Wednesday, September 17, 2014

In the Zone

When I was 9 years old, I rode a bus to school for the first time. For grades 1-3, my Pavlovian response to the daily afternoon announcement “All walkers are dismissed” was my comfort zone. I knew what time I needed to leave the house in the morning, which type of walking footwear I should wear for the weather, and who my walking buddies were. My family moved to another town just before I began fourth grade. Everything about the bus (time frames, seat etiquette, and girl dramas especially) was new and uncomfortable for me. I didn’t know where to go, what to think, or what to do when I arrived. Those first bus trips were a veritable hell.

Another novelty for me that year was my first experience with kids who had visible physical disabilities. Now that I am a teacher, I know that this experience coincided with passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1976, the landmark legislation that promoted the radical notion that all children are entitled to a free and appropriate public education regardless of their individual differences. This law was the federal government’s opening salvo in the fight to stop schools from segregating children with disabilities as they has been by using separate buses, teaching in separate classrooms, eating separate meals, playing separate games, to ultimately have those students leading separate lives in society. That law took very immediate effect in my world.

About midway through that school year, a set of twin girls began riding my bus. I now understand—again with teacher-hindsight—that one of the sisters likely had multiple physical disabilities as a result of cerebral palsy, and the other had a mild speech impairment (perhaps a consequence of a milder form of CP or perhaps not). I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Should I move to another seat so that they can sit together every day? Should I say hello to the one who can say hello back to me or to both or what? Should I help the sister who has trouble navigating the bus steps or just ignore her so that she doesn’t feel embarrassed?

These thoughts ran through my head every day. They were nice girls, and their mom dressed them in super cute twin outfits (the coolest part of twinship, to my young mind), but I never really befriended them. I was just too uncomfortable, too unsure of what to do. I smiled at them, and I left them alone.

Over the past three years, I have been involved in a process to become certified to teach and to train teachers in a writing strategies model from the University of Kansas. That model developed out of their special education program back in the late 1970s (during those very moments I was on my bus, no doubt), but time and an inordinate amount of research have shown that those strategies also have a great deal of relevance for all students. How could that be true? It’s true because the strategies encourage teachers to differentiate instruction for individual student needs, and (here’s the important part) all student needs are individual needs. There is no one way to teach “special ed kids” or “honors kids” or “regular ed kids.” These intellectual boxes that we love to plop kids in just don’t exist. No two children ever have the same needs during the school day.

As I type this, I know that I am making a great deal of sense on a logical level: All kids are different. All students have individual needs. Teachers should tailor instruction as much as possible to meet those needs. Duh. The strange part is that so many educators (content teachers, administrators, even special educators) resist this notion of inclusive education and still want to go back to the way things were in 1975, even if they were not born yet in 1975. Why is that?

I have a theory, and it’s all about the comfort zone. I’ve been immersed in teacher culture long enough know to know some of our shared characteristics. Teachers typically loved school as children and excelled in it (not all, of course, but the madding crowd for sure). We tend to teach in the content area or age range that was our favorite and our strongest as students.

Teachers are, by and large, middle-class rule followers who (like many high achievers) value organization, decorum, and consistency. Most teachers (including me) did not struggle academically. Most teachers (including me) have difficulty with anything that upsets the regularity and predictability of the school day. Like me on that fourth-grade bus, whenever anything upsets the apple cart, we don’t know what to do, what to think, where to go. These same qualities that make us strong in providing safe and consistent environments for kids also undermine our ability to support students on an individual level.

When teachers first start our careers in education, without even realizing it, we think that we are going to teach students who are the way we were when we were students. New public school teachers, in particular, do not realize that most of the students we teach are not like ourselves academically, socioeconomically, or behaviorally. When a student with an academic disability is in the room, teachers for whom that subject always came easily now have to figure out how to teach it to someone for whom it comes very arduously. When a student from a very different family background is in the room, teachers may not realize that the student actually cannot type that paper before turning it in because the family does not have those resources. When a student misbehaves in the room, the rule-following teacher doesn’t know what to do with this “bad” kid, the kind of student that the teacher always avoided in school as a child. The teacher world is not what we think it is going to be.

We’re uncomfortable.

We don’t know what to do.

Thus, we push back against the notion that these issues are our problem. Why should I have to differentiate instruction for the kids in the room? (What am I, a magician?) Why should I have to deal with behavior problems? (What am I, a cop?) Why should I have to help distribute free breakfast to these students? (What am I, their mother?) We are teachers. Teachers take students where they are and move them forward, academically, socially, and behaviorally. That’s what we do. This is our most important ethical charge, and it is what separates us from people who just impart information.

We teach students. Not content, not values, not discipline, not whatever the latest thing is that talk show hosts say we should teach in schools. We teach students.

No job is more difficult than our job. American history shows us that real change in society only happens if it happens first in public schools. Brown v. Board of Education, Title IX, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act…the list goes on. In education, our job is not to prepare students to manage a hard, cruel world. Our job is to make that world less hard and less cruel by treating children less harshly and less cruelly. When we do that, history shows, we actually do change the world.

All children matter. All children belong with all other children. Exclusion hurts; inclusion heals. This has always been true. None of us will ever get to the point where we feel like we have met every need every day. That’s not the point. The point is the awareness that those needs are, in fact, our job, and that we must design instruction around them as much as humanly possible. This, as the federal government has so rightly pointed out, is a civil rights issue. I cannot smile and leave alone those students I don’t understand the way I did with those twin girls. I was a child then. Now I’m the teacher. I chose to teach. That means I chose to teach every child in front of me, and I need to figure out how.


For the record, I have no idea how to meet every student need. I have no ever lovin’ idea! What I do know is that my job is to go into that classroom every day and try to figure it out. This is the hardest part of teaching, and it’s ugly, and it makes me uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that it makes me cry. But I am a teacher. Inclusion is not just the law, and it’s not just the right thing to do. It’s my job.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Remains of the School Day

The end of the school year: a time for cleaning, for reflection, for tears, for reconciliation, and for letting go. It’s also a time for some of the nuttiest nuttiness that education has to offer.

Here’s my Top 5 End-of-Year Crazy List

1.      Graduation Gowns: They are typically black and usually 100% polyester, yet we distribute them freely to students, teachers, and administrators to wear in the June heat. Somewhere, the accountants at Josten’s (in their centrally air conditioned cubicles) are tallying up all the money that parents and schools spend on this nonsense, and those bean-counters are laughing their arid, cotton-clad butts off. That’s crazy.

2.    101 Awards Assemblies: I believe in recognition for a job well done, and if I had to pick which awards should go the way of the mastodon, I couldn’t, but there’s something wrong when one of my primary thoughts as my younger son graduates from high school and leaves me with an empty nest to pursue his dreams is, “Thank God I never have to sit through another two-hour-plus sports awards ceremony.” That’s crazy.

3.    The Valedictorian/Salutatorian Thing: In a society that has seemingly decided that success can be determined in many ways, we still single out the mathematically highest achieving kids at a ceremony that should be collective and inclusive in its mindset. Most of these recipients are delightful kids whom I adore, but I’ve also seen parents and students do some fairly despicable things to get kids one of these titles, so honorability is not necessarily required. We’ll never be able to get rid of these designations, though, because the public will say we’re anti-American Socialists committing acts of domestic terrorism in not wanting these two students singled out (even though those same two kids have already been singled out in 101 ways at the 101 awards assemblies in #2). That’s crazy.

4.    Pot-Luck Luncheons: Just as we’re trying to shake off school responsibilities and be free and loose for the summer, we all sign up to bring something to the end-of-year luncheon. Because we are all in a crazed cleanup mode on those last days in scrambling to get everything done, whipping up our signature dish for the madding crowd makes no psychological sense to me, but I’ll do whatever you want for a chance at some fried chicken and banana pudding. I’ll cook something nice and put it in something cute and bring it to school on a day when I’ll be covered head to toe in classroom grime…because I want to eat the math lady’s pretzel salad without feeling the Guilt of the Non-Participant. That’s crazy.

5.     Complaining about Snow Days: The same folks who rejoiced at each and every snow day back in January (and who chastised the superintendent of schools for not canceling school more often) are the exact same folks who now bemoan those days because of the time they add to the end of the school year. I tend to internally roll my eyes when people start the “These kids these days don’t realize there are consequences for their actions!” diatribes because they are typically the same people who do not accept that they need to pay the piper themselves. That’s crazy.

After reading this post, you may think that I loathe graduations, that I hate end-of-year luncheons, that I can’t stand awards, and so on. On the contrary—these are a few of my favorite things. But face facts: school is important and fun and stressful and nuts, and it leads to nutty behavior. Thank goodness that, when all is said and done, there’s love and children and friendship and children and good work and children (and pretzel salad) to see us through.


Ultimately, all of these things are fleeting: our kid’s school years, potluck lunches, graduations, awards of any kind, even people complaining about snow make-up days at the copy machine. Love them. Love them all. Sanity keeps us focused and keeps the school running on time, but the crazy—the frustrating, the hilarious, the controversial, the nonsensical, the pretzel salads—the crazy makes it a ride worth taking. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Silver Linings Textbook

I am nervous about this one. I have written several versions of this post, and--finally--my Copyeditor-in-Chief (aka my husband) says that this is the version I should launch. This one feels very personal, and I feel like I might throw up a little in posting it, but I needed to write it. I hope you get it. 

An article in Slate I read some months back claims to support American workers but actually (to my mind) degrades them. That author says that encouraging people to “do what they love and to love what they do” (that feeling that comes in tandem with having what I would term a mission or a calling) devalues work and the American worker. I dispute this assertion mainly because I think that the author does not understand what having a mission or calling adds to one’s life, and I think she snobbishly assumes that the only jobs anyone could ever want to do are the ones that the author herself finds to be enjoyable—if she could never view them as mission-worthy, then neither could anyone else. No, no, no—that’s not how a calling or a mission works, and there are damn good reasons to seek one’s calling in life. So step off, young lady, and let the old lady chime in.

People ask me some version of this question all the time: “How come you like your job so much?” It is perhaps a sad state of affairs that I sometimes feel as fanciful as a unicorn in loving what I do for a living, but I have found (especially as I get older) that truly enjoying one’s job is a rare and precious thing. I know the reason why I love my job and why I have been able to maintain that affection for so many years. I have written about it in other forums (like this one), and I have even been interviewed about it by researchers (happiness research exists—how cool is that?). Interestingly, others bring up the topic to me all the time.

In a nutshell, I am happy because I choose to be happy, but there’s an element of that attitude that I have always been much more reluctant to talk about because people typically bring so much of their own baggage to the table when the topic comes up (religious baggage, political baggage, etc.). Regardless, I have decided to let it all hang out for you, kind reader. The foundation of my perkiness is this: I am able to stay focused and love this job more than most people love anything because I have what is (for lack of a better word) a calling. Technically speaking, a calling is “a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career,” and my beliefs about the universe are at the root of that calling. (Sidebar: The word “calling” sounds so holier-than-thou until one has one, and then that mess—like deciding to be happy—is hard and ugly.)

Here’s the deal: I believe that each person on this planet has a purpose. I think that most people go through life either not actively searching for that purpose or turning their backs on the signs that are guiding them to that purpose (the quest for more cash being Distraction #1 for most folks). I think this lack of awareness about one’s purpose is at the core of why most people dislike their jobs.

Work is, I believe, valuable in and of itself without any calling. People need work to feel empowered and useful, and I find that sense of usefulness to be key in whether people I know consider themselves to be, to some degree, happy. Work in and of itself is good (very, very good), but to get to the place where joy is a part of one’s daily experience, where the slings and arrows of a given job do not bother one the way they bother others, one needs to be pursuing one’s calling. If I have done anything right in my life, it is that I have spotted and followed the signs that guided me to the most important (and joy-spawning) things in my life: my husband, my children, my friends, and my job. That’s it, really. I look for signs. I am always looking for signs.

At the heart of this idea about each of us having a purpose in life is the idea that there is a guide behind all of this (a God, if you will). I do not claim to have any answers on what God is, what God thinks, or which political party God supports (although I really hope it’s mine). What I do understand is that each of us is connected to something larger than ourselves, and following the signs of that larger entity (whatever it is) helps us to make sense of the universe. Being able to make sense of the universe when the chips are down helps us to maintain sanity and focus (happiness, if you will).

My career in public education has two rules as its core.

1.      I must follow my calling (cannot quit, cannot turn my back on it—because I know that I have a calling, I know what it is, and I know why it matters), and
2.    I must love everyone (love all kids, every kid, every single kid, even the ones I don’t like).

When times get tough, and I want to quit (and that happens), I can’t quit because I must follow my calling. The universe thinks I am supposed to do this work, so I need to [wo]man up and do it. When I wish I had easier students to teach, fewer parent issues to manage, or just an easier life in general, I can’t dig too deeply into those psychological holes because I must love everyone. That’s the deal. These mandates are crystal clear to me, but their ramifications are as complex as can be.

All of my philosophical beliefs stem from these ideas:

·        I believe in public education (love everyone),
·        I will not give up on public education no matter how difficult it is to stay in it (follow my calling),
·        I believe that every human being has value no matter where he or she comes from or what he or she has done or how awfully he or she may behave (love everyone), and
·        I believe in education that is inclusive and differentiates instruction for individual needs because of what all children have experienced in the bullet point preceding this one (love everyone).

See how often “love everyone” comes up? See how much harder everything is because I believe what I believe? These beliefs are no joke, and they guide everything.

It would be much easier (much, much easier) to be exclusive in my beliefs—to say some kids matter and some don’t, to say some schools matter and some don’t, to say some parents matter and some don’t. I can’t. I just can’t. I must love everyone. Thus, if a student is hungry, I must feed that child. If a student is in pain, I must alleviate that pain. If our school or school system is going down a path that I think is dangerous, I must say something, even if I piss people off—even if I turn out to be wrong.

I know who I am, and I know why I’m here, and I know the rules. Knowing these things gives me clarity, clarity helps me to stay focused and effective, and staying focused and effective makes me happy. Get it? THAT is why following the signs—doing what one loves and loving what one does—is a very big deal. A calling gives a human being a purpose, and having a purpose is everything. To say that advocating for people to search for this kind of focus, this kind of clarity, is in some way harmful to the American worker is simply malarkey. Advocating that workers engage in that search is the most pro-worker position that anyone can take.

Understanding the big picture of why one is in this world on a daily basis is the most empowering thing in the world, especially if one is in a low-paying, low-respect job (I’m a public school teacher—I daresay I have some street cred on this). The self-awareness that comes with having that larger sense of purpose (the thing that is driving the love of what one does) makes one less bitter, less gossipy, less inclined to see everything as a conspiracy—all the things that make one feel persecuted in any job. The author of the aforementioned Slate article believes that this attitude dismisses the realities of doing difficult, unglamorous jobs. On the contrary, this attitude makes doing those jobs over the long haul possible.

A calling also strengthens one’s resolve when vanity and money try to lure one away from doing an incredibly valuable but societally undervalued job. Since my first year of teaching, because I was a good teacher, I have been encouraged to go into a school administrator role. I respect school administrators very much, and I am a friend to many of them. I have pursued teacher-leadership opportunities, and I have furthered my own education as the years have gone by, but I have not pursued administrator certification or other precursors to an admin job because, ultimately, I have listened to my calling.

What does my calling sound like?  It sounds like the joy I feel when I am in a classroom teaching kids about the English language and its literature. I am my most joyful during my workday when I am teaching kids, not when working with teachers (although that is a close second), not when the summer starts (although that is a good time), not when the final bell rings each day (although, granted, that’s a relief sometimes). I am happiest when I am teaching. Do you know how many people I know who give off a sense of joy about their work? I can name fewer than a dozen. My joy is my sign. “Doing what I love and loving what I do” tell me that I am where I am supposed to be. I can turn down a larger paycheck and a more respected title because that joy tells me, “No, honey. This is it.”

So you want a piece of my perky? Everything I have to say about my relentless cheerfulness sounds like a bad cliché, and you will want to Oprah me off of your laptop screen. But it’s true: do what you are meant to do. Hear the call. Follow the mission. We all need to work at other jobs on our way to finding the mission, but the quest for the mission is valuable, necessary, and good. That mission may be

to cure disease or
to care for your baby or
to create art or
to bring home a paycheck to support your kids or
to break the sound barrier in a go-cart or
to care for people at the end of their lives with kindness and dignity.

What the job entails is not the ever lovin’ point. Having a sense of your place in the universe is the point.

A calling strengthens people in tough times and gives them armor against people who want to stay mired in their own gloom. Do whatever you have to do to figure out what your calling is. Look for signs. Always look for signs. And then never let go.  


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Warts and All

I'm back on the blog! A project that I allude to within has kept me from writing much for the past two months, but the time has now come to clean out the cognitive cobwebs. This week: Feeling paranoid? Insecure? Surveilled? Want to run for cover? Join the club--and then get over yourself. 

For me, only one goal in my life will ever serve as real, legitimate evidence that I have become a fully self-actualized human being: when I get to the psychological place where a friend can pop over unexpectedly and I do not care about whether my house is clean. Like my mother and her mother before her, I engage in relentless self-criticism when something like that happens, regardless of my actual domesticity skill level.

Once, when my kids were little, I picked up my elder son from a friend’s house after a sleepover. That home was a veritable hellhole—not dirty per se, mind you, but debris was strewn everywhere. Tots’ toys, parental paper trails, the ravaged remains of household pet tomfoolery—a total nightmare. That mother did not apologize for the mess—I don’t even know if she noticed it. I did not judge her at all; in fact, I was pea-green with envy. She wasn’t a bad housekeeper or a bad mother: she just didn’t mind anyone seeing her life as it was. I envied her as I have perhaps envied no other woman. I have been trying to reach her level of don’t-give-a-damn ever since, with mixed results.

I am not the only woman with this problem. Frankly, I think most of us are plagued by similar stupidity surrounding the impressions of ourselves that we try to instill in others. If I had a nickel for every time a friend apologized to me for the state of her household, I could finally buy that beach house. What’s at the bottom of this self-flagellation, of course, is the desire to meet expectations according to anachronistic societal definitions of womanhood. The older I get, the stupider this all seems to me, but that does not make any of it any easier to shake off. Even more worrisome for me is the way this same type of insecurity plays out among teachers.

Teachers, on the whole, resist transparency. Regardless of whether someone observes us for an actual evaluation or for something completely innocuous and non-threatening, most teachers express a high level of anxiety when anyone watches us do our jobs. We want to give the impression that our classroom “house” is clean (No instructional messes here!), that our classroom “offspring” are tidy and well behaved (No profanity-spouting house-arrest anklet-wearers here!), and that our work “husbands” adore us (My bosses think I’m great!). I’ve been there. And it’s a load of crap. We teach human beings, and neither they nor learning are clean. I see now that the better I teach, the messier it is (literally and figuratively), and the more transparency I have with others—and especially with myself—the better job I do and the less anxious I am.

Ultimately, trying to live up to ridiculous expectations of oneself is torturous, much more torturous than dealing with the reality of who one is and what one is trying to accomplish. My house will never be completely clean for longer than five minutes. I want my husband and children and the kids’ pets to live here with me, and messiness is the price I pay for that. 

In my classroom, I want the full spectrum of students to be with me, too, and I want to be continually learning and to be experimental. All of that means that I will always deal with behavior problems, lessons gone horribly haywire, and the occasional anxiety attack where I look less than Martha-Stewart cool. To make any of that tidier means narrowing the student populations I teach, narrowing the instructional chances I take, and narrowing my worldview regarding what teaching and learning are. Unacceptable. So I need to get real—and cut myself some slack.

“Getting real” takes many forms. I have long been an advocate of teachers videotaping our instruction to help ourselves improve. Since I underwent the National Board Certification process nearly a decade ago, I have seen the benefit of watching my classes on tape and changing my ways as a result. This work is incredibly painful not only because no one looks or sounds on tape the way one thinks one should but also because one starts to see the classroom in a very different way. One cannot ignore the disengaged student. One cannot ignore how much one’s relentless yapping keeps the actual students from saying anything. One cannot ignore anything. It’s all right there on tape. 

Videotape can alert a teacher to instructional problems, sometimes soothe perceptions of inadequacy, and nearly always send a girl packing for Weight Watchers camp, but it will most definitely help one to get real. (For more on this topic, see my friend, Jim Knight's new book, Focus on Teaching. Jim can get you started.)

Inviting others into the classroom is another key way of getting real. I tell my administrators when I am doing something new or cool or dreadful and ask them to come and give me honest feedback on it. I volunteer to work with others on projects that involve co-teaching or being observed more often. Not only have observations become less nerve-wracking for me, but also I now have a collaborative spirit that was nearly impossible to have when my greatest sense of relief during the school day came with shutting my door. 

Inviting others in not only helps me to get real; it helps my leaders to get real as well. I am showing them real lessons, not dog-and-pony show performances. They need to see the real deal if I expect them to be equipped to help me. Note: Teachers so often complain that administrators don’t understand the classroom reality we deal with, but then we do everything we can to mask that reality when they visit. Someone explain this to me.

Cutting oneself some slack is the tricky part of all of this. The self-scrutiny of watching oneself on video can reach unhealthy proportions. I have been involved in a years-long writing program implementation that has resulted in nearly 1.5 terabytes of classroom footage of me. After viewing literally hours of that footage for days at a stretch, I need to stop for a few weeks. I just can’t take it. (Movie stars who starve themselves and subject their bodies to plastic surgery? I don't like it, but I get it. Try watching yourself on film for long stretches and tell me you don't want a little Botox.)

A similarly destructive self-consciousness also comes with the observations of others. Observers have agendas, and sometimes their agendas involve focusing on parts of the lesson that are not the point or that are a reflection of their attitude toward me as a person (either positively or negatively), and those types of feedback are toxic. I am now better at putting those comments aside, but it is never easy. The work is worth it, though, for both me and my students. I take chances. I expose myself.  I let people in. Who cares if I have vacuumed, metaphorically speaking? Nobody who values me or what I do cares about that; they care about the real work.

I have only ever had one retirement fantasy: I dream that, one bright shining day, my whole house will be clean, and I will be able to sit and enjoy it all day long. This fantasy may very well come true. When my husband (whom I have ironically named The Cleaner in a separate post on this blog) is the only mess-maker in my daily life, I may be able to have the place relatively organized, and maybe I will run the vacuum more often. (OK, let’s be honest: he will run the vacuum more often. I don’t vacuum.) 

But at the end of that day, I don’t know how happy I will actually be about that. That cleanliness means that my kids are no longer home, that my kids’ pets are with that great veterinarian in the sky, and that I will not be going to school anymore to instructionally love on America’s children. That may, for lack of a better word, suck. 

So give me my dog hair and my dirty dishes and my discipline problems and my sometimes-crappy lessons and my thousands of noisy teenagers. I love that mess, and that mess is real.



Monday, March 17, 2014

Film School: Why "We watched a movie" Is A-OK

I've been out of the blogosphere for the past month because of a work project that is taking over my life, but I told myself that, if I received a holy sign like a snow day, I would blog again. Happy Snowy St. Patrick's Day!

Instructional dogma: we all have some. Old school types want to see quiet children in orderly desks working on extended compositions with texts by Hawthorne or Yeats. New school types want to see chatty children in clustered desks looking happy and engaged with Kingsolver or an audio file from NPR. All of us want to see outcomes posted on the board--hall pass paperwork neat and orderly--grades in Powerschool on time.

Hard-and-fast rules are comforting. They give us structure and order. They give us predictability. They give us accountability. They help us to feel like we are keeping chaos at bay. What a shame that they do not help us to do a better job. One topic that is often a hard-and-fast rule in schools is a maxim that constitutes one of my greatest pet peeves: No Showing Films in Class. Film is literature. Film is art. Film is culture. Film is, yes, fun, and we need to stop holding that against it. For all of these reasons, film should play a significant role in literacy instruction.

Rules about not using film in class typically originate (as do most rules) from the bad behavior of the slackers. The slacker has no lesson plan? Show a movie. It’s the day before Christmas break? Show a movie. It’s the day before summer break? Show a movie. The slacker gave up on his professional life twenty years ago but still wants to collect a paycheck? Show a movie. As Jimmy Fallon jokes, “Thank you, watching-a-movie-in-class for being teacher code for ‘Miss Gallagher has a hangover.’” The slackers (whose numbers are few) cause administrators to make pronouncements like, “No films on the day before a break!” “No films on Fridays!” “No films, I said! No films!” These rules do not make slackers behave (and, honestly, they are rarely enforced). They give a false sense of order in a chaotic world, and they certainly punish English teachers whose content includes film because it should.

To get this argumentative ball rolling, let’s take documentaries off the table. Documentaries are visual representations of nonfiction text, and just about everyone on the planet values them as long as they are tied to the content of the unit under study. As long as a lesson with a documentary follows educational use laws involving copyright regulations, it gets a free pass, a free pass we need to extend to films with fictional narratives.

Film is a medium for literature, just as paper, live performance, and music are media for literature. It is simply a medium. Because it is a popular medium and a modern medium, we do not give it the literary street cred that we give, say, theatrical productions. You want to take students to see a mediocre stage production of anything at a local theater, a play that will remove students from all of their classes for the entire day? No problem. But you want to use clips of one of the greatest films ever made, To Kill a Mockingbird, in class to examine how the filmmaker’s use of light and shadow reinforces the issue of racial discrimination in the South during the Depression in your English 9 block? You better have your ducks in a row if an administrator walks in because an interrogation is likely.

Film is rich for literacy instruction because it gives students an intuitively engaging way to enter text, to delve deeply in text, and to extend their understanding of text. Allow me to use a recent unit I taught to make the case, a unit focused on The Great Gatsby for my 11th graders as we awaited the release of the latest film adaptation of that novel.

Recently, Australian director Baz Luhrmann did his second favor-to-English-teachers-that-we-can-never-repay by remaking The Great Gatsby and casting Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. The Baz/Leo duo already did more for Shakespeare instruction than anyone could have ever asked by teaming up for their version of Romeo + Juliet back in 1996. Teachers are divided about whether they love the 1968 Zeffirelli version of the play more than the Luhrmann one, but anyone who has used the Luhrmann version instructionally knows the debt we owe those men. Guns? Cross-dressing? Leo with his shirt open? America’s freshmen are on board. Imagine my delight when I learned that the two were tackling Gatsby, a book I had always liked but never loved to teach…until King Baz and Prince Leo came along.

The Great Gatsby novel itself has much to commend it for classroom use: its thematic focus on the American Dream makes it blend well with many issues in American history and American literature both old and new, it is a text that students are expected to know when they get to college and such, and it is short. It is very, very short, and that makes reluctant readers more willing to tackle it. Once I knew a new film version was coming, I knew this was my chance to up my Gatsby game. In those three instructional areas I mentioned above, this new Gatsby was a gift to both me and my students.

Enter Text
I believe in giving students choice in what they read within parameters. I wanted my students to read Gatsby so that I could experiment with what I knew would be some great film tools via Leo, but I also wanted them to have the option to kick it to the curb if they truly were not interested. I gave book chats for three different books (as I usually do) and let them vote, but when I presented the Gatsby option, I used the first gift that Luhrmann gave me, the original movie trailer he released for the film: “By the way, kids, this is coming soon to a theater near you.” We discussed the elements that the director was able to include that I had not mentioned in my book chat, everything from the costumes to the violence to the music to Leo—oh, beautiful, beautiful Leo. They were in, unanimously ALL IN.



As I saw new trailers released that were specific to particular cable channels with specific audiences (Spike TV, Lifetime, MTV), I used those clips as warm-ups before reading tasks as well to delve into the issue of audience appeal: the plot elements selected, the soundtrack selections used, the pacing, the focus. Which one is for which audience and why? Can you determine which one played on which channel?




When beginning a new text, an English teacher’s greatest reading challenge is getting students into it and willing to stick with it. With reluctant and struggling readers, this task can be enormous, but even with strong readers, the challenge is real. In the earliest days of reading a new work, the dividing line between those who will continue to read and those who will check out (as any secondary reading specialist will tell you)  is this: Can they visualize it? 

Lurhmann is an auteur, which means that he is a director who makes films with a distinctive creative vision that shows itself in every element of his films. With Gatsby, I saw that his vision extends to his promotional materials as well, materials that helped my struggling readers get that visual handle on the characters and thus the book. Modern English instruction involves not only print text but also visual images as well. Examine how the movie posters for each character reinforce important elements of characterization in the book and also use light, shadow, and color to convey subtle messages to the reader/viewer:


Why does Tom (a wealthy, WASP-y jock in Fitzgerald’s estimation) look like a gangster? Why is Myrtle in red? Whose face is in partial shadow, and what does that imply? This activity is not just fun (and it is fun); it is close reading. Students learn to take apart details in a larger text and analyze how those details serve the overall text. That is reading. It is a reading task that helps them to understand what strong analytical readers do before they apply that same skill to the print text, and it is also a skill that they need to navigate their overwhelmingly visual world.

Delve Deeply Into Text
The concept of film adaptation is an incredibly interesting one to students. When they read the book first, they develop that world in their heads, and typically no film version can stack up. Students who view the film first can engage with the text more readily, but they typically do not develop the emotional attachment to the text that they do with the film. What I have learned about teaching these pieces of the film while reading the text is that students no longer feel like they must devote themselves emotionally to one or the other: they become better critical thinkers about both.

I was fortunate to have a responsive principal last year who allowed me to make my case about film analysis and then approved a field trip to see the film. When we returned from that viewing, students were eager to discuss elements of the adaptation that they loved: the costume design, the soundtrack in particular scenes, Myrtle’s death scene, Leo—oh, beautiful, beautiful Leo…. They were likewise eager to discuss elements of the adaptation that horrified them: the narrative add-on of Nick-as-mental-patient (“What the whaaaat, Ms. Thomas?”), the soundtrack in particular scenes. They wanted to know: Where was Pammy? And what about Tom’s line about Pammy during the conflict in the hotel room? Why did they put that in Daisy’s mouth near the beginning instead? That line is supposed to show that she and Tom loved each other, not serve as more evidence that Tom is a pig! They cared about those changes, those seemingly small changes with ripples of consequence in overall effect. I had them write essays on those issues of adaptation, and I read some of the more evidence-based responses that I have ever had from juniors.

Extend Understanding
One of the best parts of teaching film as a narrative art is that it changes forever the way that students watch films. After they have examined clips for shadow vs. light, mise en scene vs. montage, close up vs. wide shot, and so forth, they cannot help but see those elements in everything they watch. This alertness to detail makes them not only better at discriminating visual details; it gives them that sense of “I get it!” that encourages academic pursuits and artistic sensibility. 

Baz Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, is an Academy Award-winning costume and production designer. I made sure to review set and costume design before we went to see the film so that they were ready for whatever she might offer them cinematically. Students’ ability to connect thematic elements of the book to pieces such as 

this dress


and this dress


and this contrast in male apparel (poor Tobey)


made students feel like film critics, and what are film critics anyway but very close readers, the very thing I want students to be.

As a final closure for the unit, I showed them the photo array below from the British tabloid The Daily Mail. In it, the stars of the movie arrive for the Cannes Film Festival. When students saw what the actors were wearing, they literally screamed. They saw immediately that those garments were not just whatever fancy designer garb the actors had chosen at Armani; those pieces all reinforce the characterization of the parts they played, and they suspected that Catherine Martin was behind all of it. (The classic Gatsby tux! Tom looks like a thug! Myrtle is back in red! Daisy is a pastel princess!) Was the discussion silly and fun? Yes. Was it also a sign that they were pulling together the thematic and critical elements of the unit? Yes. It was beautiful. (Speaking of beautiful, the shot of Carey Mulligan and the umbrella? Oh, beautiful, beautiful Carey.…)


My Gatsby lessons are not the be-all/end-all of teaching students about film, but they make the point that these highly engaging, artistically rendered tools are at our disposal to support instruction in important ways. Telling teachers that we can’t use them on Fridays or on the day before a break or at all because a first-year teacher showed his students Batman once he decided to quit teaching is not OK. Fire that kid, and give me my movies back.

Film is a medium. Film is literature. Film is a narrative art. Leo and I say this with love, hard-and-fast rulers: Give us (film) liberty, or give us (instructional) death!









Monday, February 17, 2014

Here and Now

When one discovers that one shares commonalities with Woody Allen, one feels decidedly vomitous. His disturbing family saga has been (too) much back in the news lately, with the involved family members proving once again that 1) we’re never going to know what really happened there, and 2) we don’t necessarily want to spend the holidays with any of them.

When the first Allen-Farrow legal media storm hit the airwaves 20-some years ago, my husband and I watched as many of Allen’s films as we could because we were convinced that he would be convicted of something unforgivable, and we knew that we wouldn’t be able to watch his stuff ever again, ethically speaking. And then he was convicted…of nothing. Since then, Allen has made some damn fine films, and each time I watch one, I feel mired in that murky gray ethical zone that feels like being covered in slime—yet I can’t look away.

My favorite Allen films of the past two decades are the ludicrously silly Everyone Says I Love You, the glossily creepy Match Point, the kookily hilarious Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and that English major’s slice of heaven, Midnight in Paris. Midnight in Paris appeals to me for several reasons:

1.      The Parisian set design and cinematography are unbelievably gorgeous. The fabrics alone, people!
2.    Rachel McAdams does not play a sympathetic character. I don’t get the Rachel McAdams thing. I just can’t with that one. I think her Mean Girls character is probably who she really is, and Midnight in Paris backs me on that.
3.    The film’s central thesis is one that I have been spouting forever: The good ol’ days? Maybe not so good.

In the film, our protagonist (played by Owen Wilson) longs for the Jazz Age of the 1920s, the time when he feels that society and writers and the world in general had it right. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Dali—these are his icons, and they can do no wrong. Through a nutty plot twist, he is transported to that time and meets his idols. At first, he relishes their glamour and drama, but as he comes to know them better, he realizes that their lives are just as messed up as his own in ways that are not so romantic and delightful. The flapper he falls for (played by the beauteous Marion Cotillard) herself longs for La Belle Époque, her idea of the best time to be alive. The upshot? Every era has its beauty and particular moments of incandescence, and every era has its ugliness and pits of despair.

For a society that likes to say that, “Hindsight is 20/20,” we are incredibly myopic in our view of the past. The extent to which we romanticize bygone eras and bemoan the present one frustrates me every day as a citizen, a woman, a parent, and a teacher. I turn 47 this month, and I hear people my age spew sentiments beginning with these sentence stems all the time:

·        “Kids these days just don’t…”
·        “When I was a kid, we understood…”
·        “You could have never gotten away with that back when….”
·        “Remember when neighbors would…”
·        “When we were kids we didn’t have these problems like…”

Hogwash. When I was a kid, you know what the world was like?

·        The Vietnam War happened.
·        The state of Virginia had not fully integrated its public schools until I was in first grade there in 1973.
·        Women made 59 cents for every dollar a man made doing the same job. (We’re still not at $1 yet, but we have improved.)
·        The President of the United States resigned because he was a paranoid scumbag who was caught in the middle of a rogue’s gallery of criminal behavior. His affable successor, Gerald Ford, was nearly assassinated—twice.
·        Genocide, war, assault, rape, child abuse, and all of the other forms of injustice that occur today occurred then.

Older generations are just as bad. They romanticize the 1950s and 1960s as times of strong moral values, eras in which people knew the rules, followed them consistently, and were punished soundly if they did not. Hogwash. You know what the 1950s and 1960s were like?

·        Schools were segregated all across the South. Interracial marriage was likewise outlawed in most of those states. (And we could talk about lynching, too….)
·        Girls rarely had interscholastic sports in which they could participate (and almost never received college scholarships for excellence in them). (Should I even scratch the surface of the fate of children with disabilities?)
·        Child abuse was even more rampant than it is now because it was rarely prosecuted and nearly never discussed publicly.
·        Many states allowed a husband to rape his wife and made it difficult (to say the least) for the raped wife to leave her husband and still have access to their children.
·        Genocide, war, assault, rape, child abuse, and all of the other forms of injustice that occur today occurred then.

The reasons why people view the past as a more idyllic time are simple: they either weren’t there (like Owen Wilson’s character) or they were children during that time. Our parents protected us, by and large, from the world’s ugliness or at least its most awful parts. People who were not lucky enough to have as much protection from the world probably remember those times differently than us sugar-coaters, kids like Ruby Bridges, kids who grew up in Uganda or in Vietnam in the 1970s, kids who grew up in poverty, in sickness, in war, in despair.

Those of us lucky enough to have had more carefree childhoods not only have the moral obligation to try to offer the world’s children that same safer existence; we also have the moral obligation not to pretend that the past was somehow better than the world is today, not to trash today’s children, not to elevate a time and place we understood as children as better than the time and place we know more fully as adults.

The older we grow, the more we learn about the world, and that means learning more about its ugliness. That ugliness was always there; just because it’s new to us does not mean that it’s new. We are adults. It’s our job to see the world as it is, not as some disappointing comparison to the time when we thought the future involved a lifesize Barbie townhouse and people who interacted as peaceably as our teddy bears did.

I love living now. I love that I know so much more about the world because I have access to so much more information about it. I love that the Iron Curtain is so far in the past that it is difficult to explain to my students. I love that stories from the past like Ruby Bridges or the history of Title IX or the Holocaust make my students gape with wide-eyed disbelief. Does that mean that discrimination no longer happens? Does that mean that genocide is forever gone? Does that mean we have licked all of humanity’s capacity for evil? Of course not. But we’re better. We’re learning. We stumble and fall and cry, and then we get back up again and learn some more.

This is an exciting time to be alive, and if you unfavorably compare it (and especially its children) to those of the past, I know only one thing about you for sure: You are getting older, you are losing perspective, and your soul is the first part of you to die.


This is our time. This is our world. If the world is not all you hoped it would be, you are likely the only one who can change it to suit you, and you are definitely the only one who can make you view it more positively. In the meantime, don’t talk to me about how much better things used to be. My students, my SmartBoard, my friends’ children Facebooking them while serving in Afghanistan, my increased access to Bruce Springsteen tickets, my FaceTime chat with my son in college, and I—we all disagree. 

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