28 February 2011

Sometimes. . .

. . . I hate my job . . .
-When I have a cold and all I want to do is crawl back into bed and sleep for, oh, I don't know, the next year?
-When I assign homework over the weekend and three (THREE) people in the entire class have finished said homework. (Why am I here, again?)
-When a student spills anything (pencil shavings. . . popcorn. . . crumbs . . . ) and leaves them for me to clean up.
-When I have a raging headache and students talk over me.
-When I walk into school and am immediately told by a (well meaning, I'm sure) student: "You look miserable. . . "
-When I hear my alarm go off in the morning and know before I get the chance to turn it off that it's going to be one of those days.
-When students give excuses for why things didn't get done.
-When I give an assignment that no one does the right way and I can't figure out if it's because my instructions were crummy or students weren't paying attention or . . .

. . . I love my job. . .
-When I wake up in the morning and remember that I have basically the best co-worker(s) ever to plan/take over the world with. It's nice not to have to fight the system alone.
-When the girl in the room next to mine tells me every day she sees me that I'm beautiful and her favorite teacher (even when I don't have her in any classes, and never have.)
-When students get excited enough about the book we're reading that they ask to read ahead.
-When we make it past February and know that March (and April and May) will, eventually, make an appearance.
-When I had discussion time over to students and they take over with what can pass as intelligent responses.
- When it's lunch time and I get to watch Wonder Years episodes.
-When I plan "profound movie" afternoons and students come (voluntarily) to watch movies produced before the 50s, or movies that are more than 4 hours long (re: BBCs Jane Eyre).
-When, like "the Jimmer", my name (and the name of my team-teacher) becomes a verb/adjective/adverb in overheard conversations.
-When students get it. (And then DO something about it.)

16 February 2011

Motivation, Responsibility and Idealism - Oh my!

There's a popular phrase that says "you can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink". This is true, it seems, everywhere - except for modern public education. The government's latest philosophy on education seems to be, "you can take a horse to water, but if it won't drink then shove its head in, and if it won't drink then, give it an IV. The horse WILL BE HYDRATED."

Every day in my job I see a series of educational dichotomies. It's difficult to wrap my head around the solution - but quite easy to see the problem. It's no wonder the problem of education in this country is so over everyone's head. . .

Problem One: Motivation

What the "education world" says: The educational world will tell you that it is the responsibility of the teacher to motivate students. Students are naturally unmotivated, greedy, grade hungry buggers and they only want to "come, eat and leave" so to speak. Your responsibility as a teacher is to (without referring to specific value sets, but still referring to values somehow) teach in a way that is inspiring to students so that they will somehow eventually be motivated. You can take credit for this motivation. If a student leaves your room unmotivated, this is your fault. Also, you will need to find a way to prove this motivation or lack of through numbers and charts.

What the laws of nature say: It is not my responsibility to motivate anyone, even if it was possible. I have agency for myself. I can create an environment that fosters motivation, but that doesn't mean I am a failure if there are students in my room that are unmotivated. I can't prove that students are or aren't motivated through charts, but I can use my head and my common sense to see if they are motivated or not. If a student is not motivated, it may or may not be my fault. I should not sacrifice time and attention on motivated students in favor of coddling or babying students who are not motivated.

What I see: In my classroom about two hours ago I could have divided the room very quickly into students who were motivated, students who weren't but could be, students who refused to be, and students who weren't mentally capable of it. This isn't based on any degree in medicine or even on my degree as a teacher - it's based on life experience and what I know of my students. Am I a perfect teacher? No. Are there students in my class that I have probably judged unfairly in either direction? Almost certainly. But that's life, isn't it? There are people you get on with and people you don't. People you work well with and people you don't. As a teacher, though, I have the strange responsibility of finding a way to make my personality and life experience resonate with everyone in the room; something I wouldn't ever have to do outside of my job because it just isn't logical. Unfortunately with the way the system is set up, my students (and myself) are both punished by the arrangement, when it's often not the "fault" of either side - it's just people.

What's the solution?: Well - it goes way deeper into American culture than the government would like it to. The thing is: kids have no reason to be motivated. If they don't graduate from school they can get welfare. If they fail, someone will sit them down and tell them exactly what to do. We live in a country where failure isn't an option. Because there are no consequences, there is no reason for responsibility or motivation. To fix education - we have to allow consequences.

Problem Two: Responsibility

For Failing Students:

What the Educational World/National Government says: No Child Left Behind! By 2012 all students everywhere in our country must be passing. This means that we can prove through charts and elaborate systems of standardized testing that every student in our country no matter their educational background won't fail. This will prove our worth as the greatest nation in the world. This also means that if a teacher or school has a student that is failing, they are not adequate (or good) and need careful babysitting. The failure of a student is not the fault of the student. It is the fault of the teacher or school.

What teachers say: If a student fails it is because they are lazy and don't turn work in. In order to accomodate NCLB, I now use only multiple choice tests and completion grades in my classroom. By handing in every assignment, even if it is poorly completed, the student can still feasibly earn a C. It shouldn't be my responsibility to chase after students who aren't turning work in, but I have done so anyway and it still doesn't come in. It isn't my fault if a student fails.

What the laws of nature say: Our failure or lack of failure is our own responsibility. It should not be the responsibility of anyone else - and you should care more about your own future than anyone else. Each person, then, should take accountability for their performance. This means that if a student has a teacher that does not teach well enough, the student should be allowed the right to find a teacher who will teach them well. This means that a teacher should not be responsible for hunting down under-performing students. What's more, the "system" should be accommodating to the variety of types of student there are - some students are more capable than others (for some reason it's easy to acknowledge this in sports but not so much in school), and that is not a crime.

The Implications: Schools should be established in a way that allows students to take responsibility for their education. It should not be the responsibility of teachers to hunt down students who do not turn in work or who do not understand materials. Schools (or at least, more schools) should also not lower their standard - whatever it is - to accommodate those who are not capable of the work required. Grades should mean something and indicate actual competency with skills. Parents should take more responsibility for nurturing their child at home and setting a high standard.

The Problem: Students come from so many backgrounds and cultures that it would be nearly impossible to assume that all will receive parental support. The culture of grades right now is that "A" has become the new "C" and there is no reward for students who are truly brilliant (or real consequence for those who are not.) Students who are not capable of higher level thinking (whether through technical mental disability or not) need places where they can find success without being punished for a lack of "book smart" skills. Schools need funding and if they cannot accommodate a large number of varieties of students it's hard to keep the school open.

There are more that I could write about but I should probably get back to planning my lessons for tomorrow. Suffice it to say that I don't know what the solution is. I don't think that teachers should be blamed for a student's failure if they're a good teacher. I also don't think that every student is meant for every teacher, and that students have a right to a teacher that will reach them. I don't think that unmotivated, impassionate teachers should have the right to the name. But I also don't know what the solution is. It's not an easy one, whatever it may be. But I'm going to continue working as hard as I can to make my job something worth keeping, and to fight for a world where my students can be respected and given the opportunities they have worked so hard to have.

12 February 2011


I've been thinking about the role that the arts have played in my life more so than normal of late. It's been simultaneously making me feel both terribly lonely and frustrated while also filling me with a very keen sense of gratitude. It's hard to explain. I'll do my best.

When I got to BYU I formalized a decision that I'd made in high school by applying for the English Teaching major: I would not make a living out of theater. Not that I didn't want to. What better place in the world for an LDS actress than BYU to get experience and support in both building technical skills and connections that would allow me to maintain the standards that I've set for myself? At the risk of sounding arrogant, I'm no acting slouch. I'm not perfect, but I've been involved in shows since I was about five: I know more than most. But it didn't feel right. I didn't feel like it was the best decision for me to make. I'm always more comfortable when I don't feel obligated to do something I love, and making a career out of theater would have, of necessity, made it critical for me to occasionally do a show I didn't care about so that I could eat. Some people can live with that kind of decision: I just couldn't do it. I needed more stability.

So I stepped away and moved instead toward my other passions: reading and writing - and did what most female English nuts do: teach. And I've loved it. Adored it, really. It was the right choice. It's stable. It's fun. It's hard. But always, always rewarding in the end. The theater part of my life became something I would have to content myself with only developing to the extent I could in the occasional show. I won't ever be as good as I want to be - but at least it isn't a permanent severing. Just a temporary one.

Last summer gave me the biggest break a community theater actress could have when I was cast as Marian in Music Man - a part I've wanted to play for as long as I can remember. It was some kind of dream world, last summer. For four blessed months I got to walk in the shoes of Marian Paroo. It was incredible and life changing - it reaffirmed to me that God has not neglected my desire to keep the arts in my life.

But this year, it seems, will be different. I have looked up and down the valley for a show worth doing and there aren't any. Literally. Disney's Camp Rock. Seussical. Hairspray (in Utah? Where are you going to find any race?!) Jekyll and Hyde. At least two theaters are doing Joseph (again.) It's as though last year God placed me in a show and this year He is closing every door - directing me somewhere else.

And I'm alright with that. Well - no. It hurts. It makes me want to claw at things and throw pillows against the wall out of frustration. But it will be alright. I can live with it, because I know that when doors close, it usually means that God has something in mind for me that I couldn't find on my own without help. I can be patient.

At least until the show I saw yesterday. A high school production of a show that I'm not hugely fond of but when to anyway to support some members of the cast. I always go to high school shows expecting a huge amount of parental excitement and enthusiasm to look over the flaws because everyone has worked so hard. I expect a director to glow and rave about how proud they are of the students for what they've accomplished. Instead I experienced the most frustrating night I've EVER had in theater, and it wasn't the fault of the actors. There were several students on that stage who had more than earned the right to be there. Oh no - this time, it was the director.

Let me explain: for one, the director was there in what must have been his pajamas. A sweatshirt and sweat pants. If this wasn't sign enough of utter disrespect for your show, then what follows is certainly confirmation: the set was more or less cardboard, students wandered around upstage behind set pieces consistently, the tech was a disaster, there was at least three minutes of flashing strobe lighting in a strange attempt to look flashy, and - to cap it all off - a parent sitting in the middle of the theater with a tripod and camera out taking pictures WITH flash. Not once or twice - at least forty times in the second act alone. And the director did nothing about it. And those are only the things I can say without giving away what show it was. What a complete insult to those of us who want to be in theater and are willing and passionate enough to care about it.

So for now I'm fighting to regain my sense of peace about the lack of arts in my life right now. I envy my brother for being daring enough to make a career out of music. I am frustrated with myself for being practical. I am resolute in not giving away everything that I am for the stage and desperate for it at the same time. I am angry at this director for abusing the right to teach. I am in mourning for those students who deserve better.

Mostly - I miss the stage. And I am holding to the belief that somehow - somewhere - the talents I have been given will be put to use again.

07 February 2011

The "Good Parts" Version

I had a conversation recently with a fellow teacher who had the following conversation with a parent:

Parent: You studied human sacrifice in class?

Teacher: No, we studied the Aztec civilization. I mentioned human sacrifice but did not go into detail about how or when, nor did we do any demonstrations in class. It was brief. No pictures - just a mention.

Parent: I can't believe you would do that with my child in your class! Our family does not approve of any form of violence.

Teacher: . . . so. . . what do you do about The Book of Mormon? What about the scene where Nephi kills Laban? Ammon?

Parent: (Matter-of-factly) - Oh, we take those parts out.

Umm. . . excuse me?! Since when was it acceptable to censor The Book of Mormon?! Is it even possible to censor The Book of Mormon? Do they only read part of 3rd Nephi and the half of chapter one in 4th Nephi? And how the heck do they handle the Bible?

Remember when I told you that my school is full of crazy strange conservative people? I don't understand this mentality. I just don't. They do realize that if they wanted to live in a glass house free of any danger or sin or scary things at all that they did have that option, yes? And that our Father in Heaven, in his infinite wisdom, said "No. You need to live in an environment where there is light and dark?" Come now.

In other news - two of my classes will be reading The Giver in the next few months. I am very curious to see how that works out. . .

The King's Speech

This particular blog post is about The King's Speech. If you don't want to be spoiled because you're planning on seeing it, then don't read. If you want to be convinced to go see it because that "R" rating scares you, then keep reading. If you think I'm a sinner for seeing a movie that's rated "R", then that's fine. I'll get over it.

Every so often a movie comes along that lives up to the hype surrounding it. It's a pretty rare thing - usually someone talks up a movie to the point where I think: "Yeah. Right. There's no way." Not that I don't love it when I'm wrong, but I do tend to go in cynically when I get recommendations from people that I don't trust.

Fortunately, I went into The King's Speech with almost nothing except the bare basics of information on the plot: King George VI getting over his stutter and - as far as the title told me - so he can give a speech. Pretty straightforward.

What I didn't quite expect was a film that would so gracefully and powerfully touch me and relate to me, and, I think, to anyone with any sense of self reflection that sees it. Let me explain:

1. George (AKA Bertie - Colin Firth) is an immediately sympathetic character. The opening scene involves an address at Wembley Stadium where a very loud speaker echos ever halt and sputter he makes to the entire crowd and all those listening on the radio. It would be bad enough if he was just afraid of crowds and got nervous - but the stutter went much deeper than that. As the plot goes on, you see pressure from his father, the teasing of his brother, his abusive nanny, his own lack of confidence. You see that he's been struggling to speak for himself since he was young. He's tried everything he (or his wife) could think of but nothing has worked. He finds a therapist, he learns, he gets better, but he's never quite perfect. The climax of the film is his address to the country after war is declared, and even that speech involves a battle for each and every word. There isn't a miraculous recovery. He doesn't suddenly sound perfect. In fact, the movie tells you that he always needed the help of his therapist for the speeches he gave throughout the war. His weakness became a strength, but strength doesn't necessarily mean that something is easy.

This was something that I so related to. So often I've felt like my entire life I will be battling against certain parts of myself that are not in any way easy to get over. Not that I'm denying the power that God has to make weaknesses into strengths - what I am saying is that there is nothing in scripture that says strengths are easy or that we won't have to continually work to keep a strength strong. There is nothing in the world that I know of that, with abandonment, stays just as easy for a person. That's just not how life works. I appreciated that reminder that I am not a failure if I am in process.

2. There's a moment where Bertie gives his therapist a shilling by way of inside-joke apology. He looks at the coin and tells his therapist that his father is still watching him. The therapist looks back and tells him that he doesn't have to carry his father around in his pocket.

This line hit me right over the head. There is a person in my life right now that is bound and determined to make my life miserable. Now that I've stepped back from the situation a bit I can recognize the signs of emotional abuse in what this person is doing to me, but the situation is one that makes it difficult for me to completely escape it. What's more, I've been asking myself over and over again: How can you be charitable and Christlike to a person that you need to break contact with? I don't have the answer yet - but in the mean time I've appreciated the reminder that I don't have to carry this person around with me everywhere I go either. I can put the metaphorical coin away and move on with life.

Now, as for the film's rating: to be honest, if I hadn't known it was R, I would have thought it was a soft PG for the first 3/4ths of the movie. There is one short scene and half of another scene where Bertie's character does swear quite a bit, but it isn't crude or crass swearing and it's all over rather quickly. If you don't want to deal even with 30 seconds or so of swearing, then it will be an easy enough movie to edit later on because there is literally no other instance of swearing or sex or anything else at all in the rest of the film that should cause problems. If you can handle it (it's actually a rather funny scene), then go. Just do. It was divine.

03 February 2011


Sometimes I think teaching would be a much more pleasant job if there weren't students involved. Less grading. Less noise. Less questioning. Less opportunity to fear for the future.

It is because of this that I have determined that today will be an opportunity for me to play my own version of SNL's "Really?!"

Exhibit A: I walked into school this morning and found, crowded around a computer in my "office"/Multimedia Room a large group of students watching the same film over and over again and being very loud. Down the hallway, there was a group of people banging haphazardly around on some drums. (Really?! Because some mornings I only want to be responsible for students between 8:45-3:15).

Exhibit B: After a month of preparation, students in the Drama class are about to perform their monologues at a mock audition in the upcoming week. Students have been told for the last week and a half that this will be a work day. As soon as work time is dismissed, students crowd around my desk. First student: ". . . what are monologues?" (Really?!)

Exhibit C: Second student: ". . . I don't have mine." / "We perform next week. Are you at all concerned by this? That you're not ready?" / ". . . should I be?" (Really?!)

Exhibits D-H: See Exhibit C. (Really?!! Are we sure that this is in any way worth my time?)

Exhibit I: Lunch time. 11:10-11:40. Sacred non-student time. Lunch. Adult conversation. Student refuses to leave after being asked more than once to get out and eventually cuts into five of those precious minutes. (*headdesk*. Really . . .. ?)

Exhibit J: Creative Writing. Students are shocked that we are. . . wait for it. . . writing. In a WRITING class. (Are you serious?!!)

. . . and so goes the day. I still have at least five more hours in this building and five more hours full of opportunities to work with students who are working their hardest today to try my patience and - unfortunately - succeeding. I remember being a student/kid and feeling as though adults (especially teachers - it was different with parents) were immune to annoyance, or should be if they weren't. Now I am beyond that ridiculous bit of ignorance and able to recognize that annoyance isn't something you grow out of.

But we're one step closer to the weekend. And I have a good book to read. And I'm playing the Anne of Green Gables soundtrack in my classroom. And the bell is ringing and the student who is sitting on the couch staring at me because her writing is "perfect" and doesn't need help is not going to bother me any more. And I'm going to eat a lemon bar. And I'm going to see a movie tonight (and tomorrow) with fully competent, delightful, responsible adults. And remember that adults were children once and. . . with any luck. . . these children will one day become adults.