Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Teacher Man

I was cleaning what used to be my den when I came across my copy of Frank McCourt'sTeacher Man.

Funny story behind this copy. Years ago, I had a student named Ryan who claimed to know the late Mr. McCourt, said he was a friend of the family and they would all get together on St. Patrick's Day and drink green beer, eat corned beef, etc., 'til the wee hours of the morning. I dismissed it, of course, but Ryan remained adamant that he knew the man.

"Really?" I asked.

"Yeah, Mr. A., I swear to you."

"Okay, how about an autograph? I'm a fan of his writing," I said.

"You got it, A. No problem."

That was Ryan's freshman year, and as the semesters marched by, I would see Ryan in the hallway and shout after him, "So, when am I gonna get that signed copy of 'Tis?"

Ryan would answer with a broad smile. "It's coming, Mr. A., it's coming."

This hallway banter went on and on over the next couple of years, stretching right into Ryan's senior year. Sometime in February, out of the blue, Ryan arrived in my room asking to borrow the copy of Teacher Man resting on my desk. I'm always loaning books out to students, so I didn't think anything of it.

Months passed, and then two days before graduation, Ryan appeared at my doorway once again, hefting a large yellow envelope. His smile stretched even wider than normal, he paraded into the room, plopping the hefty package on my desk.

He folded his arms. "Open it."

I shot a glance at the return address. It was a name scrawled in black ink. An Irish one.

I tore open the edge of the envelope and retrieved my copy of Teacher Man.

Ryan, giddy with excitement, directed me to the title page, and there, written in that same tell-tale black ink as the envelope it read:

Mr. A-
Great Teacher.
You can now stop
bothering the Carlin lad.


Frank McCourt.

Needless to say, I was, and still am, touched by Ryan's gift.

I've pored through Teacher Man a number of times since it fell back into my possession, and though McCourt taught many years before me, I can still relate to much of what he writes.

One of my favorite parts is when he recounts the unwillingness of his students to write in class, and as yet another student approached his desk with a forged excuse note explaining why he didn't have his homework completed, McCourt experienced an epiphany. They won't write at all during or for his class, but they put forth great effort brainstorming new excuses for their forged notes.

McCourt spent class time confronting them with anonymous copies of their forged work. He then suggested that they write excuse notes from the perspective of other people.

He walked to the blackboard and wrote the directions: Write an excuse note from Adam or Eve to God.

The kids ate it up.

Soon, other ideas hit the blackboard. Draft dodgers. Judas. Attila the Hun. Lee Harvey Oswald.

The class buzzed with excitement. It was electric. Motivation seeped through every crack in the ceiling plaster. The students even convinced McCourt to allow them to write excuse notes on behalf of the mean teachers in school.

And then the principal and superintendent arrived at the door.

One would think McCourt got reamed out for his creative shenanigans, but instead the superintendent commended him on his creative lesson idea. He did balk a bit on the excuse note for Al Capone, but in the end, he recognized that McCourt had achieved the most important part of education-- connection with students.

I wonder if in this day and age whether administration would embrace such a lesson. We are, after all, politically correct and would never wish to offend, and our curriculum is aligned to district standards tied to state standards linked to national ones. Is there still a place for creativity and straying from the traditional path?

We have our mission statement guiding our school, the data teams meeting to extrapolate every point relating to our common assessments and benchmarks, reports written and presented and soon replaced by new data-streams of different kids taking more tests to measure and weigh, weigh and measure more data, more numbers, more information.

I'm forgetting something.
That's right.
The students.

Which brings to mind, just how would a school-wide rubric measure an excuse note from Hitler?