In response to an email I received from a student just two days ago and a conversation I had with a former student in the Spring of last year, I am compelled to add my two cents worth to an invitation from BATs (Badass Teacher Association) to flood Twitter with reasons teachers should not and CANNOT be evaluated by the standards set by SEED or Common Core. #evaluatethat
This young man, who had graduated from high school five years earlier, came back to visit some of his old teachers. He approached me by name. While he looked familiar, I couldn’t place him (as one could well imagine after years of teaching thousands of kids).
He fumbled, “You probably don’t remember me.” After saying his name, I did remember him– a funny, nudgy type who didn’t want to do much and was capable of so much more. Nevin continued, “I really just wanted to say thank you. I was in your creative writing class. You failed me. I deserved it. Writing is my thing and I should have passed that class easily. In fact, my job is as a writer today. I wanted to say thank you because you being hard on me and failing me was the best thing that could have happened to motivate me to do well in college. Not only did you motivate me, but that class inspired me to become a writer.”
Next story of a similar nature. One I pass on to seniors every year. They are awestruck when they hear the audacity and result of it and I’m hopeful I reach some, if not all.
The Nick S Factor:
Nick was a student I’d had as a student in three English classes: American Literature, Reading Literature/Film, and British Literature. A student who liked English, was good at it, respectful, eager to please and had a mature, dry sense of humor, I was fond of him; so when he asked me to write his college letter of recommendation, I agreed without reservation.
Fast forward to almost Spring of that year when most students had decided upon their colleges. A colleague who had Nick in a Speech class approached me out of concern; Nick had just delivered a speech entitled “How to lie to get into college.” At first, I told her I thought it was a joke, something he’d contrived to get a laugh and win some street cred from his peers. When I spoke to Nick about it, he seemed very coy in admitting it wasn’t a lie. He had, in fact, lied on his resume and to the admissions officer in an interview to get into college. Guidance got involved and his parents; it was decided that we would do nothing, although I had revealed I was considering rescinding my letter of recommendation. Nick was able to loosely verify a minimal involvement in said activities he’d bolstered his participation in. I was uncomfortable about the decision and let Nick, his parents and guidance know.
Not two weeks later, he completely– I mean completely– plagiarized an essay for my class. As I read it, I recognized that it was not written in his voice and there were ideas in it that we’d never touched upon in class. This lead me to the computer where I found he’d lifted the whole thing.
My concern mounted on several levels:
#1 How/why was this seemingly nice kid doing everything in his power to reel out of control at the end of his senior year?
#2 How could I not rescind his letter of recommendation, something I’d never before or since been forced to do? Wasn’t it in his best interest to nip his arrogance in the bud to teach him that taking the easy way out is not okay?
#3 I write many recommendations every year to this college. My testimonial to a student’s character carries weight for all the future students I will write letters of recommendation to this college for.
I decided to rescind my letter. When the Dean of Admissions, with whom he’d had his interview, called me, I told him what I believe to be true. This is a good kid making some bad decisions whether out of fear for the future, laziness (seniorities, which is something most seniors feel a sense of entitlement about, today), or sheer arrogance that he’d get away with it.
I explained to Nick that I was acting in his best interest. The failing grade for the essay turned into a failing grade for the quarter, but not for the course. The letter I rescinded resulted in Nick having to go before a panel at the college, not to lose his admittance into the school, but to learn he’d begin college on probation. It was the hardest decision I’d made as a teacher. It effected me emotionally and personally, but in not taking the path of least resistance, I did what I wholly believed was in Nick’s best interest. The remainder of the year was uncomfortable; I don’t think he made eye contact with me once.
The following summer, I received a manila envelope in the mail, a letter from Nick, apologizing for his arrogance and his mistake. He said that he, now, respected my decision, stating that something I said would forever remain with him “It’s not about making mistakes. It’s a teenagers job to make mistakes. What defines your character is the what you do as a result of making mistakes. It’s all about what you learn from the experience.”
In addition, Nick wrote the essay he’d earlier plagiarized– his own words and original thought– because he “respected” me “a lot” and he didn’t want my last memory of him to be of the “student who took the easy way out.”
While these stories have measurable indicators attached to them, they speak more to the far greater lesson these students learned which can’t be measured: lessons about motivation, hard/authentic work and character. In both situations, if the only the numbers were considered, I would have failed.
Using The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, as an anchor text, I teach a unit I call Words Matter (written about in an earlier blog). The essence of the unit centers around how we use language. In reading Huck Finn and other selections of non-fiction centered around the use of the “N” word, we talk about censorship, hurtful words/terms, racism, oppression, bullying, cultural diversity, audience. Finally, we deconstruct the use of the “N” word as a model for students deconstructing words/terms of a personal nature that have had an effect on their own lives.
Words Matter: A Lesson from Mark Twain
Consequently, the timing of this unit inevitably falls around the time of our B-1 day (also blogged about earlier) where our students come together to celebrate diversity within our school. It is a day when we abandon our classes and routines to attend events completely organized and implemented by the students for the students (an annual event that takes place founded upon reaction to the events of Columbine High School Massacre some 15 years ago).
Be One World
Steve B is a student I had in class two years in a row. First, sophomore year, he was a bit of a scooch who liked to seek attention whether it be positive or negative. I’d learned, as a young boy, he lost his mom which explained so much of his behavior. After the Words Matter unit, the second year he was in my class, and at the B-1 day open mic event, Steve approached the microphone to declare to the whole student body that he’d learned a lot about words recently and how they affect people. He said while he never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings, and he singled out a boy who he was sure he had, Steve apologized. Later, in class, when I commended him on this act, he shared with the class why he used sarcasm and humor as a defense mechanism and attributed this realization to what he’d learned in my class.
Izzy G, post Words Matter, a tough-around-the-edges kind of girl who tried not to show others her weaknesses, sent me an email apologizing for not being in class. She went onto explain how a close friend had just committed suicide and she couldn’t help but think that if she’d been part of our Words Matter classes that she might not have. Izzy went on to say that she learned that what we say to others could have a deep impact and life altering results. She asked that I read her email aloud to the class and begged them to go out of their way to say something nice to someone on that day.
This year, I’ve just begun the unit a week ago and received this email from a student who already feels impacted enough to make this connection to the Ellen Page video she found on Tumblr.
The truth is teachers impact students like this every day. Some, we are lucky enough to know the impact we’ve had on them and some we never will. THIS is why I teach. Because I affect peoples’ lives. This CANNOT nor will it ever have the ability to be measured, attributed a standard, or aptly documented. What we teach is far greater than the sum of any indicators or any amount of data. And as I said to Student 3, “While we cannot change the world, if we can alter the thinking of some, we are moving the world to a better place.” I challenge those behind SEED and COMMON CORE and data-driven instruction to #EVALUATETHAT.