Archive | January, 2013


18 Jan



Remembering Their Spirits

18 Jan

As millions of other people have, also, I’ve been thinking of the victims of mass shootings in our schools. I don’t know how the survivors get over something like that, and my heart goes out to the children who died, and to their families, and to all the people who knew them and loved them, and who still are filled with love that no longer has anyplace to go.

But my heart goes out to the desperate and the hopeless too, who committed those acts of violence. What happened to them, to put them on such a horrific path?

I have been a teacher all my adult life, and even, in many ways, as a child. I feel as if, as long as I can remember, I have been aware of those who have been excluded, and ridiculed, and sneered at, ignored, left out, and abandoned. I know I hardly understand these situations at all, but I see THESE people as victims too, and I would like to understand better than I do what their choices were–earlier, and how they handled them, what other children saw, and how they responded, what parents realized, and when, and what action they took, and why.

I would also like to understand what enables people to survive achingly lonely and deeply painful experiences–with their spirits intact–because I know that some, perhaps even many, DO. Are they “just lucky”? Did some kind and loving person notice them, reach out to them, do or say SOMETHING to make a difference? If so, what? And the others, the ones who continued to despair–what became of THEM–and why?

Did some have only themselves to serve as parent, sibling, and friend? Did some receive kindness and care too late? Was there not enough of it? Was it not sustained enough? Understood enough? Seen for what it was? Was there a point where despair was too large and hope too small? Was ambivalence too frightening and too painful to hold onto any longer?

It seems as if we are surrounded by resources, but so many of us remain silent, and do not come forward to share what we believe, and know, and have seen and have experienced, and reflected on.

I fully agree that we need to study HEALTH and RESILIENCE more than we do. By “study,” I don’t just mean formally, in school. I don’t mean that we need more people with advanced academic degrees–though, of course, we might. I mean, mostly, I think we need to behave differently in our PERSONAL, not just our professional, lives. And, perhaps, “study” is not the right word to use. I mean, just quiet reflection, maybe even journaling, for a start–solitary walks, during which we reflect on these things, quiet conversations, in which we share some of our most tentative insights, our most troubling experiences, which we usually,from lack of trust, or, for other reasons, keep to ourselves. Perhaps it is because we are such strangers to each other that we remain silent when there is such a great need for us to speak, and we turn away, when there is such a need for us to listen, not just with our minds, but with our hearts.

I was raised in a violent home, where adults hit, and punched, and slapped, and sneered, and yelled, and where real dialogue, at least in the years in which I was there, did not go on. From about the age of two and a half, I became what I now call “a watcher.” I tried to anticipate when the next violent episode would occur, and what might trigger it. I tried to look for safe places to put myself. The first safe place I found was school, but I saw, even in first grade, that that was not a thouroughly safe place; it was just relatively safe. I do not remember any kind adults in my first-grade year, but I do remember one in second grade. I remember the school principal as an authoritarian, unreasonable bully, who harshly reprimanded small children for such minor offenses as, in my case, drinking out of a drinking fountain that was, I learned, reserved for children who were older than I was. I did not “talk back” to him, but I remember looking at his eyes, and thinking that he was an unreasonable,foolish, and inconsiderate man for having arbitrary rules such as that. It was clear to me that he saw himself as a disciplinarian, and not as a kind and thoughtful person who wanted to understand the situation. I drank out of the “middle” drinking fountain because I was quite tall for a first-grader. I felt very foolish for obeying him and moving over to the lower fountain, and bending myself double to reach the water, but I did it, because I was afraid he would report my disobedience to my father, who was, I knew, a lot more authoritarian and unreasonable than he was.

That was the last time I submitted to authoritarian behavior that I questioned. After that, I questioned everything, no matter what the consequences were. When adults lied, I pointed it out to them. When they punished someone unfairly, I called that to their attention. When I thought another child was unfairly attacked, I spoke out on their behalf, and also, on my own, and looked for ways to let that child know that I “saw,” and I was thinking about him, or her. Sometimes, such as when a sibling was forced to eat food that made him sick to his stomach, I offered to eat that food for him. At other times, we, the children, got together and planned how we might respond in similar situations in the future. One of the ideas we had was to introduce humor into the situation. Sometimes this approach was, to our great relief, very successful.

In our neighborhood, there were some children we were not allowed to play with. They were always those who had a reputation for “getting in trouble” at school. One boy, for example, was said to have ridden his bicycle down the empty hallway of the junior high. I thought this might have been a delightful thing to do, but I, myself, would never have done it. I wanted to go to that child and ask him what it was like to whiz down the hall without any obstacle in his path. It did not seem to me that he was doing it on a dare, or just to be defiant. It seemed to me he was doing it to experience freedom. Maybe I was mistaken. I never found out. But, later, that boy was arrested for stealing. I often wondered what else he had done, and if we, his neighbors, might have helped him avoid the life he ended up in.

Now, as an adult, over and over, even in college, I have had entire classes of what administrators and other teachers referred to as “trouble-makers,” or, as others might refer to them, as students who “just wanted attention.” I LOVE students who want attention. I love their energy. I love their spirits. I love their imaginations. I love their humor. I love their ability to see themselves as they are. I love their courage to try something new. I love their willingness to take some risks in order to let me know what they think, and why they think it. I love their willingness to be vulnerable if they decide I have earned their trust. My mind and heart are full of particular stories about these very particular people, and I rejoice that I remember them so clearly at the age of seventy. I took a lot of risks on their behalf too, and did my best to let them know me, and to encourage them to let me know, and reach, them. I am grateful for all of them. They enriched my life in many, many ways, and it’s largely because of them that I became the unconventional teacher I became.

I, also, in my college teaching, and in my many longitudinal projects in the public schools,encountered students who went farther than the others–students who had issues with drugs and alcohol, students who spent time in jail or prison, students who, I think, at least at times, WANTED to trust me, and others, but who could not, or who chose not to. I worked with some of them while they were in prison, and, in one case, the prison released a student to my custody for a weekend, so that he could experience college life, apply to college, and have somewhere to go that stood a chance of being constructive, once he had served his prison time. He did enroll in our college, for at least a few terms, but then left. I don’t know what became of him, although I have tried to find out.

Throughout my college-teaching years, I encountered many students who were very angry about their lives, and others who were overwhelmed to the point that they considered suicide. It seemed to me at the time that there was really nothing in place in “the system” that was wise enough, and insightful enough, and large enough to meet the emotional needs of such students. It seemed to me that their home lives did not offer them what they needed either. Many of them declined counseling. What students have always said, under those conditions, is that they just want to feel that someone cares, and that caring is what motivates them to listen and to help.

Volumes are written about what caring is, and how it works. It is not possible to explore such complex issues here. As a result of my teaching and learning life, I believe there is a very great need for masses of people to learn and practice empathy. In my seventy years, I would say that empathy is so rare in our society that it is almost unheard of. I think it is possible that most people do not even know what it is, and have not ever distinguished between empathy and sympathy, or empathy and pity, and do not notice that sympathy and pity fail to offer the encouragement and healing that are so necessary. As a society, I think, we need to go far beyond them in our search for a less violent, and less adversarial way of life. Perhaps there are ways that our schools can become more humane and insightful and meaningfully engaged places, where both children and adults can thrive. It would be encouraging to see dialogue across the country that focuses on how to transform our schools–and our families and communities–into the kinds of places we so desperately need them to be.

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12 Jan

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12 Jan


The Nine Lives of the Five-Paragraph Theme

12 Jan

Many of us brave, young, idealistic English professors in the 1960’s assumed we had ridiculed the five-paragraph theme to its death in our first years of college teaching.  We thought of it as a sort of disease of the mind that had been passed around by high school literature teachers who were not, never had been, and never would be writers themselves, but who had been forced by sadistic administrators to teach writing every semester of their lives, with only a token literature class tossed their way now and then to keep them from taking jobs in industry, where the pay, the working conditions, and the fringe benefits were better, and where workers were allowed to have home lives that did not require them to do lesson plans and grade themes every waking hour of their day.

I don’t know how it is in other states, now that I am “retired,” but here in Washington, my home state, the five-paragraph theme and its little sibling, the five-sentence paragraph, are still  taught as THE way to write, and THE mark of an “educated” high school graduate, and are part of the battery of state tests that are required by the other Washington to keep  federal funding headed our way.

A pity we can’t stand on rooftops or hilltops and signal from hill to hill, across the country, that this disgraceful, ridiculous, senseless war is over, and we need to move ON.  Why DON’T WE?

I stood up in my empty living room and cheered when I listened to my first TED talk not long ago, and heard Sir Ken Robinson say that schools had killed creativity by educating children OUT of it, and when he quoted Picasso’s often-quoted remark that children are ARTISTS, and the problem is how we can remain artists once we grow up.

Well, it’s a nice, cold Saturday morning, here in western Washington. Sunlight is reflected in the water outside my window, dogs bark, crows share their emphatic messages, and I am going to try to share mine: The five-paragraph theme is a dead form, and to teach it as the only way or the main way all children in all English classes, in all schools, in all states should write if they want to consider themselves, and be considered, educated is DEAD WRONG.

Now, of course, many other things are dead wrong too, and life is short, and  my life is shorter than most, as I am already seventy, pushing seventy-one, and I still have a long to-do list, but this is near the top of my 2013 list.

I am not saying that we should violently attack the poor defenseless thing. It’s not ITS fault that it’s held in such mindlessly high regard by legislatures and legislators, and some administrators, whose writing is duller than pea gravel. It’s not ITS fault that millions of parents and children assume that they are not good writers because they themselves can’t and never could get interested in producing five-paragraph themes and five-sentence-paragraphs. I’m sure it never imagined that it would be held in such high esteem by anyone. Probably, it expected to be tossed into a wastebasket in some dilapidated, old factory on the East Coast somewhere and dumped unceremoniously into the incinerator, or carted off to the nearest recycling place, or piled into a landfill with all the other things we should neither keep nor burn–until archaeologists start digging there a couple thousand years from now to see what human existence was like in the twenty-first century.

Well, how did this relic become part of the standard curriculum? I suspect it, like so many other aspects of schools, as Sir Ken Robinson suggests, came along with factories, with the industrial revolution, with attempts to “educate” everyone just enough to fit into the factory system and not question much of anything.  They needed a lot of docile, unimaginative workers, back then, workers who would do what they were told, over and over and over, until,they, like the machines, just wore out and had to be replaced by something or someone that behaved as they had behaved all their lives, and who thought, or hoped, as little about his or her  talents and interests and rightful place in the scheme of things.

Most schools, I’m sure, were not expected to be creative places; they were expected to be UNcreative, UNimaginative, docile, obedient, dull beyond dull.

I sat in on two classes, the other day, that were preparing for a practice test like the state test, in the five-paragraph, five-sentence format, something fewer than half the class members had mastered. Shortly before that, I sat in on the same classes, and was able to do one of my own activites with them. These were children I had worked with most weeks out of every month for the better part of a year, as a volunteer (I volunteer because I have a Ph. D., with three decades of college-teaching, twenty-two years of longitudinal projects in public schools in Pennsylvania, and fifteen years of similar projects in Washington but, by choice, no B.A. or B.S. from a college of education) .  “Is English Pain–or Pleasure?”,  I had asked these students, as I have asked all my college classes, and countless other individuals and groups for decades.  Almost all of them  said “Pain.” Almost all of them had the same reason: “Too much stress, too much pressure about finishing assignments, about grades, about tests, about the state tests coming up.” This is what almost all students of all ages have told me for the last forty-some years.

Their teacher was frustrated, of course. She, like so many others, is expected  to “teach to the test.” SHE is being evaluated by her students ‘ test scores, as are her principal, and her school, and her district, and her state.

“What about the five-paragraph , five-sentence mode gives them the most trouble?” I asked their teacher.  “Well,” she said, “they can’t remember to keep their own opinions out of their paper. They can’t remember that they are to read the paragraphs they are assigned and find all their evidence in THERE. They don’t know how to INFER things, based on what’s there.” One boy, she said, always wants to ask questions. His hand is up all the time.  “Why is that?” I asked. “It’s because he just wants attention,” she told me. She said he’s been much better now, since she told him he could only ask three questions per class period, including “May I go to the bathroom?”

A few minutes later, I spoke to this boy, who had written only half a dozen words in the half hour the class had had to write. There were no commas between words, and they did not add up to a complete sentence. The paragraph they were to write was to be  about  attractions in Yellowstone National Park. 

 “Have you ever BEEN there?” I whispered. He hadn’t. “Do you know what a geyser is?” He didn’t.  “Can you picture the park in your mind?” He couldn’t. “Is there anyone you would like to tell this information to?”  No. “It’s really frustrating, isn’t it,” I whispered sadly, “When  the thing you have to write about doesn’t feel real at all.” He nodded. “Wouldn’t it be neat,” I asked, “If we didn’t have to write? If we could just hook up our brains to the computer, and close our eyes, and let our brains put their thoughts on the paper all by themselves?” “Yeah,’ he said softly, looking directly into my eyes.

“I’ve been to Yellowstone several times,” I told him.  “That geyser is called Old Faithful, because it has its own timetable. The people who work there know what it is. It’s amazing. I pointed to the black and white picture of Old Faithful in his text.  “You see how it poufs up like that?” I asked. “Well, it doesn’t always DO that. Sometimes, for quite a while, nothing is happening that people can see. It looks like there’s just this huge circular fence around nothing. There’s a little sign posted near there that says, say, ‘2:45.’ About two thirty-five, people start lining up around the fence. More and more people come. They’re from all over the world–parents, children, grandparents–a huge crowd of people. At exactly 2:45, a little pouf comes out, then more, then more, then a couple HUGE poufs, then smaller, then smaller, then nothing.  All the people go away–and they put up a new time. A crowd forms again. It’s like that every day, all year long, year after year. It’s amazing that it’s so regular.”

“There’s probably a machine in there,” he said.

“There’s NOT!” I said. “It’s NATURE!  I’ll bring you a couple pictures of it, next time I come.

Pain–Or Pleasure?

7 Jan

I was a college English professor for thirty-one years, and took early retirement in 1996 to write about my approach to teaching and learning. (See my “Pennsylvania book,” Helping Kids Hope: A Teacher Explores the Need For Meaning In Our Schools and In Our Lives (Scarecrow Education Press, 2003) and my “Washington book,”  Shine In Your Own Way: Inspiration For Parents of Failing Kids (Down-To-Earth Books, 2008).

In spite of what Sir Ken Robinson says in his first TED Talk,  the fact that I am a woman does not make it easy for me to multi-task. It might have made a difference when I was a child, because, then, I had no idea how to learn the things I felt I most needed to learn. Except for sixth grade, when a few classmates and I were, miraculously, set free from classroom learning, school learning was not about meaningful learning, for the most part. No teacher ever asked me, or, as far as I knew, asked  anyone else, “What would you like to learn today, and why would you like to learn it?”

No, there was, as one of the sixth graders in my ten-year project said, “a horrible curickleeum worm” that attacked children in every school in the world. “People all over the world,” he said, “were eating, killing, squishing,  and smashing them all over the place.” Curickleeums were “a menace to society,” he said.  They strangled people, crawled up their legs, bit them, and tore up pizza parlors and baseball  fields. As a friend of his said, they were all  “green, slimey, goochy, and groosom.”  They ate good things like pizza and stromboli, but they also ate “green beens, peppers,  and purple and green moldy mush and dirty toenails and fingernails.”  They were all alike, he said, “except for the color of their belly button.”

This was true in my generation too, all the way from first grade through college, and even in graduate school–with just a handful of exceptions, most notably music classes, debate, and, once or twice,  art. It is, I think, quite easy to multi-task if you don’t care much about something, if you’re not devoting your heart and soul to it. We–both men and women– don’t multi-task  when our heart and soul are in what we’re doing, and that goes for children too. So–in  fourth grade I started drawing in the margins of all my lined notebook paper. I drew the students sitting next to me, I drew houses I dreamed of living in someday, I drew evergreen trees and deciduous trees, and  flowers, and abstract designs–anything to make my classrooms a pleasure and an adventure. I sat in American Literature and translated my Beowulf assignment.  I tapped my foot to music only I  could hear. Somehow, my grades remained high enough to allow me to graduate with highest honors, but I remember very little about the content of the lectures my body was present for, and, except for debate, and music, and one class session on Thoreau and Emerson (for which I requested a discussion), I never once had the opportunity to be part of a discussion class.

But, once I started teaching, it was a different story. A train could have come through the classroom, and I would not have noticed. I even dreamed once, shortly after two colleagues came to evaluate my one-of-a-kind discussion class, that two vultures attended my class, each with wings six feet long. They sat together in two vacant chairs near the door, and their wings lopped over half the desks in our circle of  old chairs and sofas from the university storage room. Students were afraid to talk, for fear that the vultures might eat them.  They couldn’t talk because they were too busy holding their breath, but I went right on, acting as if those vultures were not there. The students all heaved a heavy sigh of relief when they left. “Now we can talk again,” they said. “Now we can be ourselves.”

In my first semester at that university, I didn’t understand why my students sat there so silently day after day. They were so afraid of being wrong and making a fool of themselves that they couldn’t bring themselves to say a word. They knew it was a discussion class, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to discuss. I was new. They didn’t know if I was a vulture or not, even though I didn’t talk like one, or look like one, even though I always left the door open so they could easily escape to one of the many lecture classes down the hall.

Near the end of the spring semester, I was in a bad car accident and ended up in a body cast in a hosptial  two hundred miles from home, where I stayed until August 8th. In September, I was informed that my contract would not be renewed because I had not enrolled in a Ph. D. program that summer. “But . . .” I said, in disbelief, “I was in a body cast in the hospital. Why didn’t you inform me that my job was in jeopardy?”

“That’s the breaks,” the administrator said.  So–I requested, and received, permission to enroll in a Ph.D. program  at a school several hours away  in Jaunary–as soon as I could undergo surgery to remove the pin in my thigh.  I continued to teach full time. at my school, and went on to teach there for twenty-eight years.

I came into the classes I taught there, that fall, with a whole new perspective. “I always thought learning was a pleasure,” I told my students, “Even though it wasn’t always personally meaningful to me. I enjoyed thinking I might find out something. I enjoyed trying out new things. I really loved some of my teachers–the kind ones, the ones we knew really cared about kids. But now being a student feels like an imposition, to me. There is a curriculum I have to follow, there’s a tight time schedule, there are consequences if I don’t enroll in enough classes by a certain date. There are expenses I didn’t anticipate, and which I can’t afford. I still love teaching as much as ever, but I SO much want to choose what I learn, and when I learn it,  and how I learn it. So–I want to ask you how YOU feel about being here, in college, in an English class that’s required for graduation, that you might not  have chosen, that you might not feel you can excel in. Is English pain for you too? Or is it something you really look forward to? And how about the rest of your classes? Are you looking forward to them? Or do you dread them? Are you used to being really excited to start a new semester?  I really want to know. It would help me a lot to know. I don’t know how I can teach you anything valuable–unless I know.”

The room grew totally quiet. No one moved. No one spoke.  That was in September, 1969.  What students had to say that day changed my teaching–and my learning–for the rest of my academic life, and  affects how I approach students, even now, fifteen years or more after I “retired.” Every semester, in both literature and composition classes, even in Advanced Composition and Creative Writing, even in elective courses, almost all students told me that English classes were mostly “Pain,” and that the only pleasure they could associate with them was the pleasure of finishing them and checking them off their list of obstacles between themselves  and their graduation. This was true whether they excelled in English, or whether they were used to D’s and E’s.

What made it that way? Their lack of skill, sometimes. Their lack of confidence. Their experience with teachers past. But, mostly, the certainty that it was impossible to “be themselves” and explore their own minds, and have views their teachers didn’t share, and reasons for them that their teachers didn’t appreciate or, sometimes, even understand.

And one more thing: When they opened themselves up to new learning, they had already discovered, it often meant that they had to let go of their past assumptions and certainties, and enter territory that made them uncomfortable and apprehensive,   that even filled them with dread. It was no easy thing, those students acknowledged, to let go of the old and to open themselves to the new. They longed for something certain, something they could hold on to, something they could always believe, and be. As anyone, of any age, who has experienced such ambivalence knows, ambivalence is rarely easy.

Negative One Million

7 Jan

Negative One Million.