Teaching Used to be Fun

One of my favorite parts of teaching was reading to prepare for a new novel. I loved teaching novels, and liked them to be brand new. I loved cracking the book for the first time, thinking, how can I get this material to these students? Reading to teach is still my favorite kind of reading. Things just jump out. Quotes. Paragraphs. Sentences. I’m on when I read to teach.

For instance, The Great Gatsby, is broken into 9 chapters. Chapters 1-3 are all individual events, chapters 4-8 are the meat of the story, and chapter 9 is the conclusion. Once I noticed this, it changed how I taught the book. All students had to be able to do was understand a quick detail/event from chapters 1-3, and if they got confused they only had to reread chapters 4-8. We could then look at chapter 9 as the conclusion, and talk about the story. And it was easy, then, to create test question, paper topics, and group projects based upon the book.

I use The Great Gatsby as my example, because I’m good at teaching that book. Really good. I love that book and can share the passion with my students. I had many students that told me it was their favorite book (and no, they were not simply sucking up). Part of the reason they liked it was that I felt a responsibility to the book to share my passion of it with the students. I knew, in some way, that if they didn’t like it - it was on me.

Students often ask their teachers why they got into teaching. “Mr. B,” a kid might say, “do you like this?” “Yeah,” I’d respond. “Most of it.” This would lead to a conversation about how I love books, words, and writing, and interacting with them all day was good for my mind. If a kid disagreed, I thought it was my job to help change their mind. And you never quite knew what would reach a kid, or who was impacted. I remember a project based upon The Catcher in the Rye. These two girls sat in the back, doing what appeared to be the bare minimum. They were chatting and looking at gossip magazines, so I expected their project to be pretty bad. But it blew me away. They recognized Holden’s loneliness, and found images that captured this loneliness, relating it very well to specific, well chosen instances in the book. They got an A.

And an apology.

There were a lot of really fun lessons. I convinced one classroom that I had to move to “The Projects”, and was asking advice on how to meet the neighbors; I convinced another that grades were no longer going to be awarded based upon achievement, but rather based upon character and behavior (convincing myself it was a good idea); I did one really fun lesson on ‘swear words’ and their place in verbal and written language and the difference therein; and I completely changed things on a whim when they needed to be changed, as was the case when teaching Looking for Alaska.

Looking for Alaska is a teen novel that deals with death, and possibly suicide. When prepping to teach a book, I’d typically create a reading schedule. For LfA, the first day was 18 pages. The next day, a very obedient student, Tony, came up to me. “Mr. Bratt,” he said, “I have to make a confession.” This was unlike him. “Ok Tony,” I said. “What is it?” “Um,” he began, “yesterday’s homework.” “Yes,” I said, “what about it.” “Well, I read more. I read to page 80. I couldn’t stop. I’m sorry.”

Over-reading was rarely a problem.

Class began and there were a few more sheepish looks. So I stopped and asked, “How many of you read the book last night.” Most hands went up. “How many of you read more than just the assigned reading for last night?” A bunch more hands slowly raised.

On the spot, I changed the assignment. It was instantly - read at your own pace. The only stipulation was that you couldn’t give spoilers and finished by the assigned date. Students had class to read and begin work on their project which came from the book. It was awesome. The two weeks the book and project went on were some of my favorite teaching in my career. Which made 2012- even worse.

Starting in about 2012, though it could be as early as 2009 or as late as 2013, teaching completely changed. No Child Left Behind was fully mature, which brought out all its problems, and the current administration was trying to figure out how to adapt. The result was that what mattered were test scores only. Actual teaching didn’t matter. Learning didn’t matter. Mastery of skills did not matter. A well-rounded, balanced education did not matter. Life skills did not matter. The only thing that mattered was improvement from Fall to Spring tests. The aggregate of teaching and learning turned to numbers.

About the above paragraph:

I could, and may, go into a long explanation of what changed, how it changed, how it was rolled out, why it was rolled out, but the result - which is everywhere - is that test scores are the only thing that matters. Improvement of the scores is how school districts are graded and funded. The most fucked up part of this is that improvement can be very minimal. And forged. Like a school could begin the year with a 14.1 average, and end the year with a 14.6. Asshats in power positions will then talk about .5 pts of growth, using words like “improvement” and “gains”. What they’ll ignore is the fact that 14.1 and 14.6 both suck. Both scores are so bad that for high school students to get them, a district is misusing their funding, power, and authority, hurting the students that sit in their actual seats. It’s so unethical that its immoral. But they won’t focus on that, they’lll focus on growth. Media Headlines and Parent News Letters will talk about this ‘improvement’, all while the students suffer.

It’s all in the name of transparency, and the way it impacts teachers and students is like this: you’ll be called into an office, told your scores are down, given a ‘program’ to improve those scores, and evaluated poorly if your students do not improve. The programs are from a ‘testing service’ and look a lot like tests. You’ll be instructed to use them as ‘warm ups’, for ‘informal assessments’, and may be asked to ‘create’ assessments that look like tests to ‘ready’ students for tests.

Which, obviously, changes how you teach. Rather than prep for a good lesson, you’ll copy a page and ask about the ‘meaning of words’ on pg. 4 of The Great Gatsby. Instead of asking about character development, action and consequence, dreams v desire, morality v legality, or parallels of time periods, you take the broadness and grandness of the book and turn it into a multiple choice question on syntax and style (best case scenario) or use a poorly selected paragraph to ask about inference (in the worst).

Sometimes it is just stupid, but sometimes it is downright ignorant. Take for instance the book Night. It is a mystical book about the importance of human life, told via memoir. It deals with Wiesel’s experience in Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany. Asking a student to use a passage from the book to answer a multiple choice question on what Wiesel was “inferring” when he used X to describe his train ride into Auschwitz seems a bit immoral. It certainly downplays human tragedy and takes away the human and emotional component of the passage.

But also: the students miss out. They miss out on style, on experience, on enjoyment, on creativity, on using words to shape and share experience. They, and their personal performance, becomes solely a part of the average of their classmates.

It sucks for students, but it also changes teaching.

The people I worked with got dumber and less cool the longer I was teaching. The conversations were more and more boring, less about content. The type of teaching that was praised and exemplified was less and less creative. One teacher, widely considered the best, took 35-minutes to go through 5 words of “Tier 2 Vocab”. Each word had a slide, complete with pictures and synonyms. The students dutifully took notes for their quiz on Friday. At the end of the lesson, they knew what: “conclusion”, “chapter”, “community”, “design”, and “text” meant.

Really? I seemed to be the only one asking. We’re praising this teacher for explaining these words to high school students!”

No wonder they started at 14.1 And, no wonder they only got to 14.6.

As the meetings were more and more about tests and numbers, the students got more and more bored - all in the name of transparency. And for what end? Who benefits? How does this help? Evaluating a teacher upon this does not help teaching. Evaluating a school based upon this not does help the district. It can actually hurt. Praising a teacher for explaining the meaning of 5 very easy words.

A teacher, sitting at his desk with a crisp, new novel, thinking about how to get that content to these students, would be considered ‘minimally effective’ - unless, of course, their delivery included ‘meaning of words’, ‘close and critical reading’, ‘guided highlighted readings’, ‘inferences’, and an ‘analysis of a specific passage of text’.

It’s a problem. One we don’t think about very often. Since schools only cared about scores, so did students. They wouldn’t care about something unless it was a test question. Which prepared them for about zero.