Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Despised on a Grecian Urn

If my sophomore English students could lay hands on some clay, fire up a kiln, and forever capture their enmity for me at this moment, I would probably be depicted on the side of an urn plastered with a large target on my chest, Greek soldiers armed with sharp spears bearing down upon me.

"I hate you," one student said, half joking, half not, as I moved about the room monitoring the small groups as they annotated the John Keats poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn.  The room grew quiet, some uncomfortable laughter emerged, all eyes peeled on me for some response.

Another student chimed in, "C'mon Mr. A., that's probably not the first time you've heard that." More laughter followed by a chorus of "ooooh's" and "aaaahhh's."

True that.

But in my heart, I could feel their pain.  After all, I was asking them to think for themselves, and at nine o'clock in the morning.

They were stripped of Google, SparkNotes, Facebook, I-Pods blaring in their ears.  They were forced to talk to each other, to converse, to think, to wrestle with words....and initially, most of them felt it was an impossible task.  But as the minutes ticked away, conversations about the poem hummed along, pens found paper, questions flew around the room, and in the end, the kids felt good about their accomplishment.

Who woulda thunk it?

A recent NPR report focusing on a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, focuses on the steady decline of students' high order thinking skills at the college level.  One suggestion asserted by the co-author of the book, Richard Arum, is the lack of academic rigor.  According to the NPR report, Arum asserts that professors are more interested in receiving favorable student evaluation reviews by students, than slamming them with a hefty term paper.  It seems popularity transcends raising the bar.

Interesting thought when one scans the high school landscape.

Rigor is a word thrown around at my school, but I'm not sure the current academic atmosphere is conducive for raising the bar.  I don't think it has much to do with a teacher fearing his or her popularity, but there are other contributing factors.

Here's a quick list:

#1-  The school culture says it's the teacher's fault. The message from on high is that it's the teacher's responsibility if the student is struggling.  We will leave no child behind, every student will have a success plan in place, pass the CAPT to graduate, etc., and the teacher will ensure that this happens. To a degree, I suppose this is true, because we are responsible for teaching, assessing, reflecting, etc., but it also seems as though less accountability is placed on the student to rise above expectations, grab that educational brass ring and run with it.  Students seem to want to complete the bare minimum and expect to receive top grades for it. 

#2-   Shrinking budgets.  Raise your hand if you still have an enrichment program at your high school.  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?

#3. Soaring class size.  And I'm not just talking about a student's waistline (see Michelle Obama leads fight to make kids healthy as they melt into the couch whilst playing X-Box).  Hard to assign those hefty term papers when you've got 120 of them to grade.  Studies show that narrative feedback and conferencing are the best methods of improving student writing, but with student class loads spiraling upward, it tends to curtail such practice.

Essentially, schools are stuck in the "tread water" mode.  With the economy in such a dismal state, school districts are slashing budgets resulting in fewer teachers, resources, and programs.  It's hard to build up academic rigor when schools can barely meet basic needs.  Pretty dismal outlook, eh?

My solution has been to close the classroom door and design lessons that work within the classroom, without the expectation of outside completion when it comes to the higher order thinking part.  This seems to run counter-intuitive because we strive to create lifelong learners, but when kids can Google a scholar's interpretation of a poem, they tend to cut and paste, blindly accepting what the "expert" states.  It's much easier than thinking on their own.

I try to emphasize the analytical skills, the importance of rhetoric, pose the questions, stress the value of thinking and questioning ideas.  Hopefully, some of it will take hold, and if they hate me for it, I guess I can live with that.


  1. Oh Mr.A...
    Hate you? Nay... They love you for raising the bar! Another on point observation on high school from your ledge. And thanks for upholding the rigor

  2. If the only thing your students learn is to think for themselves, you have just acheived something many educators couldn't dream of. You've inpsired them to hear their own voice, instead of must echoing back the sources they "google". It's never comfortable to grow as an individual...and to think for oneself...I wouldn't care too much about their responses...the students that have a spark in them and a drive will appreciate your efforts.

    You were always my favorite english teacher :)

  3. oops just* typo..! I guess that's what I get for reading blogs after a long day!

  4. The system is broken and it's failing those who pass through it under the guise of helping them to succeed. In reality, the system coddles the average student, rarely encouraging them to fulfill their true potential.
    No child should be left behind, but rather than pushing the lagging students forward, the system seems to drag those who are ahead. No child gets left behind, in part because no child gets ahead.
    So congratulations and thank-you, Mr. Anastasio, for doing what you do. And remember, the effigies of those men depicted with spears bearing down upon them have survived thousands of years. Don't fear your face on that urn, instead, embrace your place in history.

  5. Great post. I am in the process of finishing up two degrees to acomplish a career change into teaching.. I hear what you are saying on the higher order thinking skills. Keep it up, if students hate you it means you are doing something right! Sooner or later, they will love you for it...

  6. Joe, I face this problem almost on an everyday basis. I question my methods and techniques. I struggle with my philosophy of trying to make the students think and engage with the text effectively. You have the advantage of teaching students whose native tongue is English but I teach students who are studying M. A. English Literature with poor knowledge of spoken and written English. Everyday I try to do something creative and at the same time fulfil teh rigours of the syllabus but sometimes I am at a loss.
    My students love me but still they cannot go beyond a certain level.
    Glad that you try to choose to do something from the run-of-the-mill teachers. Keep the good work on.
    Glad to meet a fellow traveller through Blogplicity.

    Joy always,

  7. as a recent, some 6 years ago, mature aged student, it saddens me to say that the teaching skills of the lectures seemed less than satisfactory, maybe the best are out doing rather than relaying details from another (or missed) life .. ;) great piece - cheers alan

  8. see i can't spell or type ;( - who's fault is that ?

  9. Wait a second... teachers have feelings and think about assignments before handing them out?

    That's some crazy, mind-bending stuff, man.

  10. I don't envy you job:) Great piece.
    Jessica Brant

  11. With all of the online social medias and phone texting going on today, I can certainly understand why kids these days have a hard time having a face-to-face conversation or think for themselves in a classroom.
    With the cut backs in school budgets and other considerations, I believe that the teachers that are truly a teacher because they have the student's education as their primary concern are having their hands tied. Like any other profession, there are some people who are teachers that shouldn't be.
    My daughter is developmentally delayed. She went through elementary school with an IEP and her graders were relatively A's and B's.
    When she arrived at middle school, she had a difficult time from day one. The teachers and principle spoke to her as though she was the stupidest child on earth. Her math teacher (math is her best subject) had her retake a test because she got a 99% without help and only 3 people in the class actually passed the test! How dare she (math teacher) demean my daughter like that!! What takes the cake is when my daughter repeated the test, she again got a 99% under the teacher's watchful eye to make sure she wasn't cheating???? Come on, let's be real.
    Things like this continues for a couple of months, even after bringing it to the principal's attention and having meetings with the school board regarding my issues, so my daughter is home schooled by ME now. The bottom line is they didn't want my daughter in their school. I resolved the issue.
    But, what I did find out is that my daughter didn't know squat! In 7th grade and was ignorant to most of what she needed to know in 7th grade. Finding out that the assistant she had usually gave her the answers for her tests so that she would get a good grade made me absolutely livid! We have spent almost 4 mths going back over the basics so that she could continue on with her 7th grade required lessons. I have realized that even dev. delayed, she is quite capable of learning everything everyone else learns, only it takes us about 4 or 5 hrs more a day than everyone else spends. But it is worth it for us. That is not something I would expect of any teacher, but would certainly expect them to make me aware of it.

  12. Hi, I'm not a teacher, I'm a fresh graduate.

    But, I could understand your dedication in your career and t he stress lies within.

    However, stay optimistic

  13. Hmm, sounds scandalous.

  14. It's one of the reasons I pulled my son out of the state system and into the private. I saw that his lessons consisted of work that was way below his ability and his mind was becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of stimulation, I saw that the teacher had no ability to enhance the children that could do more and instead held them back, I saw this at 3 different schools.

    It's been a struggle to do it and has come with sacrifices but if outside of the love and mentoring as a parent I can give him a decent education and a strong start in life then I will. It's such a shame to get that you have to pay for it - all children should be entitled to it.

  15. Thank you, Joe. I hope my boys hate their high school teachers like your students claim to hate you for now.

  16. Joe, have you ever seen this? I just came across it yesterday, and thought of you and this blog post as I watched it. Taylor Mali's "What Teachers Make":