Choosing Sides

This week, I spent an afternoon in a “good” high school. I was there to show the English department some tech tools they could bring into their teaching. The afternoon started with the usual stop at the front desk to sign in. At this school though, they don’t don’t just look at your license, they take it. The young woman at the desk earnestly explained that it was for my safety and the safety of the school. I asked how her holding my license had anything to do with school safety. She had no answer but her smile was bright and cheery.

Four Corners

Four Corners by riviera 2005 / Matt Ravier*

The halls were wide. The floors gleamed. The walls were concrete. Beige. Outside the main office, a few glassed cases held vivid student art. As I walked further into the building, only beige, punctuated by the occasional classroom door. Inside each square concrete classroom, the teacher stood in front of rows of students. Dutiful, silent, students. As I walked, a teacher’s voice floated after me, laying out key dates and what sounded like assignments. I was back in my own high school and with each step further into the building, a little bit more of me died. I reminded myself that I would leave in only five hours.The students, however, would come back tomorrow.

In a class I was visiting before the faculty meeting began, the walls of one side of the room were lined with big posters of book covers: The Scarlet Letter. Antigone, several others. There was technology in that classroom, a lone computer where the teacher sat to enter attendance. TurnItIn, attendance– most of the school technology was used for policing.

About an hour before the workshop, I settled into the computer lab, which was about a billion degrees. I wanted to bring up all the sites I would talk about with the teachers. Two-thirds of the sites, all of which I had asked about the week before, all of which had been accessible then, were blocked. By the time the miracle-worker technology specialist had arranged for access, I had about twenty minutes to get organized.


You see, nothing I was going to do that day would counter the culture of the school. The assembly line would keep rolling, spitting out kids at regular intervals. Never mind that outside the cinderblock walls, the world doesn’t work that way any more. I told the teachers about the TV commercial I had seen the night before, where the guy had spent the entire day out of the office, conducting complex business via his cell phone: conference calls with clients in different countries, information funneled from one part of the business to him, him adding his chunk before sending it on, meetings scheduled, documents sent.  “Out There,” I said, motioning toward the windows, “outside these very fixed concrete walls, that’s what’s happening. How does what we’re doing in here match up?”

I don’t know if they got it. Oh, some did. But I suspect they’d already gotten it before I’d arrived.

Three moments stand out for me. One, the sound of a coach on the field outside our window, screaming at a student.

Next, showing teachers and talking about how a colleague of mine uses it to comment on student work. “Oh, man,” said one teacher, rolling her eyes, “can you see us telling them what we really say about their papers?” She turned to the friend sitting beside her and pretended to be recording. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I will tell you her tone was mean, spiteful.

Finally, back in the faculty office, the Wordle moment of truth. A teacher had entered the text of two long poems and printed out the results. She laid them on her desk, positively giddy with excitement. “These are tomorrow’s quiz,” she said. “All they have to do is write the title, the author.” Another teacher let out a hoot. “You’ve found a whole new way to get ’em,” she said, shaking her head in amusement. “Only you….”

We all joke about our kids. Cynicism is a great way to make it through a bad day. But in this so-called “good” school, I got the feeling that many of the teachers just didn’t like the kids. No, not just that. They didn’t hold them in high regard. They just plain didn’t love them. What they did love was their subject, the poems, the plays, the literature,  and they were going to beat it into those kids if it took four years.

This “good” school– it’s what we’re aspiring to as we Race to the Top? Scream for merit pay, “better” teachers?

My teensy, secret satisfaction is simply this. You bring web-based technology into a classroom and the balance of power is bound to shift, if only because one person cannot control the spirit of twenty  kids who now have the power to create.

I’m rooting for the kids.

5 responses to “Choosing Sides”

  1. Dana Huff says:

    I don’t know what to say except “Yikes.”

  2. Karen says:

    I know. I left the school feeling rattled, which is probably good– the people I work with shouldn’t be the only ones who are called to learn, right?

  3. Kim McCollum-Clark says:

    wow, Karen. Very sad and scary. Your story is completely in line with my recent experiences with schooling. And it is the culture aspect that is most chilling to me, too.

    Just this morning, I got an email from one of my former students. He’s been teaching about 12 years now and his school, notorious for their repressive curriculum, is “changing things!” YAY. He wanted to chat with me about a new novel for ninth graders. Everyone liked LH Anderson’s Speak, BUT. . . too controversial, language, sex, adult situations. I pressed him on Speak and this is what I got back:

    “We will be reading this is our general academic classes, so some of the problems we had with Speak involved the narrator’s being too subtle in expressing her reformed views (one could argue that they aren’t reformed) of hating/belittling certain groups of students, view of people, etc. We don’t want a book where we sow unresolved discord among students (beyond life opinions or of the text) or have to be didactic to prevent it. We still believe it is an outstanding option for projects involving choice, but are uncomfortable with making it mandatory reading for general students when there is some language (not too bad) and sexuality beyond what 99 % of 9th graders deal with (or should ever have to deal with). While there are also lessons to be learned for all, there are no major male characters for boys to identify with (or not identify with). ”

    Ye gods. SPEAK!! And I told him if he had problems with Speak, there probably was not going to be a YA title he would be happy with. I am left with my fifth grade teacher’s mantra and prayer: “Father, I stretch my hands to thee: no other help I know.”

  4. Karen says:

    Heaven forbid that boys should read a book where there are no major male characters for them…. Seems to me Speak has a rather significant male character, even in absentia. Seems to me that 9th graders either attend or know of kids who attend parties where there’s lots of drinking and pressure for “sexuality beyond what 99% of 9th graders deal with.” Maybe that kind of pressure doesn’t count?

    Your 5th grade teacher is remarkable in his/her mature response. Me, I just go around humming “You say you want a revolution, well you know….”

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