Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Recommendation Letter: a Fine Balance Between Non-Fiction and Creative Writing.

Receiving a good letter of recommendation is as close as one can come to attending their own funeral. The letters are full of fine praise and adulation, at times unfounded, that make the subject of the letter feel like they can walk on water. As my daughter's physics professor summed it up, he said he would tell the truth about her as much as he could, then he would, "Lie like a rug."

I write a fair number of these letters for seniors as they apply to college. Some are easy to write. When you really know the student and especially if you really like the student, the words flow off the page and it is hard to limit yourself to a length an overworked college admissions officer might care to read.

Other times they are hard to write, especially when you don’t really know the person, perhaps they are new, or have only taken one class with you their freshman year. And like the minister at the funeral of a lapsed parishioner or worse someone whom they have never met, you are left struggling to fill a page with nice things about someone you can barely remember. 

The best letter of recommendation I ever wrote was also the most fun, and the easiest. A friend of mine Tweeted this blog about writing letters of recommendation for students and the blogger encouraged trying to insert a little levity into the process. It reminded me of a student I will call Marty, one of my favorite students who I knew well and his letter.

Anytime a student asks for a letter they need to provide a transcript and fill out a short bio sheet that lets me know things I might not otherwise know. Things like what clubs they belong to, the sports they played, how they help little old ladies across  the street or maybe they rescued orphans from a burning building. 

Perhaps because we did know each other well, when Marty returned his bio sheet, the content was minimal. The last question on the sheet asks the student to tell the reader something unusual or interesting about themselves. Marty simply wrote that he had a dog named Ollie. The letter I wrote for him follows:

To whom it may concern,

I am pleased to write this letter of recommendation for Marty _________. It has been gratifying to have had Marty as a student for much of his high school career. Marty is a fine young man and he is someone who others, not so fine as himself, can aspire to. Marty has a well earned reputation as being kind to young children, the elderly and dogs. 

Marty especially likes dogs. And dogs like Marty. Often Marty will come to school and tell us elaborate stories about his dog Ollie. He will hold us spellbound while he regales us with tales of heroism and derring-do that he and his dog Ollie engage in when they are not at school. Often these stories involve dangerous dealings with terrorists, anarchists, socialists and communists, just the type of people Marty is not. The type of people who do not like dogs. According to Marty, he and his dog Ollie have foiled many a plot by these type of people who would turn America into a godless, if not dogless country. 

It is in his dealings with dogs that Marty displays his considerable leadership qualities. There is no question, in anyone’s mind, including Ollie’s, about just who is in charge. Through his kind yet firm direction Marty has taught Ollie to roll over, sit up, shake hands and bark when told to. These skills will serve Marty well when he leaves the protected enclaves of public school and enters the real world. 

Because of the respect that Marty accords dogs they return the feelings in kind. Dogs will come and congregate around Marty from miles around. Often we will see Marty crossing the high school campus with a long retinue of dogs following him. This canine entourage ranges from the haughty purebred to the lowliest mutt. But they all display their love and affection for Marty with their enthusiastic and joyful tail wagging and yelping.

It is hard not to overdo my praise for Marty. I am confident that when Marty graduates from high school he will easily find his place in this world and I am equally certain that the dogs of this earth will be better for it. If I have any small criticism about Marty it involves cats. He hates cats.

Sincerely yours,

Todd Miller

Apparently Martys mother was shocked at this letter. I did provide him with a more conventional follow up letter extolling his accomplishments, intelligence and character. He was accepted into a four year university, though I never learned  which letter he submitted. I hope that who ever read what he did send had the good sense to be a little skeptical though, because both letters had the marks of fiction in them.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

If you haven’t got something nice to say, then say it in the faculty room.

I have more interest in Andrew Carnegie the steel industry baron turned philanthropist than Dale Carnegie, the self help author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” But even though making steel interests me more than winning friends, it’s Dale  who I have been thinking about lately. The basic tenet of his philosophy was that it is possible to change other people’s behavior by changing your own and how you interact with them counts toward accomplishing that. Now when you think of this, it isn’t exactly rocket science but as teachers I wonder if we think about it enough. 

When my first principal gave me a tour of  the building before school started we walked past the long and narrow burrow that was then the faculty room and he advised me to stay out of it. I should eat my lunch elsewhere he suggested. I wasn’t  sure why, but he hinted that being in there wasn’t helpful for a beginning teacher. I immediately found that for lunch I wanted to be away from the kids and in the company of adults, so I ignored his advice. But I came to understand his sentiment. 

I have worked a wide variety of jobs before becoming a teacher and I have my eaten my lunch in all manner of places, in a shack behind a saw mill, perched on a workbench in a boatyard, standing on the slime covered deck of a fishing boat, and sitting at linen covered tables in a restaurant after the customers left. And while the language in many of those places would make the average school teacher blanch, I remember lunch time as being a generally positive moment to relax and take a break. Of course there would be complaints about the weather, the boss, the lack of fish...  but overall there was a sense of common purpose and camaraderie.

On the other hand, the  lunch room my first principal advised me to avoid, and our fancier lunchroom now is never profane, maybe it would have helped if it were, but it is generally filled with a more soul destroying  sort of conversation. It is filled with the language of frustration, negativity, complaining, and criticizing, language my father called “bellyaching” This language is aimed at the administration, advisory, the block schedule, the heat, the list is long, but most insidiously a majority of the language is aimed at our students. And it goes on day after day. I am as guilty of it as anyone, teaching is a stressful job and everyone needs to vent, but too much of this kills the very attitude that is required to be able to handle this stressful job. 

Once I heard the late Andy Mackie answer a question about what life is all about, he quickly replied “Life is 99% attitude,” then he paused and thought for a moment and finished “and I forget what the other part is.” If we want our students to have positive attitudes we need to model positive attitudes. And that is hard to do after hearing for most of our duty free lunch  how bad certain students are and then having to face the same students five minutes later.

My father disliked Dale Carnegie, and being a voracious and open minded reader, I am sure he read Carnegie’s famous book. He was a small business man himself and thought the glad handing of the salespeople Carnegie trained artificial, manipulative and obsequious. He wasn’t a very positive person himself, but on the other hand he also didn’t cotton to whining and in his honor I want to stop.

So I am going to start small, I am inviting anyone who wants to have a bellyaching free lunch to join me in the wood shop on Wednesdays. Just like Math Monday and Physics Friday (in my class anyway) how about whineless Wednesday?

Why the wood shop? Well, first of all, it is away from the kids, just because I am sick of complaining about them, doesn’t mean I want to hang out with them either. 

Second, it has a thermostat and a clock and they both work. I can also set up a table if you don’t want to sit on a workbench. 

And third, why not ? In the six or seven years I have taught woodworking there are teachers who, as far as I know, have never set foot in there, and it’s a pleasant space that smells nicely of wood and honest work.

Everyone is welcome, teachers, administrators, EAs, secretaries, just leave your troubles at the door. I may end up eating alone, and that is fine, I don’t mind my own company. We won’t have a secret  handshake to get in, How about you just knock three times in the hallway, not the ceiling, like in that sappy song from the seventies?

In case you have forgotten the words you can find them here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy this.

My daughter went on a trip back to Boston recently. We called to check on her and were a bit surprised to learn that she wasn't in Boston, but in fact she was in New York at the Occupy Wall Street protest. She spent two nights sharing a tent with someone she met there. 

Last week after she was back home the police raided Zuccotti park and evicted the Occupy Wall Street protesters. She sent this letter to Mayor Bloomberg and I think she makes some 
good points and it is not just that she is my daughter. 

Dear Mr. Bloomberg,
I am 26 years old, I have a bachelor's degree in biology, and I have a secure job with pay appropriate to my experience and locale. I am not a street kid, a bleeding heart hippie, or a lazy unemployed college dropout.

I am outraged at your eviction of protesters from Zuccotti park. Last weekend I participated in the occupation while on a vacation to visit friends. I stayed for two nights and have never done something like that before. Thanks in part to your negative, narrow-minded actions, and to the amazing, well organized and thoughtful group of people that "lead" the occupation, I intend to do more of that.

Your claim that the park was unsanitary and unsafe is absolutely wrong--I felt completely comfortable there, volunteers cleaned it continually, kitchen staff operated according to standard food handler practices.

I understand that some neighbors to the park have complained about the protesters. I find it appalling that you have invested thousands and thousands of dollars in huge police forces to surround, intimidate, and evict a peaceful protest in one park, when a few short miles away the Bronx is riddled with crime and NONE of the parks are safe.

I look forward to seeing news that you are respecting the rights of citizens to peaceably assemble, and turn your attentions instead to reform and fighting the gross inequality enmeshed in your city. The country is watching you.

Lillian Kuehl

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Should Kids Learn in High School? Some thoughts.

Note: I actually wrote this last spring shortly after the event I described happened, I just kept putting off posting it.

I don’t remember much about my education program in college. There was the occasional professor whose knowledge and teaching was valuable but at the time Howard was not one of them. In fact I don’t even remember Howard’s last name. He did give us one assignment that stuck with me. We were told to write an essay that simply answered the question, “What will I teach?”

Well duh, I would teach them science. I waxed lyrical about how I would teach my students to become lifelong learners, I would stimulate their interest in science and they would come to love, if not live for science. I even suggested that through my teachings some of them might  become scientists. 

After a couple thousand words of this I turned my paper in, confident that I had Howard in the palm of my hand. I didn’t. I got back the paper and he basically said, “Yes that was all very nice but what are you going to teach?”

Now that is a question. It is a question I have given serious thought to for the last fourteen years. Just what is important for students to learn? And I still don’t know. 

Of course I know what I am going teach day to day, even year to year but I am constantly questioning just what is really important. So during a faculty meeting when my principal asked essentially the same question it took me back to Howard. What exactly do I want my students to take away from their time with me. The same type of qualities I mouthed a decade and a half ago, tempered by time and realism, sprung to mind. 

But then a terrible and profound thing happened in the time between her question and today. One of my freshmen science students shot himself. He was a student that seemed to love science. He was the ideal science student. He answered questions with a depth of understanding and curiosity that belied his age. I didn’t teach him all his science by any means but he had, what I wished all my students had, that burning interest in a subject I find fascinating. And he killed himself. 

In light of this tragedy the wonders of quantum physics or DNA replication lose their importance. Instead the verities of life: love, family, understanding, , compassion and hope rise to the top. So given the opportunity to impart one thing to students it wouldn’t be about what I wish they would learn about science but it would be for them to understand that life gets better than it is in high school.

I would say this: high school is a moment in your life that few students entirely enjoy but life does get better. You are going through changes physical, mental, sexual, emotional and intellectual and many of them are not pleasant. But this will pass. Your skin will clear up, your shyness decrease, your search for someone who loves you and understands you will more than likely be fulfilled. The demands about what you are going to do with your life will become less strident and your confusion about what to do with your life will decrease. You might be pleasantly surprised with what you end up doing, and it may be far from whatever you had imagined in high school. 

The false sense of urgency that we foster in high school will fade and you will appreciate that the trajectory of your life is not inflexible. Life will offer you a multitude of choices and you will have many chances to choose from that menu. Even if you find yourself in trouble or facing enormous obstacles, ours is a country of second and third and fourth chances. And over time you can adjust your life’s path and make it better or at least more interesting. 

In all ways this young man’s death is a tragedy. It is an unimaginable loss to his family and friends. It is a loss to the school and a loss to the greater community. And it is an especially tragic loss because for whatever reason he must have simply found himself in a place he couldn’t see a way out of. And if someone could have reached him with the message that his life would get better, it is just possible that his death might have been prevented. 

So finally, to answer Howard’s question just what would I like my students to learn, I think that is it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Some Thoughts About Teaching.

This isn’t a recurring nightmare but it is a recurring thought. After fouteen years of teaching I really don’t have a clue how to do it. 
I  go to work and my classes are organized and on task and  I have a pretty good reputation as a teacher. I actually think I am pretty effective, or at least above average. But when it comes to figuring out how to do it, I really don’t know. I think about this because effective teaching is in the news. It is the news; America is in all stages of a decline and crisis because of a lack of effective teaching. So if I fancy myself as an effective teacher than it only seems fair that I should be able to explain how to do it. But I can’t. 
I am in good company. There is an interview with Richard Feynman a Nobel prize winning physicist who was also a professor at Cal Tech. Besides being a brilliant physicist his reputation as a teacher was beyond reproach You can  still go on Amazon and buy books that are simply transcripts of his lectures on physics even though the lectures are over forty years old. 
But in the interview he admits that after many years of teaching he still doesn’t know how to do it. He relates teaching his young son science through a fantastic make believe world he invents as bedtime stories. He tells how interested and excited his son was, and how much he learned. But then he had a daughter. She wanted nothing to do with it, she wanted traditonal bedtime stories. Feynman thought it was because they had different personalites. 
In his formal teaching he tries a skattergun approach, send a lot  of stuff out there and see what sticks. But he doesn’t know why some stuff sticks for some people and why others are bored by the topics some find fascinating. He asks the question just how do you get people interested, which in edu-talk is how do we get them intrinsically motivated. And I wonder that too. 
I have two physical science classes this year. One is large, 32 students and the other is about half that size. The large class  gets more of their work in, stays on task better and has consistently better grades. 
Interestingly the small class defies the  conventional wisdom of the positive effects of small class size. Fewer of them consistently get their work in, stay on task and as result the class average is about a full letter grade lower. 
This could have something to do with unintentional “tracking.” In our small school, especially in their freshmen year, the band is a big driver of the schedule. And as might be expected “Band Kids” typically are somewhat better students. So that might explain part of the discrepency. And for whatever reason there are more at-risk kids and attendance problems in the small class so that could also explain the difference. 
But there is more interesting difference than grades. In the smaller class the students consistently raise very interesting questions and we have wide ranging discussions about science. They really think about it and make the connectins to their real world. They say things like, “Oh so that’s why such and such happens....”
While in the other class I have to pull teeth to get a discussion going and it is rare to have a kid ask a question that shows some deeper understanding.  Frankly, it is a more boring class to teach. 
So in the end while I give both classes the same assignments, projects and tests, I think at the end of the day the “poor” students learn more science. For some reason these kids get more interested and as a result learn more. But how does a teacher make that happen?  How can we train teachers to make that happen, to make teachers more effective, to cure our country's ills? I wish I knew. 
 Here is the actual Feynman interview. It is very interesting, especially if you like Feynman.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I just came away from reading about the latest scheme from the educational industrial complex for evaluating teachers. Thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the wonders of technology a 360 degree camera records everything going on in  a classroom in real time, tie this to a helmet cam on the teacher’s head and implanted microchips in student’s arms and administrators will be able to collect massive data streams to evaluate teacher effectiveness. It will be just like a reality show for your boss' enjoyment. 
Okay, there aren’t implants just yet, we need an amendment to the Patriot Act for that or at least a really good parental permission form, and  the helmet cam is still in development but the all seeing camera is real.  And the teacher does wear a microphone so that anything they say to a student is recorded. This will prove handy in those lawsuits that arise from a foolish teacher telling Johnny to his face that he really isn’t working up to his potential. 
Now the authors admit that even with the video there is “that pesky human subjectivity--whoever is watching the video is interpreting what he or she sees.” but "these kinds of technologies are going to be very attractive, given the demands on administrators these days.” Hopefully cash strapped districts will be able to hire experienced  observors to augment the administraotrs. Perhaps they can hire off duty security guards who watch the shoplifter cameras at Walmart. They can be up in the booth producing objective evaluations of teacher effectiveness. 
If you  are one of those worrying Willy’s don’t. Because as the authors say “these cutting-edge systems are potentially game changing technology, but less for teacher evaluation than for supporting teacher reflection.” This means that at the end of the day you can review the tapes for the big game tomorrow. Between making dinner and putting the kids to bed you can see who was texting or gazing off into space and adjust accordingly. 
I’m not worried but I will be the first to admit that in my fourteen years of teaching I haven’t  given 110% everyday. Just the other day a student  tied me up for almost 15 minutes talking. Not a word of it was related to the curriculum or the day’s lesson. The rest of the class was hopelessly off task. Now contrary to what instant replay would show,  we weren’t just killing time. It turns out this student’s father is about to go to jail and the mother is already there.  The student wasn’t sure where they were going to live. I didn’t have an answer  but I do wonder just where that sort of conversation fits in discussions about teacher effectiveness.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Shop Class as Soulcraft

So about a month ago I went to a blacksmith’s shop to look into buying a hydraulic cylinder. We had never met and we got to talking and I mentioned that I teach woodshop. It is interesting, usually when I tell people I am a teacher there is something of an awkward silence, kind of like if I were to tell people I was a prison guard or maybe a grave digger. It seems most people have their preconception of what being a teacher is like, no doubt based on their own experience of being a student, and it apparently isn’t a job that invites much curiosity. So I was surprised when the blacksmith simply asked what it was really like to be a shop teacher. 

We talked some more and then he asked if I had read “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford. I was a little embarrassed because several people have suggested it, in fact I had even started it once from the library . Then I received a copy for Christmas which I promptly exchanged for something I thought would be more interesting. So I sort of fumbled around with an answer and then he ran to the back room and brought out his copy and said I could borrow it. Here a guy I had just met was trusting me with a book, which I think of as a trust just short of borrowing tools, and he was so enthusiastic that I felt compelled to take him up on his offer. 
I did not find it an easy book to read. (I have a pretty good vocabulary and I needed a dictionary, often) Originally I thought it was going to be some romantic, gauzy look at craftmanship and the nobility of the working class. It isn’t, it is a much more honest look at manual work and the author doesn’t try to make working in the trades seem more idealized than it is, ( I built things for 25 years before I became a teacher so I am familiar with the topic).

What he does argue, is that working in the trades can be as intellectually challenging and economically rewarding as getting a college degree and doing white collar work. In fact, he makes the point that the goal of the corporate world is to make white collar work as formulaic and rule bound as possible with the goal of getting predictable results and this can make the work as boring and deadening as any assembly line job. This I have no personal experience with so it would be interesting to hear other viewpoints. 

He also makes the point that any job that can be done on a computer, even jobs like accounting and lawyering, can and will be shipped overseas. (I spent a month in India last summer and I can vouch for that. I toured a private school and the kids were so well spoken, BTW with not hint of an accent, and so motivated that it makes me terrified for my own students who have a fantasy they are going to do some sort of creative computer work for a living. The kids in India would kick their butts and nobody has to know where the electrons come from.) Whereas repairing a car, a boat ,anything, building, plumbing and so on are going have to be done locally.

The book also made me think about my own job because I also teach science besides shop. I can get my science students involved and force them to do the work but in shop I have to almost force them to stop, which illustrates another tenet of the book, that is that working with your hands is innately human. 

And it brings it home to me how much pressure there is that every student go to college. I was a science teacher before I taught shop and I remember the first time I reported on a shop student’s progress how dismissive the other teachers and professionals were during a meeting to discuss his problems. “That’s fine but how is he doing in is academic classes…” The home-ec teacher later welcomed me to the “vocational ghetto” when I related the story. I bite my tongue at faculty meetings sometimes because of this attitude. There is a lot of lip service to vocational programs but they are always sort of a fallback position for the kid who can’t do college. (I do have to give my district a great deal of credit for supporting my own program financially, but the attitude is prevalent) 

In any case I thought I would throw this out there for some discussion. If you are interested here is a link to the original essay that prompted the book.