Is it even possible to turn things around in our public education system?
Is it even possible to turn things around in our public education system?
Is it even possible to turn things around in our public education system?
After laughing uproariously while on the phone with a wonderful friend in Michigan, I just had to post some of our discussion. She’s a counselor at a community college, so the two of us took turns trading stories about what we’ve been seeing in our centers of education lately (and oh, yes, I just wrote a novel about that).
How did this nation arrive at the notion that everyone should go to college? I believe that belief is a bunch of hogwash.
One of the students at her school only lasted a semester. Why? Because he was blind, and he was in the culinary school, and aside from failing the throw-your-knife-in-the-air-and-then-catch-it-and-keep-on-chopping test, he was miffed that there were laws against having a hairy seeing-eye dog in the kitchen. Really???
Not only are we bending over backwards to accommodate every possible need our students claim to have (although I’m sure the blind student did, in fact, need that dog), holding their hands and walking them through the simplest requirements and giving them “every possible opportunity to succeed,” we’re–conversely–making things far more difficult for the people who are already trained to do their jobs: teachers (and I’m certainly not saying that all teachers are good, or well trained, which you will see later in this post).
I have a Master’s Degree in English. I earned my teaching certificate so that I could teach in public schools at the secondary school level. I have taught in those schools for five years and I’m currently completing my first year of teaching at our local college as an adjunct instructor. So what did I have to do this month as an administrative requirement to keep teaching at the college? Complete an on-line course on . . . EFFECTIVE TEACHING.
Here’s one of the questions I had to answer for this week’s assignment on “Universal Design”: “What steps can we take to ensure that content is directed not only at varied learning styles and learning disabilities, but also to make it appealing and relevant to diverse audience with varied interests and experiences? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of developing content with these concepts in mind?”
So after I screamed, “HOGWASH!” and calmed down a bit, I submitted the following:
I’ve got to say that my experience with “differentiation” in grade school classes has made me a bit gun-shy on the topic. As a teacher with over 100 students cycling through my classroom each day, and each class a heterogeneous mixture from the brightest GT student to the lowest on the special needs scale, I found it next to impossible (well, I’ll be honest and say it was impossible) to satisfy everyone’s need to have their own unique learning style addressed adequately. I could never admit this in my licensure classes because the faculty expected the new teachers to be able to accomplish this directive (address every learning style and every disability and make it appealing and relevant to a diverse audience with varied interest and experiences…ARGGGH!), and to embrace the idea zestfully.
That said, it is possible to design lessons that incorporate visual, auditory, and experiential elements, which, regardless of learning styles, would be more interesting/engaging than purely didactic instruction. The advantage, of course, is keeping the interest of your audience; and your students are your audience. Teachers need to be prepared to be “on stage” multiple times each day, and to bring the same energy and enthusiasm to each new class, regardless of how many students in previous classes remained uninterested.
The disadvantages, however, from my personal experience, are onerous. I long for the day when administrators will realize that teachers cannot do their best work when they are expected to cater to “the full range” in every class. Yes, I’m old, and I grew up a public school system that sorted classes (particularly core classes) by ability. My teachers could focus their instruction at a level which fit the needs of each class, and could take that class as far as it could go. I think if I had been in classrooms where my teacher needed to stop every 3 minutes to re-explain something I “got” immediately, I would have dropped out.
The biggest disadvantage I see, though, is that we are not preparing our students for the reality of the world beyond the classroom—a world in which we have employers who do not care what learning style works best for you, who will not bend over backwards to accommodate you needs, and who does not believe that everyone is a winner. I know that this is not a politically correct response, but it contains my honest opinions on these topics. [end]
And so I wonder what type of on-line discussion my post will elicit. My on-line teacher will probably give me a 50/50 and write, “Great job on your assignment!” which is what she posted as an answer to a question I sent her asking for clarification on one of the upcoming requirements. Perhaps she earned her teaching credential on-line . . . after multiple attempts to succeed.
Chapter 1 is posted for your perusal! I’ve decided to be greedy and hold onto the rest for later, but I’m hoping that many of you will be interested in my telltale story of what it’s like to teach in today’s public school system. It is not politically correct. It will probably make you angry. It will make you laugh, too. I’m hopeful that it will make you ask for more.
The rest of Chapter 1! Ella goes back to the school after discovering her dog’s limits:
The atmosphere in the main entrance was the same as when she had left the school, but walking down the hall to her classroom, she saw a couple of boys standing against the wall with Razz towering over them and addressing them sternly. She walked past the situation quickly, not wanting to interfere, but was surprised that although the boys were standing there quietly, their facial expressions appeared disinterested . . . even cynical. Noted.
She immediately felt better stepping into her classroom. The bright carpet, the half-moon desk arrangement, the smiley face, and the two beanbag chairs already presented an uplifting change. Ella decided to leave the beanbag chairs behind her desk; she would come up with a plan for who could use them and when. She liked the idea of having a special reading area, and students would have to earn the privilege of using that area. Yes, that would work, she thought.
She arranged the brightly colored plastic baskets—her “in” boxes—on the counter against the windows on the far side of the room, then sat down to arrange the contents of her desk before creating her first seating charts. The swivel office chair—probably as old as she was—creaked and nearly tossed her over when she leaned back. No, she would not be sitting much this year.
Not knowing any of the students yet, Ella decided on a boy/girl/boy/girl arrangement for each of her seven classes, and quickly filled in her charts. Each class went into a clear plastic sleeve on which she could take attendance with a dry erase marker. On a butcher paper tablet she replicated the arrangement for each class, and taped them to the front board. Kids would be directed to the charts to find their seats upon entering the classroom.
She covered the large cork board by the door with bright yellow paper and stapled a sparkly star boarder around the edges. This is where she would post student “exemplars”; those who did outstanding work would have their efforts rewarded for all to see. Stepping back to take in the whole scene, Ella was pleased with what she saw. A perfectionist by nature, she would apply everything she was learning in her licensure program to her new job, and then go one step further by adding her own unique flair. She was just about to close up and head to the hardware store when Kirby Cohen, the science teacher on her team, entered the room.
“Wow, nice rug,” she said without a bit of enthusiasm in her voice. Kirby was slightly older than Ella, 30ish, and was a commanding presence in the room. Physically she was the antithesis of Ella, and bore a striking resemblance to the poster of Einstein Ella had taped to the back wall. She had a mad professor look about her, kinky wild hair and all. Meeting her for the first time during in-processing the previous week, Ella sensed that this new peer—who now did not even attempt to hide her sarcastic wit—could become a friend. This was her ninth year teaching middle school science at North, and Ella could tell that there was wisdom behind the wisecracks.
“What?! You don’t like it? These rooms are so ugly . . . I thought it might make the kids smile when they walk in.” Ella was surprised by the immediate defensiveness of her response; after spending five successful years in military leadership positions, the latest being in high-risk environments, she was not used to having her decisions questioned. She suddenly recognized that she was now the low-man-on-the-totem-pole, and this was unknown turf.
“It’ll make ‘em smile all right,” Kirby shot back, this time with a hint of a smirk. “I see you’ve already made your seating charts—can I see them?” Ella handed her the spiral notebook with each chart in the proper order.
“You’ll want to move Kevin away from Brad, and Mateo away from . . . well, everyone. I wouldn’t put Trevor next to any of these girls. Lara is pretty smart, but she’d rather be a pain in your ass, so don’t expect much from her. Watch out for Bernicia, too. She and Shareena are trouble.” Kirby looked up from the notebook and saw the distress on Ella’s face. “Hey, listen, don’t worry about this. You’ll figure it out pretty fast, and maybe they’ll be better for you than they are for me. I probably shouldn’t be saying anything before you meet ‘em.”
“No . . . thanks . . . I probably should have talked with you before making my charts,” Ella said, suddenly realizing that she actually knew very little about pre-teen dynamics in this inner-city school.
“Just remember that you’re in charge, and you can make changes whenever you want. Let’s eat lunch together tomorrow and I’ll fill you in on a few more things before Wednesday,” Kirby offered as she left the room.
“Thanks, okay,” Ella answered, hoping that Harry’s offer to let Bones out at mid-day was still on the table once he learned of the pooch’s earlier shenanigans. On her way out of the building, she approached Razz, who maintained his cross-armed brick wall composure until she was within greeting range.
“Sorry about earlier . . . I’m Ella McCauley, the new English teacher,” she said, extending her hand. He took her hand, cocked an eyebrow as she matched his grip, and held on for what seemed to be a bit too long. “Ah, I had a dog crisis,” Ella stammered, anxious now to retrieve her hand.
“Ain’t nothin’ but a thang,” he replied in a smooth, deep voice, finally releasing her hand. “Roger Jones, head of security, but everybody call me Razz. You’ll be seein’ a lot of me this year.” Ella could tell that he was checking her out, and wasn’t sure how she felt about it. As a single woman in the Army, she always had to arm herself with a tough-girl façade, something Sam was able to break through within weeks of meeting her. It was hard for her to believe that she had been single for over a year since Sam’s death, and now that she was a civilian, she wasn’t quite sure how to act. Still, she sensed an immediate need to protect herself from this swarthy security guard. The irony was not lost on her.
“Why would that be?” she asked, taking a step back and re-arming herself.
“You’ll see . . .”
“Ms. McCauley!” the school’s principal broke in, approaching the two. “I was hoping to see you before you left. I see you’ve met Razz; he’ll take good care of you.” David Martin was cool and professional, mid-30s, slightly balding and in great shape. Ella had liked him from the minute she started her hiring interview. She knew that he was engaged to be married—not that she’d ever consider a relationship with her boss—but she allowed herself to admire what she knew to be a great command presence. She trusted him.
“Yes, sir,” she answered, not knowing how else to address him. “He was just telling me that.” Her boss did not correct her, and she took that as a good sign. She was comfortable with having a clear chain of command, and he conveyed an air of authority that she expected from the leader of a school that employed security guards.
“We’ll be having a staff and faculty lunch tomorrow to kick off the new school year, and I’m hoping you’ll spend a little time getting to know the other people in your 7th grade team. I know you’ve got a lot to prep for Wednesday, but remember: your peers are here to help you, and so am I.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m really excited about meeting all my students, and Kirby has already come by my room.”
“She’ll be one of your greatest assets. Don’t let her scare you.”
Ella suppressed her desire to say that there wasn’t much that scared her anymore, except, perhaps, the brick wall that she’d soon be “seein’ a lot of.” She smiled and said good-bye to the two men, left the building, and drove to the nearest hardware store.
The old Colonel was sitting outside his front door when Ella pulled up to the curb. Raising himself gingerly from his folding chair, he awaited her report. Ella hurried up the sidewalk, gave him a quick “Hello” hug, then encouraged him to sit back down.
“Let me grab Bones and we’ll be right back,” she said over her shoulder as she made her way to her own front door.
Bones was happy to see her, and a quick look around told Ella that the place was no worse off than when she last left it. The dog followed her out to the jeep, curious to see what was in the packages, and then, noticing Harry, romped over to the seated man and threw his front legs onto his lap. Harry laughed, engaging the dog in a playful manner, and was rewarded with a wet tongue under his chin.
“Oh! Sorry Harry!” Ella shouted from the walkway, taking in the scene and not sure of her neighbor’s comfort level with dogs. “Bones, come!”
“It’s okay,” he replied as the dog obeyed and ran back to her.
“Be right back!” she called to Harry.
Ella and Bones disappeared into the apartment and returned ten minutes later with an extra folding chair and a clean, bright tennis ball. She set up her chair, joined her neighbor and tossed the ball over to her front yard; the dog amused himself with the new toy, occasionally bringing it back to Ella or Harry for another launch while they visited.
“Join me for a scotch?” Harry offered.
“Sure! Why not.” Ella was not much of a drinker, and had never actually had scotch before, but everything about her new life was different so far, and she loved the excitement of anything that removed her from what she considered to be her comfort zone. “Do you need any help?”
“No, you stay there. You can get the door for me in a moment.” He returned with two icy tumblers, and when they were seated again, he proposed a toast. “To your new life; may those kids at your school appreciate what you have to offer!” They clinked glasses, and Ella held the first sip in her mouth a bit before swallowing the smooth beverage. The reality that scotch was nothing like beer struck her immediately, and she knew she needed to make this one glass last.
“Thanks, Harry. I got a little indication today that middle school kids here might not be like the ones I went to school with 15 years ago back home. Did you know they have two security guards?”
“Well, I don’t want to diminish your enthusiasm, young lady, but I’ve lived here for almost 20 years now, and I’ve heard rumors. Some people are saying that North Middle might close. Bad test scores, lots of fights, can’t keep good teachers, stuff like that. Doesn’t surprise me. This area has been struggling for a long time now, and with things as they are, it doesn’t look like much is going to improve.”
“I was wondering why there seemed to be more tension than excitement in the building last week while I was in-processing. Oh well. I’ll do the best I can, and that’s about all I can do, right?” Ella suddenly felt very relaxed, her glass half empty, and the two new friends laughed together watching Bones charge around the front of the building as if he were on a racetrack. Which reminded her . . .
“So, your offer to let out my little rascal at lunchtime . . . is that still a possibility? Because I have a feeling I might not be able to come home too often, and I know that I can’t tomorrow. When I came home today—obviously too late—I felt terrible ‘cause he had an accident.” She left out the complete details.
“I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t mean it, now, would I?”
“I just really don’t want you to feel obligated or tied down, and there’s always the doggy-day-care center on Washington Ave. This would be such a relief to me, and I’ll be happy to pay you . . .”
“You’ll do no such thing, dear. This’ll give me a reason to get out of the house a bit. Is he leash trained? I could take him for a walk.”
“He’s great on a leash. I really have no idea how he ended up at the shelter, but someone trained him well before that. I think he’s only about a year old, but he’s a smart boy. I leave the leash on a hook by the front door. Just call his name and give him simple orders like ‘Bones, come,’ and then make him sit while you attach his leash. He’s used to the routine. Oh, and I made you a key.” Ella stood, dug the key from her pocket and handed it to Harry. “Want to call now to make sure he behaves for you?”
“Here boy!” Harry commanded in a firm, but pleasant voice. Bones stopped in his tracks, ball in mouth, and trotted over to Harry. “Sit!” Same tone. Bones sat. “Good little fella,” Harry praised the dog, patting him on the head. “I think we’ll be just fine,” Harry said to Ella, whose mouth was now slightly agape. “I used to have a mutt, years ago. He was a good dog. Here, let me take your glass; I know you’ve got lots to do tonight. If for some reason I can’t let him out some day, I’ll let you know in advance, deal?”
“Deal!” Ella answered, handing him her glass and starting to pick up her chair.
“Unless you need that in your apartment, you’re welcome to leave it here. I occasionally get a visitor, and it’s nice to have an extra seat to offer.”
“Of course! Thanks, Harry, I really do appreciate this. See you tomorrow.” She gave him a quick hug, then returned to her apartment with Bones on her heals.
Suddenly lightheaded when she entered her messy home, she realized that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and tossed a frozen dinner into the microwave. She set up and filled Bones’s new food station, a sturdy food/water combo, and resumed cleaning up the disaster. She ate the bland meal while catching up on the news, then prepared for the next day, setting out the peanut butter to remind herself to make a sandwich in the morning. Ella fell asleep on the couch halfway through an episode of Fringe, and woke to the wet kisses of a dog ready for his evening walk.
Dragging herself to her feet, she went through the motions of prepping for what would normally be a fast-paced pre-bed couple of miles in the slightly less sweltering night-time air, but found that the excitement and stress of the day—topped with the intoxicating new beverage—had sapped her of her usual energy. Fortunately, Bones was just as happy with the slower-paced stroll, and the two were in bed and asleep by ten.
For the first time in years, Ella enjoyed a dreamless, fidgetless sleep, and woke to the new day without an alarm.
The first chapter of Melancholy Mondays continues:
The Middle School was in full bustle. Teachers were back and forth from cars to classrooms, administration was manning the entries and directing new students and parents to late registration tables, custodial staff was buffing and completing final touches for opening day, and small groups of students darted around finding and testing new lockers and peeking into classrooms. This was exactly what Ella had expected to see Monday morning. What she did not expect to see, however, was the scary-looking security guard standing in the background down the hall.
Having just met her teacher peer group briefly last week, and not knowing any of them well enough to feel comfortable chatting, Ella focused on her own mission: to create a positive environment in which her new students would be happy to learn. It took several trips to empty the contents of her jeep, and now it was time to decorate.
She immediately moved the teacher’s desk, a metal monstrosity, to a less conspicuous location at the back of the sterile room. She wanted the entire area in front of the chalk board open, and did not plan ever to sit while her students were working. Nevertheless, she taped a huge yellow cardboard smiley-face to the front of the desk for the infrequent times she might engage a student there. One of her education instructors was focusing the next week’s assignment on how the arrangement of desks in a classroom can influence participation, and Ella had already decided that the days of uniform rows were over.
Pushing the old student desks and chairs to the edges of the classroom, Ella spread out the new multi-color 5×7 carpet in front of the chalk board. This would be the focal point upon which she would deliver her vast knowledge to eager ears. She decided to arrange the student desks in staggered semi-circles around the carpet. After drawing a sketch of the arrangement, she then could assign names to seats, decisions she realized might need to be tweaked once she got to know her kids and observe how they interacted with one another. During last week’s staff meeting when Ella had mentioned her intent to allow students initially to sit where they felt comfortable, only the fact that she was new prevented her peer group from laughing out loud.
Still, her students would figure out that she was not like their other teachers, many whom Ella suspected might be jaded from year after year of the same routine. Ella—all 5’4” inches of her—was young and strong and tough. She had combat experience. She had jumped out of airplanes, trudged countless miles, and wielded significant fire power in defense of herself and the soldiers in her charge. Her students would respect her immediately and would tell others how lucky they were to have the cool new English teacher.
Ella couldn’t believe her eyes when she finally looked up at the clock and realized that she had worked through lunch; it was one o’clock. Bones had been home alone for six hours, longer than she had ever left him before. She locked her classroom and ran out of the building, nearly slamming into Roger Jones, who preferred the nickname “Razz” and was one of two full-time security guards assigned to walk the halls of North Middle School, home of the Eagles. Razz was 6’2” and build like a brick wall.
“Whoa there, little lady, there’s no runnin’ in these here halls,” Razz said with a little twinkle in his eyes, “unless there be a fire, and I don’t see no fire.”
“Sorry! Sorry! I’ve got to go . . . I’ll be back soon,” Ella apologized to the clearly amused man, and out she ran.
As soon as she opened the door to her home, Ella realized that six hours was about two hours too long to expect a year-old dog to entertain himself appropriately.
“Awww, Bones, what have you done?” she asked the mottled fur bag who looked up at her through half-averted puppy-dog eyes, tail wagging guiltily between shaky back legs, an unknown papery white substance hanging from his whiskers. She knew that it was her fault, and took full responsibility immediately. After stepping over what could have been a much larger pile by the front door, Ella made her way through the small apartment. She had only a few decorative pillows on her Ikea hide-a-bed couch, and their contents now decorated the living room floor. The lamp on the foot-locker by the window—Ella’s reading area—lay smashed on the floor under one of the window’s curtains. Following a narrow white paper trail from the living room to the bathroom, Ella could no longer suppress a laugh when she looked at the condition of the bathroom. In the kitchen, there was surprisingly little damage, though the upturned water bowl made for slippery footing.
“Come ‘ere, Bones, it’s okay,” she called to her pup, who sensed that he had done something very wrong but didn’t understand what, and felt a need to distance himself from his master. Bones shuffled over to Ella, tail still wagging low between his legs, and sat by her feet.
“Looks like we’ve got some work to do when I come back tonight, huh boy?” Her tone told him that everything was going to be all right, and he started a quick dash around the living room/kitchen loop, losing it on the slippery kitchen floor and slamming into the cabinets.
Ella opened the back door to the tiny yard and let Bones romp outside while she threw a couple towels on the kitchen floor, made a mental note to find tip-proof feeding bowls, cleaned up the mess by the front door, and did what she could to remove any potential dangers for the next few hours. She thought Harry might pop his head out for a quick hello, but he did not, and she made another note to swing by the hardware store for an extra key to her place that afternoon.
“Okay, Bones, be back soon! You’re a good boy.” She ruffled his head and drove back to add the finishing touches to her classroom. Just one more day before every seat would be filled with fresh young minds to influence. Ella knew how important first impressions were, and she wanted to ensure that her new troops left her classroom feeling excited about what they would learn this year.
I’ve completed the novel I started the month of November for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and by the time I got to the end, I realized I needed to change the title from “Miss?” (the name I was always called while I taught in the public school system) to Melancholy Mondays.
The story is based on journal entries I wrote during my first year of teaching, and the novel is literary fiction. Many of the events actually happened, and others could have happened. I would call it an expose on the ills of our current public education system, but there is enough humor throughout (I hope) to keep you from wanting to jump out a window.
More on this later! I’m working on my one page synopsis now in preparation for finding the perfect publisher!