Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Seven Teachers (a work in progress)
by Gina Giuliano

Unintended Lesson Imparted

8/14/1998. In high school, we had “selectives” for English. This meant that you had to take ninth grade English, then six semesters of English classes. Those six could be freely chosen among a menu of choices. It was great, and I loved that approach, but it was eventually abandoned for a more structured method. I suppose that was because students were not studying a common core, and so were not doing well enough on the English Regents.

It was at this time that I learned there are a lot of things teachers don’t know. This thought had occurred to me a few times before, once in elementary school when another girl slugged me over a brown crayon, and the next-door classroom teacher (who was watching us because our teacher had to step out - to do what, I now wonder?) sent us both to the principal’s office. It dawned on me again in seventh grade science, when the teacher changed my grade of 100 on a test to a 50, after catching the girl sitting next to me cheating from my paper and accusing us of collaborating. I had to look up that word in the dictionary, in shock as I read it next to the 50 on my paper, written there in red pen.

But those incidents were disciplinary issues, not academic ones. This particular course, my learning experience for what teachers know, was a “harder” selective impressively titled “The Novel.” It included reading Giants of the Earth, My Antonia and The Jungle. An essentialist’s list, perhaps? The teacher was amiable enough, and all of the popular, semi-good-student male jocks were drawn to his class. Had I know this in advance, in spite of the attraction of the course’s focus, I probably would have chosen a different class, for I was one of the great unknown masses in high school, not a bit athletic, and not just a semi-good-student but an honor student. I sat in the second or third seat back, one row from the door, marveling at those boys and imagining how much my best friend and a popular wanna-be would like to trade places with me. If “The Novel” had not involved wading through Willa Cather and Upton Sinclair, that is.

That day we were discussing Giants of the Earth, and the teacher said, during one of his regular volleys with a jock whose usual comments consisted mainly of wisecracks, something about male and female oxen. (My memory tells me that he might have said “oxes,” but that part can’t be true.) I felt as if a spike of electricity ran through me. He wasn’t joking. If he didn’t know that an ox is a castrated bull, maybe he didn’t understand The Jungle, either. My doubts grew exponentially. Maybe he didn’t even know which classic books to assign for this class. And I was certain he didn’t suspect that two-thirds of my classmates were gathering their insights not from actually reading the assigned novels, but from cliff notes.

Of course, later I realized that a college degree in some subject doesn’t mean, and isn’t intended to mean, that the graduate has memorized every tidbit there is to know about the discipline. Just because I can’t remember the date Montana became a state doesn’t mean I’m unworthy of my bachelor’s degree in history. Later I also realized that I’d learned a valuable lesson that day, and it wasn’t about oxen or literature or popular kids and cliff notes.

As a result, I’ve concluded that my teacher was a good guy and not a bad teacher, either. First, now I’m certain that his book list was appropriate, even excellent. But more important, that day I learned to question things which are casually presented as “facts.”

Gym Teacher from H-ll

11/22/02. I noticed on AOL's welcome screen, one of the changing main photos/headlines reads "On This Day in 1963...where were you?" The story is about President Kennedy's assassination. I can't remember where I was, since I was only a little more than two years old at that time. Sometimes we kind of remember things from when we were tiny not from the actual experience, but because someone has told us the story and it becomes familiar. I don't recall my mother or father telling me what I was doing, either.

What is a coincidence is that last night I was thinking of JFK. He was really only the subject of a passing thought, and it wasn't because I remembered the anniversary of his death was today. I had straightened up the porch once again, in an effort to make a renewed commitment to using the treadmill. I started thinking about physical education class, or as we called it, "gym." I hated gym in school. That hatred resulted in a lifelong disdain for most sports, whether as a participant or spectator, live or televised. (I don't like other types of games, either.) I don't read that section of the paper or listen to that part of the news. I'm ignorant on the subject, and I'm fine with that. More troublesome is a distaste for exercise, which I now struggle to overcome. Oh, I don't mind swimming, but I don't want to go to some sort of facility with others to do it. And I like walking, but it has to be productive in some other way than simply improving health. It has to be alternative transportation, in other words. Even the treadmill in the semi-privacy of the front porch is an adversary.

I think given the chance, I might have been an OK athlete; some members of my family have considerable talent, and I respect them for that. My hatred started early, and it isn't one of those memories that someone else told me. I don't think I told my parents about the things that happened in gym, anyway. Those were still the days when school authority was respected. My first grade gym teacher treated me all right. I mean, I wasn't singled out as an athlete or a wimp. Average is often a good place to be. She was extremely mean to some of the boys, though. She even hit a few with a whiffle ball bat, right in front of the class. I don't know if corporal punishment was allowed then, or if she was breaking the rules. I don't remember why she did this, I'm sure they were being brats, but I know it wasn't an isolated instance and it was awful. She only lasted a year.

Because I wasn't the target, though, I think that experience isn't really to blame for my aversion to athletics. It may have set the stage, but it took root during Grades 2 - 6, when I had the same teacher every year. He hated me. Or at least that's what I believed, I doubt he gave our relationship that much energy. But he did single me out for public abuse regularly. Unlike Ms. Whiffle Ball Bat, he never raised a hand to a kid, at least not when I was a witness. He may not have had to resort to such tactics, since he was especially good at verbal humiliation. He seemed to like the competitive, athletically skilled kids, which were many of the boys and some of the girls.

I vaguely remember, the first year in his class, that another girl and I didn't participate very much in whatever game the class was playing. In elementary school, that usually meant dodgeball, or the even more vicious war. I don't know why this happened, if we claimed we didn't feel well, or were tagged out almost immediately by our more aggressive classmates and so sat out much of the game or what. I'm sure I wasn't a really good player. Although I’ve never been overweight and I was then and still am active, I've always been careful and tried to avoid injury, so I wasn't the type to slide into home or jump really high to get the ball. I didn't care that much about winning. So that could be what started it.

Already I had been labeled a loser, which meant never being chosen as team captain by the teacher, and being picked last, or second to last, or on a really good day, third to last for a team, even by kids who acted nice to me at other times. I wasn't exactly a popular kid at any time, but I did have a couple of friends, and as a top performing, quiet and well-behaved student I was generally liked by the teacher. That year my new gym teacher threatened to send us both to the nurse's office for gym class because he insisted there was something wrong with us, and he said he was going to give us the grade "M" for "medical" on our report cards instead of real grades. He never carried through on either, and instead we passed the class. Could they retain a straight A second grader for failing phys ed, I wonder?

When I was older, we occasionally did something other than play dodgeball in the gymnasium. I remember being outside on the athletic field, and when the class was nearly over, the teacher telling us to run as fast as we could back to the school. I think it was getting near to one of the holiday breaks, and he said he was going to give us each a lollipop when we got there. I liked candy as much as any kid (still do), and I tried to run fast. True to his word, he handed lollipops out to all of my classmates. When he got to me, he said I couldn't have one because I ran too slowly. You know, it has been over thirty years, and I still feel the sting as I write that.

Just two years ago, I was at a luncheon meeting of school counselors, and I was seated at a table with a man who was recently retired from the high school I attended. I was not one of his students, and he didn't remember me, but he knew my elementary school, and he mentioned that he still socializes with my long-retired nemesis. I nearly choked on the spring mix salad with mandarin oranges and raspberry vinaigrette dressing (a conference standard) at the mention of the name.

When I finally got to high school, for the most part I had more competent physical education teachers, and we played much better sports, but the wimp label was not easily shed, my hatred for gym remained, and I certainly didn't transform into the teacher's pet. I remember the annual physical fitness test, which I think had something to do with national or State standards. There were timed squat thrusts and push ups and jumping jacks, and the gym teacher marching around like a drill sergeant. I learned that President Kennedy was to blame for my torture. (Did you wonder when I was going to get to the part about JFK?)

Sometimes changes in physical education curriculum are discussed in academe, or the media, although probably less than reforms in other subjects. The focus is usually the cruelty of the games played, the unfair methods of choosing teams, and the damage to self-esteem. I've had students who believe such changes to be ludicrous, arguing that learning to deal with competition is healthy or a fact of life. Whenever I mention the dreaded dodgeball game, or my gym aversion to my classes I am sure to get a laugh. A lot of people do identify with it, it seems. I don't tell it like a tear-jerker, and I omit the medical and lollipop days. Leaving aside the being labeled a loser problem, I argue that gym class could have taught me something valuable about physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle, but it didn't. Nor do I see much impact now; there are too many kids laying on couches, plugged into television programs or game systems, eating fast food and drinking soda.

However, there is something important I did gain. I was lucky to like, and achieve, in the academic and creative parts of learning. Whatever social difficulties there were in school (and there were many, but they will keep for another time), I felt comfortable in math, social studies, English, art, etc. That feeling of being at home in education is one reason people pursue advanced degrees, and a career somewhere in the academy. The gym experience was unacceptable, but at least it was isolated. Now, when I am teaching classes full of future teachers, I try to impart that there are kids who feel that way about all classes, and at all times in school. I want to make sure the losers get an occasional lollipop, too.

Maybe He Thought Third Graders Liked Gross Stuff

April 16, 2003. In third grade, half the day was spent learning English and science with a strange teacher, and the remaining half was sanctuary, or social studies and math with a nice teacher.

I believe the strange guy only taught at my school for a year. He was very tall and thin. His wife was a substitute teacher who was very short and fat, and also mean. They made an odd couple, to be sure. This strange teacher didn’t really rely on humiliation, and so wasn’t outright mean – just very odd, almost sadistic.

I remember the weirdo walked around with a pair of pliers in his back pocket, and every so often he would whip them out, and yank a couple of teeth out of some deer skulls he kept in the supply cubbyholes near his desk - and threaten us with the same if we didn't stop talking. He would walk right up in front of a student's desk, clicking those pliers together.

I also remember he had a deer or cow heart floating in some solution - and we had to go up in pairs, reach into the container - I think it was one of those plastic jugs that paste came in - and pick it up, then drop it back in. Eeeewwww! Splash. In a macabre way, it is sort of funny. You know he did it just because it was disgusting, I mean what did we learn from that?

Once when my pencil rolled off my desk and I bent down to pick it up, he bounced a ball off the back of my head. This was a shock, as I was the type of kid who never got in trouble.

I think that might be the only occasion when he singled out me, though. Another time, my mother had to take me out of school for a dentist appointment, and I missed a quiz. I had only had time to write my name, etc. at the top of the page. When we got them back the following day, he had written “100" on mine, with the note, “Mother had to take you out of school...but this is what you would have gotten, isn’t it?”

There were two girls who were his favorites; unlike nearly everyone else in class, they could do no wrong. One day he put a couple of those deer teeth he had yanked out into a glass of Coke to demonstrate that they would dissolve. Afterwards, he gave the leftover bottle of soda to those two girls while in class. They drank it while we watched. (As children, we believed he was treating them to something, but now I wonder at the juxtaposition of Coke rotting your teeth with being given it as a reward?)

I suppose he was trying to be a progressive, and use hands-on learning. It did make a lasting impression, but probably not the lesson he intended.

Regardless, neither those two girls, I, nor any other classmate who was the recipient of one of his nicer gestures appreciated the positive attention. The entire class was so creeped out by him that all we wanted was to be ignored.

Exceptional English Teacher

3/30/06. I found out a couple of days ago that a favorite teacher of mine died last month.

I wouldn't say this favorite teacher of mine was a role model, or even a mentor exactly. Personally, she may have had some issues; she was involved with at least three former students, and eventually married two of them. I don’t know whether the relationships were inappropriate while these boys were in her class. But it was the ‘70s, and such entanglements were not uncommon in those days. I can think of several teachers, both male and female, who were romantically involved with students. It did not make the news as it does today.

She taught three of the selectives that we were permitted to take in English, and I took them all. She encouraged a lot of free writing and reading. Because she was popular among students who were not college bound, her classes had a much more chaotic atmosphere than was usual for me.

At first, because of my love of reading and writing, I relished the thought of choosing my own English class. I resolved to take the “harder” selectives. I soon found that memorizing long lists of vocabulary words and dutifully regurgitating definitions for the weekly quiz were standard in all selectives; easy enough, but boring. Eventually I enrolled in the “easier” English courses, those which attracted mostly the non-Regents track students, because once the quiz was dispensed with, these teachers allowed less structure, and delighted in the rare opportunity to have a serious student.

In the “easier” selectives, I was permitted to read and write what I chose; I relished the freedom, even if it meant tolerating things that were (mostly) absent in the harder selectives, such as one of the scary triplets coming in late and throwing a chair across the room, yelling “f--- you” and storming out of the classroom when the teacher timidly asked him about his tardiness.

She was nice to everyone - including, and especially, the troubled students, even the kid who threw the chair and yelled the obscenity. Those capable of it could be self-directed, and she was there to applaud our efforts; this is an example of constructivism (in fact, the whole idea of selectives is pretty constructivist). In my case, she really encouraged me to write. She always assigned a journal as an assignment in class; that has proved to be a valuable lifelong habit for me, and I require the students in my foundations class to keep one, too. Maybe I wouldn't be writing this now if it wasn't for her; she wrote "keep writing!" in my high school yearbook. When I told her that I was going to go to Oneonta to college, she shared that Oneonta was her alma mater. She even wrote to me a few times when I was a freshman.

Although I hadn't kept in touch with her in years, I think the world will be a little less bright with her gone.

Savvy School Marm

08/01/07. I read recently about the efforts of parents to ban Junie B. Jones books. Some believe children should be taught proper spelling and grammar immediately when learning to read (the phonics approach), and others favor whole language, a literacy method that accepts misspellings and other errors as long as children are engaged in reading and writing. Junie is a troublemaker, calls people names and talks back to her teachers. She has problems with grammar.

In 1966, when I was learning to read, my school used i.t.a. (the initial teaching alphabet). There were two kindergarten classes. Mine used i.t.a., and the other class used a traditional method to teach reading. I often wondered about i.t.a., especially after I became an educator, so a few years ago I did some research on it.

It was more popular in the UK than it was in the US, and there are still some proponents for using it, or a similar simplified spelling method to teach reading and writing. Apparently, i.t.a. was a response to the difficulties of teaching children to read and write in English, a problem that is not as often seen in cultures that speak a more phonetic language such as Spanish.

You can see the influence of i.t.a. on my writing in a story I wrote in February 1969, when I was 7 ½ years old. This was written during second grade, the transition year from i.t.a. to regular spelling.

A Cat in a Boat
Once upon a time thare lived a familiey who was verry verry poor. And theye had a son whose name was Thimathy. he was a only child. theye had a cat too. the cat's name was "Pussy Kitty" Pussy Kitty was a Nice cat. every-boddy thoute sow. But one hollow-ween the Boy Dressed up as a cat aNd dressed the cat up as him well it sow happened the parent's thoute thimouthy was the cat and the cat was thimouthy. and the cat eat whot thimouthy was spos too eat. and thimouthy was eating whot the cat was sossposs too eat. and the cat slep iN the Bed aNd thimouthy slep on a Rug. And the cat went to school and thimouthy stade home But worst oF all there pareNts called thimouthy Pussy Kitty aNd called the cat thimouthy this went on For 2 years one day thimouthy and his mother and Father went to a "JinMill"!?? and came home 2.0.0. at night! All three wer DruNgk Pussy-Kitty thoute and thoute But he thoute Fast! Now thay thoute mor oF Pussy Kitty But the Next Day thaye oll most killed Pussy-Kitty! Poor thing! Now Pussy Kitty New whot too doo. this is whot he did he got a Boat Poot thimouthy and his mother and Father on it and went to "Lake Goerge"! the Boet tipped and thay all DrouwnD exsept Pussy-Kitty he New how too swim he loved it aNd you no whot he Fowned a New home and thay treted him like a cat Not like a huemen Beng! and he was happy he was happyer the he was BeFore!! the eNd!

I didn't write “A Cat in a Boat” for school; I wrote it at home, to amuse my family. We were definitely not up to writing stories of this length or complexity in school! You can tell how much I preferred animals to people even then. I would add that the dark theme probably would have gotten me sent to the school psychologist's office...except that in 1969, such things didn't happen, and I don't remember my elementary school having a psychologist.

Plus, in second grade I had a wonderful teacher who would not have overreacted. She really was old, that wasn’t just a child’s perception. She’d been teaching since one-room school days. Her command of the classroom was complete; students respected her. This wasn’t because she was mean. She was just a really good teacher. I don’t recall her being warm and fuzzy exactly. I remember that the focus was on learning, and that she encouraged the faster-paced students to explore and become self-directed learners, which gave her time to focus on the middle-range and slower learners.

My brother had her for fourth grade a couple of years before me. He struggled in school, had been held back that year before, and I remember how devastated he was by this. But then he got this wonderful teacher, and adjusted quickly. My mother says “she taught him to read.” (They were not using i.t.a.)

When this wonderful teacher was very old, she invited my brother over to her house and gave him a piece of antique furniture.

So the school administration must have known that this old school marm was the best choice for the transition, and she landed the unhappy task of guiding us.

I.t.a. didn't harm me at all; it may have helped me (my parents believe it did), or perhaps I would have learned easily no matter the method. I am a voracious reader, I like to write, and never had trouble with spelling, grammar or punctuation.

However, I do remember that the transition to regular spelling in second grade was very traumatic for a lot of kids in my class. Some struggled for years, and I think some still struggle as adults. Whether that would have been true, regardless, is a good question. Parental resistance is one reason cited for failure of innovative methods by proponents of simplified spelling, but the transition is the most important reason given for failure of this approach. My school abandoned the i.t.a. pilot after just a few years.

I do notice that some college students have trouble with spelling, punctuation, word choice and grammar, and they certainly didn't learn via simplified spelling, but perhaps they were taught with the whole language, rather than phonics approach. But I have always chalked students' weakness in this area up to over reliance on spell checkers, and also to the love affair with text messaging and IM-speak.

I don't have any wisdom regarding the merits of the Junie books, although I think banning books is always misguided. I do believe that reading is better than an activity such as television watching or gaming.

Stereotypical School Marm

01/15/08. I found out that another of my former elementary school teachers has died. This is a woman I had for fourth grade. My recollections of her aren't really numerous or specific. It may be that the year she taught me was the only year she was at my school. I do know I thought of her as so old. I mean, it's natural for a little kid to think of a teacher as old, but in this case - I remember thinking that she was a lot older than my parents - if my calculations based on her graduation dates from high school and graduate school are true that isn't the case at all; she was only in her early 30s at that time. I even thought she was older than my second grade teacher when in truth she was young enough to be her daughter!

She was the definition of an old school marm: hair in a bun, stiff, thin and bony, brittle, with plain attire that featured high collared shirts. I think she was a pretty good teacher in terms of conveying the material, though, I mean I believe I did learn in her class. She was old fashioned in her methods, nothing like the other "young" teachers.

But I remember all the kids hated her. I think we believed her to be pretty mean overall. Equal opportunity mean. Not warm and fuzzy at all. We were terrified of her. She wasn't particularly mean to me, but she wasn't exactly nice to anyone. Often she expected us to rat out other students who were misbehaving, would hold an entire row accountable for the actions of one student, make us write repetitious sentences over and over.

I remember some of the boys disliked her so much that they gave her a gift of candy that they had tampered with - sprinkling hot pepper on it, I think. Caused awful repercussions - yelling, extra homework, loss of “compliments” (we had a system where as a class, we earned points for good behavior that were kept track of on the blackboard - when we hit a set number, the class got a small party. Behaviorism in action!).

Starting in third grade, I had two teachers per year. So in fourth grade, I had this teacher in the morning, and the other half of the day I had a different teacher. I remember how relieved we all were to go to his class in the afternoon.

I liked my elementary school and believe my education there was decent but when I think back I realize for how many years I had teachers that were scary. Ones that must have disliked kids. It's amazing I didn't fake sick every day. I always wonder how people would react if you went to a funeral and stood up when they invite people to make remarks or wrote in one of the websites your actual recollection! Of course I could never do that but it is a funny thought nonetheless.

Challenging Assumptions

May 29, 2010. A couple of weeks ago we attended a retirement party for a favorite professor of ours from undergraduate days. I wanted to make him something for the event, and so I went through a stack of old notebooks from that time. (Yes, I still have most of my college notebooks and even a few from high school, stored among cobwebs and dust on a shelf in the stairwell.) I photocopied some of the pages of notes, mostly things he said about the readings that were discussed in class, found some pictures of campus and made a big card out of a new notebook.

Thirty years after sitting in this professor’s classroom, the memories still resonate. I took three classes in European History with him. He took no BS from students. You had to come to class prepared. Two books we read were Brave New World and Frankenstein. At the time he was definitely a Marxist (he has since tempered his views somewhat), and his lectures were very enthusiastic. I remember him jumping up on the desk. He didn’t stifle student viewpoints, however; one of the classes was economic history, and it was cross-listed with business, so there were several enthusiastic capitalists in the class as well. Class discussion was very lively.

Students often lingered after class to continue the discussion, and at the time I was very hostile to technology. Not just computers, but even things like roads. We had been studying the English enclosure act, and I was uncomfortable about the idea of efficiency. At the next class, he wrote “Productivity Sucks” and “Inefficiency Kills Me” in huge letters on the board. It was the basis for class discussion.

He was a tough grader, and he also turned assessment ideas on their end. When he handed papers back, one student might have a check on top, one might have 85, one might have A-, another might have “very good” written on it, another would have 4.5, and still another would have no marks on it at all. Students would look around, frustrated. What does this mean? How do we compare these grades? He told us not to be “grade mongers.” In those days, at the end of the semester, you had to wait for the college to mail you the semester’s grades, and it took a few weeks. So professors often posted final grades on their office doors after they submitted them. This professor would post the list, and the grade was different depending on whether you counted down from the top or up from the bottom. Now I realize he was applying constructivism to assessment.

On the first day of class, he said “raise your hand if you are a freshman,” immediately upon walking into the room. After looking around, he told the students with their hands in the air “I have signed drop forms on the table in the front. You’re out of the class.” (He’s wasn’t joking.)

We’ve stayed in touch all these years, chatting on the phone, meeting for dinner or at important occasions, and years after graduation, he wrote me recommendations for my master’s and doctoral degree programs; I distinctly remember the envelope for the master’s degree one was very fat. Probably his recommendation alone would have gotten me accepted.

No comments: