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.


  1. Dear Paul,

    I applaud your process of reflection. Reflection was the process that brought me to this work in support of our youth, and their futures, five years ago after a 30-year career in business with new products and new ventures. I discovered your site searching for a way to contact Phil Holmes.

    Our work is with the transition of high school youth to their next life step in education or the workplace, and our nonprofit is call the Segue Career Guidance Program. So many of your posts also fit for our young people. We believe that, somewhat different from the traditional model, we must motivate youth from inside themselves.

    Segue has found gold in each community in the form of the wisdom and experiences of those in the everyday workplace. Imbued with the spirit of caring mentors, these volunteer speakers come into classrooms to excite and inspire and motivate students about career paths from science to math to construction to healthcare. Students "hear" them a way they can't hear their own parents.

    Students see a path that appeals to them for a career, or they learn that more education opens more options, and they want this for themselves. These live presentations ignite in youth their own internal engines and can catapult them forward. The process is similar to when a young person wants a bicycle and the family budget cannot provide it. That youth finds a way! He/she mows lawns, walks dogs, baby-sits, washes cars. Segue is empowering to youth in a similar way, both bringing them the knowledge of what is out there and the idea that they can have it if they are willing to pay their dues and do good work.

    The Segue website is www.SegueProgram.org. Feel free to contact me anytime.


  2. Wow, this man sounds really inspiring. I think this year was rocky for everyone. I think we were all exhausted from the minute it started and we didn't do as well as we could have. Looking back at my test scores and my amount of effort i see that i really have a lot of room for improvement. I feel like i wasted a year by not putting in as much effort as i could have. I hope next year is better, and I can't wait to tackle on the tougher working habits.

  3. Ani I am sure you will excel next year as you always do. The fact that you are reflecting on things means that you are already changing. That's good.

    Mr. Martin

  4. Thanks, Jerry. I will check out your link.

    Paul L. Martin


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