Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Cold Calling

I have seen the technique used several times by different teachers. Initially, I found the technique (each student’s name is written on an index card, the stack is shuffled, and names are drawn at random to answer the teacher’s questions) to be silly. [I should mention that my comments have only to do with my teaching philosophy and personal preference and are not at all criticisms of others. I have certainly seen teachers use cold calling to their advantage. But still I persist with my denunciation.]

First of all, it is a stymie to the free-wheeling exchange of ideas that any good English class (I feel) should be. The teacher must constantly think about the stack of names, must constantly return to the stack of names, and is thereby reduced. In my estimation, a teacher is one who stomps freely about the classroom, free of restrictions: neither tied to desk nor bound to book or notes or board. Gone are the days when Ms. Smith sat reading aloud behind her textbook for the hour. So why artificially recreate this?

I value hands free teaching – the teacher who can capitalize on every “teachable moment,” who is unshackled everywhere because of his or her confidence, knowledge, and adaptability. Cold calling squelches creativity, liveliness, energy, and flexibility at every turn. Because, instead of thinking three steps ahead of his or her students; instead of anticipating brilliant questions; instead of masterfully guiding the learning towards crescendoed transitions, the teacher must constantly remember to pick a name at random from a stack of cards propped somewhere. Heaven forbid a teacher calls on a student deliberately or out-of-turn! What if a student looks confused, can I say something, or must I wait until his or her name pops up on my magic list? I must, after all, be fair.

Why? Are teachers really that blind? Am I really that blind? Surely some students speak more than others – but this is not a problem. And the solution needn’t be to handicap oneself (as teacher) with index cards but simply to remember to call on the shy ones. Not so draining a chore! Walk the room with your feet, and pepper the room with your questions. Some kids more readily volunteer; others need prodding. Cold calling dulls and dumbifies. Each name surprises both teacher and student. Why is this valuable? Let the teacher choose who to “pick on” for each question and who to have “review what was just said for the rest of us.” That’s the teacher’s job: to reinforce learning by knowing who needs to improve what.

Additionally, cold calling has the teacher asking a question and then drawing a name. But this is wrong! So wrong! What happens when the toughest question posed is set before the uncomprehending student? As teachers, we ought know better than to place such an obstacle. But even if the teacher picks a name first, the flow of the class is interrupted and the eye-contact has been disrupted so that teacher could fumble with note cards.

A teacher’s head, hands, and priorities are sacrosanct.

To me, cold calling is the by the book, inflexible, braindead, skullousally boring relic of starchy educators past. Its artificiality stymies classroom flow and living energy. It disrupts the learning by its very nature: phoniness. And education should be anything but phony.

One Final Semi-Related Note:
I’ve seen teachers address students by their last names. And I like the formality. Mind you, the forced formality. But nevertheless. My question, however, is plain: Doesn’t this make for awkward parental meetings and phone calls home? “Hello, Mr. Smith; I’m Mr. Khaki Pants, Mr. Smith’s English teacher…”

Friday, June 24, 2005

On Formal Evaluation Day

Thirty minutes to open, teach, close, and evaluate a lesson is ridiculous. Not to mention unrealistic, forced, and phony. Especially a lesson intended for summer-school and Special-Ed students. Kids ask questions: that’s the nature of learning and teaching effectively. Preplanning and posturing to the extent required for our grade is, in fact, preparing to fail as a teacher. One becomes stuck in lesson plans rather than living in the lesson. But what the hell do I know about teaching?

I spent so much time thinking about my step-by-step procedures that I lost total focus of the overall effect, the overall learning, and the students’ ability to keep up with my words. My thoughts had nothing to do with what I was saying, listening to, or seeing: all focus was spent trying to photo-recall what I’d written so eloquently in my lesson plan. (Self doubt: “Am I on step G or H?”)

That’s the bullshit we shouldn’t be concerned with. We should be asking: Are they getting it? What are they doing? NOT “What am I doing?” Because what I do as a teacher varies directly with and is causally related to what they are doing or failing to do as students. They get it, I move on; they need help, I slow up; they need leadership, I lead; they’re leading effectively, I just nudge the wheel ever so slightly and tap the pedal.

“Do you understand me?
Repeat back the instructions I just gave to you.”

For more opinions on Formal Evaluation Day, please see Word Documents “502 Feedback” and “Formal Evaluation Concerns” once I manage to post them.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Reluctant Disciplinarian

I found some useful tips from this book (call parents without warning, be direct and to the point, have kids take a proficiency test on Day 1) and was entertained with the light read. However, I wasn’t particularly moved by his narrative and was seldom surprised by his “discoveries.” I would’ve preferred to learn more about his latter years as a successful teacher – to read humorous anecdotes from a “teacher of the year.” Lack of details and a breezy tone made me not care that much about what he was saying or how he was saying it, so I just read for helpful tidbits.

I think it’s an important book to have MTC teachers read – if only because of the humor. Everyone leaves that book thinking, “Well, I can’t suck that bad!” And for this reason, it inspires.

I often felt like a bigger picture would be more helpful. On the whole, Reluctant Disciplinarian was not my cup of tea, and I really have nothing to say about this book, but I had to blog on it for a grade. Don’t get me started…

Sunday, June 12, 2005

A Trio of Brio: Many Williams Wandereth [sic] Here

What fundamental misunderstanding about the world has led we cohort of 28 to believe in social justice? Have we educated mass of khakis and skirts learnt nothing from ancestral vendettas paid back on sleeping babes? Sins of the fathers revisited on their children? Do we not read the papers, digest the magazines, and study the history? Haven’t we heard enough of war and savagery, death and violence, poverty and deprivation to realize that such travesties are – to flambastically misapply Congreve – “The Way of the World”?

Math teachers tape geometrical patterns to the floor, science teachers eat saccharine mitosis lessons, English teachers flip frantically through human frailty. Hoping to find that one lost poem, that long lost line, that forgotten friend in a sea of so many familiar faces. But to the student, not a one means a thing. What time for star-crossed lovers when someone has stolen the amplifier from your truck, the baby from your belly, the plums from your icebox?

Or are we best in grand Romantic visions? Unable to imagine any reality but that of our imagination, we lie to ourselves, pretending to see that which is not there. That which probably never was here on the banks of the Mississippi, overlooking generations of stills and shallow graves. "If only I can stay here long enough," "if only I can squint my eyes just so," "if only the world were a better place," then... oh then everything would be right, here on the banks overlooking this wonderful Southern Baptist "Abbey"?!

Friday, June 10, 2005

The Rest of James Meredith

Everyone remembers James Meredith as the face of integration at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the architect of the March Against Fear in 1966 (during which he was shot). But people don’t mention that James Meredith later earned a law degree from Columbia and that…

“He was an active Republican and served for several years as a domestic advisor on the staff of United States Senator Jesse Helms. He made several attempts to be elected to Congress as a Republican. He became increasingly conservative and in 1988 accused liberal whites of being "the greatest enemy" of African Americans. He also opposed economic sanctions against South Africa and making the birthday of Martin Luther King a national holiday.

“In 2002, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his desegregation of the University of Mississippi, at the age of 69, he was the proprietor of a small used car lot in Jackson, Mississippi. On the celebration activities surrounding the 40th anniversary Meredith said, "It was an embarrassment for me to be there, and for somebody to celebrate it, oh my God."

“James Meredith views himself as an individual American citizen who demanded and got the rights properly extended to any American, not as a participant in the US civil rights movement. There is considerable disrespect between James Meredith and the organized Civil Rights Movement. Meredith once said that "Nothing could be more insulting to me than the concept of civil rights. It means perpetual second-class citizenship for me and my kind".

“In an interview for CNN, Meredith stated, "I was engaged in a war. I considered myself engaged in a war from Day One. And my objective was to force the federal government – the Kennedy administration at that time – into a position where they would have to use the United States military force to enforce my rights as a citizen." ” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Meredith)

Not to detract from the man’s accomplishments; merely to set the facts straight.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Spare the Rod?

“There’s an easy solution to every human problem: neat, plausible, and wrong.” -- H.L. Mencken

Dr. McConnell looked at me squarely and said that if he were a principal and if I were preventing another teacher from dispensing whacks to a student (to a child!), he would try to have me fired.

Corporal punishment may be in the culture today, but am I supposed to “accept it” and move on (as many here think)? Or worse: participate in it! (Fortunately, the Jackson schools don’t allow it – but what about the children two towns over?) What can I do? Should I do? As an outsider – a cultural observer – at this point?

Dr. McConnell’s words sound hollow: “You are teachers, not social changers. Teaching your students is your job.” Apparently teaching students something other than ass-to-paddle violence doesn’t count as teaching. Apparently teaching students to solve problems without resorting to blows doesn’t count as teaching. Apparently teaching students about life outside of books doesn’t count as teaching.

Of course, I see his point. As educators, we must focus on the curriculum and state tests. We must not lose focus by expending energies on time-consuming and spiritually draining pursuits. Yes, he is trying to spare us the heartache and hardship of fighting against such an ingrained, socially-accepted form of discipline. Yes, he wants us to teach kids to read, write, and add. Of course, he has the students’ best interests in mind and years of experience at his fingertips.

But it is a mistake not to think of ourselves as social changers. Weren’t the MTC founders social changers? Aren’t we but a newer link in the chain, with more advanced objectives? Furthering the process begun before us? I refuse to believe that my role as educator ends when the bell rings or is bound in a textbook.

But what is my choice? Step in, ignore relativism, impose a universal, condemn local ethics, and feel better about myself? Surely I must “learn” about this “strange new place” before judging it, but how many crimes must I witness before I’m “ethically able” to take a stand – without seeming (or being) the Yankee with his nose where it don’t [sic] belong?

Presently 23/50 states permit corporal punishment. (This note was added much later, but please see Brian Hawkins’ report for more information.) Change starts somewhere.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Ike's Day Day

61 years and counting... we do what we can:


Don't let conservatives monopolize G-d and our military!

Sunday, June 05, 2005


A first breath of southern hospitality: Magnolias surround the warm, wet parking lot. Welcome to Mississippi. Our first night on the town at the most integrated movie-theater I’ve ever known. Welcome to Mississippi. My first sweet tea served by women and African-Americans in a white-male-owned fried-everything establishment. Welcome to Mississippi.

My reasons for being here are made plain in my application essay.

I’ve joined the Mississippi Teacher Corps (MTC) to be helpful: to teach and to study. To me, teaching high-school English is hardly corporate banking, Wall Street, or fashion modeling. In a world where “appearance,” “image,” and “façade” prevail over “meaning” and “substance,” surely a high-school English teacher needn’t be overly concerned about his or her appearance. Surely what s/he knows, how s/he teaches, who s/he inspires should matter more.

Apparently not.

Apparently, in pursuit of an off-the-beaten-path, alternate-route teaching certificate, I have stumbled into yet another profession that takes itself too seriously. But the decision is easy, I am here to teach – be it in a rain-slicker or cardboard box. I ditch the denim and become “Mr. Khaki Pants.”

But I am keeping my Hawaiian shirts!