Honoring Anxiety – Acknowledging Reality to Improve School Culture

In this brilliant podcast episode of “On Being“, Krista Tippett interviews Brother David Steindl-Rast on gratitude. Brother Steindl-Rast is eloquent on gratitude, but also on all that we may not be grateful for, like violence and environmental destruction, and his thoughts on being born as the beginning of our struggle with anxiety, to go forward is to live, to retreat from fear is to die – indeed before ever living, struck me. He says for this purpose we must validate our anxiety, recognize it as real, and as based on reality. In a humanity that is choosing to destroy our own ecosystems of survival and networks of connection that, as Brother Steindl-Rast points out, put food on our plate, this anxiety is valid.

Such resonance – our anxieties are valid. In the context of a school, imagine all of the anxieties on offer every day for each member of the community. Will my daughter reach a competitive university like her father and I did? Is my child being bullied? A bully? What if they find out I am here on scholarship? Will the principal observe this lesson today, and will she understand what she sees here? Nobody else in this room is dressed like me. I’ve been away on business too long and missed another play. I don’t have anything for show and tell.

Obviously, that list could go on.

A colleague recently described the anxiety high school/upper school parents in affluent schools feel about university entrances as “guarding the family jewels,” and it helped me to conceptualize that anxiety as one of preserving capital – cultural or otherwise. I recognize that parents in high poverty areas like those in which I have previously taught have many different anxieties – will the child return home if she attends university? Is that a reasonable fear? And what Brother Steindl-Rast shares is that yes, this is a valid anxiety, and that acknowledging this should protect against reactions from fear, like pressuring a child until he cracks and has a real psychological break before reaching majority age, or blowing up a relationship with a child to protect oneself against the pain of another brilliant kid leaving the reservation forever.

I wonder how many schools open conversations about these anxieties and validate them? How many ameliorate the problem at hand with platitudes and then roll eyes in the office after 5 pm? That’s a hard conversation, even just the easy bit about Penn State being a great place to be educated, even though it’s not in Princeton, NJ. Honoring anxiety about an ever crowded and seemingly chaotic world that could strip a standard of living from our children acknowledges how little control we actually have. I wonder: Would that reduce fear and stress in the long run?

I think it’s worth a try.

Observations on the SAT

I understand that higher education is an industry that must manage huge numbers of applicants. I understand that processes and sorting operations are therefore necessary. I understand that much more than admissions hinge on tests like the SAT and ACT, scholarship decisions and so forth. However, I had a moment while serving as a proctor for the SAT this past weekend that illuminated part of what is crazy about this whole system.

As I wandered slowly through an aisle of earnest test takers, I realized that a student from our school who has written a software program for education that seeks to rival Moodle and, which I can testify to personally, that absolutely would win in a fair fight, was filling in bubbles before me. This young man has created software, started a company, capitalized his business, and is poised to launch. What university doesn’t want this kid? Still, there’s the hoop. Better jump.

I don’t have the solution, but I think I can see the problem.

High School English – The Right Argument

Kim Brooks has published an excellent piece in Salon.com entitled “Death to High School English,” and it’s spot on. So spot on, in fact, that it’s painful to read. I make the statement every day that I’m a writing teacher, and the statement becomes an argument over time. I love literature; like Brooks, my latter two years of high school English were an awakening for me, but so was photography and AP Art History, which she didn’t have a chance to take. For me, the opportunity to read around the canon, pieces like Cat’s Cradle and Travels With Charley did me a world of good, as did arguing vehemently through my ignorance with teachers and shaping my evolving arguments into cogent, well-organized paragraphs and essays. In university, I struggled to find a better meal ticket major than English Literature, but I stopped caring about other people’s concepts of my future and sank into a deep love of words, sentences, paragraphs, lines, stanzas, books, plays, films, and essays. This was for me, and I gave back, writing myself, mostly for myself, but loving every moment of the engagement with language.

Now, I teach high school English, and I’ve learned beyond the shadow of a doubt that I love teaching argument, media, nonfiction, and writing, writing, writing, but that it is really hard work. Unsurprisingly, I’ve had my best success in classes of between one and six. Today, I teach classes up to 18, which is still a fine number and in some ways better than a handful, because learning cooperatively often catalyzes persuasive writing and revision processes for kids who might be otherwise disengaged. Ironically, in my new position I am a literature teacher – AP Literature and courses for younger high school students designed to get them to literature, IB or AP. I have shaped my approach to non-fiction based courses like AP Language, for example, to AP Lit, working in essay forms, sentence writing, but not nearly enough grammar writ large, opting for more of a less intensive, personalized approach that doesn’t work so great. In fact, I’m looking for the grammar instruction cure all – if you’ve got it, send it my way. My personal goal for the past three consecutive years has been to improve my grammar instruction and I’ve failed three years in a row.  The good news is that it’s my goal for next year, and I’ve got two excellent partners teaching 10th grade English who share the goal.  Additionally, we share a goal to shape the curriculum at least equally around reading and writing, which is exciting. I’m bringing my experience in writing-first curriculum, which by no means abandons reading instruction, and shaping it to allow for exploration of texts through writing in addition to discussion. Or, at least that’s the plan.

Ultimately, high school English is about performance – what are we asking kids to do? Brooks’s students report:

Those who didn’t make it onto the honors or A.P. track hardly mention writing or reading at all. They talk about giving oral presentations and keeping reading journals evaluated with a big, meaningless check. They reveal putting on skits, reenacting some scene in a novel or play whose title they can’t recall. One student recounts a month of junior English class in which she and her classmates produced digital short film adaptations of the trial in “The Scarlet Letter.”

“Sounds fun,” I say to this student, a girl who would not know how to summarize a source or correct a sentence fragment if her life depended on it.

Obviously, these students are doing little to anything relevant either to themselves or their current or future language skill needs. I pick up hints of my own failings in that description, for sure. In a best case scenario, students are writing and reading a great deal, revising their work and reflecting on their learning outcomes. Mixed in there should be authentic tasks that aren’t writing and reading, but perhaps one or the other, or a media-based facsimile of writing skills, like outlining. Still, I’ve fallen prey to EnglishLite, with lots of presentations and media, and little writing or reading, justifying it by student choice. I should have worked harder and smarter to get everyone on board with what they needed to do, unit by unit.

So, what do students need to do? I take it as understood that nobody needs to read Faulkner or Joyce, Victorian novels, or Derek Walcott (everyone should read Derek Walcott, but only if they want to live a complete life as a human being, but maybe the world needs derivative traders, too). I also take it as understood that everyone should read an essay by David James Duncan, Richard Rodriguez, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Virginia Wolff, or Barbara Ehrenreich. Read, and then what?  Do they need to learn how to write? Brooks answers brilliantly:

I bounce the question off another friend, Amelia Shapiro, a longtime writing tutor and composition professor who now directs support services at a university in Hawaii.

“I hate that fucking question,” she replies. “I hear it all the time and I hate it. No one asks this question about calculus, but who uses calculus besides math majors? If the question’s going to be asked about writing it should be asked about every subject. Even students who aren’t going to stay in college need to know how to write. We’ve all gotten emails or cover letters where we’ve judged people based on the writing. It’s not an essay but it’s still communication and people fail at it all the time in profound and meaningful ways.”

When I ask her why she thinks there’s such resistance to prioritizing and teaching writing, given its numerous applications, given its overlap with critical thinking skills, analytical skills, basic communication skills, she hesitates for a moment, then answers in three words: “It’s not fun.”

True, but then, teaching (and for that matter, learning) isn’t always fun. Changing my kid’s dirty diapers isn’t fun. Dragging my fat ass onto a treadmill isn’t fun. Helping my grandmother “fix” her computer isn’t fun. Sometimes we do things not because they’re fun but because they’re important.

In a word: Word! This is it, the hard, painful truth. Teaching writing serves kids, and it’s important. Writing is communication. Every day colleagues write me emails that could mean at least two things, and even with what I like to consider advanced reading skills in English, I struggle to discern their meanings. I judge – I’m a teacher. You judge, too. Students should learn to write not because it’s a “21st Century Skill,” but because it is an essential skill. Also, writing is thinking about text, and about the world, and about our own values, and there’s nothing more engaging or authentic.

I could go on all night about what is true in this piece, but read it yourself and share a comment or two. Let’s discuss, in writing. After all, I’m a writing teacher.

Why Consider a Gap Year?

When I ask students about the idea of a gap year prior to entering university, I almost always hear the same thing – I can’t fall behind, I don’t want to miss out, I don’t want to lose a shot at the best school, or, worst of all, what would I do? Only once – this year – have I ever met a college bound secondary student interested in a gap year, which may be defined as a year of minimal structure and maximum exploration prior to entering university. Well, for any student concerned about what the bigwigs are thinking about gap years: here’s Harvard College, a medium sized institution of higher learning in New England of some repute, weighing in on the topic.

Among the many rather non-startling revelations in this piece from Harvard are that high stress, high pressure environments aren’t successful for everyone, or enjoyable for many. Under the subtitle of “Fallout,” the good folks in Cambridge, Mass, hauntingly point out that

It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the “prizes,” stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties – physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others – sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.

Yikes.

And yet, again, not surprising. Now, while it’s tempting to blame Harvard for its own success, I won’t. Harvard doesn’t make people crazy to get into Harvard, people make themselves and other people crazy to get into Harvard. Or Brown. Or, or, or.

I went to a good university, but not an epic top-tenner. Still, I would have benefited from a year of travel or directed service because I would have matured. I wonder what the result of that might have been – probably not too dramatic, but I might have made better use of some of my course selections and would have surely saved myself an extra semester, which would have saved thousands of dollars. Not a stunning hypothetical, I know, but what of the unmeasurable? My Peace Corps experience changed and improved my life, for sure, and so I think an opportunity like that before college would have been a net positive. A new gap year program called Global Citizen Year offers something that looks very much like a Peace Corps-esque opportunity for young people. It looks like a winner, and Harvard seems to agree.