiting. I could just say the magic words: “I have a report to do,” and off I would go through the streets and avenues to the public library, situated on a small patch of asphalt behind the supermarket next to a vacant lot where the town’s only homeless person slept at night.

Libraries equaled freedom in my universe. I would start at the paperback rack near the door. I wanted novelizations of movie titles, or books that had been turned into movies. My parents did not allow me to see PG rated movies. They did not care, or even notice, if I read the book version. So my first introduction to, say, the Star Wars universe was through the novelization. I later did see the movie, but I think this is where I developed the idea that the movies were never as good as the books. It is why today, I refuse to see movie versions of my favorite reads. They never hold up to the printed versions.

After the paperback racks, I would move on to scan the shelves in the adult section for writers I had heard about from my teachers. My eighth grade teacher recommended Alistair MacLean, so I picked up Circus and The Guns of Navarone. I also grabbed a few titles by my favorite western writer, Louis L’Amour. A teacher in sixth grade suggested G.K. Chesterton. I found him in fiction and nonfiction both, but decided to read The Man Who Was Thursday, a fiction selection, first.

Then, I just browsed the aisles, up and down, like a supermarket shopper looking for bargains, or in this case, interesting covers. Often I had my fourteen-book limit within minutes. I carefully balanced the stack as I walked to the checkout counter. I took my glorious time pedaling home.

In later years, the college library was my bookstore. I would go to the first class meeting, grab the syllabus, and dart to the library to check out the books. I could not afford tuition and textbooks, so if I was quick, I could gather most of the volumes I needed and simply keep them for the semester. If I renewed my checkout in two weeks, another student would have inevitably put a hold on my books. The simplest way was just to keep them for the semester, or until I was sure I did not need them anymore. I would return them right before my records were put on hold and pay the miniscule fines. A one hundred dollar book might cost me five-fifty for the semester.

Another favorite activity during my college years was to enter the library when I had a few hours to kill and simply pick a shelf and start reading. Often I could carry this out over several visits in bouts of serial reading. In this way, I could exhaust an author or a subject, and literally, I would never run out of subjects. One day, I might read all the Paris Review interviews with writers. The next time, I might look through the portfolios of the major painters of the twentieth century.

The last time I spent an enormous amount of time in the library was more than ten years ago. My wife took some weekend graduate classes at a small college, and I would go along and spend the entire weekend in the library. The stacks were kept on lower basement floors in dank shelving that needed better lighting. I would search through the books and bring my finds to the first floor reading room, an area with floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the canyons and hills surrounding the campus. Again, I was in heaven.

On other floors of this particular library were reading rooms that were dedicated to local authors who had donated their books and papers to the library. Often, these were small rooms with huge reading tables surrounded by shelves and file cabinets. I could close the door and be undisturbed in my study for eight hours or more. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes, even now, across the years of memory.

Therefore, it was with great trepidation that amongst the numerous articles and pictures of the wildfires in the newspaper this week, I read about the growing violence in public libraries in Los Angeles. At the Mark Twain branch in south Los Angeles, six men punched and stomped a man until he was “bloody, shirtless and barely conscious,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “His blood was splattered on the wall and floor. A discarded razor blade was found nearby.”

Library officials are now in the position of asking city law enforcement for help. The Mark Twain attack was not the only crime in the library. “At the Jefferson branch, six windows were smashed this month by gang members seeking a man inside,” according to the article. “At the Exposition branch, an August shooting outside the library’s main door prevented patrons from leaving until security arrived.” The worst part of this is the impact on young people, children whose only source for books is the public library. The article talks about “a principal at a charter school [who] sent a letter to parents, urging students not to go to the Hyde Park-Miriam Matthews Public Library because children were being ‘taunted, harassed and intimidated’” by other children. Firecrackers and incendiary devices have also been used at several branches, and a man overdosed on drugs at the Central Library downtown. Now, plans are underway to beef up security at all branches.

Recently, I went to my local branch of the public library system. Monday through Thursday, the library opens between 10:00 AM and noon, and closes at 8:00 PM. Friday and Saturday, the hours are from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Sunday, the library is closed. I think the library should stay open until nine or even ten in the evening. Definitely, the place should be open on Sundays. That is the day most people have free to pursue reading.

Inside the library, I was surprised to find that computers had replaced shelving. Internet access seemed to be what patrons demanded these days in the libraries, and books were no longer a priority.

“Today’s libraries…are experiencing an increased level of tension because they have become places where people gather to use computers,” according to the Times article. The librarians say that there are not enough staff members to monitor computer use and still do traditional library activities with books. “Computers have helped fuel an explosion in library usage,” said John L. Mitchell, the author of the Times piece. He goes on to catalogue more of the recent troubles. “In the North Hollywood branch, two people were discovered having sex on the floor in the women’s restroom. At the Cahuenga branch in Hollywood, a patron said he saw a man masturbating. Patrons at the Westchester-Loyola branch said they saw a man viewing nude pictures of underage boys on the Internet. Empty syringes were found in the restroom at the Venice branch…A bench outside the Mark Twain branch was removed after it became a hangout for prostitutes.”

Clearly, libraries can be added to the list of things that are no longer what they once were. I was not impressed with my local branch. The books were outdated and in poor condition. The entire library, with the exception of the computers, seemed in need of an upgrade. However, even in the library of my youth, the resources were limited. I remember hearing that this was because of the Proposition 13 property tax initiative that cut homeowners’ taxes at the expense of city services. This is why I made the jump to college libraries and never looked back. I outgrew the public entity.

The last time I was in a college library, I was under whelmed as well. There were more books and resources, but the place was not the cleanest, and a number of student-patrons were sleeping, talking loudly, or at the least, seemed unaware of library etiquette.

I even journeyed back to that small college in the canyons where I had enjoyed so many pleasant weekend reading sojourns. The place had been completely remodeled. The reading room remained, but the smaller rooms had been demolished for one huge open floor of computers with Internet access. The stacks were now hinged shelves that collapsed against the wall. One could page through them like some kind of huge book. The lighting was still insufficient. The majority of the collection was placed in storage and could be retrieved upon request. Most students seemed to be focused on the computers, however, and several signs encouraged students to seek texts and references online.

These days, I no longer pedal my bicycle anywhere, which might account for my weight problem. As for books, I buy them now, and I have filled my house to the breaking point. Any time a nonreader comes to visit, he inevitably asks if I have read all of the books that line the walls and every available space in my home. No, I tell him. I have far more books than I will be able to read in a lifetime, and although I miss those library days, that is the way I like it.

As for the library violence, may be it is the inevitable evolution of our declining society. It is definitely a sign that American culture is moving in the wrong direction.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Today, it appears that southern California is exploding in fire. One of the casualties is this structure in Malibu known as Castle Kashan, home of philanthropist Lilly Lawrence. I took this photo a year ago in October of 2006 from the Serra Retreat facility across the canyon from the castle.

In recent years, no area of the world has been spared natural disasters. Fires and earthquakes are the realities of living in California. Still, it is devastating to watch homes burn, human beings in jeopardy, and even animals fleeing for their lives. It is just one more reminder of the fragility of our existence.

Thoughts On The PSAT

This weekend, my eleventh grade students took the PSAT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. Most of them were very nervous. Some realized that this is only the beginning for crucial standardized testing that will determine their futures. PSAT leads to SAT. Then there are the AP tests, the subject SAT tests, and before they take their first college courses, there will be placement tests in English and mathematics. No wonder many of them are depressed and anxious with fatigue.

In the Los Angeles Times dated October 18, 2007. Seema Mehta examined the test and the hysteria. According to her article, “After The First Try, Put Those Pencils Down,” “the SAT is viewed by guidance counselors and college admissions officials as a vital step on students’ paths to college. And for the students who achieve the highest scores, doing well on the PSAT can lead to tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships—in this year’s freshman class at USC, 140 students each received nearly $18,000 in annual scholarships from the university based largely on their PSAT scores.”

So the PSAT does not really count towards admissions to college. In fact, admissions officials will not even see the scores. The PSAT is about National Merit Scholarships. For most students, the exam will be a first practice for the SAT. To a few, it may mean some money.

“‘The main importance of the PSAT is really to give students a dry run before they take the SAT,’ said Heather Keddie, director of college counseling at Sage Hill, a private school.” Mehta quotes extensively from Ms. Keddie throughout the article.

The article really addresses a growing phenomenon in education regarding the PSAT: taking the test repeatedly and using test preparation courses and tutors to get ready for it. Evidently, it is now common for students to take the PSAT numerous times. This really is not necessary, as colleges do not see the scores. The SAT is the test students should take multiple times, not the PSAT.

Mehta quotes Keddie again: “Test prep is big business and I think a lot of our students do it. We urge them to take the PSAT and the SAT one time before going into any kind of test prep, and we suggest they do [test prep] in the summer before their senior year so it doesn’t interfere with classes or having an actual life.”

Mehta also seeks out Timothy Brunold, director of admissions to USC for his thoughts on the situation. He makes it clear that there is no point in students making a career out of taking and retaking the exams. He would rather the students engage in “some meaningful activity” instead.

I do hope my students do well on the exam. These days, college is so expensive that even a student with resources feels the pinch. Therefore, if the PSAT leads to financial aid for college, this is even more reason why I hope my students do well.

Realistically, however, this is just one more gear in the mechanization leading to college and a profession. The bottom line is that the test never ends. We must always demonstrate our worthiness to have that job, to get that scholarship, to achieve that degree. Unfortunately, many of these steps in life come with tests.

Although I think my students are placed under too much stress, and that even worse, the wrong things are being stressed, I recognize the necessity of these hurdles in life. I do wish the PSAT and SAT could be abolished for more meaningful ways of assessing college readiness. Written essays demonstrate critical and analytical thinking. A personal interview could reveal a student’s maturity. A resume and letters of recommendation often indicate a student’s past achievement and ability.

In the end, it will all boil down to a test, a performance. No matter how much work I put my students through, no matter how demanding my class might be, I cannot take the test for them, nor can I guarantee success. I can only prepare them for what is to come, and stand behind them, win or lose. In this way, teachers are like parents. It is wrong to try to do the work for them. All we can do is offer our support and hope they do well.

This weekend, my thoughts are with my students. I am also contemplating the long road ahead of us. Right now it seems that road never ends.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Tangent

In my classes, I sometimes get off on a tangent. It is easy to do in literature and writing class because one major aspect of analysis is trying to connect what is being read to contemporary culture, our lives and experiences, or to the history of the author and the historical period during which she created the work.

This year, I am trying to allow for tangents while simultaneously being aware of the through-line in the lesson. I believe my students are still sometimes a bit unclear as to what will be important later on the test. Some will ask me if the story I told relating to my own road in life in response to Robert Frost’s “Two Roads” will be part of the test. I am using my story as a way of connecting to the poem, I tell them. They must find their own stories in their lives that allow them to connect with Frost’s insights.

Tangents come from two distinct places for me. One, I like story. I find that a mere stating of facts does not make the subject real for me as a learner. A story seems to cement the point for me. If someone can construct a narrative that illustrates that the means determines the end rather than the end justifies the means, I am hooked. I actually believe that human beings crave stories. We are addicted to them. Even now, in an age when fiction has lost a little luster, and more nonfiction books are being published than ever before, the facts are most often published as a narrative. If you ask someone on the street what is most interesting, the facts of the Vietnam war—casualties, major battles, dates, significant players, political background—or a narrative of what it was like to be present at the fall of Saigon, I believe most people would opt for the man-on-the-streets-of-Saigon piece. This is why the teaching of history now includes cultural, literary, and personal elements alongside facts and figures. If the writers of history textbooks begin their research with diaries, letters, journals, and source documents, why is the result so dry and dull? If we get out of the textbooks and read I.F. Stone, David McCullough, William Manchester and David Halberstam, I think history would have a much broader appeal. Why? Because these writers write history as a narrative, not as a recitation of dry facts.

The second source of tangents in my teaching comes from Robert Chianese. Chianese taught English at my college. I took two or three course from him, and all of them changed my life. To look at my grades, one would not know this. At the time, I was working a full time job and attending school with a full load of units. I worked Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from eight in the morning to five or six in the evening. Tuesday and Thursday, as well as at night, I went to school. In the remaining few free hours, I studied, read, wrote papers, and tried to keep the apartment picked up. I burned the candle at both ends, and in the middle. I caught pneumonia, bronchitis, ringworm, stomach flu, and assorted viral and bacterial infections. I could never get enough sleep. As a result, my grades were miserable Cs and to anyone who witnessed my educational performances, I seemed like a real dunce.

I sat in the back of Chianese’s class near the heater, because I was always cold. Often during the class, I struggled to stay awake, and usually lost the battle. Once, my head tilted back so far that I struck a solid blow to the metal heater grate immediately behind me resulting in a loud gong that echoed throughout the classroom and brought everyone’s attention. Chianese just glared at me.

Even though his class was literature—Victorian and nineteenth century—after we analyzed the text, Chianese would take us off into tangential areas of culture and history. He had this remarkable was of connecting something written 150 years ago to current events happening, quite often, that very day. It was in his class that I recognized the inter-connectedness of all things. Art is not created in a vacuum; critics who believe the work is all that matters are missing key details. History, personal stories, cultural events, current situations all matter within the context of literature. I learned that from Chianese.

I could not see a film, go to a museum, pick up a newspaper, without hearing his voice connecting what I saw with Charles Dickens, or Kate Chopin, or Emily Dickinson. His work in the classroom was a revelation, and even though I appeared to be half-asleep, he changed my world. He made me a teacher, long before I knew I was.

There is a happy ending to this story. In education, the good you do often becomes apparent years later. Some of my teachers are dead now. They have no idea that the sleepy kid in the back of the room turned out to be a passionate teacher. Chianese got a chance to know the good he did all those years ago.

I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities one summer, and I needed a mentor or guide for my study. Since I would be studying utopias and their presence in literature, and Chianese had written extensively about them, I contacted him to ask him to be my mentor. He was quite surprised when I walked into his office one afternoon. I could tell when he put my face to the name on his answering machine, that I was the last person he expected to see. We had a good talk, and I was finally able to tell him why my performance in his class was underwhelming all those years ago. I did not get the grant, but I was very happy to be able to set the record straight for him and tell him that I had followed in his footsteps and become a teacher.

Therefore, I allow myself the tangents. I believe in the power of the tangent. If we get off track, if we do not finish the lesson in the time allotted, I no longer sweat it. My mentor teacher, a nun, in a Catholic school twenty-one years ago, used to tell me “We teach children, not curriculum.” Experience has demonstrated the truth of her statements.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote. I would add that we tell ourselves stories in order to learn, to appreciate, to feel, to make real. In the classroom, I follow a plan, a curriculum, and I try to do the plan justice. Nevertheless, if a tangent invites me, like the road less traveled, I am likely to take it. One never knows where it my lead, or the connections we might stumble upon, and that might make all the difference.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Our Children, Ourselves

What are we doing?

In the last few weeks, there have been a number of articles about school and college that have moved me from anger to sadness.

In The New York Times, dated September 19, 2007, writer Patrick Cohen detailed the debate in American colleges about ending the SAT, the test students take to determine acceptance to, or rejection from universities. Social scientist Charles Murray is in the middle of the fray, authoring an article advocating abolishing the test. Murray is the co-author, with Richard J. Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve (1994).

“Unlike other critics of the SAT, Mr. Murray does not see the test as flawed, nor does he think that the wealthy have an unfair advantage because they can buy expensive coaching,” Cohen writes. But he does believe the test “is rigged to favor the rich.”

Murray’s article was first published in the conservative magazine, The American. He claims this view is just an extension of ideas he espoused in his earlier book.

Murray’s ideas are not so far fetched. Many college admissions departments will rank high school grades and standardized subject test scores as better predicators of success in college, according to the Times article.

My students nearly all take some kind of SAT prep course in the eleventh grade year, and even into senior year, to achieve the highest score possible on the exam. This is in addition to Advanced Placement exams, application writing workshops, and even special individual college counseling coaches. The expense must be enormous, and God pity the poor student who cannot afford such amenities. Does anyone get into college the old fashioned way—by earning a seat through study and hard work without the expensive payout for resources and individual coaching? Not that these students are not working hard, but they also have access to resources most economically poor students only dream about.

Murray has broken down the higher education situation in this country to four, what he calls, simple truths: “ability varies; half of all children are below average; too many people go to college; and the future depends on how the gifted are educated.”

I agree that student ability varies. Recognizing the different strengths of students in a classroom is one of the joys of teaching. Realizing the various limitations of students in the classroom and trying to help overcome them is the job of the teacher.

Grades are inflated. C is the new F. B is a C, and an A is still gold. It’s graduate school in fifth grade. I must send home a deficiency notice if a student has a C- or less. C by definition is average, so a C- means slightly below average. In any crowd, there is a large group in the center—the average—and a few on the top and bottom. Nowadays, we are placing the majority up in the B range, so most students are told they are above average. If a student is a C-, she is deficient.

Based on the inflated grades, too many people might get into college when they should not. But I would argue that in a democracy, the opportunity to receive an education should be given to everyone. I do not think we should even charge tuition. Now if a student cannot make the grade in the class, then that is the end of the road. The opportunity might be granted to everyone, but one must meet the standard to keep that opportunity.

As for number four, I believe the future of our country depends not on how well the gifted are educated, but how well we educate everyone. Gifted kids excel whether I am present as a teacher or not. They are driven. They are motivated. Often, I just have to get out of the way and let them run with it and they learn. The challenge is to get the kid who is average, or even below average, and get him to rise above. I tell my principal often: the best teachers should work with average or below average students. They need the inspiration, the encouragement, the expertise of the veteran teacher.

Although Murray seems like a bit of an outsider with some of his points, I believe there is good reason to look at the successes and failures of the SAT.

The next series of articles made me mad.

First there was the College Issue of The New York Times Magazine, published on September 30, 2007. There are many highlights and lowlights in that issue, so here are just a few.

An interview with the Education Conservancy’s Lloyd Thacker reveals that schools now “want more applicants so they can turn down more applicants. Selectivity is a factor in the rankings.” Thacker is referring to college and university rankings as listed in U.S. News & World Report. Thacker goes on to say that colleges now follow the “business model,” which means “trying to get as many people as possible interested in a product and only selling it to a few.” So colleges can sit back and collect those application fees and the more students they reject, the more prestigious they become in the rankings.

Another piece by Rick Perlstein compares college students of the 1960s with those of today. He interviews a first year student who tells him that people in his class “are so insanely uncreative, and they are proud of it.” It is as if they have “had to spend their entire high school experience studying for the SATs or something and didn’t really get a chance to live life or experience things.”

I find that my students now, in high school, lack creativity. It is not their fault. They are given little time for creative thinking. Everything is about numbers—G.P.A., SAT scores, AP scores—there is not a moment left. We make a lot of noise about “thinking outside the box,” a cliché almost the first time it was uttered, but how much of this creative thinking is really required or utilized in the classroom?

Susan Dominus profiles two students who are preparing their application materials for college. The pressure on both and their parents is remarkable. One is “quiet and formal when she’s feeling shy,” but is “quick and witty…when in the right company—her family, for instance, or anyone else who will catch her Oscar Wilde quotes and P.G. Wodehouse jokes and Shakespeare references.”

The other has a 4.0 average or better, is co-editor of the newspaper, scored a 2200 on the SAT, was co-captain of the cross-country team, and took college courses in German.

Who are these people? Are they kids? Were they ever kids?

I have great respect for their accomplishments, but I am wondering what the cost will be. There must be a cost for all this perfectionism, perfect scores, perfect grade point averages, perfect application letters, flawless essays, all night study sessions, the tight wire lifestyle of knowing that you are one screw-up, one low grade, from cascade failure. What are we doing to our children? Everyone makes mistakes. What’s more, everyone is allowed a mistake occasionally. We are only human, unless we are applying for college in a few years.

I blame parents. Every day for twenty years, I have seen it. Parents live their lives vicariously through their children. They will be the success the parent was not. The child will play baseball better, get better grades, become a virtuoso pianist, go to the best college, marry the perfect spouse, have perfect children, and then start the process all over again.

Life is going to deal us setbacks. It will force us into a hole. Life is hard, and it is even harder, in life, to be perfect. Again and again and again, it is how you recover from mistakes, from failure, from the obstacles life gives you, that determines who you are—your character. If you never fail, what do you learn? I can safely say I have never learned anything from an A grade. May be, I learned how to keep getting the A for a while. But I learned volumes from failure. It is a great teacher.

Yeah, your kid didn’t go to Harvard. He had to go to junior college and claw his way to the top of the class in order to claim the seat at that decent state university where he had to excel and fight and struggle to become third in his class in order to get into that graduate school on the east coast, not Harvard, but that school that sits across the river from Harvard and receive a Masters in order to get that mid-level job at the moderate-sized firm in New Jersey. What a disappointment!

But he lived a good life. He had friends. He raised children. Made a good marriage, brought joy to others, read some good books, danced with his wife at his high school reunion, loved others, including his parents. Hey, the kid will turn out all right. Let him live.

Our children are not us. They have their own lives to discover. You cannot give them yours to do over. You can give them everything, or give them nothing. Who they become is for them to find. I have seen parents give their children everything. I have seen parents abandon their children. We can only hope. It is all up to the child and the road she decides to take.

The final article was from the Los Angeles Times, dateline October 9, 2007. It is called “All Dressed Up and Ready For School.” It begins: “After waiting at the corner of 4th Street and Towne Avenue for 96 hours and five minutes, Quentella Robinson and her two children were among the first to enter when the gates opened Monday morning—while behind them stood about 4500 people in a line stretching three blocks.”

Ms. Robinson, her children, and 4500 others were in line to receive donated clothing and school supplies given away, as they are each year, by the Fred Jordan Mission. She drove three hours from Bakersfield for the giveaway.

These kids most certainly won’t have money for special SAT training, or workbooks to drill AP mandated skills, nor will they be able to employ individual college counselors to help them get into the college of their choice. But I am positive beyond all reason, that in that three block line were future graduates of some of the magnificent universities of this great country, doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, teachers, captains of business and industry, lovers, parents, friends, and yes, decent human beings. And that last one is the lost and unappreciated reason why we hunger to learn in the first place. We did not seek knowledge to score a perfect 2400 on the SAT. That is just stupid.