Ignorance Cannot Be Bliss.

At the end of 2015, I read Amanda Ripley’s study of public education, “The Smartest Kids in the World.” One anecdote that has stuck with me was her interview with Finnish teachers.

Finland, if you don’t know, is often held up as the gold standard of public education. It’s what many ed reformers point to as a system the U.S. should emulate. Their courses are rigorous, test scores are near the top of the international pack, and their students are relatively well-adjusted.

So it surprised me when I read that Finnish teachers try to not know much about their students. It compromises rigor, said the source, to know a student’s home and personal life because it becomes harder to be objective in assigning and assessing work.

That teacher is absolutely right. When I know about my students, it’s harder to be objective with them in general. See, that’s the sticky wicket about being a human being–when you start to connect with another human being, objectivity tends to flee rather quickly.

Stueve and I occasionally lament our positions as advisers, because we tend to have different relationships with those students on our staffs. We still fall in the category of benevolent dictators, but the sheer volume of time we spend with our staffs, compared to students who just take our introductory classes, is exponentially larger. We know more about our staffs, they know more about us. We connect. And in connection, there is just as much opportunity for pain as there is for joy. And as much as we love celebrating achievements and milestones with our students, the pain at times is visceral.

But often after pain comes the redemption–oh, the redemption–and it is poignant. And it is just as rewarding for me to see a student emerge from embers of a torched life and start to rebuild as it is for me to see them succeed at any curriculum.

So while I agree with the Finnish teacher about the risks that accompany knowing students on a personal level, I disagree that a balance cannot be achieved. I still hold my students to a standard. They still must meet benchmarks. But occasionally a little compassion can go a long way, even in education, even in a world where experts privilege “no-nonsense” objectivity and rigor over humanity.

I pick humanity every time. Why else would I have become a teacher?


I didn’t want to like him, let alone agree with him.

There I sat yesterday morning, in a high school auditorium on my last day of summer vacation, listening to Rick Wormeli spout his radical, subversive, unconventional approach to grading.

I teach Rhetoric, so I went to the presentation armed with my best Rhetoric weapons: looking for logical fallacies, paying close attention to connotative language, trying to poke holes in his argument.

Two problems I didn’t expect to encounter. First, he was an engaging presenter. Second, he made some sense.

I still have questions–the most pressing is if we move to standards-based grading, will it translate to effectively preparing our students for college? Which just leads to more questions, like…what does it mean to prepare our students for college? My idea of that started to shift today.

But here’s what I’m starting to learn about myself: I like to try things to prove they don’t work. For example, this summer I embarked on two major endeavors. I set a goal to run/walk 100 miles, and then I decided to give up diet Coke. I figured if I didn’t feel better, or if my body otherwise revolted through injury or mental insanity, I had my evidence: running bad, diet Coke good.

Well, I’m 15 miles away from 100 miles, and I’ve converted to the gospel of sparkling water. My body has not revolted–no shin splints, no ankle or knee pain–in fact my body is stronger, can run longer and faster. Plus I’ve experienced all those other health benefits like lowered blood pressure (not that mine was high to begin with), lowered blood sugar (again–never a danger), more restful sleep, blah blah blah.

I’m not a convert by any means, and like I said, I still have many questions. But perhaps I should at least give some of Wormeli’s ideas a try. You know, to prove they don’t work.

But if my summer health experiment is any indication, I’ll probably just end up proving they do.



Back to School.

I’ve started this post a dozen times. I have been trying to write a “Huzzah-It’s-Back-To-School-Time” kind of post, but it’s just not happening.

I participate in tweet-chats, I’ve read some professional development books, I’ve built a new class website. I have some ideas on how to be better. But I also have a lot of fear.

Fear that my new ideas won’t catch on with my students. Fear that any enthusiasm I have right now will be replaced by cynicism. Fear that instead of feeling burn-out in April, this year I will feel it in September.

I’m walking into this year with several unknowns. Our district is rededicating efforts to Response to Intervention. And while I agree with a lot of it, in some ways my educational philosophy will be challenged. On Friday I will listen to Rick Wormeli talk about grading–another area where I lean a little more old-school.

This year I will also wrap up work on revising the Pop Culture Studies curriculum, and there is a possibility that I will have the chance to weigh in on the English curriculum, which means immersing myself in Common Core.

I have this rather forboding feeling about this school year. It’s pretty clear that everything I know about how I teach will be challenged in some way. That’s not a bad thing, but it is scary. And on top of all of this, I still get to teach four classes that I really do love quite a bit.

So some days, just to survive, I think I’ll go old-school. Shut my door and teach. Tell the goofy stories I’ve been telling for 12 years. Use a method or two I’ve been using for 12 years. Show my students how much I absolutely love the content I teach and how much I absolutely love teaching.

I just hope all that love doesn’t get swept away in the Bermuda Triangle of RtI, Standards-Based Grading, and Common Core.

Why Write?

This morning I opened the paper and this was the front page story.

I’m calmer now than I was at 8:30 AM when I read it. And because I didn’t write anything in that moment, the passion I felt about the complete farce of a story the World-Herald published is gone.

Which is really part of the point the article makes: assessing writing the way we do is artificial. Giving students a prompt scrubbed of racial, gender, or social class bias on a random Tuesday and asking them to write for 90 minutes does not provide them with a real-world opportunity to practice writing. As I read the article this morning, I simultaneously composed a letter to the editor and a blog post. I crafted arguments and analyzed those arguments…and then I went to church and all my ideas faded.

I’m sure I could reconstruct the arguments and indignation I felt this morning, but it wouldn’t have the same impact because my “voice” would be a bit muted.

So what are “real-world opportunities” for writing? For me, that becomes one of the exciting questions I will explore this summer as I tweak my lesson plans. But I need ideas, starting points.

Why do you write? Even if you don’t identify as a writer, I’m sure you’ve written something since high school or college. Please share!


@alansitomer tweeted this article today, and I am eight kinds of worked up. Let me count the ways.

1. Any article about standardized testing has a pretty easy target in me. I am less concerned about how well my students do on standardized reading tests and more concerned with their ability to read EULAs, propositions on which they are asked to vote, and books of choice. What I haven’t faced–until this article–is the horrid reality surrounding how my students perform on writing tests. I naively believed they were scored with at least a fraction of the care I take when I grade writing.

2. I can barely read 10 essays a day. I’m simply not effective when I grade more than that. So, as the article reports scorer quotas of 200 essays a day, the futility of my writing instruction becomes so clear. Why do I spend a whole day teaching word choice, if their words won’t really be read? Why do I spend a whole day teaching sentence fluency, if complicated syntax is ignored? In short, why am I teaching kids how to write to a particular rubric if their essays will receive only about 5 seconds of attention? I’d much rather focus my writing instruction on how to write an effective letter to the editor or letter of resignation or letter of interest in a job opportunity.

3. I teach media studies. I expect all kinds of cronyism and conflict of interest and the almighty dollar making decisions about the news and entertainment I consume. I never imagined the same elements that make me a cynical cultural critic would apply to education. But to learn that standardized testing is a $2.7 billion industry? I have no words. Pearson (a standardized testing/data reporting behemoth) posted $652 million in profits two years ago? Abhorrent.

4. A tangent to the money: how many teachers every year lose their jobs? One number from 2010 estimated that 58,000 teachers nationwide lost their jobs. Yet in the year prior, Pearson made $652 million. Perhaps there’s a flaw in my logic here, but doesn’t it stand to reason that the money districts and states send to testing companies ultimately factor in staffing decisions?

Now, I may have been mildly worked up prior to reading this article, as I watched Waiting for Superman Friday night. I agreed with quite a bit of the film’s premise, except for one glaring omission–aside from villanizing high schools in urban areas as “dropout factories,” very little attention was paid to the plight of high school teachers and students. The subtext I took away was this: by the time I get them in high school, it’s too late.

But I don’t believe it’s too late–I can’t. Otherwise, what point would there be to getting out of bed in the morning?

This post has been a bit longer and more negative than I like, so in the interest of balance, an offering. Today was a a down day for me, completely unrelated to issues in education. As I drove around my city, I listened to this TED Talk, which smacked me out of my pity party. If you’re ever feeling as hopeless as this standardized testing article made me feel, remember that in everything we experience, the only element we can control is our reaction to it.

So I’ll head to school tomorrow, get to know my students again after a hiatus (student teacher), and look for 1,000 awesome things about my job.

I’m betting I’ll eventually find 1,001.