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There is nothing like a little flu to get things to snap back into perspective. When I feel sick my joints ache for the people I love. I cry easily, less because I’m sad than because of the realization of richness. How fortuitous to find myself reading Walt Whitman in the doctor’s office, when usually I read People.
And then I read David Brook’s op ed today in the Times and he repeated a line from his book, “Since people learn from people they love, education is fundamentally about the relationship between a teacher and student.” It is so easy, isn’t it?
Just bring love right into the classroom. It isn’t hard to do.
“And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery“
Walt Whitman “Song of Myself”
Eight thousand eight hundred. That is my conservative guess for how many classes I have taught at Lowell High School in the past ten years. 180 days X 5 classes per day X 10 years. I then subtracted twenty classes a year that are missed due to assemblies, testing(!), and fire drills and ended up with the number eight thousand eight hundred. And so it does seem a bit odd or dare I say, daunting, that my evaluation would be based on my supervisor’s evaluation of only one of those eight thousand eight hundred classes. I hadn’t been evaluated in ten years when SG told me he would like to come into my class. That’s cool, I thought. I mean I have been teaching 16 years and I have had all sorts of people watch me teach including student teachers, Cambodian interns, and deaf interpreters. I usually thrive on the audience; someone else to laugh at my jokes if you will. Of course, none of them was evaluating me based on one class. But I wasn’t nervous.
I became a little passive aggressive about my evaluation and decided not to do the dog and pony show lesson plan trick. I learned about this trick back at my job at Boston University (the eighties!) where I was told by colleagues that when the evaluator is scheduled to come into your classroom, you just pull out the dog and pony show lesson plan and knock his/her academic socks off. But everybody knows it is NOT really how you teach, because in a real classroom the teacher cannot plan an amazing lesson every day. And even if you did PLAN an amazing lesson every day, you couldn’t possibly DELIVER an amazing lesson every day because some days there is a technology malfunction, or you’re interrupted by the loudspeaker four times, or you have a stuffy nose. And so my passive aggressiveness came into play. I decided to show off my non-teaching strengths; one of which is to drum up $$$ to get materials and gadgets for my classroom without waiting for elusive school support. A year ago, I received funding through donorschoose.org to purchase electronic jeopardy which costs about $600 and so I asked SG to come and observe my students playing JEOPARDY! electronic style. No dog and pony show for me!
The night before my evaluation, I had a nightmare about a technology snafu during my evaluation (which btw, almost happened), and had to admit that all the passive aggressive lesson planning in the world couldn’t prevent my real emotions from coming into play. I WAS nervous about my evaluation. Although I didn’t believe my job was on the line, I did have that nagging insecurity, the demon that I have faced many times before. The demon is fraud. And it sneaks up and tells me that I have been lucky so far that nobody has discovered the truth. That I’m not very good.
And so I understood the suicide a couple of weeks ago by Rigoberto Ruelas, a teacher in a tough school in LA who was labeled as ‘less effective’ in a published report ranking thousands of teachers in the LA Times. Mr. Ruelas was a devoted teacher who reached out to troubled kids and spent weekends tutoring and making home visits. And yet what mattered, what became public, was a ranking based on standardized test scores. The demon was in the data. Right now, the data drives decisions and dredges up the demons.
Teacher evaluations are based on many sources of input. But there is always one source that seems to reign supreme and has the ability to bring us down and bring our demons up. In Mr. Ruelas’ case it was the published data based on test scores; in my case it was an observation of one class out of eight thousand eight hundred classes.
Rigoberto Ruelas may you rest in peace.
I remember being 27 and pregnant with Mia; my first child when I read a book titled “The Good Mother” by Sue Miller. Very briefly, the book is about a woman who faces losing her daughter in a custody battle. Reading that book, I realized there could be nothing worse than a child being forcibly separated from his or her mother.
I thought of that book when I viewed the memorial Trains to Death – Trains to Life at Friedrichstrasse Railway Station in Berlin. Unlike most of the memorials in Berlin, this memorial is not abstract, instead it depicts children, life-sized children, on a journey. “The monument depicts seven life-sized children on a bronze railtrack plinth. At the back, two neat children in brown bronze, their smart suitcases and violin case upright, look ahead to the West. In front, East-facing, in black bronze, are five anguished children in shabby clothes and laceless boots. Behind them is a huddle of black battered suitcases gaping empty but for a tiny naked baby doll missing one leg in the corner of one case.” (Bronia Veitch)
From November 30, 1938 to September of 1939, 10,000 children were sent by their families or sent from orphanages if their families had already been arrested to possible safety in England. Most of their parents and grandparents would be killed in concentration camps. Some of the children, such as my friend’s mother Ingrid, went to Sweden and safety. While Ingrid’s parents would never know that their daughter survived the Nazi regime, they at least knew they had made the right decision when they brought Ingrid to Friedrichstrasse station to put her on a train to Sweden in 1939. Three years later, Ingrid’s parents were among the 140,000 Jews deported to Theresienstadt. Approximately 33,000 died there, while 90,000 were sent on to extermination camps, such as Auschwitz where both of Ingrid’s parents were murdered. While 10,000 children were saved by the kindertransports, it is important to remember that 1.5 million children met a different fate during the Holocaust.
There is much more to this story; there is the complicity of the German state railway system which ran trains that eventually transported 1.5 million people to their deaths. The German state railway did apologize for their significant role in the Holocaust. But when did it apologize? A full 62 years and 7 months after the end of the war in Europe. 62 years. Our group visited another memorial at track 17 of the Grunewald S-Bahn station from which more than 50,000 of Berlin’s Jewish citizens boarded trains taking them to extermination camps. This memorial was created in 1991 and lines the platform of the railway.
On my free day in Berlin, we happened to walk by the Friedrichstrasse station and see a mother with her two children standing in front of the memorial. Her children were having their pictures taken with the ‘kinder’. The little girl put her arm around the bronze child almost unaware that her mother was taking a photo. She was just a child at play. But any mother looking at the statue can’t help but ask, would I have been good’ enough to send my child off to an uncertain fate knowing that in all likelihood I would never see my child again? Most Jewish mothers were not given this ‘choice’; their children were ripped from their arms and sent to their untimely deaths. And the kindertransports lasted but 8 months.
Why do we teach? I thought about this question while reading a blog by a newer teacher describing the oppressive nature of some school systems and the teacher oversight ala Michell Rhee and other ‘rock star reformers’ . Teaching in some urban schools has become so prescriptive that the human side of teaching, the reason most of us went into the profession, has been eliminated.
While in Berlin, I asked my two fellow study tour participants, why and if it was important to teach about the Holocaust. More specifically, I asked if it was worthwhile to teach a detailed unit on the Holocaust to secondary school students. We didn’t immediately say yes. We grappled with this as we visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Wannsee (where Heydrich and other Nazis finalized the plans for the ‘final solution’), and Gestapo headquarters. When we visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe the question became philosophical. The memorial consists of 2711 concrete pillars or stelae of varying heights. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman the memorial is large and open to the Berlin streets; it beckons the visitor to walk through the stelae. “One of Germany’s preeminent architectural critics, Heinrich Wefing [describes the memorial as] …a beautiful abstraction that does not dictate what its observer should think or experience, but is nonetheless thoughtful and moving.” (pbs.org). When I entered the memorial, I felt off-balanced and calm, but soon I saw a child and a father chasing each other through the pillars, a couple of teenagers hanging out on top of a lower concrete slab, and a girl having some glamour shots taken against the pillar. My calm was gone and my discomfort began. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this much freedom. Peter Eisenman, when talking about the uses of the memorial says “that is something I have no control over. When you turn a project over to clients, they do with it what they want — it’s theirs and they occupy your work. You can’t tell them what to do with it.” The German government has not been as free as the architect. They have covered the stelae with an anti-graffiti coating and posted rules such as no running or yelling; enforcing the rules is a bit harder. Still, the memorial is open to individual interpretation and the visitor is largely responsible for his or her own behavior within the 2711 pillars. There is no script for how a visitor should feel about the memorial or about the Holocaust. The architect has created a place of memory, but the individual must decide ‘what to do with it’.
Schools and classrooms are also guided by a philosophy. There are schools such as Waldorf Schools which try to develop the whole child. Similar schools try to create an open learning environment where students can engage freely with classmates, develop skills at their own pace, and pursue their own interests. On the other hand, we have the prescriptive learning of programs such as Balanced Literacy or Success for All, with a script for teachers to follow. Perhaps the analogy between democracy and fascism is too obvious. I’m not sure if it is too strong. I do know that the children who attend Waldorf Schools and other open learning schools are from progressive, free thinking families, where the parents take an active role in their child’s education (think the Obama and Clinton family). I also know that the students in balanced literacy classes and other prescriptive programs are overwhelmingly poor and minority. Trust and respect are the key philosophical underpinnings of private schools and wealthier public schools. The school trusts that the student and his or her family will take an active role in the educational process. The school’s role is to foster an environment that encourages intellectual exploration, open discussion, and analysis of information. In many urban schools, the students, families, and teachers are not to be trusted. Instead an administrator or more and more often a politician decides what children will learn and how they will learn it.
This philosophy is antithetical to a course on the Holocaust or any course that explores human behavior. In these classrooms there can be no script. The topic is human behavior. The difficult issues and the uncomfortable ideas are grappled with and brought to the forefront. The education belongs to the students and they do with it what they want.
Friday was one of those days that makes me reconsider my life as a teacher. The week had been leading up to a lousy Friday. I came back from vacation and I was ready to go. Unfortunately, I forgot that the students weren’t going to be ready. They were all exhausted and a bit surly, but no matter, Tuesday was fine. Wednesday was a professional development day meaning that students are dismissed early and teachers stay for professional development. On this particular Wednesday the topics were:
- Appropriate restraint methods
- Classroom management v. reportable offenses
- Filling out incident reports
- The difference between and assault and a threat
- Why the words assault and threat should not be used in incident reports
- The incident report as a legal document
- Gang activity
- Dangers of social networking
- Repercussions of student sexting
These are the topics that were not discussed:
- Character Education
- Student responsibility
The meeting was downright discouraging. I assume prison guards receive similar training. As teachers, we were left with a feeling of vulnerability. The message many of us received was ‘be careful, if you report an incident, it could come back to haunt you’. A student assault could result in a charge of teacher incompetence.
On Thursday, I visited a retired friend. We talked about a few stories of excellent, dedicated teachers being falsely accused by students. There are many such incidents and in most cases the falsely accused teacher feels vulnerable, overwhelmed, and unsupported. At least a few of my former colleagues say these incidents led to their premature retirement. These teachers are the backbone of solid education; the ones who arrive early and stay late, who come into class with dynamic lessons, and truly care about their young charges. No matter.
And then along came Friday. Now this may sound stupid and I know at the least it is embarrassing, but on Friday I got hit in the head with a very small ball of duct tape. It was during homeroom (advisory) and I’m not sure how the duct tape landed on my head. I was speaking to another teacher in the front of the room when the silver missile arrived. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t leave a mark, but it did surprise me. I know the students did not intentionally hit me. I assume they were just being their goofy teenage selves and the ball of tape was mistakenly chucked in my direction.
But it set me off. About 10 minutes after it happened, I felt my eyes well up (could it be any more embarrassing?). In my second period class, one of the girls immediately asked me what was wrong. I replied that nothing was wrong and asked her why she had asked me that. She said that I didn’t seem like the happy Mrs. Morgenstern who is in class every day.
I felt like a chump.
The feeling hasn’t really dissipated over the weekend. All educators are in a precarious situation; we are blamed for most of the problems with youth today and are responsible for teaching everything.*
I really don’t like feeling like a chump.
*Example: On the view, Elizabeth Hasselbeck (or was it Whoopi?), suggested the schools need to teach about the dangers of sexting. I just can’t decide if I should teach that before or after I teach about the New Deal.
After 14 years of teaching at Lowell High School, I’ve become brilliant. I scheduled a field trip for the Friday before Thanksgiving. With sheets of rain coming down, we left from the flagpole at about 8:30, arriving at the Fed (Federal Reserve Bank) somewhere after 9:30. The last mini-field trip I took my students on (walking over to the Boott Mills) prompted me to hand out a paper the next day with questions such as, “If your grandmother were watching you, would she be proud of the language you used?” I wasn’t happy with the behavior of a few and I was embarrassed to be their teacher. This Friday field trip came with plenty of warnings. For the girls they were instructed to ‘keep those covered’. The boys were instructed to lose the pants that hang below the buttocks (who came up with that look, anyway?). All were told that any form of drowsiness during presentations was forbidden. I took notes, the girl who yawned loudly, and the three students who told me they were hungry (this was also forbidden) will get a talkin’ to
1) The rain clearing up so we could enjoy a 60+ degree day in Boston.
2) The students’ excitement during the New England Adventure Game.
3) Four students, one from Brazil, one from Iraq, one from El Salvador and one from Haiti forming a pod and telling me how much fun it was to speak English to each other.
4) The good questions after the video on the history of the Fed.
5) T-Van (a small Cambodian girl) hugging me at the end of the trip and saying “Miss, you’re so warm”. (Correctly interpreted this means, “Miss, you’re so fat!”)
1) The hair and nail girls primping in the bathroom and forcing us to wait for them coupled with their lack of interest in anything besides themselves.
I forgot my camera, but hundreds of photos were taken. I will post a few of them when they get to me.