5 Bodies: a true story

The first was Thomas, a cat, ashed at 18, interred in a Pier One Indian carved box, shelved by my wife’s mother, whose house was being emptied by her daughters of all but the firmest shared history.  All her brittle coral chipped from the reef, all her old paint sanded from the walls.  Strokes had taken her memory and her independence.  The rest was slowly shoved out the door by her daughters.  My wife had been charged with ‘taking care of Thomas’ by her sister, who’d assumed the role of caretaker of their mother – to whom the cat – one of the last in a very long line of borderline crazy-cat-lady succession – had belonged.

Thomas on a shelf, below a shelf-bending row of Modern Architecture ‘83-’92, beside a cut glass vase and platter, porcelain cats in play, a dusty tasseled lamp, a tea set, a knock-off Lladro ballerina, a tiny basket and an ash tray.  Everything but Thomas (and the other bodies) free from metaphor, empty of simile, symbolism, tone or mood.  

‘All you are at the end of your life is one big yard sale,’ my wife says on one of the many Saturday mornings.  Her mother’s life is slowly stripped from the house, as if by a kind of wind made of people, who shake, grab, tossle and tip and slowly lift away down the street and around the corners the sand that was the sandcastle of her mother’s life.

But you can’t sell a corpse even if the casket’s fine, so the cat had to go.

My wife’s mother had had a cousin – Poor Bill, we called him, derisively.  He’d shambled his life, de-closeted at 50, badly.  His wife and kids, not liberated, not joyous at his escape, but, as too often when one slips the chains, betrayed. And he too, not liberated, but still angry and wounded and therefore mean and self-pitying. Someone knows his kinder story, but it wasn’t us, who knew him only as Poor Bill, reclusive, a distant sometime denizen of my mother-in-law’s rental, and her confidant in her later, meaner, bitter days before the strokes gentled her spirit.  

He’d died a few years back, skipped the family reunion of our lives like an awkwardly invited guest, the misplaced friend of a friend who simply leaves.  She’d kept his ashes, though, and one assumes there was no welcome plot, no space among the headstones, no crypt or keep with corner enough for his remains.

So on the shelf he was, body number two, beside the cat, in a smoky porcelain urn richer in glaze and shine than anything we remembered of his living days.  

Our educated guess was that the third box was Bill’s late lover, who’d slipped the bonds before him, and himself a drifter had briefly drifted off with Bill for some cloud-filled happy time in which they’d found – we imagined – some short and happy peace and quiet.  There was no ceremony at all in his casket: a white cardboard box, of better paper than most but paper none-the-less.  It still had the mailing address on the flap that made a lid. 

There is no easy digging on the Island of my wife’s childhood.  Inches below the topsoil it’s alluvial coral, bleached white, a gritty, fossilized marl.  You want a grave, even for a body reduced to 5 pounds of ashes, to be rich, dark, pregnant.  And easy to dig.

But the ocean promises a fertile burial. Ashes can drift, disperse, nurture and mineralize.  The pier up the street had long since lost its ships.  Now it was peopled by dog walkers, bicyclists, tourists, its only traffic with the sea the occasional fortunate fisherman -kid or -woman.  The rest just stared: poets and dreamers and drunks, fantasizing midwesterners, building impossible lives out of ocean wind, horizon, cloud and sun and vacation.  

I emptied a canvas beach bag of towel and snorkel, sunscreen and frisbee, and we hauled the three bodies down the street.  We’d spent the day driving boxes in the other direction, to the Salvation Army next to the liquor store.  Dinner had come and gone, with wine and beer and fruity rum drinks made with mango fresh from the tree in the backyard.  So we were not a little drunk.

The cat, Poor Bill, Poor Bill’s lover: boxed and bagged.  Remarkably heavy.  The cat went first.  A grey stream of powder, the occasional bit of bone slapping among the dry hiss atop the ocean.  The water was evening calm despite the breeze coming out of the ocean’s night, and we’d found a spot in shadow, away from the streetlights and fishermen and tourists, facing inland (lest the wind throw the ashes back in our faces, you know.)  There must be oil in ashes, for they clung to the surface momentarily, something in their molecular decomposition less than eager to sink.  But eventually the water clouded, the surface cleared, the current took and the waves stirred.  Thomas the cat, interred in the sea.  (He was a good cat, I reflected, the thinking a kind of eulogy.  One of those orange fellows, a little larger than most, affectionate, and one of the few creatures in my mother-in-law’s post-stroke life who didn’t leave her mind when he left the room.)

The lack of ceremony was slightly appalling.  My wife and I giggled, hunched around the urn and boxes lest we be caught.  It has to be illegal to dump a body in the ocean, no matter what the state, no?  Waves slapped quietly against concrete.  You want there to be some quality to the air, but there was nothing special to the night.  There were clouds enough to dim stars already dimmed by the town’s glow.  There was wind enough to dull the air, sound enough to break the silence.  You think, ‘This is death I have in hand, pouring out a plastic bag, twist-tied.’

Next to go was Poor Bill.  One thinks when tossing ashes that it’s perhaps not even him. There was an article a few years back about the business practices of crematoriums, the ashes gathered in a pile over time, all mingled together, just a shovel to the bag if you wanted something back.  What do you say, anyway, of a man barely known, nine years after his death, at his impromptu funeral?  What do you say about a man you’d gossiped into a joke? What do you say when the funeral’s ten years too late, forty people too shy, ten drinks too far, ninety degrees turned, a hundred boxes light?  The funeral was a shrug, this writing the only homily.  Poor Bill whitened the water, clouded the sea.  I expected fish to come, and prepared a thought about the mingling of flesh and fish, but no fish has a taste for ash.  

Only Poor Bill’s lover left, his body in a box.  I used a house key to slash the seal, fingernailed the rest.

There were three bags inside.

Two were fist sized and fist heavy, the other the expected size, about as big as a pineapple.  At first we thought them pets, thinking this funeral was bookended by cats, but one said, in black sharpie, ‘Aunt Dorothy’ – name and title as light and easy, as familiar, as an old plot.  Aunt Dorothy?  Who even has an Aunt Dorothy outside a movie?

The other: Michael.  No name for a pet.  Mike, maybe, but not Michael.  Poor Bill’s lover’s lover, we hazarded, one more victim of 90’s scourge?  Just names, of course, with attendant invented history.  

So we dumped Aunt Dorothy, then fed the sea with Michael too, whoever the hell they were.  And finally Poor Bill’s Lover, who streamed into the sea, whose molecules moved together one last time, one long limb left, a final stretch before dissolution.  The water had been seared from all five of them, in whatever kilns were used, and now they were back to liquid and salt.

I read somewhere once that the salt in our blood is roughly the same percentage as the salt in the sea.  Somehow that detail felt slightly eulogistic, and I mentioned it to my wife.  We’d talked through the whole event, like a rude couple at a movie.  Maybe; the demand for silence on the pier came not from people (if it came at all) but something vague in the air of the moment that asked for seriousness and solemn respect.   

Asked, perhaps, but did not really receive.  Without a soul to mourn your loss, a lifeless body’s journey – in whatever form, however finely dismembered one might be – is little more than one more wave in the endless tidal ebb and flow of matter.

How hard we sometimes search to find some meaning in that restless oceanic current.  Nobody around us had any idea what we did.  Not the German tourist family on rented bikes, the Cuban father and his two sons fishing, the people with their dogs (though several did sniff their ways over curiously), the couple dressed alike who looked like they’d been sent home early from some quiet restaurant shift, or the ceaseless flow of story-less humanity that moved beside us on the pier that night.

The five bodies had been with us for years, on the shelf, idly recognized every so often.  Our daughter had asked once about the urn when we were visiting, back when my wife’s mother hadn’t completely lost her mind (or so we thought).  Or no, I’d pointed it out to her once, because that’s the kind of thing parents like to introduce to their children, precisely for her response of ‘eeww!’  And then she’d told her brother, and later their cousins when they had visited.  They opened the urn and looked inside, but I never told them about Poor Bill’s Lover in the cardboard box next door, and they only had passing interest in Thomas.  When my mother-in-law had mind enough to mind herself there’d been too many cats altogether.

I left the urn and Thomas’s wooden casket on the concrete railing of the pier.  More than likely it was taken up by one of the island’s homeless, one of the many who slept in all the shadowy unowned (and sometimes owned) corners of the island, and who emerged before sunrise, as I’d learned one summer when our daughter as an infant woke reliably and crying at 4 am and I’d been charged with tending her into dawn.  I can’t imagine where that urn is now, or what purpose it might be serving.

Though it is amusing to speculate.  


Are Rubrics Really Good for Me?

Anyone else stumble across the feeling, every once in a while, that your carefully crafted Rubric, so precise and efficient, so clear in its expectations, just turned your entire assignment into ice?

I get this a lot:  ‘Is that a 4?’  And you look at the work, and it kind of is a 4.  (We’re on the 1 to 4 scale here.  4 is an A.)  Kind of, because they have the rubric next to the assignment and technically everything has been done as described.  There are no mechanical errors, so 4 on Mechanics.  The sentences are clear, and the paragraph has support, so a 4 on Informative Writing.  But something about the writing is flat and sterile.  It’s a paragraph that goes through mechanical motions like a machine and you just know, reading it, that the paragraph is really ABOUT getting a 4 and nothing else.  If there is any joy at all in the assignment, it is only the joy the kid feels at getting the 4.

When we had mere grades, in all their arbitrary looseness and vague indecision, one was allowed to recognize that so much of what we do is rarely simply about going through motions like a machine.  It’s impossible to truly rubricize the magic and mystery of purpose.  Rubrics mechanize skill, and dehumanize effort, which is half of a good thing. We want kids to have clear skill sets, and we want to be able to define those skills down to clear and precise actions.  We want to take out the arbitrary value judgments that muddy the cold window of mechanical action.  And yet, the closer we get to that precision, the further we get from those fuzzier Emotions that make the job worth doing in the first place.

I don’t mind using Rubrics.  They make my assignments efficient; they clarify purpose; and they make most things a hell of a lot easier to grade.  I used to spend too much time writing all over a kid’s essay.  Now I just look for whatever it was I put on this particular rubric and circle the right box.  Takes me less than a minute to grade an essay.  And if the kid doesn’t have to invest very much in the assignment – other than some attention to expectations, some alignment of their action with the definition on the scale – neither do I. You can’t rubricize emotion, which is the point, I suppose, to the things in the first place.

Still, there are times when I tire of being so cold all the time, even if it does make the classroom cool and clear and efficient.

The Simple Reason Boys Don’t Read

IT is a fact that boys don’t read as much as girls, though in school our success at getting kids to read for pleasure fails for both sexes, particularly as students move from elementary to middle school and then high school.  For the boys the drop off occurs early – sometimes as early as elementary school, but with a near universal occurrence by the end of middle school.  We should not sugarcoat the truth: by high school 95% of our boy students do not read for pleasure, which means that they really don’t read at all unless it’s required for class, a test, or a grade.  Our success with girls is better, and many leave high school maintaining the healthy reading attitudes they built in middle school and earlier, but it’s still a damagingly low number.  Too many kids simply don’t read on their own and they suffer academically because of it.

Here in Colombia we have an interesting wrinkle to the usual kids and reading dilemma.  Getting kids to read has no easy solution wherever you teach.  Our school in Colombia is entirely bilingual; kids have both an English and a Spanish literature course.  We struggle, as most bilingual schools do, with getting students to speak in English rather than Spanish.  Our task is to create truly bilingual students, but since their native social language is Spanish they are far more at ease interacting in Spanish than English.  Here’s the interesting part: they much much prefer to read in English.  The reasons for this are related to the reasons we have a hard time getting kids to read in any school: academic reading versus pleasurable reading.  In elementary and middle school, the emphasis in English is interest and choice, in keeping with Columbia University’s Reader’s Initiative (which most International American schools have adopted).  Colombian schooling, on the other hand, is far more traditional, and the texts the students read are selected for their academic and cultural purpose.  Students read The Hunger Games in English, The Iliad in Spanish.  Moreover, our selection of English texts is varied, modern, individualized, and entertaining.  Our Spanish language library is 1/10th the size of our English library, which also contains a regularly updated selection of ebooks that students can check out.  Students prefer reading English books because the English books are entertaining and because they are free to choose.   Continue reading “The Simple Reason Boys Don’t Read”

School Teaches Students How To Be Bad Workers

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, 1983

nation at risk

“During my time in school, I have developed many skills that teachers did not intentionally want me to learn, but in a way forced me to because of the way they teach and implement the school rules. These are basically ways to cheat the system discretely. Things such as writing a whole essay not knowing what I am really talking about and not paying attention in class but acting like I am.”

High School Junior, 2016


Here’s a few things I did in school.

  • Plowed through weeks and months of class by daydreaming, doodling, playing games, reading unrelated stuff, messaging, and otherwise generally dinking around.
  • Talked my way out of deadlines, extending them, sometimes indefinitely.
  • Copied homework, answers, and projects, receiving credit for work I didn’t do.
  • Ignored everything until the night before the exam and pulled all nighters to finish essays.
  • Made judicious use of sources to pad and lengthen my sloppy writing and reasoning.
  • Lied to teachers about my mental state, or home state, or some kind of state, in order to avoid consequences and work.
  • Learned to nod when applicable, look ahead for the answer to the question that was coming my way, write down responses after they had been given out by others, and generally DO as little actual work as absolutely necessary to still pass the class.  

By the end of high school I was really, really good at a lot of this.  I could read a teacher’s sympathy or mood or general demeanor like a politician.  I had a solid, workable bank of excuses and avoidance techniques.  I could lie so convincingly I believed my own lies.  I eagerly joined group projects because I knew another student, one more interested in higher grades than I, would do most of the work for which I would receive credit.  I mostly mastered the art of determining the minimum work needed to escape scrutiny and still get a passing grade.  (On occasion I misjudged.)  I even developed a solid folder of techniques for making it appear that I’d done far more work than I actually performed.  I developed as well a genuine, heartfelt disdain for work itself, for anything that smacked of repetitive deliberate effort, self-improvement, or vague purpose. Continue reading “School Teaches Students How To Be Bad Workers”

School Actively Creates Unhappiness

A wealth of current research into happiness has yielded a consistent and surprisingly small set of factors.  Three, in fact, beyond the needs of food and shelter: Relationships, Freedom, and Meaningful Work.  Strong, positive relationships create a sense of belonging, a feeling of value and importance in the world. We are social creatures, dependent upon the company of others for survival. At the same time, we are autonomous, and need independence. We don’t wish to be forced into all decisions and crave, both for ourselves and those closest, the freedom to choose.  And finally, research shows that people are most happy when they are good at the things they spend most of their time doing.  Mastery and Meaning go hand in hand.  People who are good at what they do tend to find meaning in it, and people who find meaning in what they do tend to develop the skills that create mastery.

But these are ADULT conditions.  We apply them to the workforce, the family unit, the social contract.  We do not apply these concepts to school and children.  If anything, much of what we do in school is the opposite of belonging, autonomy, and mastery.  It’s almost as if school is not merely unconcerned with the happiness of students, school is designed to eliminate their happiness altogether.

Consider Relationships.  The classroom structure is actually primarily designed to break students’ most meaningful social connections.  We sit them in desks facing one direction.  We often (and necessarily) assign seating away from the distraction of friends.  We take away their phones, of course, and attempt to limit in all sorts of often futile ways the social access of their computers.  Many schools and teachers even go to great lengths to discourage the only human relationship left, that with the teacher.

Autonomy, of course, is completely absent in school.  Kids can’t even go to the bathroom without asking permission.  They can’t choose what to wear, when to eat, what to study or when to study it.  Where to go, when to go there.  Who to be with or what to do with them.  How to walk or how to talk.  What to care about and what to ignore. The lack of freedom students have is so thorough, actually, that I suspect we simply avoid thinking about it altogether. Whatever shades one might attempt to paint the picture of school and autonomy, there’s little arguing that nearly every detail concerns the reduction of it.

The three components of happiness are somewhat exclusive of each other, even oppositional.  Relationships decrease autonomy, for example.  Strong, meaningful social commitments, as any married person or parent can tell you, come with expectations of behavior, limits on one’s personal desires and actions. Both Belonging and Autonomy can limit the acquisition of skill, especially if those skills are necessary but not chosen.  Again, as any married person can tell you, having a spouse or child in the room can seriously disrupt work.  There’s a balance that needs to be maintained, and sometimes a choice to be made.  School, obviously, is about Mastery and work.

But while meaningful work is the primary focus of school, it’s actually here where we stumble most profoundly.  Yes, education is almost exclusively dedicated to the acquisition – and mastery – of skills.  It is for this reason that we work so hard to break kids from their social circle and force them into behavior they wouldn’t otherwise choose. But since we aren’t really concerned with a student’s happiness (if we were, we wouldn’t be so aggressive in eliminating 2 of the 3 essentials), we ignore both Meaning and Mastery when instructing.

Meaning is significantly powered by choice, by Autonomy, so there is an immediate reduction of the individual aspect of meaningful work when students cannot choose what to study, when to study it, or how to study it.  But the lack of Meaning in the work of school extends much further than choice.  Often, it’s simply not considered at all.  The acquisition of skills is complicated, uncertain, and expensive if one is forced to answer the fundamental question: why?  The vague answers students so often get – almost all of them variations of ‘You’ll need this later’ – rarely address the actual question that most adults ask and answer satisfactorily about their jobs: Why?  What is the value or purpose?  Because most of the time, for that student in that place at that time, there is no answer.  They are studying the subject more or less ‘Because.’  Because that’s what the curriculum mandates.  Because that’s what’s on the test.  Because that’s what the Standard is.  Because that’s what the system says they must learn.  Because that’s what the structure of their schedule demands.  Because this is the hour in which they study that thing.  There is no ‘Meaning’ or ‘Purpose’ to the subject; there is only system and structure and process.  There is not even the reward of money, merely grades.

Sometimes there’s a kind of peripheral motivation to schoolwork that leans towards meaning – working on ‘this’ builds a parallel skill which will help later in the mastery of meaningful work on some undefined ‘that’. ‘This’ math problem helps build math fluency, which will be useful when one is an engineer or building a business.  Writing ‘this’ essay builds writing skill, which will prove necessary when one actually has worthy ideas.  But such motivations have absolutely nothing to do with meaning, and everything to do with a skill divorced from any kind of purpose; students are told simply to trust and mindlessly do.  Yet meaningful work is anything but mindless.

We might like to think, perhaps, that if ‘Meaning’ isn’t clear to their work, at least students are focused on Mastery.  But again, no.  School is not structured for Mastery.  School is structured for Adequate.

The basic motivational aspect of grades guarantees that schools are not interested in mastery.  Consider:  what is the first thing one thinks if they hear everyone in a class got A’s?  Amazing teacher and totally invested kids?  Of course not.  The class was too easy.  Most schools, in fact, attempt to maintain average grades that hover around the ‘Adequate’.  Mastery is for the few, not the many.  And while there is a great deal of teeth gnashing and lamentation about grade inflation, nobody ever makes similar points about grades being inaccurately low.  If ALL – or even most – students are achieving some form of mastery over the material, the cry goes out to make it harder.

Standardized testing has little to do with Mastery or Meaning, of course, unless it means one masters a meaningful exam, but this is just one element of the problem of assessment.  The traditional classroom measurement device – the test – is specifically designed to separate the few who have mastered the material from the many who have merely acquired the basics.  And rarely does any kind of exam really address the fundamental aspect of Meaning.  Many tests only matter in the moment, to the material of the moment.

None of the three components of happiness stand alone to the creation of a satisfying life.  By themselves, Community, Independence, and Meaningful Work do not create happiness.  If anything, too much of one and not enough of the others is often the root of an unhappy life. Conversely, none of these happiness factors is mutually exclusive and they often feed each other.  Community creates a sense of purpose and belonging, gives value and meaning to one’s work.  Mastery feeds one’s Autonomy.  Choice makes Meaning meaningful.  But in deliberately removing these components from student’s lives, we do not make learning any easier or powerful.

Kids who come to class and act social, who push against the lack of autonomy in various childish ways, or who don’t care for the work are usually punished.  We treat their actions punitively, as if they have been bad.  Yet the truth is, all they are trying to do is be happy. That’s not exactly a crime; in fact, isn’t happiness kind of the whole point of education in the first place?

Why Are Teachers So Often Liberal When School Is Anything But?

Consider the military.  Ignoring for a moment the Officer Class (who enjoy perks and benefits to  a ridiculous degree of comfort, safety, and economy), the majority of soldiers survive in a profoundly egalitarian system.  Labor is distributed evenly, as is salary.  Food and housing are provided by the system.  Achievement and reward is merit-based on individual talent, skill, and ability.  Individuality is thoroughly discouraged.  Identity and personality take second (actually, third, fourth, fifth, or more) place to cohesion and function of the whole.  You remember how everyone in China wore the same clothes back in the day?  That wasn’t because they didn’t have clothes or colorful fabric.  I could go on building this case, but there are bigger points to make.

One being this:  If you were looking for a conveniently collected source of Republican-leaning individuals, you’d go find a military barracks and start there.  If you wanted freedom-loving, pro-individual, capitalist thinking, greed encouraging, free market, John Wayne, anti-government purists, you’d find the most stalwart, hard-core, uncompromising idealists in the most communist place in the country.

Now consider School.  Schools are the most Darwinistic, survival-of-the-fittest, merit-based, unequal, capitalist jungles in our society.  On the macro-level they are dependent upon the value and worth of their location for any kind of success at all.  Do you live in an economic desert, someplace sparsely fed with that essential, water-like nourisher of schools: Money?  School life is going to be hard and mean.  Enjoy the metaphorical benefits of water and good soil?  A diverse, thriving school economy, with ample opportunity for growth and success.

In school, everything depends upon your own individual, non-cooperative effort.  Equality in schools is a barely maintained illusion.  For one, you are constantly measured against your peers.  Success or failure always arrives as a comparison against your classmates.  Yes, nominally success in school is supposed to be independent of any variable but one’s own individual talents, but we all know this is nowhere near the truth.  Every class is a competition.  The foundational economy of grades guarantees it.  And as in pure Capitalism (and pure Darwinism) success is a product of inherited traits, not individual success.  Wealth, in schools, is the greatest predictor of future achievement.

School is, despite some modern efforts (and a lot of editorial grousing), intensely, fundamentally competitive.  Conditions change dramatically from environment to environment (from school to school, to grade to grade, to class to class), so success is not merely a product of skill, but adaptability.  As in nature, change occurs over time and distance.  Survival depends on the ability to adapt either as the environment changes in time (as in year to year) or as one moves from one environment to another in place (as in class to class).  School is a daily re-enactment – sped up to impossible levels – of that natural struggle.  Students move from environment to environment, and their success is dependent upon their ability to shift gears, change processes, maximize and minimize specific traits to the landscape.  One class may demand gregarious extroversion while another asks for introverted silence.  One may use logic, the other creativity.

Inherited strength is fundamental in schools, as it is in Capitalism.  Inherited capital has more power than developed.  Success is far more likely if you enter school at a competitive advantage, whether that means you already know how to read, have an aptitude for math, or are the stock of parents who can afford tutors and encourage breakfast.  If your parents are successful, you are likely to be so.

(One might be forgiven assuming that schools are more Fascist than Capitalist.  After all, each classroom is ruled by a dictator with absolute authority.  But a teacher receives so little physical reward from a student’s labor that they can hardly be said to be ‘exploitative’.)

I could go on building this case as well, but there is another point to make, namely:  If you wanted to find the most liberal, socialist-leaning, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, pro-big government, pro-union, competition-fearing, anti-bullying, marginalized-population-loving, suspicious-of-power  group of people in the nation, you’d find the nearest public school and gather together the teachers.  

Failure Does Not Instruct, Success Does

We’re on a bit of a ‘let’s embrace failure’ trend these days.  Lots of articles across the internets about the benefits of failure, the learning potential, the need for coddled students to experience the wonderfully instructive power of being told they are wrong.  As so often the case, the central thesis comes at us in fairly easy to catch, sensible sounding nuggets of wisdom, which we’ll address in a moment.  More interesting, as usual, is the subtext, and also the actual, usually unstated, intent.  In this case: School is too easy.  People are given too much without needing to work for it.  Pain is not merely instructive, it’s essential to wisdom and moral order.  

So, a few Bromides out of the way first.

  1. Yes, it’s true, Failure is a way we learn.  Success has rewards, but ‘learning’ isn’t entirely one of them.  Most learning occurs before success, in the trial and error process, where one is neither winning nor losing, just working.
  2. Yes, it’s true, Failure is not unnatural.  Much of our life is spent fundamentally failing in one way or another.  Only those born with exceptional gifts are denied the experience of struggle that is intimately married to failure.  
  3. Yes, it’s true, Failure creates strength.  Though it’s not exactly a muscular strength.  The strength of failure is in callous, tendon, cartilage.  The strength one gets from failure is the thickened skin of scar.  

But let’s not kid ourselves.  Failure is not so very often the product of natural disaster, or chance, or unanticipated event.  It’s not so often a blind spot, or an absence of essential.  And when it is, one doesn’t really ‘learn’ anything but to move on, around, through.  The failure that we experience confronting the external world is mostly a kind of failure that we go to great lengths to ensure we never have to experience again, or at all.  If the building falls because of an earthquake, we don’t chalk the disaster up to a learning experience.  The building was not designed as some kind of learning experience; it was designed to avoid the failure of falling down.  Perhaps more importantly, the more we know, the more we anticipate failure, the more we do to make sure it doesn’t occur.  The ‘knowledge’ we gain from the failure of disaster is less about skill or fact or detail as it is about resilience, about moving on after the tragedy.

If failure was so very instructive, so very powerful, most of the world would be a hell of a lot more successful.

But the other failure, the failure of school, most often, lies in Character.  We fail because we lose courage.  We fail because we can’t force ourselves through the present moment’s discomfort, or uncertainty, or struggle, or pain – and not because the pain itself is good.  The pain of work is painful.  It’s boredom. It’s tedious repetition.  It’s sacrifice – of time, attention, pleasure.  It’s embrace of struggle.  But none of it is really related to failure.  We embrace all of it because of success.  We embrace struggle to achieve success, and the fact that we fail really has little instructive value.

We know, most of the time, exactly why we have failed.  We failed because we were lazy. We failed because we are stupid.  We failed because we didn’t work hard enough.  Or we failed because we didn’t really care.  We failed because the task was pointless, or stupid, or meaningless.  Often times, our failure is neither a flaw in our character or an instructive step towards future success.  Often times our failure is a product of injustice – of other people’s moral or character failings – and there’s little lesson there except anger or submission.  We fail because the other side cheats.  We failed, quite simply, because the task was impossible, or unfair, or out of our control.

There’s no ‘lesson’ in that.  There’s no strengthening of our skill, just a hardening of our heart.

Kids don’t really learn through failure.  Kids learn through success.  Failure, a good deal of the time, isn’t instructive at all.  Students don’t make mistakes on a math problem and then ‘learn’ the correct answer from the error.  They don’t write a shitty essay and then fix their mistakes.  Any teacher can tell you that kids glance at the grade, ignore the comments, and move on.  If failure were so very instructive, the most effective education would be guided failure, which it most assuredly is not.  Education is guided success.  We reward the students who succeed.  We only punish the students who fail.  We don’t reward them at all for it.  And rarely, rarely is that failure much responsible for how they improve.

I know, from years of experience, not to mention my own intimate friendship with failing, that nearly all students fail because they simply don’t really do the work.  For some, the absence of effort is extreme, and the failure equally severe.  Most teachers will tell you that it takes a lot of work to fail a class.  It takes consistent and persistent absence, because the system is designed to get them working, to keep them succeeding, in however small a capacity.  The threat of failure, and the actual presence of it, is fundamentally, almost universally, an attempt to get students to do the work through fear or suffering.  The threat of failure is not about learning, it’s about motivation.  But does it motivate?  And more importantly, does failure create learning?

Failure does not instruct.  Failure may drive, it may motivate, but even this subtext is wrong.  Because teaching is about instruction.  Students learn through investment, through care, through diligence and concentration.  The goal is to learn and grow.  And failure, however you frame it, is rarely growth.  The threat of failure will motivate a student to invest more time in studying, or writing and revision, or practice, but it really doesn’t motivate a student to actually learn.  Students learn through the success that stands opposite failure.  Our job as teachers is not to instruct students through failure, but to encourage students through success.

The subtext of all these little editorials we keep reading about the spoiling absence of failure aren’t really about learning at all.  They are about character, and if we want our education system to be ‘teaching’ character, we probably ought to start saying so.

Standardized Reading Tests Really Are Boring, and that’s a problem

(This is a much-needed and fairly thorough edit of an earlier post…just in case it seems vaguely familiar to the few of you who muddled through the original.)

“It’s soo booooring!”

The single specific complaint I hear from every student who struggles with the reading portions of standardized tests – including the SAT, the ACT and the FCAT in Florida – is that the reading selections are ‘boring.’  The readings don’t hold their interest.  They don’t relate.  The passages are dry and emotionless.  On the surface, this is a lousy complaint.  Boring is a relative term, relative only to the one bored.  Nothing is either inherently boring or interesting, and obviously a student who anticipates all experience to be entertaining or otherwise interesting is in for a difficult future.  Still, the universality of the response begs investigation.

It may be that the term ‘boring’ is simply the only word to come easily to the minds of  sixteen year olds.  We often latch on to the easiest answer when faced with obstacles and complications.  There are lots of reasons to dislike tests, many of them complex and multifaceted, but students have little experience beyond school, and to them the tests are simply parts of their lives they must accept.  They lack both the depth of experience to understand how Standardized exams affect their personal lives and the professional experience to understand how the tests are supposed to exist in the larger world.  Sitting in the middle of that experience, uncertain of its purpose, slaved to readings and questions over which they have no control, eager to escape but not exactly suffering in any tangible way, the only answer to their discomfort and confusion is ‘boring’.

But there is also a more profound reason students lack the vocabulary to explain their struggles with Standardized Exams.  The tests ARE boring, and it has nothing to do with the students themselves.  It’s in the nature of the tests to be boring.  Not because they are uninteresting, or dry, or tasteless and bland.  Not because they lack energy or vitality.  Not because they are repetitive, or simplistic, or opaque.  Though they are all those things.  It’s in the nature of Standardized Reading tests to be boring because they deny the reason any reading is engaging in the first place.  Standardized tests break the contextual energy that makes reading interesting.   

‘Boring’ isn’t a simple matter of missing interest – the causes of the disconnect are varied and significant.  It’s difficult to answer a question, to ‘connect’ to it, if one doesn’t know the point of the question.  It’s difficult to connect to an experience if the conditions are unjust or unfair.  And it’s quite difficult for many young adults to perform well at a process which has no clear purpose or inherent value to them.

Reading Is contextual, tests are not

Reading (like most things) is a contextual experience.  The written word does not exist alone, it acts as a bridge between two things in the real world, between the reader and whatever the writing is about.  An automobile mechanic uses the words in his manual to connect his actions to the actions of the engine.  A surfer reads a surfing magazine to connect his interest in surfing to the wide range of complex details inherent to the sport.  Novels provide a link between the reader and the meaning of experience.  When the reader engages in the text, they do so in an environment in which the written words are merely a part.

But the reading portion of a standardized exam provides few, if any, such links.  More to the point, the reading portion of the exam isn’t about the context, it’s about the words and sentences and paragraphs themselves, independent of any larger purpose the words serve.  Students are to prove they understand what the writing is about without any clear connection between the words and the subject of the writing as it exists in the world.  Most often, in fact, paragraphs are lifted from the middle of essays, textbooks, or novels and then students are asked questions related only to that specific passage.  The disconnect here for poor or reluctant readers can be profound.  Intuitively, students understand the purpose of the written word as a bridge, yet the test itself seems to completely ignore writing’s purpose.  Rather than a test of skills, the exam seems to many some sort of trick designed to…well, they aren’t quite sure.  What they do know, though, is that the passages seem to lack whatever vitality it is that makes things ‘interesting’ instead of ‘boring’.

The tests also are boring because they demand students read in a way that is unnatural to reading.  Students will never elsewhere be asked to read in the manner required by the exam, because, quite simply, it’s not the way (or ‘why’) we read in the first place.  Nobody ever reads a passage in order to answer specific questions about it.  There’s always a context, and for most readers the context is fundamental to the understanding.  If, for example, I am reading a novel and I find myself in a descriptive passage about the weather, I instinctively know that the author is likely setting a mood or tone and that the passage is setting the place of the events.  Well designed questions will focus on this kind of reading, but such a focus is irrelevant to a student who doesn’t read many novels, much less one who is either confused by the purpose of the exam in general or – as is so often the case given the sheer pressure the tests create – suffers from test anxiety.  

The actual assessment aspect of a Standardized exam is also different from that which students usually experience in the classroom.  In the classroom, tests related to readings involve specific lessons and details from the recent past, which are reviewed and then built upon (or discarded) for the next lesson.  They are part of an ongoing experience, with all sorts of visible and invisible purposes.  Vocabulary tests, for example, usually concern words studied or reviewed previously in class.  These are lists of specific words defined and spelled.  Students know that learning the words is part of a wider process and purpose, the amassing of vocabulary, the recognition of roots, prefixes, suffixes, and cognates, deeper understanding of a text through its vocabulary, etc.  (To be sure, the absence of clear purpose within a classroom is also one significant reason students struggle.)  None of that larger purpose or extended history is evident on a Standardized exam.  Vocabulary skills on a Standardized test are mostly about gleaning definition from context clues.  While this is no insignificant skill, the full depth of it is lost if the passage has no larger context.  Again, students are asked to prove they can glean the meaning of a word or passage from the very small fragment they have before them, a passage often sliced from the body of a much larger creature.   

Avid reader, poor test taker

Many students who are enthusiastic readers perform poorly on reading exams.  It’s frustrating, particularly since the issue is not skill.  Because the point of a reading exam is so different from the reading they do elsewhere, that student actually ‘reads’ differently.  When we read, we don’t hold all the information the words contain in equal measure.  Without much conscious decision, we evaluate the purpose of the text and group the information accordingly, holding usually only a few common threads and crucial supporting evidence throughout the reading experience. (This is how one can read a 1,000 page novel and not get lost.)  Since a reading exam, however, is testing comprehension removed from context, students don’t know where to start.  As a result, a weak test taker tries to hold every single word of a reading in their minds, to in effect memorize the passage before they get to the questions.  A paragraph into any reading passage and they have lost all track of the beginning.  By the end of the passage, they have to go back and start all over again.

Later, they wonder, ‘What happened?’  The standard answer: ‘It was a boring selection.’  But behind that answer is real damage, for these enthusiastic, avid readers exit the experience being told that they are poor readers.  Many of them lose the passion.  

Moving Forward

There are answers to this nightmare, answers actually discovered by many people some time after they leave school, all those folks who go on to great success despite lackluster academic performance.  Yet presently, the school system relies primarily on testing to mark, monitor, measure, and motivate.  A student might understandably survive their academic years under the impression that the world of successful professional adults operates under the same general guidelines.  To many, the thought of this is enough to steer them towards less professional fields.  The world outside school, however, accommodates everyone to varying degrees, and it does not rely on testing – it relies on individual product.  Like reading itself, the world students graduate into is purpose driven.

Standardized tests do work, of course.  They do measure many student’s reading ability, but in many ways what they actually measure is kind of peripheral to the skill of reading comprehension.  Good students are very often simply more curious than poor students.  Good students are open to ideas, and are willing to gaze past the limitations of a passage to the material within.  Good students also read a lot, and over a wide range of topics; thus, they are more likely familiar with the variety of passages and language that shows up on the test.  Often their ability is not so much their skill as it is their experience.  But it is by no means a democratic or equal measure, and all too many students are not being accurately judged.  The big question, then, is this:  How can an assessment accurately gauge or evaluate the skill of a process that isn’t actually being fully tested?  Is it even an accurate assessment of a student’s true reading skills if the test doesn’t allow the student to demonstrate the skill?

We’ve been evaluating student ability this way for a long time now, but the past does not quite serve as a standard for the present when it comes to standardized exams.  The two big hitters – the SAT and the ACT for college – are relatively new to the scene, and for a long time they were hand-graded essay style tests.  Only recently have the public schools themselves gone full-on with standardized exams.  In other words, these tests are not classics.  Moreover, the model for the standardized exam is drawn from tests that measure advanced academic potential; that is, success in school.  There’s nothing wrong with this approach, so long as it applies to those young adults with an interest in pursuing academic fields.  Those are the ones who do well on exams.  Currently, however, we apply the model to all students, regardless of their interests or abilities, and bemoan the lack of universal success.  The tests are also a product of their time and circumstance.  Until recently, these kinds of exams were the easiest, most efficient, and accurate way to measure large groups of essentially anonymous applicants.  That is not true anymore.  If we so desired, and were willing to undertake the (admittedly strenuous) task of changing direction, we could create an evaluation system that would more accurately gauge ability, not to mention serve – far more accurately – a much wider range of demands.

It may be that the standardized exam is here to stay.  Accountability in an institution as entrenched, bureaucratic, and large as the education system is difficult, to say the least, and consistent, across the board, exams are quite possibly the only reasonable path.  But let’s at least be honest about both what should be measured – not student academic success on a large scale, but possible student strengths and ability on the scale of the individual – and how best to democratically measure those skills.  At the least, we should give the students power over their own destiny.  Let them choose what tests to take.  Give them some choice in the reading.  Let them sense that the exam is merely a tool for direction and proof of achievement.

If we are to use an exam to measure our kids, we should provide as many exams as possible, and allow the scores on those tests to be the badge by which the students earn entry into the work they choose.  We don’t need two exams – English and math – or three – writing – or four – add science.  We should have hundreds, for everything they choose.  And we should not measure them by our choices (which I doubt we even understand), but by the paths they choose.  Our students should not be forced to come to us with a piece of paper that judges them by our standards.  They should come to us with a piece of paper that says, “This is what I care about and what I’m good at.”

How ‘Tolerance’ Undermines Writing Skill

It is sometimes surprising how genuinely modern, even Existential, most students are.  When asked to support an opinion, they fall to that most current of defenses: You can’t judge my belief.  What they believe is what they believe, unassailable because it is belief, from the sacred heart, the pure soul, unique and holy.  Of course, this what we want, what we’ve asked for.  Schools have made it their mission to teach acceptance, to counter prejudice, to expose those isolated lives to the vast world of difference.  We have made it a mission to eliminate prejudism, the cornerstone of that belief being more than tolerance, but accommodation.  

And we have succeeded.

Our youth are now Religious Existentialists.  A glut of cultural difference and a deep penetration of relativism – in movies and t.v. and music and, especially, school – has had the desired effect.  Prejudice is low.  Tolerance, of a sort, is high.  Awareness and acceptance of other religion, ritual, and lifestyle is widespread.  But asking people to tolerate difference does not mean students will question their own belief systems, much less other’s.  Nor should they.  After all, the goal is tolerance and acceptance, not questioning.  It is, in fact, hypocritical to ask students to tolerate everyone who is not like them and simultaneously critically question religious or cultural traditions.  (And if there is one sin that teenagers are sensitive to it is hypocrisy.)  Thus the urge to create tolerance and peace has undermined our desire to create reflective and analytical students.  It’s pretty clear which trait we favor more.

Belief itself demands conviction.  It demands at least an approach to an answer of yes or no, right or wrong.  Belief without grip doesn’t really accomplish what we need it for: among other things, a sense of purpose, an answer to the question of death, rules of behavior in an uncertain moral universe.  The conviction of opinion demands a response.  The stronger the opinion, the more immediate the response.  You can see the dilemma.  If no opinion is more correct than any other, then even reacting to an opinion is divisive; is, in fact, morally wrong, since the only real moral demand is to not judge at all.  But what do you do if powerful opinion demands a reaction you aren’t allowed to have?  One easy solution is to not have powerful opinions.   

What we get from our students are essays whose thesis statements are so bland, so hesitant to make a claim, that they are not thesis statements at all.  They are obvious statements of fact attempting to be ‘opinion’.  When writing about literary technique, for example, students will write: “The author of so-and-so uses literary devices to create mood.’  I used to write, all too boldly I fear, ‘DUH!’ next to such statements on essays, but I stopped because it hurt my students’ feelings.  It also seemed to confuse them, and try as I might, teasing from them an opinion that actually had any bite at all seemed more than simply frustrating.  Students react with more than ignorant confusion – they respond with moral resistance.  How, they ask, can I make a strong statement about ART?  It’s my opinion whether the poem works or not; it’s my opinion what the meaning of the story is.  (The only real opinions they willingly sink their teeth into are those that criticize or point out prejudice.)

Belief also demands support – at least if one has to defend it – which leaves students in another curious quandary.  First, their opinions – being opinions – don’t require support. Culture doesn’t require justification, or excuse.  Who we are, what we believe: nobody is obligated to explain themselves, to justify who they are, what they are.  A person should not be required to support their beliefs, since support implies justification.  Second, and perhaps more impactful, support undermines the primary, unassailable authority of opinion, by actually forcing upon the opinion evidence, by grounding the opinion in reality.  As soon as one does this, the opinion is no longer unquestioningly true.  It has effect, a place, connections to actions and other ideas.   Support makes opinion vulnerable.

As an English teacher, one of the more difficult skills I struggle to teach is Support.  What’s so vexing and perplexing to me is how obvious the skill seems.  Any idea, no matter how insignificant, requires some sort of evidence.  A simple statement of mood, ‘I am sad’ for example, must be followed by specific detail.  In fact, if I should tell someone I am sad and they don’t ask why – don’t seek the support – I would be insulted, since clearly they don’t really care.  Every judgment, good or bad, requires proof.  She is lovely, he is mean, that is terrible – all these demand some form of specific detail for meaning.  This is a basic element to communication, to storytelling and human interaction and gossip and business.   Yet nearly  every weak essay I grade lacks support.  It’s as if students are deliberately averse to supporting their statements with evidence or support.  We often call this, simply, ‘laziness’, but I find even the best and brightest and hardest-working students often struggle with the fundamental concept of support.  

The irony is not lost.  It’s English teachers who push the tolerance maxim, through the literature, the class discussions, the reading selections and essay topics.  English class is where students analyze advertising for bias and propaganda.  English class is where students read and discuss stories that humanize the marginalized, spotlight the bullies, give voice to the hiding and hidden.  Tolerance – and an intolerance of intolerance – is learned in English class.  But English class is also where students are supposed to learn and practice the skill of argument, where they are supposed to strengthen their writing skills, skills that are fundamentally constructed on the use of evidence and support. Forced to make a choice between the sanctity of opinion and the authority of supporting evidence, it’s clear which opinion they choose to follow.