Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Can I Survive This Overbearing?

The problem with not blogging on a regular basis is I tend to wait until I get so wound up by something that I NEED to blog about it. Brace yourself - I'm going to sort out my day.

School started for me on Monday. No kids yet - we've got a week of new teacher orientation first (that alone should be a signal to you fellow DPJH teachers how different this district is).

Monday was a lot of logistics, including a bus tour of the district. DPJH is a Title 1-qualified school, so I do have some experience working with at-risk students. But when the tour guide points to a row of tiny, run-down apartments and says that 2 or 3 families live in each of those before pointing out the trailer park on our left, well, you know you're in for a challenge.

Tuesday - Technology training, time to work in our rooms. Rather than planning, I spent the time alphabetizing and putting away the books in the my room. Mindless work, but my procrastination actually paid off today.

We were scheduled to meet with the curriculum coaches/mentors this morning. The 6th grade language arts teacher is also new, and our shared mentor is the 7th grade LA teacher, Joe. I'm liking him. And, boy, was I glad he was at the meeting this morning.

After talking about vocabulary lists and the school's sacred goals, one of the coaches gave each of us a "pacing guide" for the first quarter. Let me translate - she handed us each a two-page paper that dictated exactly what we were supposed to teach our classes. It came with the instructions that we were NOT to deviate from the pacing guide AT ALL. Any resources we wanted to use had to be approved by the curriculum director at the district, but for the first quarter we are required to only teach non-fiction, finding the main idea, and writing a summary paragraph. No, let me repeat - ONLY finding the main idea and writing a summary paragraph, using ONLY non-fiction.

To be fair, let me give you a little bit more context behind this district mandate:

The state test scores for last year was released this week, and this district tested abominably low, as usual. As in, about 70% of the students were either Not Proficient or Partially Proficient (i.e. failed) in Math, Reading, and Writing. Where the state average for scores were in the 60s, these kids were in the 40s.

(Quick reminder - trailer park.)

So, one month ago the district appointed a new superintendent and a new curriculum director. These two folks took a look at the test scores and concluded that drastic measures must be taken. That is, they must stipulated EXCATLY what will be taught in the math and language arts classrooms, how it will be taught, using which pages in what textbook, and demanded that the teachers agree to follow these instructions with total fidelity.

Without asking any teachers for thoughts or opinions, by the way.

Which is why I was glad Joe was there at this meeting - he was just as blown away as we were at the requirements. Thank goodness. If he had taken it all as de rigeur, I would have been a lot more concerned about working in this district. We were all upset, though. In the frantic panic that comes after receiving shockingly bad news, we asked whatever questions we could to try to salvage our personal teaching styles and lesson plans. Which made it worse - we were told that in all likelihood, they were going to eliminate reading novels from the curriculum altogether because it "takes up too much classroom instruction time". It was suggested that the school offer an extra-curricular book club instead if we were that concerned about kids reading entire books.


Look, I get it. I know that this is a poor, transitory, minority, already-below-grade-level population. I know that the school will be on Academic Watch this year, and that the threat of the entire district being shut down looms over our heads thanks to NCLB's fantastical expectations that schools and schools alone can overcome racism, poverty, immigration issues, the evaporation of reading for pleasure, and the persistent idea that school is something you just have to suffer through. Without adequate funding.

But what makes me so dysphoric is I want to teach kids that there is such unimaginable beauty out there in the world. That there are huge ideas and horrible events and remarkable people and places they've heard of and places they've never heard of and they can each get out there and explore all of it. I want to rejoice in their worlds of video games and hormones and sports, but then show them the fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, and miracles that make life wonderful. I want to give them stories!

Of course the skills on the test are important, and of course I teach them in my class. But my students learned those skills while they were discovering the art of language.

So I was angry and sad and hurt and so many other things all at once. So were the other teachers. Joe was kind enough to mention later on that while he was upset, he couldn't imagine how upset I must be to have given up a job and moved to a different state only to have the expectations and very nature of the job I took yanked out from under me.

There's no getting around it, either. This is how it must go.

But here's the reason why I didn't quit today (aside from my upcoming first mortgage payment) -

My principal and the two coaches at the school sat down with us after lunch, acknowledged our feelings ("there's some bad mojo seeping out into the hall"), validated our feelings ("and I get that - I felt the same way when I heard about this"), and did something that I've never had an administration do: listened to us, talked honestly and openly about the issue with us, and treated us like professionals who know what they are doing. I am putting my faith in the remarkable impression every person I've met at this school has given me.

So I'll go back tomorrow and I'll teach the lessons they tell me to teach and I'll say what they tell me to say and I'll hope that someday I'll be able to teach these kids about the art of language and the power of storytelling.

I'll tell you what, though. My kids are going to write the best damn summary paragraphs those testers have ever seen.


  1. I'm speechless! If only they knew what they were missing out on by limiting you. I know you'll find a way to make it work for you but I can't imagine your frustration! Sorry you're there to go it alone, but i'm glad your mentor gets it!

  2. hi friend.

    i just caught up on a few months of your life. congrats on the move and the HOUSE (!!!!) and a big hug for the upcoming year. sounds like my school (don't get me started on the oh-so-evil pacing guide), but know that despite the limitations, what matters most is that you're there, every day, checking in with them. they are lucky to have you. and you'll find a way to make it work.


  3. GAH! Not reading the entire novel?! Okay, now I'm going to go back to reading your post...I just had to state my shock.

  4. I used to eat food with a man who'd hear stories like this and declare, "In France, the Minister of Education can look at his watch and know what page of the book every student is on".

    And then, we'd mock the French over dessert.

    You do know, don't you, that you have the sort of special super-powers that transcend pacing guides? I know you do.

    By the way, it's so hot upstairs in the new house that sometimes at night it feels like Hubbard :)