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.

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