I got word late last spring that the National Council of Teachers of English was again holding a writing contest for middle- and high-school teachers. It was in conjunction with the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, which is a pretty swanky gig for the few writers who are accepted to it each year. I’ve applied and been rejected in years past. This is an annual contest anymore, and the genre changes each year. I submitted fiction three years ago; this year the call was for creative nonfiction. I happen to have a masters degree in CNF, and a pretty respected book-length piece of CNF that I might have written about in here in the past, so why not tee off?
So when I was out in Iowa last summer, which I may have written about herein, I dusted off the old thesis. By “dusted off,” I mean that I edited the holy hell out of it to fit the requirements of the contest. They’d take the equivalent of 40 double-spaced pages, and I totally maxed that out. In the end, I had reduced the overall piece by 56%. I pretty much re-branded the entire work, but was also forced to cut out most of the personal angle of the story and focus on my subject, Jim. Still, I felt I had a pretty damn good story overall. It was a labor of love to get back into the work that consumed my life six years ago and brush it up with skills I have developed in the time since then. Turns out I had a lot of ways to ratchet the piece up and make it better. That included writing a preface and finding chapter divisions with titles that pointed to themes. I felt pretty good about it, which was about the 33rd time I’ve felt good about that writing from so long ago.
I had high expectations. Like, winning the entire contest. That would have meant a free trip to New York City, a ticket to the awards banquet, and some recognition I would have warmly embraced… not to mention rubbing elbows and sipping cocktails with some highly regarded names in writing. Why not Jeff Burd, huh?! So I checked the results last week… and it turns out I didn’t even make it to the finals. Bummer. But time spent writing (and rewriting… and rewriting…) is never time wasted. It was nice to be reminded of my experiences from 2008-09 and to work on a document that did more to build my writing chops than anything else I’ve written. It was even nicer to see how that writer back then is a shadow of my current self. I’ve come a long way because of my dogged determination to practice, practice, practice. I love to practice.
Maybe next year.
I like to think there was an Earl Weaver sighting at Camden Yards in Baltimore last night. Right around the middle of the eighth inning, a short misty cloud of profanity was hovering around Detroit manager Brad Ausmus. I imagine that several fans who walked past Weaver’s statue outside the ballpark after the game heard echoes of a disembodied voice laughing and humming strains of “My Way.”
Sure this is all in my imagination. Here’s how it was fed:
It was the top of the eighth inning, and Detroit was down 4-2. This isn’t cause for concern because the top of the Tiger order is up, and that includes Miguel Cabrera. True to form, lead-off hitter Ian Kinsler reached base. Brad Ausmus called for the hit-and-run when Torii Hunter stepped to the plate. Ausmus knows Kinsler has the speed to reach second, and with any luck Hunter would make it to first and set the table for Cabrera. In the least, Detroit would have a runner in scoring position. The problem is that the hit-and-run forces the hitter to swing at pitches he might otherwise let pass, and the base runner is too far along to turn back should something go wrong. That is why Earl Weaver would never call for the hit-and-run. It’s more likely to take runs off the scoreboard than it is to add them.
Sure enough, Hunter hacked at a pitch and blooped the ball to the shortstop, who easily caught it for an out and then relayed to first for an even easier out since Kinsler was already at second. There were suddenly two out, and nobody was on base for the first of Detroit’s big boppers. Cabrera hit a home run to cut the lead to 4-3, but without the wonky hit-and-run, Detroit could have been tied or up 5-4. A tie or a lead would have completely changed the pitching strategies Detroit applied in the bottom of the eighth; instead, the strategy they employed resulted in Baltimore scoring eight runs and putting the game, and possibly the series, out of reach.
Perhaps Brad Ausmus needs to check out Weaver’s notions regarding team speed, especially since his team is in the town where Weaver earned his reputation. While the radio broadcast setup is fake, the insight Weaver lends to base running is authentic and especially valuable in October:
Team speed? For Christ’s sake, you get fuckin’ goddamn little fleas on the fuckin’ basepaths getting picked off trying to steal, gettin’ thrown out, taking runs away from you… you get them big cocksuckers that can hit the fuckin’ ball out of the fuckin’ ballpark and you can’t make any goddamn mistakes.
It’s good to see my long-suffering Orioles making some progress in the post-season. I only wish it wasn’t coming at the expense of Detroit. Still, I’ll take what I can get.
I had a chance to visit the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio last spring. I enjoyed the few hours I spent there, though I needed about three times as long to see all of it. Still, I saw tons of cool planes from WWI and WWII. The gift shop was stocked with all kinds of interesting stuff, including dozens of model airplane kits. I was nostalgia-struck, and decided to buy two models to someday put together. That “someday” tuned out to be the middle of August, and I’ve finally assembled the first of the two.
What a pain in the ass. The number of individual paints required to cover the planes is staggering. Between my two models, I need about twenty-five different paints—some of which are almost impossible to find. Then there’s the damn directions. Even as a well-educated adult with design and assembly experience, I was often dumbfounded. And you can forget total adherence to the directions and full functionality of the model if even one major piece is off by 1/16″. After a week of casual assembly, the pieces of the model sat on my kitchen table for days on end without me touching them. But I wasn’t going to pack it in and give up. I’m far too stubborn for that. So I forged ahead, putting parts together in clusters, painting, repainting, and rereading directions six or eight times. I still screwed stuff up. The model box said it was appropriate for ages ten and up, but I’d probably get a visit from DCFS if I put a ten-year old through the agony of assembling one of these things.
Thankfully, I learned a few things along the way and already have some strategies for the other model. Don’t know when I’ll get to it. Maybe when I have a few months to spare. There was some interesting historical information included with this first model, so at least I learned a few things besides how to manage a huge tediousness huge mess on my kitchen table.
The P61 Black Widow was designed exclusively as a night fighter… it could reach a top speed over 370 MPH…
Four .50 caliber machine guns were mounted to the dorsal turret and could be controlled by any of the three crew members… there were also four 20mm cannons in the ventral location on the fuselage pod.
The P61 Black Widow proved to be effective for its purpose, though it was too slow to compete with higher-performance and jet-powered planes developed near the end of WWII. The plane was also vulnerable to giant predatory cats…
continued from yesterday…
Test taking in general is fraught with an unbelievable set of variables. In no particular order, a student’s test score can be influenced by poor weather conditions, a lack of sleep the night before because they were up playing video games or texting with a friend, they didn’t eat breakfast, they are apathetic about school, they see no immediate application of the test results, they are pissed at me for whatever reason, or (and this is a VERY popular one among younger students) they dislike me and think that failing the test will fail me. After twenty years of teaching and seeing students act out by refusing to take a test or to take a test seriously, the dreams of millions of students have finally come true. If they fail their PERA test, they can directly influence the performance evaluation of a teacher. There is no way we can make them take a test seriously and give their best effort. And it’s dangerous to underestimate the level of hatred (or at least distrust) many at-risk students have for their local school. It runs through the generations to the point where it’s almost a phenotype. Their parents didn’t like or trust the local school because of so many negative experiences, and even the students themselves have had 8-10 years of negative school experiences. In many ways, measuring teachers by test scores is similar to measuring doctors by their “cure” rate. But doctors don’t have any control of patients taking their medication, changing an unhealthy lifestyle, or even being interested in their own wellness.
I should mention that there is no plan in place for supervision of testing for the test that counts for comparison scores. This is one area where tests such as the ACT and SAT really get it right. Testing conditions are highly regulated. Cheating is so rare that when it makes news, it usually makes big news for the mere fact of how much effort and conniving it takes to cheat on the test. But there is little or even no regulation for teachers who might literally feed students answers. I’ve already said that I feel like my test is The Gospel According to Burd because the questions are based on things I already know I’m going to say over and over and over this semester. So “feeding” students answers is part of my regular teaching routines if students are paying attention. But if, for instance, a teacher uses an online article and set of questions for their test, and those are pretty easy to find for any particular discipline, there is almost nothing that can be done to prevent that same teacher from revisiting the same article multiple times throughout a semester until their students have mastered the content and questions. There is nothing that can be done about students who are wise to the system and can find the article on their own and repeat it ad infinitum.
I was in a meeting last week in which a colleague noted that nobody has brought up the “I Don’t Know” option. We’re supposed to be giving a test on skills the students have little clue about, yet they can still guess an answer and get it right on multiple-choice questions. If that guess is a right answer, that right answer counts against me. But nobody talked about one of the multiple choice answers being “I Don’t Know” when a test is initially given. Instead, we tell students the same things we tell them when they take the ACT: Try to eliminate options until there are only 2 left, and then guess. Hell, that’s a standard test-taking strategy. But not for our PERA tests. That strategy could lead to a teacher losing his job. So should we go against what we tell students otherwise? If so, why send contradictory messages? And what about a discipline in the foreign languages? This was brought up at the same meeting. A student might know almost nothing about Spanish, and would bottom-out on a PERA assessment at the start of the year. But in my discipline, a student already has 15-17 years of English language experiences and could easily decode or make a very good educated guess and stand to get a question right. If they do so, I stand to show less growth than another teacher and could lose my job.
I recently read an article in The New Yorker about the standardized test cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools. An interesting quote in the article came from David Berliner, the former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University. Though Berliner was speaking specifically of No Child Left Behind, his words may be even truer in regard to what Illinois is doing with PERA:
“The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”
PERA isn’t addressing poverty, which is the most significant factor facing public education. It is creating more testing, which continues to feed the great social sorting machine that is testing. The poor and non-white students will continue to be separated from the non-poor white students, though the former populates our schools every bit as much as the latter (my school is roughly two-thirds minority). Politicians (especially “reform” politicians) will continue to beat the drum that public schools are failing and there is nothing they can do to fix that, and they may soon point to the failure of PERA as an example, even though the roll out of the legislation is hamfisted. The truth is that they aren’t willing to do what it takes to fix public schools.
I fear that what will ultimately happen with PERA is Very Little. I can promise you that if my colleagues and I are already thinking of these pitfalls that many other teachers and districts are thinking of them, too, and some of them may not act with the same degree of integrity that I attribute to many of my colleagues and myself. Instead of hurrying under-performing teachers out of public schools, it has the potential to create another way for them to protect themselves. Am I worried? Of course. I don’t like walking around with a target on my back, and I don’t like working in a system that is consistently tying my hands while outside influences continually change the rules of how the public education game is played. But I don’t have a choice. I’m not going to quit. I love my job too much, and believe too strongly in the good that comes from public education. I guess I’ll drift towards the ultimate teacher refuge. I’ll close my door and teach.
I gave a test last week on the sixth full day of school. Ninety-five percent of my students failed. Two days prior, I had given another test to a different group of students. Ninety-five percent of them failed, too. These numbers aren’t the most disturbing factor in what is happening with the current state of public teaching, nor is the fact that I’m giving tests on the fourth and sixth days of the school year. What’s most disturbing is that both of these tests were purposely designed by me to be so difficult that the students would fail, and the harder I can make them fail, the more likely I am to show how much they learn in my classroom and thus prove how effective I am as a teacher.
This is where we are in Illinois and in my district with the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA). The legislation is now on our doorstep, and next year it will go into full effect. Roughly two-thirds of my performance evaluation will be based on classroom observations; the other third is comprised of the results my students achieve when they retake the tests I gave them last week. In preparation for this, my district has been forging a new ironclad evaluation instrument. I’m not worried about that. I’ve aced every evaluation instrument I’ve faced. This new one promises to be much more rigorous, but I know I’m up to the challenge. This is all in response to tenure laws that purportedly protected ineffective teachers that had the good fortune to be born before younger and supposedly more effective teachers. Instead of a “last in, first out” approach when a school is facing reductions in staff, less effective teachers of any length of experience can be released instead of the youngest or least tenured, provided those younger teachers prove themselves to be better than the older ones.
What I am worried about is the tests I just administered, and the tests administered by my colleagues. Administering an impossible test at the start of the school year is one helluva “How do you do?” Instead of building some trust and establishing expectations the first few days, I’m instead torpedoing my students. Most students come to the new school year in the same way most teachers do. We’re glad to be back, and glad for a fresh start. Most of my students, even the ones I will eventually come to consider my “bad” students, want to start off on a positive note. They want to take a test and pass it and prove their worthiness. Heck, well more than half of them gobble up the summer reading tests they have to take and at least pass with a “C.” But here I am in the position to purposely fail them. If I can’t do that effectively, I could lose my job.
The tests I administered are exclusive to my classroom. If it happens in my class, I can test it. That doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but it’s actually a huge problem. In my Creative Writing class, the test pretty much amounts to The Gospel According to Burd. Take my test around the county, and students won’t make heads or tails of it. It’s a hard test. It’s one of the best tests I’ve ever written. Doesn’t matter. It is generally invalid because it’s not normed to anything. It’s a non-standardized test. There is no standard base of knowledge for Creative Writing like there is for basic English and Reading skills, and there isn’t a panel of experts in the field or a psychometrician who created the test. There’s me and the heavily biased manner in which I teach Creative Writing. I can no more say what the best practice is in creative writing than I can the best practice in teaching or parenting. I teach creative writing by handing down the practices that I have researched and that work best for me, and constantly adapting them as I grow as a writer and a teacher. This isn’t an endorsement for standardized tests—you’ll never catch me endorsing standardized tests. This is an endorsement for how ridiculous and frustrating testing has become in our public schools.
What’s more, the testing conditions are exclusive to my classroom. Who’s to say I’m not playing loud music, or constantly distracting students, or short-changing them on time limits, or even imposing impossible time limits when they take the test the first time? Plus, if students don’t make an effort, or even if they’re absent, those blank answers can work to my advantage if I never have them make up the test. Why not bet on my students not remembering (or not even caring) that they took a test way back at the start of the year? With so many tests already being taken, what’s one more that may or may not have been missed?
I counted the tests my Reading students will be taking at the start of the school year. This includes all the PERA tests in each of their classes, a benchmark test my district administers, a pre-test they’ll soon take for an online database we use, plus, a standardized reading test we administer because students are placed in Reading class based on a score from a standardized test they took nine months before they came to high school. If they didn’t take that test seriously, or if they learned some things in those nine months, their abilities may have risen and they deserve a chance to show that. Nonetheless, my students will have taken ten tests in the first fifteen days of class. These are already mostly at-risk students who dislike school and especially dislike tests. Tests have rarely if ever brought good news for them—they’ve served only to show how much they don’t know or how far they are behind grade level. It’s hard enough to get them motivated and believing that the major assessments like the ACT are important and to take them seriously. Now we have to get them to believe the same thing seven more times at the end of the semester when they retake the PERA test in each class—in addition to the regular final exam. At what point does the adolescent brain say “Enough is enough,” and shut down? How can all these tests be serious, and why should I take them all seriously?
I made friends with Rachael Stark out at The Skids a few years ago. We palled around for a few weeks, as much as a New Yorker and a Chicagoan can without coming to fisticuffs. Anyhow, she’s a pretty solid writer, yoga queen, and friend. She’s been blogging for The Huffington Post for a year or so now, and is kind enough to send me a link each time she posts. I told her she’s gonna get a book out of all these posts, so you heard it here first. Last week, she made the front page with her blog about her grandmother: One Penny at a Time: The Most Important Lesson I Learned From My Grandmother. Check it out. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
We spent a lot of time at school last year recognizing the value of grit, and I’ve found myself thinking about it this summer, more so now that the start of the year is imminent. Though some in the building are telling students in a “we’re almost clear on this now” way that we haven’t quite defined “grit” yet, “grit” is generally being defined in psychological circles as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” The concept has been on national social and educational radars for a few years. I read a few articles starting about two years ago, and a rather popular TED talk made its rounds in our advisory classrooms. None of this is to say that I wasn’t skeptical. I was. I think any time somebody drops something in your wheelhouse you had damn well better be skeptical to save yourself chasing your tail and wasting your energy on fruitless or half-thought ideas that charlatans tell you are a panacea for whatever may be ailing your classroom.
Here’s how we’ve been doing it. Each month, teachers are nominating students they feel demonstrate grit. They are strongly encouraged to nominate only one. It’s not going to be the nice girl who sits in the front row and answers every question and sometimes puts an apple on your desk; nor is it going to be the academic all-star who can skate through class without much difficulty. While those are both great types of students to have, you really have to look to the middle-range or struggling students who you can sometimes hear sweat as they work throughout the semester. They show up every day and put in their best effort as a matter of habit. They are the kids who internalize their frustrations when you demand more or better work instead of cussing you out or giving up and taking an “F”. They stay the course, and continue to stay the course until they achieve.
This might well be something that adults take for granted in themselves. Who among us hasn’t stayed up late the night before final exams to cover those concepts we’re still shaky on in order to preserve a “B” in a class? Who hasn’t kept running after the fifth mile, despite the stitch in the ribs from dehydration? Who hasn’t kept sending out the manuscript, despite dozens of rejections? You can’t get too far into adult life without demonstrating some kind of grit—at least not if you plan on living a productive and meaningful life. But our brains are developed as adults, and our reasoning centers, the last parts of the brain to develop, help us understand that gratification can be delayed and that which we struggle for is more meaningful once we attain it. It’s hard to convey that idea to a teenager, though. Which is where the recognition of “grit” comes into play.
So we call these kids out. They get a certificate of recognition, the card the teacher originally submitted to recognize the student, a “grit” t-shirt, and a decent recognition breakfast. I went to all of the breakfasts we held last year to give the students I’d recognized a pat on the back. Each breakfast had a few dozen students, very few of whom are going to be invited to the honors banquet or awarded an athletic scholarship to a Division I school. But the value of these students in a classroom is immeasurable. They are the ones you want everyone to watch as they work through their frustrations, and that includes the apathetic students and the academic all-stars (who, more often than you might believe, shut down when they are frustrated).
Something that stands out about grit is that it’s not moralistic. We’re not preaching good behavior and positive social skills and whether or not a student meets a vague ideal professed in the school’s mission statement. We’re also not rewarding behavior we already expect in students, i.e. “Johnny is being recognized today because he comes to class on time every day.” That kind of stuff kills me. Where in the real world does a person get recognition for something they are supposed to do in the first place? Chris Rock said it best in one of is standup routines when he talked about a “brother” who was bragging about not having been to jail. His response: “What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail!” Yet we’ve spent time on that kind of recognition in the past, and that includes a special recognition from a past principal who ended up recognizing faculty for doing the job they were supposed to do in the first place.
So recognizing grit sounds good, huh? We’ve found something that is true to human experience, valuable in the classroom, and will show dividends for students as they pass through the building and move on to further education and adult life. I’m buying it. But it isn’t all bliss. I’ve already experienced the hitches that not only undermine our push for grit, but that can pull the plug on it.
Here’s how it works: Patricia gives a speech. She runs over time, mumbles a lot, isn’t able to wrap things up when I am forced by time constraints to stop her, and turns in only half an outline. In short, she didn’t prepare herself properly. When she gets her grade back, she starts cussing, whips out her cell phone, and storms out of class. I pursue her, trying to track down a hall monitor to make sure she goes to the proper place, which is the dean’s office. There is a behavior problem. But Patricia is quick with that phone, and can push her parent’s buttons with as much ease as the ones on the phone. She orders her parents up to the school, throws in some extra drama along the way, and within a half hour, her parents are not only in the school, but in an administrator’s office. No need to demonstrate grit. No need to grind a few teeth, settle oneself down, and possibly talk to the teacher after class for a few minutes. No need at all because the parents are on call for this very type of episode so that Patricia doesn’t have to agonize over anything.
Want another example? Rick has to be removed from class one day… it’s the cell phone again. He’s listening to music when he should be typing a paper. He misses turning the paper in. He shows up the next morning during the time when he’s an office aide and asks to turn the paper in. He has seen on the electronic grade book that it’s a zero, and since it’s early in the semester, that really hurts his grade. I listen to him and explain why I won’t take the paper, and even refer him to classroom policies posted on the bulletin board. Instead of returning to his duties as an office aide running passes and whatnot, he finds a bathroom and hides himself in a stall so he can sneak a call to his mom. Within ten minutes, she has fired off an angry email to me about how my decision has ruined her boy’s grade, and demanding that I reconsider. The implied threat is tangible; the parent knows contacting me is the first step and if I don’t accede, she need only step up the ladder to my direct supervisor.
These are not unusual stories. Any teacher can tell either one of them, and more. Things like this happen a half dozen times a year to most teachers, though that first one is on the extreme end of the spectrum of parental tampering. What makes them more significant, though, is how helicopter parenting is working to actively undermine what is one of the best and most effective social initiatives we’ve had going at school for quite a while. Parents aren’t seeing the value in their child having to experience discomfort and tension in their educational experience, even when that discomfort and tension is a natural consequence to their decisions.
What’s more, these helicopters are subverting the systems we have set up in the school specifically to benefit their child. Any of these students is entitled to a visit with their counselor to discuss the issue. They have an advisor they see every day that they can talk to. There are numerous other venues through which any student can address a concern if they pursue them… coaches, social workers, activity sponsors, other teachers. Heck, they can even say, “I screwed this up, but in the future I’m going to do things differently.” So in addition to the sundry distractions that cell phones cause in a classroom, they are also providing students with instant gratification and a means by which to subvert demonstrating grit.
The problem is not the cellphones. Cellphones are a reality, and they’re not going anywhere any time soon. The problem is with the parents. When they set expectations that their child can call them instantaneously with whatever grievance and expect that immediate be action taken on their part, that’s the problem. The parent can subvert grit and put it off all they want, but at some point that child is going to have to build a cache of grit and demonstrate it. It’s better to do it in the formative years when the stakes are still relatively low.