Can You Imagine Schools Without Sports?

No Stone Unturned

Americans are known throughout the world for being competitive people. We like to win Olympic medals, build the biggest houses, and maintain a superior military force. We have the most human and natural resources any nation has ever known. But do we have the best schools?  

Perhaps we have the very best at the top, but we also have too many schools that fail to provide and foster academic opportunities.  

Many people, including Amanda Ripley writing in The Atlantic magazine, are out to figure out why our schools and students–on average–lag behind other nations less prosperous than ours. Ripley’s latest argument piqued my interest–could sports be the primary reason many of our schools are mediocre compared to schools in less prosperous nations?


Sports are a bigger deal here than anywhere else, yet few people seem willing to critique our collective obsession with Friday night lights, homecoming basketball games, and training year round for various activities. Ruth, one of my foreign students who hails from Rwanda, said she couldn’t believe how important sports were to Americans upon arriving in the country.  

Could our focus on sports detract us from better academic options and outcomes? Or are sports so integral to our school communities that we couldn’t function with them?  

Ripley cites a school district in Premont, Texas–perhaps the most crazed football state in the nation–that cancelled its sports programs in 2012 in order to save the school. The cost of funding the teams was simply too high. Some students were outraged, and others transferred to neighboring school districts.  So what happened?

The first fall without a football program, 80% of the students passed their classes, compared to 50% the year before. 160 parents showed up at parent-teacher conferences, compared to 6 the previous fall. The money saved went to raises for teachers. As the district’s budget became balanced, sports are gradually being reintroduced, but the former football coach says the culture shift has been striking–in a good way. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” he said, “compared to 2 percent before.”

Talking with students in my English III class last week, even some athletes admitted that sports may be overemphasized. Yet Cory, a junior on the baseball team, made the astute point that for him and many others, sports motivate many students to do better in school and keep grades up. And then there’s the way sports can bring people together.

Think about how community traditions, support, and participation merge during a typical football game.  Take our homecoming football game, for instance. The band, cheerleading squad, dance team, and alumni all participated in the event. The softball and baseball teams, I believe, manned the concession stand and ticket booth. Our football team played and won the game, of course.  So many people are able to come together, helping create school spirit and culture.  

As for me, I had a wonderful experience playing high school football and baseball, and some of my best friends today were members of the 1998 Crimson Tide gridiron team in Concord, New Hampshire. I had tough coaches who instilled life lessons.  I’m also fortunate to have had well-educated parents who knew that doing well in school–not being a football or baseball star–would be the best ticket to college.

During the past ten years as a teacher, I’ve interacted with far too many students who struggle in the classroom, but spend hours upon hours at practice, instead of going to tutoring, reading, or otherwise being involved in something more academically-oriented.  Many students talk about the importance of doing well in school, but their actions speak louder than their words.  

In many cases, it’s not the students’ fault they value their athletic experiences so highly–they are reflecting our societal values.  Yet I can’t help but wonder how much stronger our schools might be if all the money, time, and energy poured into sports–on all levels– was funneled in other directions.

Are sports overemphasized in your communities?  Can you imagine school without sports?  

School Segregation Persists, But Not In Louisville

No Stone Unturned

If you’re a black public school student in Chicago, there’s a 70% chance you’re in an intensely segregated school (90%+ minority student body).  Similar trends occur for Latino students in Los Angeles.  Examine enrollments in many urban districts across the land and you’ll see similar trends suggesting that despite our country’s status as a melting pot, many of our public schools are more like one or two ingredient stews. 

chicago public school students

And according to The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, fifteen percent of black students and 14 percent of Latino students attend “apartheid schools” across the nation in which whites make up zero to 1 percent of the enrollment.  

There’s no law driving these numbers, but there is also little being done to remedy inequities, and The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss sums up the research: 

“Segregation in public schools has been linked to a number of problems that affect the achievement of minorities. Schools with a big majority of students who live in poverty have higher dropout rates, fewer experienced teachers and far less resources than schools with majorities of middle- and upper-class students. The studies note that expert teachers and advanced courses more common in predominantly white and/or wealthy schools help create educational advantages over minority segregated settings.”

If the above is true, then how come there aren’t more incentives for experienced teachers to teach in more segregated schools?  How come policy-wonks obsess over closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, yet most school systems accept these types of structural inequalities?  

Civic leaders and policy makers in Louisville, Kentucky, however, have long determined that we don’t want de facto segregation to rule the roost.  After all, we could have neighborhood schools that are intensely segregated by race and income.  We’re no different than many urban areas regarding housing and neighborhood demographics.

As school ended this afternoon in Louisville, thousands of public school students boarded buses to begin their journeys home.  For some, a simple five or ten minute drive delivered them to their stop.  For others, their trek included a transfer at a bus depot, and a much longer trip.  There are students who live in the predominantly black West End and attend schools in the lily-white eastern suburbs.  And vice-versa.

I grew up in Concord, NH, and I always attended my neighborhood public school.  It seemed like everybody did.  Bake sales, open houses, and other community events were big deals, and they were also relatively easy to get to.  More than 90% of my classmates were white, and I was oblivious and insulated from the challenges–both on a personal and systemic level–that plague our urban schools.

I honestly don’t know what would be better for our community.  We still have large achievement gaps.  We still have disproportionately high discipline problems with minority students.  We still have “schools within schools,” where tracking and AP courses result in classrooms segregated within our buildings.  Home and neighborhood influences still seems to exert greater sway over educational outcomes, despite the fact that many of our students, in theory, attend “better” schools due to busing.

I’d like to believe the busing has positive effects on the educational attainment–and also the personal growth–of our students.

Even if the academic effects are marginally positive, isn’t busing a good thing to help foster tough-to-measure human characteristics like tolerance? If you’re a single-parent in an impoverished part of the city, is it beneficial for your student to travel away from the neighborhood to attend school?  Does the busing lead to less neighborhood cohesion, as true neighborhood schools are generally diluted?  Do our students become more prepared for the “real world” thanks to exposure and interaction with those different from themselves?

Look forward to your thoughts.

Don’t Overuse ‘Good Job!”

No Stone Unturned

If you finish your homework, I’ll give you a candy bar.  But if you don’t finish your homework, you’ll get timeout.

If you be quiet, you’ll get five extra minutes of kickball.  But if you don’t zip it, you’ll lose those five minutes of recess.


Last post, I wrote about the ineffectiveness of traditional punishment in the form of in-school or out-of-school suspension.  On the other hand, we should all question how effective rewards–whether they be candy bars, money, or verbal praise–are for sustainable success and motivation, and I’ve revisited one of my most influential thinkers: Alfie Kohn.  Mr. Kohn’s article “Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” provides compelling research about why providing students excessive praise could be detrimental to student academics and behavior. 

Kohn reminds us that this point isn’t to avoid making kids feel good about themselves, in case anybody thinks his notion is cold-hearted or off-base: “Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves.  Praise, however, is a different story entirely.”

My own anecdotal experience as a teacher strongly supports several of Mr. Kohn’s conclusions about the effects of too much empty verbal praise:

Praise Junkies–“Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us,”  Kohn writes.  True.  I remember Steve, a student in 7th grade, who constantly wanted to hear if he was doing a “good job,” whether it be on a grammar worksheet, personal writing piece, or bellringer activity.  At the time, I gave in and usually acknowledged his neediness.  I didn’t give meaningful feedback about what he was doing, and the cycle continued until the end of the year.  Research supports the practice of giving specific feedback, rather than praise or criticism.

Losing interest–“In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping,” Kohn writes.  In my experience, true.  I’ve had students–at the high school level–become conditioned in this manner, and they expect something in return if they volunteer to pass back papers or help a classmate out on makeup work.  We’re not helping students if they must wait for approval or expect praise to do the right thing.  I tell classes at the beginning of the year something along this lines:  your reward for doing the right–or good–thing should be enough in and of itself.

Reducing Achievement–“Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming,” Kohn writes.  Again, true.  I’ve found that my most creative, successful students aren’t craving grades or my praise–they are internally driven.  In my digital storytelling class, for example, telling a student “good job” is worthless due to the nuances and challenges in creating an original short documentary or audio slideshow.

I’ll admit that I’ve had to bribe some very difficult classes and, after trying all the tricks up my sleeve, it was the only way I could get them to stay quiet or complete an assignment.  It pained me to manipulate the classes in that manner, but I had to stay sane and keep the students somewhat productive.  Unfortunately, the students who could benefit most from a little internal fire are most likely to respond to dangling carrots, adding yet another obstacle to teaching at-risk kids.

School environments where students aren’t constantly seeking praise allow for creativity, curiosity, and failure.  If we fail to foster these outcomes and dispositions, then our kids will stay mired in classrooms and mindsets where academic success and motivation largely rests on adult verbal response to menial and outdated tasks.

I’m curious about your experiences in the adult workplace and as parents.  What motivates you to give great effort in your workplace, besides earning a paycheck?  What type of feedback from your bosses gives you satisfaction?  If you work with young people, or are a parent yourself, am I being idealistic about how to motivate children at home?  Have you found yourself in a cycle of carrots and sticks that fails–or succeeds–in changing behavior for the better?


We Are Owned By What We Possess

No Stone Unturned

You want to live a life that matters. You believe that there is more to life than stuff, spending money and being in debt.

You want to live consciously. This means you want to be present in every moment. You want to live deliberately.

-Mark Lowe, Minimalist Lifestyle blog

I don’t desire to live in a tiny home, nor do I desire to part with all of my possessions.  But there is something to be said about the idea that we are owned by what we possess.  If you own a huge home and hope to keep it pristine, you’ll spend hours cleaning or forking over money on a housecleaner.  If you compare your possessions, cars, and clothes with those of your neighbor, you’ll spend needless mental energy comparing your stuff and toiling to acquire more. 


My high school students are immensely preoccupied with possessions.  Sure, it’s probably a teenage phenomenon, but the extent to which I see 16-year olds obsess over new phones, shoes, and video games–versus joining organizations, desiring to excel in their respective sports, or stockpiling new experiences–makes me wonder just how a large percentage of us have feverishly been entranced by the holy grail of material consumption. 

Is it widespread media saturation of brand names, mansions, and celebrity lifestyles?  Is it the ease with which we can purchase anything online?  Is it a lower-cost of consumer goods?  Is it the desire to one-up each other?  

It’s not just an obsessive accumulation of stuff that plagues our culture; expectations for living space has skyrocketed too.  Graham Hill writes in the New York Times:

Our fondness for stuff affects almost every aspect of our lives. Housing size, for example, has ballooned in the last 60 years. The average size of a new American home in 1950 was 983 square feet; by 2011, the average new home was 2,480 square feet. And those figures don’t provide a full picture. In 1950, an average of 3.37 people lived in each American home; in 2011, that number had shrunk to 2.6 people. This means that we take up more than three times the amount of space per capita than we did 60 years ago.

You’d expect that our bigger houses and faster, more tech-equipped cars would bring more life satisfaction and happiness, which are, admittedly, subjective measures.


Endless consumption does not result in increased happiness, largely due to what psychologists call hedonic adaptation.  Purchasing and upgrading endlessly brings short-term satisfaction, but no long term contentment–we get used to what we own, get antsy, then feel the need to obtain a jolt of shallow happiness from new shiny objects.

Most of us would be better off focusing on doing rather than having, according to this summary of research on consumption:

In reflecting on the past or contemplating the future, people are happier when they have experiences on their minds than when they have things on their minds. And the higher a person’s income is, the bigger the disparity between the joys of doing and the joys of having. Moreover, we don’t adapt to doing to the same degree that we adapt to having. The museum trip, the hike, the bike ride in the hills, the informal dinner with friends keep satisfying long after the Mercedes has stopped providing a thrill.

Spending money on hobbies or vacations seems to fit into the having and doing category–this is where I find I dip into the savings account.  Bow-hunting equipment and accessories are expensive, but the consumption also fuels one of my passions.  Same with collecting books.  The last thing I want to do is buy a new car.  Ever.  Nor do I see myself jockeying for a new job, resulting in a huge pay raise, if it significantly affects the quality of what I am able to do.

I’ll take doing over having any–or most:)–days of the week.

How about yourself?  What do you think is the number one force driving consumerism today?  What about expectations for increased house size?  How do you embrace the balance between doing and having?  Anybody out there get sustained happiness? from accumulating stuff?

Classrooms Without Borders

Room 137

Imagine a 30 by 30 room, with students sitting silently in rows, ostensibly listening to lectures, text messages covertly being sent inside hoodie pockets, and whispers here and there.  Eventually, completion of multiple choice exams at the end of an instructional unit measures learning.  Sadly, this probably sounds familiar.  While there is a time and place for extended direct instruction and lecturing, the majority of kids do not benefit from this type of instruction, as it does nothing but increase the chance for more disengagement, failed tests, and I don’t care about anything at school uttered from freshman to seniors.


One reason why I teach and enjoy my current position is possibility.  The possibility to redefine what teaching and learning looks, sounds, and feels like.  The possibility to forge community partnerships to give students models of successful adults in various roles.  The possibility to give students chances to unearth passions and shift their perspectives.

At the end of February, I was fortunate to travel to the Navajo Nation with students and teachers Brent Peters and Joe Franzen from Fern Creek Traditional High School.  Today, the collaboration continues as a Navajo delegation arrive in Kentucky.  WFPL’s Devin Katayama produced this story about the exchange, a tribute to possibility and passion in public education.  

The more teachers are allowed to blend personal passions with instructional standards, the better.  Peters, a former chef, and Franzen, an avid urban gardener and sustainability leader in the community.  They are collaborating to teach Food Lit. at Fern Creek, a hybrid junior English course.  Interdisciplinary instruction is endless–when you talk about food, you’re talking about biology, storytelling, ecosystems, the environment, health issues, history.  Students have met with local farmers and chefs, worked in the school greenhouse, explored family traditions, and written editorials about Asian Carp.

Break out of the 30 by 30 box, letting an exchange of people, activities, and ideas permeate the classroom.  On my end, I’ve partnered with WFPL’s Katayama and Kertis Creative, a local media strategy and production company, in my digital storytelling class.  

If you teach science, why not use Skype with biologists or university professors?  If you teach art, why not contact local art associations and galleries to set up student art shows?  If you teach PE, why not invite college athletes and fitness trainers in to design exercise programs and share them with the community?  You get the gist.

If you’re a principal or building leader who shuns innovation, community partnerships, and dynamic uses of technology, you’re short-changing hundreds of students in your school.  I could care less if your test scores increase.  Your school may look effective to some, but what about the students?  Can you look them in the eye and tell them you have done everything you can to prepare them to be productive citizens in society?  Do your students toss their graduation caps in the air, excited to continue pursuing a project or idea learned in school?

We educators–especially those of us at “struggling” schools–are still under immense pressure to increase test scores.  But that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice the pursuit of possibilities for redefining and creating successes for our students.

How about you?  Did you have a teacher with a creative approach who embraced possibility?  Should more schools strive to build partnerships with community members and experts?  What was your most powerful learning experience?

Reflections: Is Grammar Worth Teaching?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I teach English and I write professionally, but I don’t remember how I learned grammar.  I’ve always been a reader, and my father is an excellent editor who helped me with many high school and college papers.  But as far as former classroom instruction goes, I have zero recollection of effective teachers and teaching methods relating to grammar.  I’m probably not alone with this sentiment. 

Several times a year, our department bemoans the state of student grammar, but we have a hard time coming to consensus about how to teach it.  How often?  What methods, texts, or strategies should we use?  Is it possible to become grammatically proficient without having a strong foundation in reading?  Are high school students who don’t, or haven’t, widely read traditional texts–beyond Tweets and Facebook feeds–relegated to a post-secondary and professional life rife with common grammar mistakes in their memos, e-mails and reports?


Over the course of my almost nine years in the classroom, the strongest student writers in my classes have always been voracious readers.  Their parents didn’t drill them with subject-verb agreement worksheets as soon as they could talk, nor did they receive extra tutoring in complex sentence construction after completing preschool finger painting bonanzas.  They read as youngsters, and continue to read.  I’ve never met a student who has a strong writing voice, shows command of the language in various ways, and aces grammar quizzes while shunning reading for pleasure.

While these observations, and my subsequent efforts to teach non-readers grammar have been frustrating, I’m not about to jettison grammar instruction from my lesson plans–I’m still testing out various methods and resources.

Walt Gardner’s recent piece in Education Week rekindled the ongoing grammar debate, as Gardner reflects on a pedagogical shift in the 1970’s, when English teachers were influenced to deemphasize grammar:

English Department meetings stressed the importance of considering a student’s essay based overwhelmingly on its content. The not so subtle message was to get with the program. So I did. The result was that students were shortchanged. I’m not talking now about circling every grammatical error to the detriment of understanding the thesis. That’s counterproductive. Instead, I’m talking about gross errors in usage and sentence structure that detract from that goal.

This pedagogical shift is still relevant today; I just finished grading some student essays about women serving combat roles, and the required scoring rubric first places emphasis on audience and purpose, idea development, organization, and finally grammar and mechanics.  Gardner’s correct–I simply don’t come across any student writing that is able to effectively develop a thesis, back up claims with evidence, and display sound organization without command of basic and more advanced grammar rules.  Understanding grammar enables us to be creative writers and thinkers, leading to more effective communication.

Gardner’s text inspired plenty of reaction–here are some highlights from the comments section that address the following issues:

How does grammar instruction reinforce power structures?  Is grammar instruction be a friend or foe of creative expression and thinking?

We de-emphasize the importance of the grammar mistakes that the culture of power tend to make but emphasize the mistakes that are the most common in low-income, low-status cultures…But we need to be careful not to do what we did in the past, which is put all of the privileged students with educated parents into one group (called “the smart kids”) and teach them the rules for a language in which they are already very fluent, and put all of the other kids in English classes where they are taught the abstract rules of a language that nobody they know speaks and then “corrected” every time they speak in the version of English that is spoken in their community.

–One of the obstacles is that some minority students don’t hear standard English at home or in their neighborhood. As a result, their ears become accustomed to grammar that is different from what is taught in school.

–I’ve examined the research on this issue. Conclusion: FORM in writing comes largely from reading (consciously learned rules can help you a little bit in the editing stage of the composing process). Writing itself can help you solve problems and make you smarter.

–We learned that there are certain indispensable rules. I never regarded them as obstacles to creativity. On the contrary, I viewed them as allies.

–It’s interesting that learning grammar is disparaged by the same constructivists who favor critical thinking skills over content. Grammar is nothing but critical thinking — you learn what the parts of speech are, you test various ways of putting them together that are in alignment with overall principles, you aim to help the students develop the ability to communicate as powerfully as possible.


Lastly, it seems as if many students don’t understand the need to know grammar beyond those who care to earn a higher grade on an academic task.  After all, the texts they create and consume–mostly digital–aren’t necessarily adhering to traditional language guidelines.  Students need to be shown various models of professional and workplace writing that still demand good grammar, and they need to explore–or be shown–the consequences of poorly written inquiries, resumes, e-mails, and grant requests, among other real world forms.

Do you remember how you learned grammar?  Should schools emphasize grammar, or do our new forms of communication diminish the need to be proficient?  For teachers out there, what do you do to teach grammar–do you have any tips?  Do you have any examples to disprove my claim that you can write well without being a reader?


Are We The Average of the Five People We Spend The Most Time With?

No Stone Unturned

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”

 -Jim Rohn

Photographer:  David P. Brown

Photographer: David P. Brown

Being a teacher, I spend most of my work hours with young people, but not any few in particular, so it was pretty easy to come up with the five adults I spend the most time with.

Between my fiance and four friends and coworkers–all of whom I admire and respect for different reasons–I can see myself as an embodiment of their collective values, interests, and personalities.  Of course, there is some give and take–I’m not simply a sponge, soaking up influence.

My fiance challenges me to become a better listener, among other things, as my mind tends to move on to the next idea before hearing people out.  I’ve improved in this regard since knowing her.  One colleague is an innovative urban farmer and local food guru.  He has inspired me to keep my own chickens and be more mindful of sourcing my food.  Another colleague is the most empathic teacher I’ve ever met, and also maniacally conscientious when it comes to thoughtful classroom instruction.  And another friend and colleague I spend hours with is light-hearted and goofy, and I certainly embrace those qualities.

The idea of the five people relates to the law of averages, which is the theory that the result of any given situation will be the average of all outcomes.  It’s basic probability.  So with blogging, I can expect this post to receive an average number of hits if its characteristics are similar to my previous posts.  How about catastrophe?  Apparently I have a 1 in 340,733 chance of dying an accidental death by fireworks during my lifetime.

Many of us frequently think about averages and probability, but I hadn’t thought about the concept as it relates to my being–how I could represent the average “person” depending on who I spend time with.

This Business Insider article by Aimee Groth emphasizes the effect relationships have on us:  “When it comes to relationships, we are greatly influenced — whether we like it or not — by those closest to us. It affects our way of thinking, our self-esteem, and our decisions. Of course, everyone is their own person, but research has shown that we’re more affected by our environment than we think.”

This might seem obvious to some, but the idea of whittling down your interactions to five people shed light for me about the power of the idea.

It’s something we should talk to students about.  After all, how many of you know young people who hang out with an unruly or disinterested crowd, and have a tough time breaking free of their influence?  I have little doubt that challenging students to reflect on this idea would provide some insight, and perhaps some discomfort.  Especially for those students who want to do well, but realize that the people they spend time with–willingly or unwillingly–do not share their same goals and desires.

What do you think of this idea?  Does this quote apply to you?  Who do you spend the most time with?  

Don’t Smile Until After Christmas? Nonsense!

Classroom Tales from the Archives

A version of this essay originally appeared in Middle Ground magazine in October, 2008.

Don’t smile until after Christmas. I’ve always been puzzled when I overhear talk of this informal policy when it comes to dealing with students.  Some teachers feel like they must convey a position of unyielding authority throughout the first several months of the school year. Even more unfortunate are those educators who continue in the wrong profession—not enjoying their line of work, thus unlikely to display overt happiness or joy.  Regardless of the reasons for failing to display humanity in the classroom—in the form of spontaneous laughter, gentle joking with students, or smiles abounding—it is sad and even detrimental for students to be stuck in these environments.

Admittedly, it is difficult to assess school culture and its effect on students, enthusiasm for academic subjects, attitudes, and other qualitative measures. But these indicators of student learning, growth, and development are more important than the endless string of numbers describing school academic indices in this age of testing and accountability. Brain research proves that influential, long-term knowledge retention is linked to positive emotions. The way students feel when at school is critical when determining the effectiveness of teaching and learning, a counterpoint to traditionalists who criticize progressive educators and their penchant for being too touchy-feely.

Laughter, smiles, and other positive emotions are wonderful elements of our humanity. When teachers model these qualities, it is likely a sign of enthusiasm for their subject, and this excitement is likely to rub off on students. Good teaching and learning engages feelings, according to Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Jensen cites dozens of studies in his work that establish the importance of emotion in relation to learning, capturing student attention, and memory.

In what type of classroom are student emotions more likely to be tapped, triggered, or engaged, thus likely to result in more effective teaching and learning? Is it in a classroom with straight-rows of desks, much lecturing, low levels of banter, and little interaction between students and teacher? Or is it in a classroom full of spontaneity, laughter, and a sparkle in the instructor’s eye when elaborating on a familiar, exciting topic?

I remember milling about in Mr. Larry Wolfe’s classroom, lucky to be a member of the Wolfepack Village.  Mr. Wolfe devised a way for eight and nine-year-olds to claim ownership in this “mini-town,” acting as tax collectors, mayors, wood workers, and bankers.  I remember Mr. Wolfe assisting us with challenging tasks like balancing our checkbooks, leading sing-a-longs while strumming his acoustic guitar, and being brought to tears as he read us Where the Red Fern Grows.  Palpable excitement surged through the room most days as we bustled about, unaware that we were learning so much in the way of academic and social skills.

In 8th grade, Mrs. Lewis brought in candles (probably outlawed these days) and spooky music for our ghost story readings. We got into it.  In 10th grade biology, Mr. Browne always had a glint in his eye when introducing a new topic, such as behaviorism—we ended up training rats during class for several weeks.  We got into that, too.

As a teacher, I strive to recreate the feelings like the ones I experienced in these classrooms for my own students, knowing that, perhaps, they’ll be as turned on to language arts and, more generally, learning. I don’t fear detrimental consequences if I laugh during the opening month of school. If laughter and spontaneity explode in my classroom due to joyful engagement with subject, I am ecstatic.

I’m not proposing a learning environment in which a teacher shouldn’t ever be stern or serious. Just the other day, a student blurted out an insensitive remark and others laughed. I frowned, pausing in the lesson to explain that these types of comments will not be tolerated, asking the students to think about being in somebody else’s shoes. Of course we can’t exude happiness and passion every day. But if we are able to display humanity and enthusiasm, research backs up claims that students are likely to learn more effectively. This isn’t even mentioning long-term—and hard to measure—benefits of students getting excited about a given subject, because he or she has seen his or her mentor do the same.

According to Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, great, inspirational teachers may differ in their instructional methods—some may rely on lecture, cooperative learning, or creative chaos, amongst other techniques, but they do not differ much in their enthusiasm for subject and willingness to expose their humanity, thus likely to trigger positive emotions in students.

When hiring teachers, administrators should do their best to go beyond basis content knowledge, and gauge the candidate’s passion for his or her subject. But enthusiasm for subject matter won’t necessarily translate to poignant learning experiences for students. The passion, coupled with an openness to explore the tricky job of triggering student attention and emotion, can result in transformative learning experiences for teacher and student. We need to get to the point where laughter and excitement in the classroom shouldn’t be contained in elementary school settings, but celebrated and practiced through middle and high schools as well.

What emotions do you associate with your most effective learning experiences?  To what extent should learning be “fun” for students? Do you have any anecdotes to back up assertions in this piece?



Struggling Writers: Is Personal Expression the Answer?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

Glancing around the room, fiddling with his smart phone, and tapping his pencil, Michael will do anything but write.  He’ll scribble a few sentences on the paper, and the chicken scratch handwriting belies his age–he’s a high school sophomore.  He can’t tell you what a compound sentence is or how to use serial commas, but he can provide a look of disgust every time you pass out a grammar worksheet or explain why writing is important.

Should we emphasize personal narratives and expression over other types of writing in schools?

But then you ask Michael to write about a time when he was ignored or neglected.  He knows about this.  This won’t be tough for me to write, he thinks, remembering the time his mother forgot his birthday, instead opting to spend the night at the local bar with a new boyfriend.  There is suddenly a rhythm to his pencil on the college-ruled paper.  Two pages get filled up like a tall glass underneath a flowing faucet.  He needs a bigger cup.

Most teachers would celebrate this breakthrough with Michael, realizing that if he’s allowed to write about his experience and feelings, he’ll actually put pencil to paper. 

Count me as a teacher who would celebrate Michael’s effort, attempting to use it as a catalyst to greater writing proficiency. 

Could it be somewhat true that, according to Common Core Standards architect David Coleman, as you grow up, people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think? 

Should we only be mildly excited that Michael actually wrote?  After all, the punctuation was still a mess.  He failed to use specific details or imagery to help his story come alive.

Blogger and Writer Annie Murphy Paul alerted me to an essay in The Atlantic titled “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students.”  Former 5th grade teacher Robert Pondiscio reflects on his time in the classroom, coming to the conclusion that he didn’t do enough teaching of writing fundamentals to his needy students, spending most of his time modeling the behaviors and dispositions of authors and readers.   According to Pondiscio, he fell into a trap:

…at too many schools, it’s more important for a child to unburden her 10-year-old soul writing personal essays about the day she went to the hospital, dropped an ice cream cone on a sidewalk, or shopped for new sneakers. It’s more important to write a “personal response” to literature than engage with the content.

This article has made me pause.  Pondiscio is correct in stating that high-needs students are not empowered by simply writing about their feelings.  To be a competent, functional adult writer, one needs to be able to analyze, critique, and write logical arguments.

Annie Murphy Paul also agrees with Pondiscio’s assessment, writing, “Robert is right—creativity springs from a mastery of the fundamentals, and we cheat students when we don’t teach them the fundamentals in a rigorous way.”

I’m scheduled to teach Creative Writing during our winter trimester, and I know I’ll have a handful of students who like to write but lack command of the written word.  A few Michaels will likely sit in room 137, ready to spill personal narratives onto the page.  If I were only teaching self-healing and writing therapy, that’d be great.

Pondiscio acknowledges that it’s not an either/or proposition–we don’t have to skill and drill students to death without allowing for personal expression.  I agree once again.  I know I’ll have to find a healthy balance between teaching writing fundamentals and allowing the students to just write what’s on their minds.  I believe in the power of storytelling, in addition to the crucial role it plays in society, so I look forward to teaching the course for the first time.

Today, my sophomores slaved away during fourth period on their first official writing assessment, attempting to write literary analysis.  I was about to paraphrase Coleman’s words in a pre-test pep talk, but I decided against it. 

It’s true–their feelings don’t matter on this exam, but their command of formal writing conventions does.  As does their ability to think critically.  We’ll eventually write some personal essays.  Hopefully, when we do, they’ll be able to incorporate some new skills to enhance their self-expression.

What do you think about the role of creative writing and grammar instruction in schools?   Is it a good thing to swing the writing curriculum pendulum more towards analysis and argumentative writing?  What do you remember as your most effective, lasting writing instruction?