Tuesday, June 24, 2008
The Toughest Road
Stick a fork in this school year; it is done. I signed off on the last grade sheet after scoring the last final exam.
So let the reflection begin. What did I learn this year? How will I revise my courses and syllabi? How will I do things differently next year? What will I spend my summer doing to improve my craft?
A glimmer of an idea arrived on my doorstep in the form of the denigrated and declining Los Angeles Times, dateline June 21, 2008. In a front page story, we learned about Phil Holmes, “one of the great English teachers of his generation,” who is teaching the final years of his career at View Park Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles after thirty-five years at upper crusty Harvard-Westlake. Was he fired? No, he chose South L.A. for the students, the same students he now informs are failing the quarter.
Mr. Holmes is relentless. He demands excellence and he will stop at nothing to get it. He is a role model for teachers and an inspiration for students.
“He considers every lesson, every minute of class time, to be important,” Mitchell Landsberg, the Times staffer writes, “and, at age sixty-six, he often stays up past midnight preparing for the next day’s lessons.” Holmes leads the class in a thorough examination of an essay, even criticizing the student critics, ripping up their theories and responses, labeling arguments as “mindless.”
“The entire class was like this, Holmes leading a discussion in which no point, no word was insignificant. He could be brutal…” The students, most of whom are African-American, love and appreciate Homes’ efforts. Therefore the testimonials for Holmes’ methodologies are numerous. “I was taught to think,” says Barton H. Thompson Jr., a Stanford law professor and former Holmes student.
Landsberg writes that “Creative writing, Holmes believes, is a frill for most high school students. How many, after all, will become poets or novelists? But virtually all will need to write some form of persuasive essay, in college and in their careers. That is Holmes’ central focus.”
I studied the article and ordered the textbook from Amazon: The Uses of Argument by British philosopher Stephen Toulmin. I absorbed the mantra of Holmes’ courses: “Writing a sustained case, free of mechanical errors, in a readable style…Claim, clarification, evidence and warrant, cemented by ‘backtracking,’ a practice in which the writer re-reads and challenges his own work and answers any questions that arise.”
Next year, I must push harder. I must take the students down the toughest road. Notes will be collected frequently and graded. The syllabus will not change, I do not care how many other tests are scheduled for that day. I will pound in lessons on vocabulary, writing, grammar, critical and analytical thinking, and literature. The reading schedule will be set in stone. In short, 2007-2008 will serve as the last year I am waylaid by superficiality, triviality and distraction. There is nothing more important than the study of English in the classroom, every day, for the full hour, for the 180 school days of the year.
I will spend the summer preparing for this intensive focus. I will review every text, every note, every lesson plan, every activity. I will sharpen and refine and revise until everything shines like the sun and cuts to the point like a razor. I will redouble my efforts to teach and be the best possible teacher for my students.
And I will expect my students to be nothing less than brilliant, every day. Education is too important, and we are at a critical juncture in our cultural lives. If we do not inspire smarter students capable of thinking critically and analytically, competent with research and information technologies, able to think strategically and act decisively, then this country is doomed.
All of this will be done quietly, but with intensity and passion.
Mitchell Landsberg ends his portrait of Phil Holmes on such a note: “There are no fireworks, no speeches, no round of applause. Just this: As he walks out the door and heads to the parking lot, Phil Holmes knows that today he delivered a good lesson. He didn’t waste a second. He made the students think.”
Such will be my re-emphasized mantra for 2008-2009.