For Thanksgivingukkah

It’s nearly Thanksgiving or, for those of us who are Jewish, Thanksgivingukkah, probably the best mash-up ever.  What could be better than gratitude and miracles?  Pour gravy over your latkes and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

So because we all have cooking to do, I’ll keep it brief.  Speaking for myself, I want to spend time with my mother, a former English teacher who just came in from Chicago; she is carrying a kindle filled with the books she’s reading for the courses she’s taking at Northwestern.  My three children are also coming in from art school and colleges back East. And over Thanksgivingukkah, I’ll learn from them: I’ll learn about art and writing and filmmaking and all the different subjects my mother is studying.  But I’ll also see again the ways that learning something new can change the way we see the world whether we’re eighteen, like my youngest, or seventy-nine, like my mother.  In changing the way we see the world, we change who we are, which changes the people around us. Continue reading For Thanksgivingukkah

Let’s Just Get Those Pesky Humans Out of the Way

Somebody throw cold water on me.  I really need to be shocked back to my senses.  I just read a study saying that “placing more students in the classrooms of highly effective teachers can improve student achievement.”  Yes, more students; in fact, as many as 12 more students.  But here’s the kicker: the study did not actually use human beings.  It was a simulation, using only the value-added scores of 8th grade students and calculating how they “might” have performed with a more effective teacher.

Okay: I’m trying to breathe, I really am.  One…two…threeContinue reading Let’s Just Get Those Pesky Humans Out of the Way

I Don’t Want To Have A Conversation About Bare Minimum Scraps

If you don’t like this blog, blame Ama Nyamekye.  She’s the one who inspired me to take a year off and go on this crazy quest in the first place.  “In my experience,” she told me over drinks one day last year after work, “if you’ve got a burning curiosity about something, sooner or later, you’re gonna need to satisfy it.”

I’d met her a few months earlier; she runs the L.A. branch of the non-profit Educators4Excellence in Los Angeles but had taught in a in the Bronx for several years, making her the only person I knew at that point other than my immediate colleagues who’d taught in a very low-income community.  Ama, a dynamic and enthusiastic woman with a waterfall of braids spilling down her shoulders, was born in Papua, New Guinea but spent her childhood in Culver City and later, Las Vegas; she was inspired to teach by an elementary school teacher and before coming to E4E has always worked with disadvantaged kids in public schools and in the prison system.

That evening last year, although Ama and her partner had just had a baby, she somehow was able to be fresh, energetic and brimming with excellent advice.  I on the other hand was burned out, isolated and, at that point, nearly weeping from confusion.  I loved my students.  Would I ever find a job as satisfying as teaching? Continue reading I Don’t Want To Have A Conversation About Bare Minimum Scraps

What If We’re Teaching Kids How to Stop Thinking?

When I was in high school, teachers stood in the front of the class lecturing, asking questions, assigning papers and giving the occasional quiz or exam.  But when I became a teacher, I was startled to find out that this teacher-centered mode of instruction, often called “Sage on the Stage,” is considered a bad idea by almost anyone who’s gone through ed school in the last ten years because it allows students to be passive and confers all authority to the teacher.  Continue reading What If We’re Teaching Kids How to Stop Thinking?

I Do, We Do, You Don’t

As I continue to ride the Smolin wave of readership (and shamelessly brandish his name even though this post is, well, maybe not exactly 100% about him…wait!  Don’t go anywhere!  I actually am going to mention him…hang on, all you Smolinites in Mongolia and the Netherlands), my mind is racing as I scramble to think of how I could incorporate some of his techniques into my teaching, since I do not think he would agree to a brain transplant.  And the first think I’d like to point out is that if I went back to my former school I couldn’t teach like Barry even if he did opt in to donate his brain.  Because as I’m coming to learn, teaching is a complex interaction of many factors, and one of the most important is the students themselves.  Continue reading I Do, We Do, You Don’t

The Meaning of Life is That It Stops

So I’m thinking about changing the name of this blog to “Barry Smolin and other stuff.”  Why? Because the blog will go viral due to the million and one former students who love him. “I had him in 9th and 12th grade.  He is awesome,” tweeted one guy now in his mid-twenties after reading my last post.  “Barry is an amazing professor and most responsible for my decision to major in Literature in college. He is truly inspirational and I was so lucky to have him as a teacher,” another guy raves after seeing it on facebook.  All of a sudden, this blog has readers in Malaysia, India, El Salvador, Saudi Arabia and Thailand, among others. Continue reading The Meaning of Life is That It Stops

They’re Trying To Turn Teachers Into Clerks

“Teaching is magic,” says Barry Smolin, as plainly if he’s asserting that the table in front of us is made of wood.  “And teachers are artists.”  At least five of my friends, including my rabbi, have told me I need to interview him. If there is such a thing as an English teacher rock star, Barry is it.

A warm, chatty guy in a Ulysses T-shirt, his long curly hair tucked under a fedora, Barry has the confidence of someone who’s spent his entire career in the classroom, teaching in a neighborhood very close to the Fairfax area where he grew up. Though he’s never met Cynthia Castillo and his gregarious personality is nothing like Cynthia’s calm presence, I’m startled to hear him describe his path to teaching in almost identical terms. “As a teenager, I had all these ideas and I thought I was the only one who had them,” he tells me.  “Literature made me see that I wasn’t alone.  It connected me to the universality of human experience.”  (To compare this description to Cynthia’s, click here.  Scary, right?  Those of you who are skewing negative on the value of literary fiction in education may want to put “breaking through loneliness caused by existential pain of human condition” somewhere on a rubric.) Continue reading They’re Trying To Turn Teachers Into Clerks

Sometimes the Truth Hurts

If I ever get my fifteen minutes of fame, you might be relieved to know that I will not use that time to sing, twerk or break the current world’s record for eating hotdogs (a stunning 69 of them in 10 minutes by Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, breaking the record, and no doubt the heart, of his archrival, Takeyu Kobayashi, whose previous triumphs included eating 110 roasted pork buns and later, 20 pounds of rice balls.  Until his defeat by Chestnut, Kobayashi’s only rival had been a Kodiak bear who humiliated him by eating 50 bunless hotdogs in two minutes while Kobayashi only managed a paltry 30.  The next time you see a bear in the woods, do not challenge it to an eating contest.  The ending will not be happy for you.  But I digress.)  If I ever get my fifteen minutes of fame, I will not promote a searing memoir about my pimply adolescence, or a sizzling tell-all about the sexcapades of my fellow writers and teachers, though should you know any such tales, please send them my way immediately.

No, if—hell, let’s be optimistic, when—I get my fifteen minutes of fame, I will use that slender window of time to tell the world about Sentence of the Week. Continue reading Sometimes the Truth Hurts

The Scariest Post I Have Ever Written

I suck at math.  When I was a teacher, I could not state publicly that I sucked at math because it implied that “sucking at math” was a possible human condition, instead of the more optimistic suggestion that for me, math was a window of opportunity I had not yet chosen to open.  Now, though, blogging freely in my own kitchen, I can tell you that when faced with a math problem above third-grade level, my mind instantly goes into a petrified gridlock.

I hate math.  I hate it because of my 8th grade Algebra teacher, a slim, pretty, extremely sarcastic woman whose ice-blue, disdainful gaze I still remember and who seemed to dislike me deeply because I was frequently wrong and, I’m sorry to say, sometimes disruptive, especially as the year wore on and it was clear that I must have been placed in the gifted class through a clerical error.  Continue reading The Scariest Post I Have Ever Written

What’s the Difference Between School and Jail?

“So I walk into an advisory class,” says Roger Lowenstein, “And I tell the kids to take out a piece of paper and I ask the kids, in three sentences, what’s the difference between school and jail?”  High-energy, bespectacled and outrageously articulate, Roger is in the middle of a story in answer to my question about the purpose of education.  A former criminal attorney who also spent years as a television writer, Roger founded L.A. Leadership Academy charter school eleven years ago with the goal of educating the next generation of community activists.

Continue reading What’s the Difference Between School and Jail?