First, the fact that I can even start a blog with this title makes me very happy. It shows that I’m making some nice progress with my writing–in fact, I am, and I would love to tell you all about it.
I’ve been sitting on this news for about a year, ever since the faculty advisor of Mount Hope literary magazine first contacted me to ask me if my story “Public Education” was still available for publication. Hell yes it was! We worked on a few tweaks over the course of last winter and here this fall, and now the story is up online. You can read it here: Mount Hope. I haven’t yet received my print copies, and can’t wait until I do. The magazine looks pretty damn sharp, and I’m proud to have my writing in it.
This story started, as a good deal of writing does, with an agitation. In particular, I was on the short end of my patience with teachers in a district with which I’m familiar being addressed about the failure rates in certain classes by people who might as well have had they’re hands firmly planted over their ears as they repeated ad infinitum, “What? Say it again? Attendance? Discipline problems? Chronic failures? Deadbeat parents? WHAT? All I’m curious about is why so many students are failing–not all that other stuff… .”
I was in the Fictive Dream writing workshop at the time, so for eight weeks I was consistently cranking my writing gears. I was also trying out some brand new practices like the seed journal, which I’ve written about twice herein. I caught a stray bit of conversation coming into school one day, and that triggered the whole story–I stumbled upon the perfect vehicle for my unhappiness. That unhappiness fueled me throughout the writing process. I worked diligently for a few months, seasoned the story with a another episode from the seed journal that I picked up around campus, and ended up with something I was pretty happy with. It’s also the most politically and socially charged piece of fiction I’ve written. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was how fiction writers make use of certain tools in the writer’s toolbox to create political and social commentary.
So the story is out there, and I’m pretty happy. I have some feelers out elsewhere with this same story, and will gladly tell you if it’s going to live more lives in other publications.
As for those excerpts from the seed journal, these are the ones that helped make the story:
Feb 21, 2012: I walk into school and immediately hear an announcement: ”Will _________ Zickovich please report to the dean’s office?” The announcement repeats her name: _________ Zickovich. Somewhere behind me, without missing a beat, a student deadpans a la Chapelle’s Show: Is __________ gonna hafta chokabitch?
March 9, 2012: Carmen’s mother has a brain tumor. Each time she goes to Honduras for treatment, Carmen has to fill in for her at her job as a janitor, or else her mother will lose that position.
This came to my email today courtesy of Sgt. Danger, who hasn’t been seen in these pages for quite some time. He’s addressing the over-sensationalized notion that St. Louis Cardinal fans are the best in pro sports. I first heard of this notion many years ago when Sports Illustrated anointed STL fans as at least the best in baseball. Sarge feels different, though, and makes an interesting and well-thought case. Thanks for thinking of The Seeker, Nathan, and helping to generate some timely content. As for me, I’m pretty much indifferent to what happens in this year’s World Series, though I wouldn’t be heartbroken in St. Louis lost…
I don’t mean to be a jerk about this, but people ask me why – after spending 4 years living right outside of St Louis – I can have such disdain for the Cardinals (after all, I’m a Blues fan, so why not the Cards?). Well, it’s not the Cardinals I can’t stand nearly as much as it is the fans. (Hold your fireballs, I’m not just saying this to spite you. I’m trying to make a point.)
Don’t get me wrong, I get that fans from any city are pretty rotten. But my problem is it seems to be that most of St Louis fans actually believe that bad fans don’t exist within the confines of the Gateway to the Midwest, that they are somehow immune from bad fans and that’s what makes them so great.
Cardinals fans, have you ever worn Cubs gear to a Cardinals game? Of course not. So why do so many Cards fans infer that just because they haven’t seen unruly behavior in Busch Stadium means that it doesn’t exist? That’s like me saying that Packer fans are the best fans ever, because when I’m in Lambeau wearing green-and-gold, nobody heckles me.
When Atlanta embarrassed themselves last year by throwing trash on their field during the Wild Card playoff, I can’t begin to tell you how many Cardinals fans had their smug “Stay classy, Atlanta” statuses, as if St Louis was incapable of such anarchy. I’m seeing the same thing this year as Cardinals fans pull up stories about Boston fans doing something distasteful, and then coupling their links with comments like “well I’m sure glad I’m part of the best fan base in the world.”
Do you truly believe that St Louis fans are incapable of terrible things? Check the Twitter handle @BestFansStLouis, where there are over 4,000 tweets of some of Metro St Louis’s rudest comments any fan base could throw, including making jokes about the Boston bombings, racist comments about Wong, and incendiary insults towards 2011 WS hero David Freese, among other eye-boggling remarks. 4,000+ comments, and this is a Twitter account that was made just over one month ago. That’s 100 different Cardinals fans making unnecessary or repulsive comments per day, and just on Twitter.
I even had a Cardinals-fan friend post yesterday that he thought St Louis was the best sports city in the country. Several Cardinals fans jumped on and agreed with him. A city that “boasts” the Blues and Rams and no basketball team considered the “best sports city?” This is exactly my point: many Cardinals fans are delusional about St Louis just because they have an amazing ball club, and it gets to the point that many fans say things like “our fans are the best” and “all of our teams are amazing.”
I’m not trying to be a jerk here, truly. But please understand that just because your grandma doesn’t flip the bird when you’re with her at Cards games doesn’t mean that other Cards fans aren’t hassling opponent’s fans a few rows down. We live in a world full of broken people, and many Cardinals fans have somehow gotten in their head that St Louis is exempt from this truth just because the Lambert airport had a sign up last weekend that read “Welcome Red Sox Fans.”
I concede that the Cardinals probably haven’t gotten the credit they deserve this postseason. Everyone within 100 miles of St Louis undoubtedly read that unnecessary and scathing article written by two Dodgers fans, and if I was a Cardinal fan, I’d certainly be annoyed with the lack of coverage and fair analysis of the team by ESPN and MLB Network too. But, do you think this unfair trend by other sports cities is coincidental?
I’m sure that I’d be annoyed by Boston fans if I had a bunch of Boston fans on my newsfeed. In fact, my passion for the Packers has a lot to do with the fact that I live in Bears country. So, I’m not saying that Cardinals Nation is any worse than other fans. But you certainly aren’t any better, and the fact that there is this belief otherwise is the kind of arrogance that draws ire from other sports cities.
“Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” ~ Red, from The Shawshank Redemption
If you told me two weeks ago that I’d be waiting with nervous anticipation for Game 2 of the American League Championship Series to start, I would have pshawed you. My long-loved Orioles were winding up a barely mediocre season, my Brewers had been out of it since the truth about Ryan Braun unplugged their season, the Cubs were such a joke that I didn’t even watch them this year (unless I was at the game), and the Tigers–the only team left that I really care about–were staggering across the finish line and facing an almost certain elimination in the first round of the playoffs. But that was two weeks ago, before the Tigers’ pitching staff threw 18 straight innings of 4-hit shutout baseball to come from behind and win the opening round of the playoff, and to gain an early advantage in the ALCS. Those two weeks, the last 4 days of them in particular, have helped me remember why I love baseball so much when the leaves are blushing and turning gold.
This wasn’t an easy baseball season for me, and I can point to the lack of blog entries about baseball as evidence to that. My hopes were high in April for the Orioles to ascend to the top of their division and again be in the playoffs. They never seemed to build up a head of steam, though. They were mired in mediocrity. Someone once said that cheering for a mediocre team is far worse than cheering for perennial losers because with losers you know what to expect and you know not to get your hopes up. That mediocre team, though, will cut you off at the knees just as soon as you get your hopes up that they’re going to break through. That was a hard lesson for me to learn this summer. I got my hopes up about a dozen times between April and September before the final crash in the middle of last month was enough to jar me to my senses and admit that the O’s didn’t have it in them to make the playoffs.
The Brewers were a different story. They had all kinds of potential, and with two emerging stars in Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura to complement Ryan Braun, it seemed like they would be putting up some runs and at least hanging around in contention for a wildcard spot. That was before the ugly, ultimate truth about Ryan Braun emerged. I was so disappointed in the whole situation that I didn’t even blog about it. There was nothing more I could add to the vitriol that had (deservedly) been heaped upon him for his use of performance enhancing drugs, and I was disillusioned with all the ways the situation had gone wrong. It was only two years ago when the Brewers were deliberating about who to keep as the cornerstone of the franchise–Braun, or Prince Fielder. They chose poorly. Fielder has been one of the most rugged and dependable players in all of baseball the last five years, consistently proving wrong all of those who said that with his size he would be breaking down left and right and wouldn’t be worth a long-term deal. What’s more, he has slugged away for the Tigers, and is now playing in his third straight league championship series while the rest of the Brewers are playing golf. In Braun’s case, I hope he’s planning a public relations campaign that will in some way salvage what little he has left in the game. Maybe, too, he’s dealing with himself and learning not to be the stereotypical self-serving, conceited prima donna athlete.
But at least I can still watch Prince Fielder, and his attachment to the Tigers only gives me more reason to cheer for the team that I’ve come to like quite a bit in the last 12 years. Hope is a dangerous thing, though, and my hopes were just as high last year before the Tigers faltered so horribly in the World Series that I couldn’t stand to watch it. But how can I NOT be hyped with hope after some of the most dominant pitching in recent playoff memory? I’m confident that they can get past the Red Sox, and can only hope they dispatch whomever they might face in the World Series. If so, the pain and disillusionment from this past summer will have been worth it.
The last time I checked in about running was late in the spring when my appetite for running distances greater than 3.1 miles was starting to grow. My goal was to work steadily on mastering 6.2 miles throughout the summer, knock off a number of races, and start to consider myself a 10Ker rather than a 5Ker. It has been a lot easier to write that than it was to live it. Never one on whom life lessons are easily lost, here’s what I’ve learned:
1. It’s ridiculous to think in most any aspect of life that you can suddenly double your output with little extra effort and no consequence.
I was lucky to have knocked out a full 10K on my third attempt at practicing it. It wasn’t so easy the rest of the summer. Once school let out, I tried to continue running in the mornings (when I run my best), but there never was much motivation to get to bed early the night before–not with Netflix, a laptop computer, a Nook, a cat yammering for my attention, a refrigerator, MLBTV, a Nintendo emulator on my laptop, Words With Friends, The Cider House Rules, The New Yorker, and who knows what else. When I did run in the mornings, I was still tired from staying up too late the night before. When I waited until evening, I was tired from daily routines. Regardless, I’d feel like quitting after the 4th mile. So I did a lot of times. Or at least I’d walk for a bit and then run again. The sudden jump in distance should have been accompanied by a change in routine, which didn’t happen.
2. I’m 43 years old now, and it feels like it when I run a 10K, .
I pride myself on almost never feeling my actual age. In fact, I usually feel much younger–5-10 years so. I credit this to somewhat healthy living, working out a lot, keeping a positive mindset, and being a high school teacher (it’s true–the kids keep you young). Running has no doubt figured prominently into this equation, especially since I’ve spent the better part of the last four summers running faster than I did when I was 16. My quest to master 6.2 miles, though, put a serious dent in the facade of my internal fountain of youth. Each time I tried to run a full 10K, I was afraid that if I sat down afterwards, it would be quite difficult to get back up. All too often, I splayed out on the carpet in front of the television trying to drink Gatorade without spilling it down my face and neck. My cat was cool with that, though, because she loves herself some sweat and smelly dry-weave shirts.
3. Self-doubt is a great motivator to adjust your thinking.
I hate walking during a run. Always have. It makes me feel like a quitter. In fact, I’ll go further to say that it makes me feel like I’m letting my high school cross country coaches and my team down (we had a rule: Never Walk). It makes me feel weak. It makes me think I’ve overestimated myself. Spend a whole summer crapping out on long runs, though, and you might start to think differently. You might start to think that you’re 43 now, and maybe it’s okay to walk sometimes. Especially when you’re trying to adjust to doing twice what you’re used to doing.
4. I’m willing to redraft my writing 13.2 times–what’s wrong with redrafting my running that much until I can get it right?
I have a piece of short fiction coming to publication in the next few weeks. In order to make it publishable, I worked through 13.2 drafts of it. I’m sure willing to do whatever I have to do to make a story publishable, so what’s wrong with doing whatever I have to do to work up to running 6.2 miles? Nothing. That’s why it doesn’t bother me so much now to stop and walk when I need to. It took me all summer to get to that point in my thinking.
5. Stubbornness is good.
This came to me on August 10th, when I ran my first official 10K race in 25 years. I made the turn-around at the 5K mark and felt a huge surge of adrenaline tingling from the back of my head down to the middle of my back. I felt it twice more before the finish line, and realized that I had made the right decision in seeing whether or not I could run greater distances. I’d be hard pressed to think of a time recently when runner’s high was so palpable. Despite my struggles and doubts, when I felt the buzz I knew I had it in me to finish. I’ve knocked out two more 10K races since then (including one yesterday to finish the summer), and mostly feel great about them.
6. Stubbornness is bad.
Greater exertion means a greater toll on the body. I’m finally at the point where I don’t feel like collapsing when I’m done running (though a post-race nap is always in order), but I’m also feeling a familiar discomfort in my Achilles tendon. Ironic, I know. There could be a lot of explanations for this, including worn-out orthotics, tight calves, worn-down running shoes, and just a plain old 43-year old, 200-lb body thinking it’s immortal. I’m sure I’ll find out over the next few weeks what is really going on. I might end up back in physical therapy, and then repeating this quest all over again. Insisting on finding my limits, though, definitely figures into all of this. If not for that stubbornness, if only I had stuck to 5K and been happy with what I had, I might not be worrying about this right now. But why not find those limits? Why sit complacently and wonder “What if…?” until the end of days?
What choice do I have when I’m hard-wired like this?
I’ve said before herein that teaching a high school-level creative writing class is quite beneficial to me. Not only does it keep me motivated to become a better writer (and hence a better teacher), but it keeps me in constant contact with the fundamentals of writing because about 95% of my students are only ready for the fundamentals. So it really grates on me when more advanced writers ignore the fundamentals or in some way indicate that they are disregarding them–and it’s twice as bad when they are allowed to get away with that. I had cause recently to revisit this anger, and soon thereafter got to thinking about fundamentals in regard to plot.
First, though: Plot ain’t easy. It takes a lot to weave a sophisticated plot that is a perfect fit for any particular story. Some of it may be god-given talent, but a lot of it is plain heavy lifting. Heck, even a basic, straight-forward plot can be ripe with trouble as you try to get things to make sense. But this is exactly why there are fundamentals–so you can master them and move on to creating advanced plots.
Here are some pointers:
1. The Turd in the Punch Bowl
Imagine you’re at a party having a nice time and you make it over to the refreshments table. You get some chips and dip, a few carrots, a piece of cake. When you go to ladle some punch into your cup, though, you notice a turd floating around in the fruity concoction and bumping into the partially submerged ice ring. But nobody reacts to it. It’s just there like it’s normal and expected. Would something like this really happen? Hell no. It follows, then, that characters in your story should be reacting to unusual circumstances in their environment. Otherwise, what purpose are those unusual circumstances serving?
So, for instance, if your character Jasmine is popping pills and guzzling vodka at every turn, and she spaces out in public and is having vivid flashbacks and is mumbling to herself or physically acting out, shouldn’t somebody say something? Shouldn’t her friends / family mention it? Wouldn’t strangers call the police if this happened in public? Of course they would. To ignore it or act otherwise wouldn’t make sense. That’s not how the world as we know it works, so why would we believe it works that way in a story that isn’t asking us to step out of the world as we know it?
2. No “All of a sudden…”
This is a huge rule because it covers so much. Whether a writer uses the actual phrase, “All of a sudden…” or it’s knock-offs “out of nowhere…” and “unexpectedly…”, or even if events unfold as if things are happening all of a sudden, it’s a cheap trick that many times exposes a faulty or ill-conceived plot.
For example, if Jasmine’s sister Ginger goes to a party with Jasmine and ends up dancing with Al and then sleeps with him shortly after, thus cheating on her boyfriend Chili, it would help immensely if we knew that Ginger was unhappy in her relationship in the first place, or that she’s impulsive, or that she has a history of infidelity. Any of those is better than BAM! All of a sudden she’s walking on a beach with Al and they’re talking about how they just had sex. That destroys her character!
And while we’re at it: Don’t pull another “All of a sudden…” when Chili finds out Ginger’s been cheating. Please don’t have Chili confront Ginger and tell her he has a bartender friend who who saw Ginger with Al at the party she went to with Jasmine. That’s cheap George Lucas crap. How hard is it to have a scene in which the bartender sees or recognizes Ginger? That’s enough to tip off the audience that trouble’s a-brewin’. Otherwise, it’s a cheap trick of convenience and tips the audience off that you’re being lazy. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Don’t be lazy. The important events should be portrayed in dynamic scenes, not referenced as empowering events.
So after a blowout argument, the next time we see Ginger and Chili, they have reconciled. They’re all lovey and kissy and happy like the infidelity and turmoil were so insignificant to them that it took almost no emotional effort to overcome them. If it wasn’t a big deal to them, why should it be a big deal to the audience? Better yet–why is it even in the story if it ain’t no thang? Instead, how about we see Ginger racked with pain over what she did and then making the decision to bite down hard, return to Chili, and then try to salvage the relationship. Wouldn’t that be a lot more interesting than them pretty much saying, “Uh, yeah. We made up…”? Again, it’s a cheap trick to skip the big stuff and jump to the happy ending.
And speaking of cheap tricks…
4. Dialogue is action.
Pay attention to that word: Dialogue. It’s a two-way interaction between characters. In fact, it’s been said that dialogue is the only true action in a story. Thus, dialogue is pretty damn important. Maybe, then, Ginger should be having a dialogue with Al when she finds out he’s actually married. When she discovers this devastating news, she probably doesn’t need to be having a one-sided phone conversation in which the audience is inferring what is being said by the party on the other end of the line because that’s a cheap trick that undermines the drama inherent in the scene.
But maybe you’re a big Bob Newhart fan and you’re one-sided phone conversation is an homage to him? Suck it–that doesn’t work for this kind of scene. Save it for the funny stuff, the same as Newhart would.
There’s so much to say about the basics of plot that this is barely a start. It’s a rich area in most any type of creative writing, which isn’t too surprising given how difficult it can be. There are plenty of books out there that could teach you the same basic points. You could plunk down your money for them, or you could spend $8.50 at the local theater and watch Blue Jasmine, the latest Woody Allen film. It’s a fine example of ignoring the fundamentals of plot and getting away with it. And given all the gushing reviews it’s received, which probably happened because Woody Allen’s name is on it, the film is an even better example of the aforementioned turd in a punch bowl.
Our motivational speaker didn’t disappoint. In fact, just the opposite–he killed. Some veteran colleagues whose opinions I deeply respect commented that he was the best speaker we have ever had at the school (for some, that goes back almost 30 years). I have my own beliefs about why he registered so well, at least with me. More on that later.
When I knocked off last time, I said that I knew the speaker would be talking about the importance of building meaningful relationships with students. That got me to thinking about the difficulties inherent therein, and once the speaker started in and I started taking notes, I fleshed out that very thought. One of my colleagues commented that meaningful relationships–especially with at-risk students–can’t be established by trivial means. Thus, saying “nice shirt” or asking how the game went last weekend might be nice conversation starters or ice breakers, but they aren’t going to go very far–and it’s meaningful relationships with at-risk students that are most important. At-risk students are not like plenty of other students who will succeed with or without a meaningful relationship with their teacher, wherein a “nice shirt” or a question about last weekend’s game will establish pleasantries and ostensibly be enough to maintain them throughout a year or semester. The idea of a meaningful relationship with the teacher doesn’t register prominently on their radar; many of them are intrinsically motivated, can gain a firm grasp of content and develop solid skills without undue difficulty, and can move through their education somewhat smoothly.
That’s not the case with most poor students, which my school has in spades. Half of our population is on free or reduced lunches, which is a huge indicator of where the overall economics in the community lie. That half is the half that we know of. There are more of an indeterminate amount because some families won’t file for free or reduced lunch because of ignorance of the system or the social stigma attached to the classification. All told, that makes for a lot of at-risk students, and if we know nothing else about at-risk students, they are hard to reach. So the building of relationships is all the more important. But the relationships doesn’t start at “neutral,” as I was reminded. When my freshmen show up the first day, the majority of them have eight years of negative school experiences behind them. Behind those eight years is usually two or three generations of family who hate the school, and even sizable chunks of neighborhoods that don’t find the school to be a positive and enriching environment, or even a worthwhile one. It is enough for them to survive on the margins through various welfare systems or manual labor.
So say I’m not cutting it in the relationship department with most of my students (and believe me, it feels that way with most of my at-risk students any given day). They can find other ways to make school meaningful by playing football or running track or wrestling, right? Not as frequently as you might think. Some are stuck on babysitting duty first thing after school since the parent is working. Later on in high school, a lot of them are working long hours after school and on the weekends to support themselves or their families. Those who aren’t stuck in difficult family circumstances might not even be able to play a sport because they can’t meet eligibility requirements. They’ve never had need to take school seriously and hence are lacking in many basic skills. When they show up to high school there are all these new expectations they can’t meet because they’ve been socially promoted k-8, they flounder, can’t play their beloved football or basketball, and chalk it all up as another negative experience with the school. And you can forget about involvement with other social and academic extra-curricular programs. These students have rarely had any positive experiences with the social or academic aspect of schooling–why would they voluntarily get involved with one after school?
Our speaker Monday was no doubt aware of all this and much more, which was a major reason why he was able to speak so effectively to us. For once we weren’t stupefied with inane war stories or chanted into a coma, and we didn’t have Maslow’s Hierarchy shoved down our throats like it’s scripture instead of theory. For once we weren’t singled out as teachers and told “You should be doing ‘x’ to get result ‘y’.” For once, the speaker took the entire building to task and talked about ways that we as an institution can and should be working to connect to students.
“Acknowledge, Honor, and Connect” was the theme of the day. What I didn’t hear, though, and what was perhaps the only missing piece in all this, was what logically must come next. Acknowledging, honoring, and connecting are the means, and not the end of what we must be doing. It can help get us where we are mandated to go, but it is not where we are mandated to go. We start there.
Then we climb the steepest part of the mountain.
I last checked in with you about teaching when I was wrapping up the school year and talking about the precious and capricious nature of summer vacation. That was 77 days ago, and now I’m on the eve of returning to school once again for my nineteenth year. I’m ready, if for no other reason than I need some institutionalized structure in my life despite a decent job of maintaining structure this summer. I’ll run better when I get back to mostly running in the morning, I’ll write more and better with the discipline of a few Creative Writing classes under my direction, and I’ll probably benefit from a better, more consistent diet.
The first thing we’ll experience is this year’s motivational speaker, which is a pro forma step in starting up the school year. It’s hard to remain optimistic about this after seeing a score of them over the years. A few have been great and a few have been horrible, but for the most part they’ve been mediocre. Mediocrity, though, is a sin if you’re tasked with motivating a school’s faculty, or even a baseball or a sales team. I’ve sat through mindless drivel that one time included chanting, that another time included a man singing Motown hits acapella, and that still another time included a married couple sharing too much information about their private lives and marriage while repeating ad nauseum to staff and students, “You are special!”
What chafes the most, though, are the typical war stories recounting events that may or may not have happened to any particular teacher. A lot of teachers with whom I have spent my career have grown tired of even their own stories and rarely tell them. Some stories have been mythologized the ways stories sometimes can be, like the one about the boy who had his arm ripped off by a street sign because he was hanging it out a school bus window. One asinine story I’ve heard several times from different school personnel and motivational speakers has to do with a teacher at a rough urban school who had remarkable success with a class of thugs and ne’er do wells. When asked what she did to succeed, she said it happened inadvertently. Seems she was reading the students’ schedules to see who she had on her rosters and was astounded at the IQ scores she kept seeing. She immediately revamped her lessons and ramped up all her expectations and found challenging, engaging activities so as not to be overwhelmed by all these supposedly super-smart kids. She was even able to maintain this throughout the year. Heck, she didn’t even have any discipline problems with classes that otherwise would have sent a teacher to the nut hatch. So how could all this be inadvertent? She hadn’t seen her students’ IQ scores–what she saw was their locker numbers!
Most often, that story or a variation of it is used as a setup for a speaker to say, “See! That’s why you need to set high expectations! Look what can happen!” Nevermind that I have never seen any kind of data to back that story up and it has never been attributed to a specific person, much as I’ve never seen a police report about a gang driving around a city at night with their lights off and killing motorists who flash their headlights at them. I imagine my school is a reasonable target for a bumbling speaker to peel of the yarn about the IQ scores because we have our share of ne’er do well classes and more than a few features in common with some rough urban schools. Unfortunately, the story is insulting because of the ignorance that has to be assumed for a teacher to believe it, and because it grossly over-simplifies what has to happen in a classroom for kids to meet and exceed high expectations. Still, setting high expectations for all students is probably the most important thing a teacher has to do. Come into a school on opening day and look around the audience when this message is delivered, and you’ll see all kinds of smiling and nodding and lips uttering “Right on! Sure thing!” Come back a few months later, and see how that has worked out. Setting and maintaining high expectations (and mind you, FAIR expectations) is a bit like watching sausage being made. It ain’t pretty. All too many teachers find themselves defending high expectations in light of lower or failing grades that can many times be a consequence of demanding a lot from students–especially low-level reluctant learners in schools with rough demographics. Try reminding interlopers of the kick-off message about setting high expectations, and you might hear something along the lines of, “I don’t think that means that so many of your students should be struggling.”
As for tomorrow’s speaker, we’ve already been informed that he has been “speaking to school audiences for 30 years…,” that his primary aim is ”acknowledging, honoring, and connecting…,” and that he has earned an Emmy, a spot in the National Speakers Association Hall Of Fame, and that listening to him will provide an “unforgettable experience” and that we should “…be prepared to laugh and have fun as you look at building relationships through a new lens….”
This tips me off to this year’s message, which if I’m correct will be a recycled message from years past: Students will work and achieve if they feel the institution genuinely cares for them. The institution “genuinely caring for them” means that teachers should be building meaningful relationships with students. Much like the moral of the story about the IQ scores, there is a lot of sound insight therein, but merely talking about it and saying “This is what you should be doing” over-simplifies the problem. Furthermore, what constitutes a meaningful relationship is a very subjective, and like I said about parts of last year’s kick-off speech, too many people look at the idea of building relationships as the end instead of the means.