Saturday, March 10, 2012

"One more thing, gentlemen, before I quit..."

First of all, I want to say how easy it has been to find quotes from great books to title my blog posts with.  It continues to disturb me that the "powers that be" want to remove literature from English classes in the United States.  I still say they are idiots.  
This morning's quote comes from one of the GREATEST BOOKS EVER, To Kill a Mockingbird.  I just purchased the 50th anniversary of this book, in hardback, because I felt the need to own it.  I have over 100 copies at school, but this one is special to me.  The cover has changed over the years, but the story rings as true today as it did in 1960 when it was written about living in deep south Alabama in 1933.  The story follows the greatness of one white man trying to save a wrongly accused black man without sacrificing the innocence of his children.  Truly. Great. Book.
One of my favorite quotes from the book is "Son, where are you pants?" - makes me laugh every time.  And I must admit admit I find myself THRILLED anytime I can say this to my son - cracks me up.  But, the other moment from the book I always remember is the speech Atticus gives in the courtroom as he is closing his arguments for Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused man.
"One more thing, gentlemen, before I quit.  Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase the Yankees and distaff of the Executive Branch in Washington are fond at hurling at us.  There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions.  The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the STUPID AND IDLE along with the industrious..."
This is of course, the words of Harper Lee, reaching into the character of Atticus Finch, a man most of us believe to be absolutely real.  What strikes me so much about these words is they were written in 1960!  And they still ring TRUE today, in 2012.  Talk about literature standing the test of time.  Apparently we've been graduating and promoting people that did not deserve it for quite some time.
But what I want to focus on today is the comment made about public education - that we as an institution - promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious.  Yes, my friends, that is true.  (This is where I'm working hard not to turn this into a rant and keep it focused on facts, figures, and actual expectations - bear with me).  
I recently sat at a basketball practice for my son chatting with another dad.  I was grading papers.  He glanced over at the work and said, "Do you teach elementary school?"  
"No.  I teach HS English, 9th, 10th, and 11th..."  He laughed.  I think he thought I was being sarcastic (which I'm fond of being).  
His response, after looking at the papers again, "You're kidding..."  
"I wish I was..."  was all I could say.  
The work was atrocious, embarrassing even.  And the assignment wasn't difficult, in fact my 8-year-old could have knocked it out of the park, messy handwriting and all.  There would have been absolutely no difference in his paper and the papers I held in my hand that night.  Let me read your minds right now...why did I give such a simple assignment to 10th graders?  Because it's all I can get them to do.  I've done harder assignments, tougher assignment, more thought provoking assignments and they don't do them.  I mean, just don't do them.  More than 80% of my class just left the written portion blank on the last test I gave.  I had to re-administer the test with a caveat saying, "If you don't do the short answer question, you will get a 0% for the entire test."  About 30% still left it blank.  And now I have to call their parents because they are failing.  What a colossal waste of time.  I say this because it changes nothing.  There is no accountability for students and their learning, nor is there any accountability for the parents in raising said children.  The only person expecting this child to do anything or learn anything is me.  Then, and here's the best part, if he/she does not learn the standards and cannot perform them on the test, my job is now in question.  I can be fired, they will be promoted to the next grade.  Even if they fail my class not because they failed the 9-weeks (everything possible was done BY THE TEACHER to ensure they passed, even with a 70%), they can be placed in summer school, credit recovery, IDS classes (credit recovery during the school day), or virtual high school; going right on to the next level of English or Math or Science, etc...totally clueless and falling further and further behind.  Repeat cycle until graduation.
What to do?  What to do?  Truthfully, I don't know.  Well, I do...but no one really wants to hear about it.  
Back to the parent conversation.
He continues to ask me questions about the schools "around here" and then says (and this really got me), "Well, this is a no fail district, right?"  
"What ever do you mean?" (insert genteel southern drawl here).  
"You have a 100% graduation plan and socially promote students, right?"  
And then, swallowing my pride, my grit, and my integrity, "Yes sir, we do."  You see, he wasn't from around these parts - he hails from up North where school districts consistently out perform us in the south.  
His final comment for our conversation, "That's flat out wrong."  Practice over.  
What more could I say.  He was right, what "we" are doing is wrong.  It's really just that black and white.  If you can't do the work and perform it to a level of proficiency, you should not go on to the next level.  But they do, every day, and "we" allow it, encourage it even.  Stomach turning.
But it gets better.  When and if they give up, and drop out, that is somehow my fault, too.
Statistic I recently read (and what prompted this entire blog) - 47% of students drop-out because classes weren't interesting.
What  a "cop-out" statistic. To blame someone else (the teacher, the subject) for your lack of interest in a subject is ludicrous. Boredom is a choice, it is NOT the natural state of affairs. And furthermore, I maintain class would probably be more interesting if one was PAYING ATTENTION, doing their friggin' work, and trying to learn instead of counting ceiling tiles because they're too high to get what the teacher is saying or too checked out to give a damn long before they arrived in anyone's classroom. Frustrating...
I can't say there aren't bad teachers out there, they exist.  Teachers that do nothing but worksheets and never attempt to engage students in learning, but in all honesty, these teachers are few and far between.  Most teachers are trying their damnedest  every day to create lessons that are interesting, entertaining, historically accurate, and intriguing.  My classroom assignments include scavenger hunts, webquests, music, and comedy.  But, they also include vocabulary, rote memorization, study, and writing (to include dreaded grammar).  There is zero difference in their reaction to something "fun" or something "required" (I refuse to say boring because becoming a smarter or more intelligent human being is NEVER boring).
To sum it all up here, if we want public education to get better, to become something we can be proud of, the change starts with student accountability.  Teachers should absolutely be held to rigorous standards, but it is ludicrous to blame a professional for the lack of effort of the laymen.  We don't blame the dentist for cavities, the doctors for heart-attacks, etc...(this list could go on and on).  
Just yesterday I was chatting with a colleague and we were both frustrated by our students lack of focus and dedication to the lessons we were doing.  I gave a webquest in which she asked how it was going?  My response:
"So far they are whining about having to do any kind of research to answer the questions (with the exception of a few of them) and several students skipped the questions, went straight to the story without understanding the background, and then didn't "get it". They then blamed me, told me the story was, and I quote, "Stooopiiidddd...."
Reply:  "I know what you mean….I've had a tough morning trying to get them to carry out a decent discussion about a poem that I have taught for years and students ALWAYS ALWAYS like it.  They told me "but it's Friday" and that they "don't really care" about what they make on the State EOC.   I am deflated, totally."  
Me: "DITTO!  I have a feeling they won't get into Chopin and she is one my absolute FAVORITE authors, so it kills my soul when they just don't care.  
I did an EOC calculator on Excel and used their Benchmarks as scores – majority of them fail the semester because they've given themselves NO CUSHION in their 9-weeks grades.  Would you like to borrow?"
Reply:   "Sure.  That's what I told them today…."You just don't understand how big 25% of your grade is." To which, they told me that they really didn't care!  I'm really more mad at myself because I'm deluded enough to believe that my students actually appreciate my hard work and that they should appreciate thinking and discussing life in literature!"
True story...folks. But we will both go back to work on Monday and try again, and again, and again, and again, and again.  Pray for us.


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  2. This post makes me even more frustrated with my nephew. My brother and sister-in-law are blaming his recent declining grades on boredom. He isn't challenged. Ha! Truth be told, he is having a tough time with family situations beyond his control but, he can make the choice to focus on school and at least try to do the work he is assigned. In my opinion, it would distract him from the rest of the crap going on in his young life.

    I'm frustrated and frustrated for you. You are definitely in my prayers.

    1. rats. that didn't work. Anyway. Let 'em suffer now while they are safe. It will hurt a lot less to fail now than rather than later when life really counts.

  3. I like "get out while you can" :-).