Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Imaginary Teachers

I was really into those teacher movies as a teenager, the ones where the Amazing Teacher turns the lives of downtrodden-yet-plucky youngsters who just need a little love (and generally the ruination of the teacher’s entire life) to succeed. Dead Poets’ Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds, loved ‘em. They’re terribly unrealistic, though, and definitely not the direction I want my own teaching career to go. (I like a little emotional health, thank you.)

Teachers in children’s literature are a different breed than the Martyr Teacher of the movies. Here are a few of my favorites.

Miss Honey, Matilda by Roald Dahl
Miss Honey is perfect. She never raises her voice, quietly resists the evil Miss Trunchbull (seems like there’s always an evil teacher to balance the good one), and is the only one to recognize Matilda’s gifts. I adored a couple of my teachers the way that Matilda adores Miss Honey, but none of my teachers were that perfect. Thank goodness, since teachers have enough pressure on us as it is without trying to ascend to angelic status. (Matilda also has an opening that I absolutely love, especially on my meaner and more irritable days, when the narrator talks about what teachers would REALLY like to say in their report card comments.)

Miss Stacy, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Another one of those bad-teacher/good-teacher situations, Miss Stacy replaces Mr. Phillips, who is harsh, hates Anne, and spends most of his time attempting to romance one of his older students. (Ewww.) Miss Stacy has her students going on nature walks and acting out battles (teaching with Multiple Intelligences before we knew about Multiple Intelligences!), which worries the good citizens of Avonlea. She’s all about the whole child. I have the feeling that Miss Stacy would not be a high-stakes standardized testing fan.

Ms. Finney,The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger
Ms. Finney is a modern-day (well, 1970s) Miss Stacy, using unconventional methods to teach English and encouraging her kids to question authority (uh-oh). Main character Marcy, who hates just about everything, loves Ms. Finney and is one of the students who go to her defense when she loses her job due to her political views. Marcy is smart, sarcastic, overweight, and socially inept. Ms. Finney accepts her the way she is and helps her start on the way to liking herself as well as teaching her. I’ll never be as cool as Ms. Finney, but like her I want to be there for the Marcys in my classes. (I was a Marcy. Heck, I still am a Marcy.)


Mr. Carpenter, the Emily books by L.M. Montgomery

The trilogy starting with Emily of New Moon is one of L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-read series, but I actually prefer it to the Anne books. Mr. Carpenter is not the paragon that Miss Stacy is. He’s cynical, an alcoholic, a burned-out local prodigy who was expected to have a brilliant career but ended up "a country schoolteacher at forty-five with no prospect of being anything else." Emily is an aspiring writer, and the first time she takes him her writing, he thoroughly trashes most of it. He finds “ten good lines” out of the pile of stories and poems she gives him, and at first she is devastated, until he explains that ten good lines is an achievement at her age, and IF she keeps working, in ten years she'll be able to write a hundred. Emily walks away from that meeting with renewed determination to improve her writing and earn Mr. Carpenter’s respect, and that’s a better outcome than a series of smiley stickers and “Great job!” comments scrawled across student work could ever produce. Also, there's a great quote about his teaching style: "Mr. Carpenter never tried to keep order, apparently. But somehow he kept his students so busy that they had no time to do mischief."

The teachers in Harry Potter might deserve a post of their own, one of these days: Dumbedore, McGonagall, Lupin, Snape, Umbridge, Slughorn and the rest provide lots of food for thought!

Any other teachers in film, TV, or literature that have stuck with you, good or bad?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

State writing test produces “Stepford Writers”

In Florida, 4th grade (which I taught for several years) is the Year of FCAT Writing. We spend months feverishly preparing our kids to prewrite, organize, draft, and revise a 4-5 paragraph essay, which must be on topic, descriptive, creative, and mechanically correct… in 45 minutes. Keep in mind that these little guys are NINE YEARS OLD.

Since the advent of the test (I was one of the first batch of test-takers, with the 8th grade version) teachers figured out that the easiest way to get high scores was to teach their kids formula writing. After all, some of our most creative and effective writers scored low on the test because they didn’t have a conclusion (too busy writing to notice that time was almost up) or because they panicked (no time for emotion-- this is FCAT!). So—make sure they get in elements A, B, and C (and D-M or so) and they’ll “pull a 4.” Creativity? Well, as long as they toss in few similes, some onomatopoeia… maybe they’ll get up to a 5. Creativity is a luxury during FCAT writing.

So it was no surprise to me when I saw this article about elementary schools being warned for teaching their kids… formula writing.

PALM BEACH COUNTY - The same phrases kept appearing on FCAT essays by numerous fourth-graders in Palm Beach, Broward and 10 other county school districts: "I ran as fast as wild fire," "Poof!", "In the blink of an eye," and "Now you can clearly see" are just a few of the common word choices noticed by scorers this year.


Guess what? Teachers often have lists of descriptive and organizational phrases kids can use. Often these are generated by the kids themselves and stay up on the board all year, being added to when some comes up with a new one. We take them down during the tests, of course. However, they provide a quick mental shorthand for test-stressed kids—“I ran…” (insert remembered simile here) “as fast as wildfire!” Are you going to penalize kids for using clich├ęs? Maybe the teachers at these schools went a little too far with this, although clearly not far enough to warrant anything more than a hand-slap and some embarrassing press.

What surprised me was that the Education Deparment was shocked, SHOCKED to find out that kids were being taught “template writing” (which, by the way, is not the same thing as a bunch of kids using the same simile or concluding phrase.)

In a November analysis from the state Education Department . . . cited the danger that students would become "Stepford Writers. They may look like writers, act like writers, think they're writers, but they are really task completers -- practicing for FCAT Writing."


So using a phrase like “Now you can clearly see” means that the student’s writing isn’t original? What, and using “in conclusion” or “to summarize” instead would have been original? The Education Department wouldn’t have cared if there was just a tad more variation (translation: teachers, make your phrase lists longer). FCAT writing has been producing “Stepford Writers” for fifteen years with no sign of stopping. Moreover, it’s producing Stepford Writers who HATE TO WRITE.

If we want a test with any kind of authenticity, let’s allow the kids to pick their topics. Even a choice of two or three would be better than none. Let’s give them more time, maybe two hours or even stretch the test over two days the way some states do. Let’s honor our students’ different learning and processing styles by giving them time to reflect and revise.

More than that, let’s bring down the stakes, so teachers can spend time on something other than FCAT during their writing instruction. Let’s allow 4th grade and 8th grade and 10th grade students to do REAL WRITING, in multiple stages, the way most of us did in school and the way we teachers were taught to in our education classes. Let’s revive the lost art of the Final Draft. Let’s give our kids time to savor and enjoy writing again.

Until that happens, Florida Education Department, don’t pretend surprise when kids churn out formulaic writing.