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Teachers teach. Writers write. We do both.

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July 2016

Diving Well

by Martin Brandt, SJAWP Teacher Consultant and Teaching/Diving Bad Ass

Author’s Note: “Diving Well” won the top prize in the 2015 California Association of Teachers of English professional writing contest, and subsequently appeared in the November 2015 issue of California English.

The ten-meter diving platform at Independence High School’s Frank Fiscalini International Swim Center is a monument from another epoch, an age of optimism when students and teachers were still encouraged to dream. A concrete edifice resembling a fire-fighting training tower, it stands mostly locked today, its ground floor now a storage closet for pool gear. Guarding the tower is a heavy steel door opened only for the random swimming and diving meet, or on that rare occasion when some PE coach figures “What the hell,” and risks his career to offer the kids a memory.

It must have been on such a day almost twenty years ago that I overheard the students in my Language Arts 3 class speaking with unguarded delight about something. It wasn’t the kind of thing that usually delighted them — not a fight, or a pregnancy, or a classmate who had shown up high to class — but instead something to do with school. They were talking about how much fun they’d had jumping off of the ten-meter platform.

“You see that one fool do that flip?”

“You see my jump? Dude, that shit was tight!”

I should explain here that I was a pretty bad teacher at the time, and that these were, in my view, pretty bad students. They had long before figured out that they were the school’s losers, embracing the role with a defiant pride that could easily destroy the chirpy idealism of a young teacher like me. I was only a few years removed from a university teaching program, once eager to convert the natives to the wonder of the written word, yet they had already succeeded in eroding my idealism into the infamous cynicism of the teacher lunchroom. It was with these students in mind that I had crafted my despairing maxim that teaching was the act of trying to liberate those who were content with incarceration.

So I had settled into a grim non-aggression pact with the students of Language Arts 3. Don’t worry, I assured them: you stop using the F-word as a comma, and I won’t expect any substantive thinking from you. Don’t let me hear your soul-crushing tales of gangsta glory, and I’ll give you the busy work that you seem to crave. Most importantly, when we read (a torment for all of us that I will strive to avoid) we’ll avoid anything of substance and focus strictly on comprehension. Deal? Deal.

But this strange sound of their enthusiasm for a school event somehow awakened a dormant sense of possibility that I had taught myself to avoid. Suddenly I found myself saying to them, “I feel an assignment coming on.”

“What?”

“We all jump off the ten-meter platform, and then write about the experience.”

This was as great a leap as I had ever allowed myself with these students, and I half-hoped that they would decline. But for them, anything was better than another hour of English.

“Aw, hell yeah!”

I began to have second thoughts. “You’re going to have to write about the experience, though.”

This did not discourage them. “All right, we can do that!”

We negotiated the terms of the deal: students who jumped would write a first-person account of the adventure, while those who opted not to jump could write in the third-person. Oh, and as a combination bonus and incentive, I would jump too. First. Perhaps this explains why, as I made arrangements with the PE office later that afternoon, a line from a Talking Heads song ran continuously through my head: “My God, what have I done?”

A week later, as I began ascending the tower for my promised leap, I saw that there are actually three platforms: one at three meters, another at five, and the highest at ten. Upon reaching the three-meter platform, I looked out over the diving well and realized that this was already higher than any springboard I had ever been on. The pool lay spread out broadly before me, placid and beckoning. Wouldn’t this be good enough? No — the deal was ten meters, not three, and my students, joined now by a class from boys’ PE, waited expectantly on the deck. I would have to continue my ascent.

At five meters, the pool seemed to have shrunk considerably. I felt the first touch of fear as the turquoise surface began to resemble less an open field and more a small back yard. My legs quivering as I continued upward, I began to understand that this hadn’t been such a good idea.

At last I arrived at the ten-meter platform, a hideously small rooftop with a ledge that fronted a massive void. It felt like being on the roof of a high-rise, of some place I was not authorized to visit. Thirty-two feet below me, the water of the diving well had shrunk to a frighteningly small size. A haunting, audible breeze drifted around me while, holding my hands outward for balance, I took a few tentative steps forward, looking down toward the water, and then retreating, slowly and carefully, back toward the stairway.

I realized that I hadn’t properly prepared for this moment, that I had no real notion of the guts it took to jump from this height. But now that I was here, standing at the top of the diving tower, the hangars of the Moffett Field Naval Station clearly visible some fifteen miles distant, I knew that I had no choice.

Sensing my fear, the class of swimmers from boys’ PE decided to help, gleefully encouraging me with a chorus of male adolescent invective.

“Jump, you fucking pussy!”

“You’re gonna die, asshole! Ha-ha-ha!”

What a way to go: plunging to my death for no other reason than to escape the humiliation of that teenage scorn. Egged on by the catcalls, I walked back toward the ledge, stared straight ahead, and took several resolute steps until I simply walked off the tower.

Plummeting toward the water, dimly aware of the roar of the crowd, I stiffened my body into the pencil-straight shape that would protect me, but began listing to the left. Attempting to right myself, I began desperately to wave my right hand in a circular motion.

I was still waving when I hit the water.

I had been in the air for less than two seconds; I spent much more time below the surface, sounding the depths. It turns out that the diving well is eighteen feet deep because you need most of it, a fact that became evident as I swam toward the surface, which seemed to retreat with each stroke of my arms. “Where’s the surface?” I began to ask myself. “Where’s the fucking surface?”

I broke through at last and took a deep, grateful gulp of air. I was alive. The boys on the deck, who moments ago had been viciously questioning my manhood, now broke into a round of sardonic applause. Then I remembered my own students. Where had they gone? I didn’t see any of them in the crowd on the deck. Then some of the boys began pointing to the concrete grandstands on the other side of the pool, where my students sat on one of the rows, each of them holding up a hastily written, homemade scorecard:

0.2, 1.1, -3.7, -1…

Now that’s funny, I thought, swimming back. Wickedly, cleverly funny. It takes real wit to craft and organize that kind of group smack-talk on the fly. Had I been underestimating these students? Back on the deck, my legs still shaking, I dried myself as I watched the fearless boys and girls of Language Arts 3 hurtle themselves off the platform in gleeful, death-defying twists, flips, and contortions.

Years later, I would read “Diving In,” an essay by Mina Shaughnessy, the composition scholar who, instead of dismissing her students as I had, strove to understand the reasoning behind their errors. In “Diving In,” she argues that the greatest barrier we writing teachers face is ignorance of our students: “It is no longer within our power, as it once was,” she declared, “to refuse to accept them into the community of the educable.” Indeed, that is what I had been doing; by seeing my students as deficient thinkers, incapable of independent critical insight, I had confused their language, world-view, and interests — all of which I disapproved of — with their ability to think, denying their entry into this community.

Those Russian-judge scores would stand as the highlight of the assignment. Their written submissions were forgettable. But there was something in those scores, some promise that I had not recognized before. They had tipped their hand, showing themselves to be natural critical thinkers, and I had been deeply wrong to dismiss them. They didn’t need me to teach them how to think; they needed me to provide opportunities to stimulate that ability which they already carried in them — and all I had to do was jump off a three-story building to realize it.

 

Ozymandias: the poem we teach and the poem Shelley wrote

by Jonathan Lovell

Authors note: An earlier version of this essay, without illustrations, appeared in the April 2016 issue of California English devoted to the topic “Close Reading: What It Is and What It Is Not.” In addition to its interpretation of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” this essay is intended to serve as a model for writing in response to literature, seeing this writing as a journey of exploration and discovery.

slide023 (1)Ozymandias: the poem we teach and the poem Shelley wrote

Rethinking Rigor

by Kate Flowers, NBCT, Heinemann Fellow, SJAWP Teacher Consultant

Author’s note: This piece, written late January 2016, keeps haunting me. The word “rigor” gets a lot of traction in the world of education, and this is my gut reaction to it. What do you think? Should we rethink rigor?

It’s ten in the morning, and, since it’s my prep period,  my classroom is quiet and peaceful, the thirty-nine desks empty except for the two that my colleague Jon and I use. Jon, a passionate teacher I respect for his vast experience and “big picture” mindset, currently serves as teacher on special assignment, a position known for its habit of turning talented teachers into district henchmen who spend their days crafting soul-sucking district assessments.  Jon, however, fights against this, dedicating himself to fostering best practices in whatever covert ways he can, one of which involves his work with me.

We’ve been sketching out the beginning of a pilot program to promote independent reading in our district, but had gotten a bit off track, talking about other issues, when my colleague shares what he believes to be a universal truth.

“Of course, Kate, we want rigor in our classes,” Jon says, an aside to a larger point he is trying to make.

I pause, but he continues, not registering my hesitation or the fact that my attention isn’t with him any longer.

Of course we want rigor in our classes.

To disagree would be unthinkable.

To disagree would be akin to saying:  Of course, I want to be an irresponsible teacher who dooms her students to a lifetime of illiteracy. Right?

I’m going to share a little secret with you, though I don’t think I shared it with Jon at that moment. I loathe the word rigor. I know it is supposed to be untouchable, the one quality that all educators agree upon, but honestly, it’s been so abused and misused, I think it best if we just abandon it all together.

If we look at Merriam-Webster’s definition, you’ll see it’s a pretty horrible definition to begin with even before the misuse, nothing that any of us would want to use to define our teaching, student learning, or our lives. Merriam-Webster defines rigor as “(1) :  harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment :  severity (2) :  the quality of being unyielding or inflexible :  strictness (3) :  severity of life :  austerity, b :  an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty, 3:  a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; 4:  strict precision:  exactness, 5 obsolete:  rigidity, stiffness ;  rigor mortis.”

I’m sure there must be a more depressing, joyless definition in the dictionary, but it would take a while to find it. Is this really what we aspire to in our classrooms?

I hope not.

Now, many educators would argue that this broad definition does not account for its specific use in education, that by rigor educators mean challenge. And often, I agree, this is the case. However, in my own experience, I have too frequently witnessed rigor used to defend teaching malpractice.

While the vast majority of teachers I’ve worked with over the last two decades have been hard-working, innovative, caring professionals, rigor has taken its toll on the entire profession. How much of this pressure to idolize rigor stems from the mistaken idea that the problem with American education is that schools are too soft on kids? This belief casts rigor as the solution to all educational ills, and leads to the tyranny of standardized testing as a high-stakes accountability measure. David Denby exposes the impact of standardized testing in his article “Stop Humiliating Teachers” in the New Yorker:

Public-school teachers have been trapped in a maze of standardized tests. There were the tests mandated by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind program, passed in 2001, which yoked schools’ survival to test scores; and then there was the Obama program, Race to the Top, passed in 2009, which encouraged states to promote charter schools and the Common Core and linked promotion or dismissal to teachers’ ability to get kids to score well on tests; and there’s the Common Core itself, which has new, more difficult tests reinforcing it. Teachers run from one testing regiment to another.

Denby, it seems, has been lurking around schools, eavesdropping on teams of teachers toiling away on district committees as they race to modify benchmarks to measure the new Common Core assessments. California high school teachers didn’t even have time to celebrate the end of the California High School Exit Exam (itself the source of over a decade of stress and anxiety) this fall, as the first Common Core test results of the SBACC had arrived, with depressing results.

Just a problematic, though, is that rigor has become educational Kevlar for bad teaching. Jonathan Lovell, professor of English education at San Jose State University, says that there is a “knee jerk deference to rigor,” and this is clearly the case. While it isn’t an everyday occurrence, at least one teacher at every school where I’ve taught has used rigor as an excuse for bad teaching, and usually, when they use the rigor defense, people immediately back down.

I’ve heard a colleague dismiss a high failure rate in his classes with the words, “Well, my class is rigorous, what do you expect?” I’ve heard teachers dismiss student disengagement, misbehavior, boredom, and truancy all due to rigor.

Rigor, to these teachers, makes it acceptable for students to be miserable in our classrooms. Rigor makes it okay that only half the class turns in their homework. It makes it okay for teachers to obsess over curriculum while ignoring–or worse, disdaining–their students. It makes it okay if they assign the same boring paper, the same pointless homework, the same out of touch novel, over and over and over. It’s okay if school is painful for students because it’s rigorous. If the kids don’t succeed, it’s not the teacher’s fault–the kids couldn’t handle the rigor.

The problem is, exactly none of that is okay. It isn’t okay if our kids are miserable in our classrooms, or if only half the class completes homework, or if we ignore our students, or dislike them. It’s not okay if they don’t succeed. We can’t hide behind rigor and pretend that we aren’t responsible for the actual learning and growth our students make in our classrooms, and for creating the conditions under which learning and growth can take place.

Paradoxically, rigor works against the shift we are trying to make in our classrooms. We want students who are able to think critically, who are college and career ready, but we are preparing them with the idea that the best way to do it is to be inflexible, rigid, even cruel. Rigorous teaching, done badly, clearly communicates a terrible falsehood to our students: ideas and standards are much more important than you, kid–if you don’t get this, it’s your fault, and you should feel like a failure, because you are.

Basically, my point is this: rigor is a jerk.

I know this sounds harsh, and that it sounds like I’m beating up on teachers, a group I not only belong to but revere above all others. It’s because I love education and teaching and teachers that I think it is the responsibility of practicing teachers to call bullshit when we see it. To put it inelegantly, in this rigor rigmarole, we are knee deep.

So what do I suggest? I suggest that we replace the word–better yet, the idea–of rigor with a much healthier word: vigor. Merriam-Webster defines vigor as “strength, energy, determination; active mental strength; active healthy well-balanced growth; intensity of action or effect.”

Rigor assumes rigidity, a white-knuckled approach to teaching and learning that is akin to eating spinach while pinching one’s nose closed. Vigor believes that learning doesn’t have to be painful; it invites joy, life, engagement and personality to teaching and learning. Vigor doesn’t shy away from challenge, yet it rejects the idea that learning should be dehumanizing. The vigorous classroom honors students at its center, operating under the belief that the best way into a kid’s head is through her heart.

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