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Saturday, August 1, 2015

The problem is too many tests, not PARCC

With the 2015-2016 school year gearing up to begin and the first set of PARCC results set to come back this fall, I thought it would be a good time to post this for perspective.

This post first appeared as a letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun Times as a response to Rachel Schwartz's "My testing—I mean teaching—career." 

As a high school teacher, I am often asked by friends and family to explain what’s going on. In particular, I’ve heard a lot of confusion about the new PARCC assessments. It’s time for clarity.

Over-testing should legitimately concern parents and teachers, but much of the coverage on this point has misconstrued what’s actually happening in the classroom. For example, several misconceptions were recently raised by Chicago Public Schools elementary teacher Rachel Schwartz as she described one of her brightest student’s struggles with the PARCC exam. However, Schwartz was clearly more frustrated that CPS requires her students to take three different standardized tests. If CPS were to just focus on the PARCC exam, they would receive all of the information they need about how well students are doing. We must be careful to not over-react to test anxieties by throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The fact is, the PARCC exam is a tangible way for parents and teachers to see student progress in learning the key skills that will allow them to compete with kids from anywhere in this rapidly changing global economy. Standardized assessments are a way to hold teachers and schools accountable for whether or not students are growing year to year. We need parents to help reinforce this important work at home, but the test allows me to see if I am actually having an impact on my students’ learning.

For example, at the beginning of each school year my students look at their previous year’s test scores and identify specific goals to work on during the upcoming school year. These goals are written by looking at ACT’s College and Career Readiness Standards, which offer suggestions for students to practice so that they get better. As their teacher, I get to watch students take charge of their own learning by setting goals and then working to meet those goals through classwork.

On average, my students’ scores dramatically improve each year. However, under the old assessment, I had to spend time on test prep to ensure students scored well. The PARCC test is designed to closely resemble the same type of reading and writing students should already be doing in class, so I haven’t worried as much about using precious class time preparing for a test. With PARCC, we finally have a standardized test that assesses how students are doing on skills that matter most to success in college and career.

I feel fortunate to teach in a district that has spent the time and resources to carefully write and implement a localized curriculum that meets the rigor of the Common Core Standards and offers kids a core foundation of knowledge and skills. And since I no longer need to spend time on test prep, what students do in my classroom every day meets and exceeds the expectations of the state standards.

Sure, the test is difficult. My class is difficult. But, at the end of the year, students leave my classroom with the knowledge to think carefully, critically, and creatively. Each year I am amazed at the quality of work students produce. High teacher expectations and high state standards are a powerful combination for student success. As a teacher, I want to know that I’m doing all that I can, and a standardized test, like PARCC, designed to mirror what happens in the classroom, is one way that I get that assurance.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Seniors, Citizens, and Being a Person: Teaching 12th Graders in a Writing Classroom

"It must be nice just teaching the good kids."
"Yes, it is."

And that's the exchange I've had for years. There's not really a response that logically follows after this exchange. It is nice teaching "good kids," however you define that. And I define it as kids who are open to learning, respect each other, and respect me. I've taught this dual credit Rhetoric class for 8 years, and before that I taught AP Literature and Composition for 4 years. So I've had the good kids for a long time. Before AP, I taught the "other" kids--and you know what? Those were good kids, too. Especially the seniors, though. 

Having taught exclusively seniors for 8 years--and seniors overall for 13 of my 15 years in the classroom--I enjoy the benefits of being with these kids. I taught freshmen during my first 3 years, and that is just different: they're still poking each other, often haven't decided on a routine bathing schedule, hold hands 3 across in the hallway, and rarely know how to look adults in the eye when holding a conversation outside of class.

Young Giraffe, wikimedia
Seniors are more like year-old giraffes: they are getting their legs under them, figuring things out, learning how to survive. I've had seniors talk to me about how they're quitting smoking, ask me what to say in a job interview when they're asked about their weaknesses, or want suggestions for a good restaurant to go to in Chicago. They're more like real people. Like Han Solo an hour after emerging from the carbonite, they're starting to see things like the rest of us do; they're appreciative; they're anxious to get involved in the next step; maybe they can understand what a Wookie is saying.

So with my seniors, a modest benefit is also that they get out of school before the rest of the students, and while I do look forward to a little time to myself that last week, I look forward to the last day of class with them as well. Most years, Hackney and I say goodbye to our seniors in ways that define who we are in the classroom--he does it with a David Foster Wallace speech,  
I do it with a song I rewrite every year where I gently poke fun at each student, a song that's rarely amusing to people outside of our class (I make a list of every kid so I don't forget anyone...again).   But the seniors get it. It's a fun way to recap the highs and lows and ridiculousness of the year. Before my song, I have them write a letter to themselves that they address (I have to teach this skill explicitly during the third Friday in May every year), and then I mail them in May of the following year. A former mentor teacher of mine Mrs. Brubaker taught me that, but she held them for 4 years. I don't have that kind of organizational capacity. I have them write my email address in the letter so they can give me updates when the get the letters. It's great to hear what they're up to, putting a face to the name and remembering what they wrote about in their essays, what we talked about in the hallways. The exception is the one year I had them send emails to themselves using I heard an NPR story about it 

For 9 months of our lives, 5 hours a week, we've seen each other. It's not just that, though; as a writing teacher, we get to read their writing. (*Sidenote: I saw Ryan Adams on Austin City Limits recently, and in an interview he explained how once he was complaining to a friend about his busy schedule, and a friend said, "Don't say I have to do these things. Say I get to do them." That stuck with me.) Essentially we are learning who they are a little more with each essay.The first piece of writing we work on in Rhetoric is a narrative. Nothing prepares me for what I'm in for like a narrative essay every August: Edith had to translate and navigate her parents' home purchase with a banker from English to Spanish at age 10; Mike found out his dad was getting a divorce when he mindlessly opened the glovebox at a stoplight--while driving with his dad--and the papers spilled into his lap; Amber barely spoke in a class for months after a teacher told her an idea she had was dumb; Katie wanted to be an Olympic ice skater.

We learn a lot about these kids, these young adults, who are soon about to be a part of this adulthood experience with us--the other adults--in just a few short months. What do we need to tell them? What do they need to know? I feel a good kind of pressure being with 12th graders. For some seniors, the book they read with us in April is the last piece of classic fiction they'll ever read again, so what must we read? I feel a sense of urgency with their writing, like if I don't get them to understand commas this year, they'll echo Sammy's sentiments at the end of Updike's "A&P": stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter. It feels like that when the commas go south. And the pressure isn't just what to read or what to teach them, but just helping them to "be a person," as my library friend has often said to me about what our role really is. Help them be a person.

These 17-18-year-old students are people, and they have stories, stories that don't need to be corrected all the time. Sometimes they just need to be told, and most times they just need to be heard. I enjoy reading them without thinking about making comments. Just reading. Or during some quiet writing time a kid will look up and ask something random, "Newman, did you have a roommate in college?" or "Do you think it's weird if I go alone to prom?" They are thinking of these things. And that's fine. They should be wondering about their college roommate, and they can't help but wonder what others think of them. That's part of being an adult that we never leave behind from our childhoods; or rather, that's part of childhood that we keep with us as adults.

My senior year, four friends and I decided we were going to canoe across the border from northern Minnesota into the Boundary Waters in Canada. We went to the "All-Canada Show" in Rosemont that winter of 1992 and picked an outfitter and the whole thing. I can't tell you how many Candian flags I drew in my notebook during the last 3 months of my senior year. That was on my mind. Whether or not I'd break up with my girlfriend before graduation was on my mind. Singing in my rock band Kindread (the spelling implied darkness and gloom) was on my mind. It's not always a senioritis thing. It's a "this is my life" thing. So I respect that about them when the get a little off track. We just have to help them figure out why getting back on track is important, too.

hairy-nose wombat
The two groups I have this year, 28 in one class and 34 in the other, are classes that I really enjoy. Their research paper topics never cease to amaze me. Hackney and I give them a pretty wide berth when it comes to topics, and what they come back with sometimes are ideas that I could never have imagined. The one requirement is a survey (thanks, Google Forms) or interview (phone/email/personal). This year, I'm learning about algorithms on dating sites; the relevance of music in the deaf community; why entry-level fast-food jobs should be seen as leadership opportunities; why the collaborative efforts of Australia and the US to save the koala, the platypus, and the hairy-nosed wombat are working and what implications that can have for other endangered species. Zack emailed some conservationists in Australia and they got back to him; it's the career he wants to pursue in college.  Each year, these seniors explore topics that I become a 10-minute expert in if I'm making small talk at a party or something* (exception: 10 years ago my student, Manveer, wrote about String Theory. I'm afraid that if someone's making small talk about that, I'll need to find someone who wants to talk about wombats, or hell, I probably shouldn't be at that party; however, to learn more about String Theory, watch this TED Talk).

So all that said, I guess this is where I'm at: there are "good kids" everywhere. Our job as teachers is to get them to learn something about being a person, about being a citizen, and listening to them and reading what they have to say and not giving soul-crushing feedback after they say it, or write it. We're all trying to figure this thing out. But seniors often have a little bit of the humility, if we look hard enough, that's needed to start to figure it out, and when they're asking us how to do it, we at least owe them that much: to just listen and appreciate what we get to do.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Self-Determination Theory in Practice; or, How Do I Make Them Do Stuff?

Self-Determination Theory Chart

Last year, I was excited and wrote a blogpost about a new endeavor as it related to motivating students. Exactly a year ago, my colleague Paul Oswald and I conducted a survey of students at Joliet West to see what motivated them, what didn't, and what we could do to bridge that gap of intrinsic motivation.

We met with an education professor at St. Francis University, Lisa White-McNulty, and she directed us to read up on Self-Determination Theory, originally developed by Deci and Ryan. I asked teachers in the English Department to distribute a survey Paul and I developed, accounting for the three components of SDT: Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence. What choices did they have? Why is it important? How difficult or easy will it be for me to complete this task? The survey appears below.

We heard from more than 800 students, or roughly 25% or our school population. This was a pretty astounding number for a Google Survey we asked teachers to distribute, but many of them did, and it led to a number of professional development opportunities and opportunities for kids to be taught in ways that may ultimately lead to better experiences in the classroom.

The original post talked about a website, or interviews, or a movie...we were ambitious. It didn't lead to those (yet), but it did lead us to share our results with staff.

It turns out, students don't enjoy packets of worksheets, they want to be respected, they want to understand what they are doing, they want to be interested, they want pizza (the joy of open-ended questions), and they want choice. It wasn't the threat of a bad grade, or the danger of athletic eligibility that motivated them. The tenets of SDT were reflected in their responses.

We were encouraged by the results, and because Paul and I are instructional coaches (we teach 2 classes and work on curriculum, PD, and mentoring the rest of the day), we were asked to create a PD opportunity of our choosing. We developed a 15-hour course on SDT, working with a group of 10 teachers to understand SDT and try to apply what they learned to a unit during the second semester. We asked teachers to create pre- and post-assessment surveys to see how kids wanted to learn first, and then how they liked the way the unit went at the end. Teachers are blogging about their experiences, sharing survey results, and are, ideally, making the experience better for their students.

In addition to the 15-hour version, we did a 90-minute version for more than 30 teachers on an institute day, and we explained the concepts, showed how to make a Google survey, and even explained how this theory can be used by coaches. As a cross country coach myself, I thought about giving the runners a choice in the routes we run (autonomy); about how much harder I can push some of them (competence); about why we need to celebrate improvement more so the workouts are worth it (relatedness).

I have been a participant in this as well, as this year I started doing Genius Hour with my students (read more here or here if you are interested). This totally accounts for Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence, and my survey for the class reflects this. I was able to go weeks into this project without students asking about how it's graded. They loved the choice, and they came up with better ideas for projects than I ever could, but that's a post for another day.

As always, it's encouraging to learn something new and see how it can improve not only our experiences but our students' experiences as well.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rewind to 1989

“When students write for teachers, they are writing ‘uphill’ in the authority dimension: instead of having the normal language-using experience of trying to communicate ‘across’ to others in order to tell them what’s on their mind, they are having the experience of trying to communicate ‘up’ to someone whose only reason for reading is to judge the acceptability of what they wrote and how they wrote it.”—Peter Elbow
I came across this quote during the summer while rereading Jonan Donaldson's "The Maker Movement and the Rebirth of Constructionism."

I was drawn to the quote because I was experiencing the obligatory summer nostalgia for the classroom.  I like to dream big about what school could be. I know it sounds cheesy, but I even visualize how an ideal class period will go the upcoming term.

Elbow covers many of my current beliefs in the quote. Here's how it breaks down in my head:
  • be explicit to students about pedagogy--blur the "authority dimension" as best as possible
  • continue to have students write to authentic audiences and not just me--"communicate 'across' to others"
  • begin to have students use the classroom as their learning environment--fight against students having "the experience of trying to communicate 'up' to someone whose only reason for reading is to judge the acceptability of what they wrote and how they wrote it"
  • continue to place an emphasis on students developing digital literacies--it's 2014 now, so "communicating 'across'" often involves technology, or at least it involves the choice to use technology
  • continue to stress the importance of considering the rhetorical situation in order to be successful in any communicative act--effectively "communicate 'across' to others in order to tell them what's on their mind"

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Do This, and Other Advice, on Student Blogging

My Rhetoric students have 3 days left of high school. Not just my class. High school. They spent the year blogging, making roughly 10-12 posts per semester. Some students posted on their own--poems, pictures, random thoughts--and some students redesigned their blogs monthly. They often went from smaller fonts to larger ones, from black backgrounds to white ones, and from posts with one hyperlink to an explosion of images and sounds.

image courtesy of Traci Gardner, flickr
As they wrap up, I've asked them to add two final posts: the first will be a "DO THIS" assignment. They recommend things to their blog readers. A year from now, whether they're still posting or if they revisit their blog, they may really be embarrassed by their recommendations, but for now, this is how they feel. Our categories are as follows:
  • Listen to this: (song/album/band)
  • Read this: (book/magazine/food labels)
  • Watch this: (tv show/movie/your mouth)
  • Play this: (videogame/sport)
  • Eat this: (food)
  • Do this: (diet/overtip/whatever people should do)
  • Click this: (a website that is funny/interesting and legal)
  • Go here: (a place to visit)
  • And always, always, remember this: (your best advice)
I'm letting them have total creative control over how this appears, because that's what I've learned from them about their blogs this year: they want a little structure and a lot of creative control. 

In their end-of-year presentations, we (Hackney and I) asked students to tell the story of their development as a writer, highlighting the blogs and the research paper at some point in that story. When they talked about the blog, I'd say that roughly half of the students discussed finding their writer's voice. I shared this with Hackney, and as usual, he embarrassed me with his deep digital pockets and pulled out an essay from Peter Elbow, and it probably changed the way I'll teach writing next year. That's a conversation for another post.

Their final blog post of the year--taking place in class in the next 3 days--will be a post that will function as a capstone for their year. Hackney is encouraging a "selfie" video, or at the very least an audio recording. I'm just asking for the post, but offering the video as an option. I hope they can summarize their blog, their thoughts, the meaning behind this whole experience. 

In the "Evolution of a Writer" presentations that the students just wrapped up, they posted their presentations on the blogs (see earlier posts from Hackney and me to see our students' blogs). We used them as a host for their Prezi, PPT, Powtoon, or other visual presentation tool. I was really happy with the way that turned out. The embedded presentation doesn't work if you just view it on its own, but we asked the students to be a necessary component to their story. "A presentation should need a presenter." That was the motto we went with.

Since we started this blog with the encouragement of professor and digital mastermind Troy Hicks, telling us it's imperative that we write along with our students, I guess I'll answer my own DO THIS questions:
  • Listen to this: My Morning Jacket's Acoustic Citsuoca. Jim James' voice never sounded so beautiful and haunting.
  • Read this: "Put Your Hands on 7." I realize, as an English teacher, that I should be recommending Kafka or Orwell, but I really enjoy non-fiction, too. In this case, Mike Newman (no relation)--who runs the Illinois running website Dyestat  blogged in 18 installments last year about the path to his York HS cross country team's run at a championship. As a cross country and track coach, I was obsessed with each installment. 
  • Watch this: Moone Boy on PBS. Chris O'Dowd, the Irish cop from Bridesmaids plays the imaginary friend of Martin, a 12-year-old boy. It's all filmed in Ireland. I have to thank Hackney for this recommendation. I have to include NBA playoffs as something else to watch. It's so different than the regular season.
  • Play this: Tetris. It's a classic. I'm just sayin'.
  • Eat this: steak tacos with cilantro and lime. Casablanca in Joliet makes them better than most.
  • Do this: take the Platinum tour at Graceland.
  • Click this: I am a writing teacher, after all, so this site covers a burgeoning genre: check out Passive Aggressive Notes.
  • Go here: It's not exotic in the sense of requiring a passport, but it's worth a visit: Chicago Botanic Gardens. People might actually get a chance to visit this place. 
  • And always, always, remember this: We all make choices. We then have to live with them.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Blog as Storytelling

Newman and I had our students create blogs this year as a way to practice formative writing that accounts for an authentic audience and prepares students for success in summatively assessed writing. For example, if we were ultimately going to write a compare/contrast paper, students would first practice the skills of comparing/contrasting on their blog.

In addition, a key part of the blog assignment is giving students a chance to think about their learning.  The blog functions as a place to practice writing, but it is also used to post summative assignments and reflections. In this way, the blog captures a student's work for the class in one place, provides an authentic audience, and requires other design decisions as students consider the genre of blogging.

Basically, the blog acts as a platform for formative practice and as a hub or portfolio for publishing a student's work from throughout the year.

Our students have done some pretty amazing work. They've designed blogs that show genre awareness, they've practiced the skills for a unit in various ways, and they've created some strong final assessments.

The truth is, though, that if you would have asked me last summer if I thought the blogs would look like they do and that we would have been able to do all of the things mentioned above, I wouldn't have had any idea what you were talking about.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An English Teacher's Love Song for NPR

Talk radio before 40: one man's journey to finding NPR on the radio dial

I'm alone in my car. The engine's off, but the keys are in the ignition. I'm in a huge parking lot, and I'm transfixed to the spot. I should be leaving now, but I haven't pulled the keys. I need them so I can listen to the radio. I should be walking into the grocery store, but instead I sit. Jim Derogotis and Greg Kot are adding a song to their Desert Island Jukebox. Instead I sit. Ira Glass features a story about someone's American Life--a guy who wants to achieve transcendence by fasting, and the whole time he's wondering if he's doing it right because he's had no epiphany yet. Instead I sit. I listen to a doctor tell a riveting story about trying to save Mother Teresa and the pressure from an entire country to perform this miracle.

image courtesy of NPR
This is what happens when you become your father and discover NPR. In Chicago, that's 91.5FM WBEZ. When you're a child, even a teen, NPR on the radio is the equivalent of the swishing of a dish washer, the hum of the air conditioner, or the rumble of the washing machine: it's background noise, and I don't care about it. Then something happened about 4 years ago. I don't know how it happened, but I --like when I put on 10 pounds over Christmas Break--woke up different. I added 91.5 to my presets in my car.

Where the good ideas happen

Jane's Addiction had a song, "Standin' in the Shower Thinkin'." I would say 30% of my lesson plans happen there. Maybe 50% happen at school. But that extra 20%--and maybe I'm overestimating--happen while I'm in my car. If I'm not listening to sports radio, I'm listening to NPR. What happened to music? That's a post for another day.  Having taught English for 14 years now, I'm ready for anything to lend itself to a lesson plan. I once caught a Mike Birbiglia story on This American Life where he told this story about a car accident. I parked at Dominick's (sky point for Dominick's, Chicago), and I just sat there. I'm caught up in the story, and then I think, "I gotta use this for teaching narrative." And that's what I do with NPR. All the time.

And not just in the classroom
image courtesy of NPR

I recently finished my 4th year of coaching cross country, and during my first year, we were riding to a meet on a Saturday morning. The guys were in that 7:30am Saturday morning moderate coma: half asleep, half thinking about the race, half wondering why they came out for a sport with competition that regularly happens before 10am. In cross country, I have the benefit of coaching a group of guys with a high cumulative GPA. I think they might enjoy logic puzzles over sleep sometimes. So I reflected on a Car Talk Puzzler (or "Puzzla" if you use the Boston accent of the show's hosts) from NPR. I know less about cars than I do about math--a tight competition, to be sure--but the show always intrigued me. So I lay it out there: "You have a 9oz. glass and a 4oz. glass, you have unlimited water, and you need exactly 6oz. of water. You cannot estimate. How do you get exactly 6oz.?" Well, when I heard this on NPR during a Saturday morning errand run, I literally drove through a stoplight picturing this puzzler. Once I put this out there for the team, the bus adopted the focus of an ACT classroom, with me as the proctor. "Wait, Newman, do we have to use those glasses?" "Wait, can I keep emptying my glasses?" and so it goes. Thanks, NPR.

A little credit here?

image courtesy of NPR
I'm pretty sure my NPR listening paid off for bringing This I Believe to my school. It wasn't in the curriculum 4 years ago. It is now. To teach narrative, I used the NPR long-running series. I had students submit their essays to the website. I collected their stories, including ones written by Hackney and I along with his students, and made a book of our stories. We underestimated the cost of said book and begged the principal to cover about $300 for that book (Thanks, Dr. Gibson).  The first time I heard one of those stories, I knew I could hook my students. Now, all sophomore students are composing these narratives as part of their curriculum.

And all the other stuff

The Moth Hour. On the Media. Morning Edition. Weekend Edition. More recently, I used my favorite show, Sound Opinions, as my class worked on evaluations. I sent a tweet out to hosts Greg Kot and Jim Derogotis about how I was using their show in class, and they acknowledged my comment by favoriting/retweeting. I talked to my class about how we might evaluate something we are not interested in. I heard the show on another Saturday morning grocery store shopping trip. Kot shared his experience covering Yanni for a week during a December 2013 show where they let the audience ask questions. He gave criteria for an evaluation that played perfectly to my class: give context, give evidence, give insight; educate, illuminate, and entertain. What great advice. More importantly, what great advice I heard while driving 6 miles to Meijer to buy bananas.

My Dad had the right idea

My dad wasn't listening to NPR when we were kids because he was a teacher. He wasn't listening because he wanted us to listen. He tuned in to 91.5WBEZ because he wanted to punish us. No. Wait. That was the WGN720AM "Farm Report." That was how he punished us when we would hop in the car for a vacation. But he loved learning, and still does. I can't help but learn something every time I tune in to NPR. My dad's selfishness in listening so he could learn something gave way to my altruism, in that I listen so I can use the shows to help my teaching. My students.  Or maybe, selfishly, I listen because I like it in the same way he did.  I learn something every time. 

Monday, January 20, 2014


I teach in a district with a 1:1 environment where each student that I teach has been issued a laptop.  The mission statement for our 1:1 initiative recognizes that "the integration of technology is essential to motivating and engaging in rigorous and relevant lessons."  I appreciate that in this mission statement it is made clear that technology is to be used in the midst of rigorous and relevant lessons.  The computer is not a savior.  It is not the teacher.  

It has been my experience that some educators are apprehensive about the 1:1 initiative and its implications on teaching.  One of my colleagues has done a nice job of addressing some of these concerns in a recent blog post.  In addition to the teachers comparing their use or understanding of technology to each other, I imagine that some part of the apprehension to use technology is very much a fear that is rooted in the narrative that the computer is the answer, as is seen in the "One Laptop per Child" campaign (See video).

On a pragmatic level--fear of being seen as obsolete--I can see how buying into these kinds of beliefs has the potential to stunt teacher growth in the area of integrating technology. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Exploring Apathy and Motivation in Teachers and Students as Professional Development

"I'm up there talking and they don't even care."
"10 out of 26 kids turned in a rough draft. I told them that they'd lose points, and the next day only 2 more kids turned one in."
"I planned the hell outta this lesson and it totally bombed. I thought they'd be excited, but they were like, 'Whatever.'"

And then we play the blame game:
  • it's their home life; they don't value education
  • they're always multi-tasking and can't focus when I'm just trying to teach them
  • their other teachers never collect homework so they're used to doing nothing
  • last year's teacher didn't teach them anything so they're not ready for this class
Image courtesy of kirkh from Flickr
So whether I've heard these things or said these things, that doesn't matter. It doesn't change the fact that student apathy exists. It also doesn't change the fact that teacher apathy exists. In our case, though, as teachers, it's the apathy to evaluate our own practices and determine what our role is in student motivation.

Because I had numerous conversations during the first semester about student motivation--in the hall, in the lunchroom, in my office--I knew this topic was on teachers' minds. When veteran teachers--those teaching over a decade--start to compare the current level of apathy they're facing and claim that "it's never been this bad," it's worth examining. Is that true? Is there some new development we need to be concerned about regarding student apathy?

Monday, December 30, 2013

Primum Non Nocere: Should Teachers Have an Oath, Too?

The Latin phrase, primum non nocere, translated from the original Greek, is generally associated with the Hippocratic Oath, which is sworn by some physicians, often more out of tradition than conviction. This English translation of "first, do no harm," never appears in the Oath itself, but it's grown comfy along with the other maxims of Hippocrates.
Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine
Still, this concept is one to which doctors generally subscribe. Should we, as teachers, consider the same maxim? Might we have different ideas from Socrates, John Dewey, or Bill Gates (kidding) to which we, as English teachers, subscribe?

Last year I served as a jury foreman on a medical malpractice suit, and this concept of "first, do no harm" came up repeatedly. Of the 12 jurors and 2 alternates, I think 4 of us were educators. The prosecution lawyer on behalf of the deceased patient regularly invoked this phrase, asking if what the doctor prescribed for his patient was really in the patient's best interest if it possibly led to his death. The lawyer asked us, "Did the doctor violate the concept of 'first, do no harm?'" Recently, I started thinking of what our binding agreement might be to our students. What should they commonly expect of all of us? Maybe this phrase could be adopted by educators. Or maybe it's too passive because it implies a position of doing nothing, possibly.  Maybe we need a phrase that demands action.