More Than I Can Do

May 30, 2013

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was heavy into a deep love affair with the blues. Like so many that age who love something deeply, I found it impossibly absurd that others not only didn’t share my love but were incapable of being persuaded. I mean, Buddy Guy, listen to that guitar. Have you ever heard anything like it? How can you not love the way Robert Cray sings? And Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters! Come on, how do you not hear it?

Today, I bid farewell to my first class of AP seniors. I believe this class was the best I’ve ever been as a teacher. It was perfectly suited to my talents. But, like all classes, it felt like a failure.

I think what makes me a good teacher can be traced back to that feeling I had about the blues in college. I loved it so much and I believed with fervor that others should love it, too.

I feel the same way about great literature. The difference is that, in college, I was twenty and trying to convince others who were twenty that I was right and they were wrong. Now, I am thirty-two, trying to convince a bunch of eighteen-year-olds that I am right. It’s a tall task. They don’t want to listen to me. But I do have enough authority to make them at least pretend to take my opinion seriously.

I know, I absolutely know, that I did not convince many of the students in that class that reading was valuable for anything other than getting a good grade in English. A few days before the end of class, one student flat out told me she did not like reading and would never read unless she absolutely had to.

I failed that student. And, I’ll confess, I don’t know how not to fail students like that from time to time. I can give them reason. I can give them passion. I can even give them a grade. I can’t force their minds open. I can’t make them believe like I want them to believe. That is more than I can do.

However, I can keep caring. And I can notice the difference when I have them reread a book and they come to me excited about all the new stuff they noticed. I can feel good when some of them tell me, earnestly, that a book I assigned is the best book they have ever read – that it is their favorite book. Some of those kids were already readers and some of them weren’t, but they all listened.

I don’t know what makes some kids listen and some just care about the grade. I don’t know why so many don’t know that there’s a difference between an A that comes from trying and caring and an A that comes from wanting an A.

I do know that it matters when I stand up in front of them and tell them that the book we are about to read is great. It matters that I believe the books we read can change lives. I didn’t get all of them this year. I won’t get all of them next year. I’ll keep failing, but right now, that seems okay.

Small Victories

May 24, 2013

I haven’t written about parenting in a while, largely because we’ve been in kind of a parenting plateau lately and just trying to cross the end-0f-the-school year finish line. However, a couple of things have happened recently that I think are worth commenting on.

I have written on more than one occasion about our concern over gendering, especially as it applies to little girls. Walk into any department store, and it is apparent that little girls are never supposed to get dirty and and should be surrounded by cupcakes and butterflies. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with cupcakes and butterflies, but the primness expected of  little girls has always alarmed me.

Now, Simone is potty trained, but she still wears training pants at night. They have colorful little characters on them (we alternate between the “boy” and “girl” editions), but last night, she was suddenly full of opinions about them. I quote, “Next time you get me underwear, I want you to get me underwear that has worms on it and snakes on it.”


Our goal has never been for Simone to think there was something wrong with stereotypically girly stuff. Rather, we wanted her to feel free to be herself and like what she wants to like. Some days, it feels like we’re losing (Simone has a very solid mental grasp of “girl” clothes and “boy” clothes, but it was nice to see that in at least one instance, we’re winning.


James is 15 months old and in his development lightning round. There’s something new every week. This week, he learned to do two new and terrifying things: He can open doors, and he can climb onto furniture.

Last week, keeping things away from him meant putting them on the counter or a high table or closing a door, but no more. Fortunately, we’ve done this once already. It’s amazing how commonplace things seem the second time around that were once a miracle.

For instance, unless you have personal experience with a toddler, you have no idea how weak they are.

So while we can’t necessarily prevent his climbing on the footstool to see what’s going on up there on the kitchen counter, we can wedge a cleaning rag into the top door crack and, bam, that is an impenetrable obstacle. Tog on the handle all you want, kid. No toddler is getting that open. At least for six months or so.


Doing the Obvious

May 19, 2013

One of the things that you hear a lot in the education field is that, “we should do whatever it takes to help our children succeed.” I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but if that person is not directly in education, they probably don’t mean it. What they probably mean is, “someone else should do whatever it takes to help children succeed as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me.”

Case in point: Where I teach, school starts at 7:40 in the morning. I’ve read more than one study (and I recently read a book that further emphasized this) stating that teenagers are almost completely incapable of being fully functional at this time of day. They just aren’t built for it. Teenagers are almost all natural night owls and forcing them to be up and “alert” so early has a number of negative effects. Not the least of which is poor performance in school.

It would a simple and obvious change to move the school day later. It would help our students. It will never happen. At least, not for a long time because parents would have to rearrange schedules. Sports schedules would be interfered with because of later start times/darkness. None of these things has anything to do with learning. If we were merely concerned with learning, we would make this change right away, but we don’t because it inconveniences too many people.

Another example is time spent in the classroom. In the US, we are pushing kids to spend more and more time in the classroom, but in the most successful educational cultures, the school day is often shorter and some of it is taken up by recess and music and art. All things America is actively cutting from curriculum.

So much of education right now is supposedly driven by data, and so it seems paradoxical that so much good research about education is being completely ignored because it’s inconvenient or it contradicts our preconceived notions about how education should work (more is better!). An unwillingness to make obvious, if difficult changes is a big part of what makes me constantly doubt supposed reformers who are so insistent that “we” need to do something.

Summer Goals

May 8, 2013

It’s not summer vacation yet, but I can feel it coming. This year has been rewarding, but also tiring, and I would be lying if I didn’t say I was looking forward to exploring some of my personal interests for the first time in a while. To that end, here are m goals for the summer:

1. Write 60,000 words of fiction. That, I know, is a ton. it’s about 1,000 words a day, but I think it’s doable. the summer before I started teaching I wrote roughly that much and this is the first summer where I feel I’ll really have the time to work like that again. I have at least three new projects in mind and another I want to finish up, so if I run into problems on one, I should be able to switch gears fairly easily. I also think it will help me to have a daily word goal instead of the monthly page goals I’ve done before.

2. Read at least 20 books. This would be a pretty normal summer for me. Mostly, I just want to make sure I don’t forget about reading in the midst of writing.

3. Learn to play “Beeswing” and maybe “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” It has been several years since I engaged in serious guitar playing, but lately, I’ve started to get back on the horse (buying a beautiful new guitar certainly helped). These two Richard Thompson songs will definitely push me, but it would be really cool to be able to play them.

4. Have a life. National Boards kind of killed my life this year. I want to go out with my wife, go to the zoo with kids, have lunch with friends. You know, normal people things.

I’ll start work in earnest on these in a few weeks. I think I can do all of these. We’ll see, though.