Please be a teacher: A Response to Warnings and Resignation Letters

The last couple of weeks have been rough in terms of the media coverage of the teaching profession. First there was Jerry Conti’s Resignation Letter and then Randy Turner’s A Warning to Young People: Don’t Become a Teacher. 

Each article paints a bleak picture of the teaching profession today and an even bleaker picture of the role of the humanities teacher in today’s education system. As Conti writes:

I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.

First a disclaimer: I teach at an Independent School where we do not face near the number nor depth of challenges facing by my public school teaching peers.  All students of any tax bracket face struggles and ours are no different. But they come to school every day well-fed, confident of a safe home, and with the resources, technological and otherwise, to be able to focus on their studies. Furthermore, Independent School teachers have an immense amount of control over their curriculum including what content we teach and what kind of assessments we give. Standardized tests do not drive our curriculum although the SAT and AP tests are extremely important to our college admissions minded population. Certainly, we have been under a tremendous amount of pressure to adopt “21st Century” practices, but how we adopt them is not mandated by the state.

I know, mainly from my friends who do teach in public schools, my PLN on twitter, and the media that the past 10-15 years have posed tremendous challenges and that recent reform impulses  have frustrated and disheartened too many teachers. I cannot speak for their experience or to their frustration, and frankly it would be incredibly unjust and arrogant for me to even begin to try to address these concerns in this post. Instead, I am just going to outline the reasons why, despite so much evidence to the contrary, talented  young people interested in social justice should still go into teaching and why it is the most fulfilling, life affirming job anyone could choose.

I fell into teaching somewhat accidentally. Just having finished my masters in American Studies at UVA and considering law school, I was lucky to get a part time job teaching Upper School English in 2002. I was looking for a job, but what I found was my calling. And that is what teaching is, not a job or a profession, but a calling. I was lucky to find mine at an early age, and it has been, aside from my children and family, the true blessing of my life.

The sacred relationship between student and teacher based on the shared experience of learning is the main reason why despite all the negative press teaching is still one of the best and most rewarding jobs in the world. Where else could I get to spend all day talking about books, words, and ideas with students whose eyes are just opening to the possibility and importance of all of the above? What other job offers the opportunity to start over every year and a new chance to get “it” right? Where else does one spend all day being asked questions about everything from the mundane i.e. what is the assignment to the transcendent i.e. what makes a meaningful life? Every day is new and every year is new, a new chance to learn and to teach, a new opportunity to grow and develop strong, caring, intelligent, well-educated future citizens.

No one goes into teaching for the money or the accolades.  We teach to help young people realize that learning matters, that knowing your world is as important as impacting it, and that empathy is the most important of all human virtues. We teach to change the future and the present. Furthermore, we teach in America because we are patriots and as Thomas Jefferson famously stated “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

“Democracy” as FDR argued,  “simply cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” This has not changed and nothing, not the Common Core, not the well intentioned if sometimes misinformed reform movement, or the emphasis on standardized testing in public schools will or can ever change the primacy of the role education in our country.

So to those who think that teaching is just too hard or that the system is just too irrevocably broken, I say this: The “profession” as Conti suggests may not be what we want it to be right now, but the calling-that’s timeless and no disfunction in the educational system will ever destroy it.   So please future teachers everywhere, for the sake of our country, our children, and our world, become teachers. Certainly, go in with your eyes wide open. Know that you’re facing huge challenges and that one of the biggest will be societies lack of respect for the excellent work you will do. But also know this, there is no more meaningful, albeit frustrating and challenging job you could have. You may never be able to change the world of education as much as you might want. You may find yourself hopelessly frustrated with the system, but I guarantee you will change lives for the better including your own.

Pass it on: On The Importance of Owning Knowledge in the Digital Age

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Let me start by saying, I am a fan of Tony Wagner. I follow him on twitter, and I read and enjoyed his The Global Achievement Gap. He is a wise man who makes many good observations about education, but continually I have balked at his theory that owning knowledge is increasingly less important in the digital age. Recently, in a op-ed for the New York Times. Thomas Friedman quoted him as saying:

“Because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.

This sentiment is echoed throughout the modern dialog about education and exemplified in the new common core standards currently driving public school reform.  Consider this quote from The Innovation Unit:

Now that many mobile phones can access more information than is held in any library, the idea of school as the place you go to acquire knowledge is an anachronism.

Perhaps it is because I am at heart an English teacher or maybe it is just my own education, but to me the idea that we no longer need to own knowledge because we can always google the answer to any question  is depriving education and, for that matter educators and students, of soul. Of course developing 21st century skills is a vital and central part of education today, but the seeming acceptance that schools are not a place where students acquire knowledge both for its own sake and for their own edification as human beings is detrimental to the entire educational process and to our students.
Luckily, although my school is determined to educate students for the 21st century and impart 21st century skills, we have not moved away from the belief that the students do actually need to own knowledge. We are not forced simply to show children how to use the mountains of information at their finger tips. I am allowed and encouraged  to turn kids on to books, words, and histories that will inform their being and to hold them accountable for the knowledge we impart in our courses. While analysis is key and central, students are expected to leave our class knowing basic civics including the bill of rights, the separation of powers,  a few poems by heart, and the basic trajectory of all of American History. We hope they leave with more, but our goal  is to make them active, curious and engaged citizens.  To become engaged citizens, they must possess more than a device to access knowledge. They must own knowledge itself.

As Hector, the incredibly flawed yet idealistic old school teacher  from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys who believes in knowledge for its own sake, articulates:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

You can’t google that experience, and you can’t duplicate it by looking it up. You have to experience it, and you have to have teachers who help you acquire to knowledge to access that skill, that level of empathy. How can one truly know and love a poem if he/she can’t recall from memory two or three lines? How can you understand history if you don’t know some major dates and ideas without turning to wikipedia?

Another great moment in the play comes when one of the students expresses his hatred for poetry. Hector explains that what he is teaching these boys isn’t for any test. He tells them “to learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever” they need it. They are, according to Hector, “making their deathbeds.” It is because education is about so much more than test preparation and 21st century skills. It is about preparing for a life of meaning, and I do not think any student now matter how good their 21st century skills are can find that on a search engine.

So on this point, I have to respectfully disagree with Tony Wagner and his echoes. Students do need more than just schools that teach 21st century skills. They need schools to be places where they acquire knowledge. They need help “making their deathbeds” and preparing for a life of meaning.

IN DEFENSE OF THE OLD: MARKING UP TEXTS

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As a humanities teacher who regularly checks and grades my students’ texts based on how well they have marked them up, I was recently dismayed to read an article by Anna Murphy which appeared in Time Magazine seeming to denigrate the whole process of marking up a text.

 Ms. Murphy cited a comprehensive report released by the Association for Psychological Science, the authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky which argued that:

Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text….Nearly as bad is the practice of rereading, a common exercise that is much less effective than some of the better techniques you can use. …Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of “low utility.”

I am not sure how they were testing the “utility” of this skill, but it seems to me that they missed the proverbial boat. This article suggests that the study merely examined the relationship of certain reading skills including highlighting to test performance, and I would concur that as a study aid on its own highlighting/marking a text doesn’t fully prepare students for tests absent other study skills.

But marking up a text is far more than a mere study skill; it is an integral habit of lifelong learners. It is a way to engage with a text and learn to think critically. Furthermore, it is a means by which each student can keep track of his/her own thoughts and educational development. These markings provide a snapshot of what a student thought was important at a specific moment.

I think perhaps that what the study examined were students who merely highlighted and weren’t in fact engaging actively with the text. These students seem to have been using their highlighting merely to “draw attention to individual facts,” instead of using the margins to make connections both among different ideas and different texts. In short, it seems that perhaps the study examined students who really didn’t know how to mark up a text, but instead of critiquing the methodology they condemned the method itself.

Further Reading:

All Books are Coloring Books

How to Mark a Book

“Our” American Studies: An Introduction

Three years ago after a long and deliberate process, our school adopted an American Studies to replace our traditional US History and American Literature curriculum.  The inspiration for this course which currently serves 2/3 of our junior class came both from my and my co-teacher’s American Studies backgrounds and our frustration with the apparent and unnecessary disconnect between  our US History and American Literature courses. Oftentimes, students would be studying Antebellum America while reading The Great Gatsby, and students weren’t given the opportunity to see the inherent connections between the historical period of a text and the text itself. Furthermore, they seemed to see the skills they learned about close reading and critical thinking in each class as distinct and separate and only applicable to each specific discipline. In rethinking how we could best serve our students, we wanted more than just a chronological alignment of the curriculum. We wanted to give them both the tools and resources to be able to see and understand a fuller picture of how history and culture inform and are informed by each other. Furthermore, we wanted them to see that the tools of textual analysis and critical thinking apply to all kinds of texts, and we wanted to be able to serve  all of our students, both high end and struggling learners better in a heterogeneous and team-taught class.

The course we came up with integrates a variety of web 2.0 platforms, many types of texts (including readings, images, films, and songs), and different modes of learning that enable us to differentiate and meet the needs of a diverse student body.  A sample lesson might include reading Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration “To My Dear and Loving Husband” and “On the Burning of Our House”  by Anne Bradstreet while examining documents from Digital History to see points of connection and disconnection between Puritan ideals and real, lived experience. We use both traditional and 21st century types of assessments.  Students blog, write lengthy research papers on a topic of their choice related to American History, create websites about artifacts from the University of Virginia’s Special Collections, present on supreme court cases, and regularly participate in seminar discussions to name just a few of our modes of assessment.   Right now, we are currently reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (see lesson plan for the opening day) and studying the Great Depression using many different kinds of images including WPA posters and photographs.  Our students each analyzed contribution of the WPA for homework last night. Some of which can be found at our class blog.

The course continues to evolve and we continue to refine it, but we have been pleased with the success of our students of all levels. We have been able to prepare a significant number of our students to earn college credit worthy scores on the APUSH exam while at the same time helping students who had previously struggled in our former discipline specific curriculum really thrive. I could write pages and pages, and I will. Consider this post just a brief introduction to our program.