Follow me (on over to my new blog location)

This post is specifically for all of you–those following this blog. I want you to know how much I’ve appreciated seeing that you’re reading my writing.

I’ve decided to grow my career as a writer, and I put together a super fancy (read: theme and template-based) new website. This blog’s new home is now http://jlukechitwood.com/blog. I hope to see you over there!

If you’re still interested in following my writing and receiving emails when I post, here’s how you can do that on the new site:

(1) Follow the link I provided to the new site.

(2) click on the ‘Menu’ symbol at the top left of the page. Yes, somebody at the Internet decided that three horizontal bars now means “menu”.

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(3) enter your email address into the correct box, click ‘subscribe’, and…

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(4) Continue reading my blog!

I hope you enjoy it. It’s really a pleasure to write–all the more because I know you’re reading.

-Luke

Snow Day

Snowstorm conjures up a variety of images. Hot cocoa, sledding, building an orphaned child of Frosty the Snowman, and some warm woolen mittens that quickly become sopping wet—yet also icy—clubs.

If you’re from Boston or somewhere similarly northeastern, you might imagine the snowstorm itself looking something like this:
Boston-in-winter-537x387Alaskans may recall briefly misplacing their homes in 2012—and being totally justified in doing so—as nearly 30 feet of snow fell in some areas.
alaska roof snowWell, snow falls beautifully and poetically in a variety of amounts, and hopefully you’ve gotten to experience it in ways other than we see it in New York:
new york streets dirty snow

At this point, you might be wondering when exactly you signed up for an America: Winter Wonderland tour. I mention snow in other contexts because we experienced it somewhat differently growing up in Little Rock. When the friendly local weatherman predicted snow, we would look forward to something more like this:
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You couldn’t sled or make a decent snowman. You could lose power. And your parents would probably still be able to drive you to school. It was really everything a kid could ask for.

The winter of ’94 was the first time I can remember metropolitan Little Rock converting itself into a woodsy ice skating rink. It must have been a weekend, because we weathered the storm at #2 Ken Circle—Gram and Papa Dad’s house. #2 sat at the top of a hill that Google Maps now tries to tell me was only a few houses long. Yes, long isn’t usually the first adjective attributed to a hill, but the evidence calls into question my childhood memories of steep.

Turns out, four grandchildren indoors could eventually try the nerves of a grandfather I remember as infinitely patient. So, around 7:35 a.m., we all piled in Papa Dad’s Bump (inexplicably dubbed by yours truly), to fulfill our Saturday Shipley’s Do-nuts tradition. Backing down the driveway went fairly well. If you’ll allow me a pun, things went downhill from there.

Tires squealed, protested, and then became rubberized ice skates. Trees that should have been shrinking in the rearview mirror rapidly increased in size. The scenery out my window all stubbornly ran in the wrong direction. With a thud, we hit the curb at the bottom of the hill.

At 6, the noises and impact surely startled me. But I imagine that Papa Dad was even more surprised. After all, he was accustomed to his car—and most anything not named Gram—going the direction he told it to. Papa Dad’s relaxing errand had turned into anything but. We trudged back up the slippery hill, cold and donut-less, but otherwise unharmed. Ready to irrationally enjoy the snow day.

Papa Dad struggled up the icy slope, slipping and backsliding frequently. I had only ever seen Papa Dad do things he did well. Maybe he would have looked out of place on a basketball court, but he was in complete command at his workplace. He made managing finances for several businesses and everyone in our family look like a relaxing hobby. Ice climbing proved far from his forte, and I clumsily attempted to aid his movement up the hill.

I was unsettled in the role of helper. Wasn’t he usually the one helping me? Grandfathers and fathers were similarly invincible, I was quite certain. Might it have something to do with gray hairs and liver spots? Could age impart things other than wisdom and experience? Such philosophical (physiological?) questions didn’t arise coherently until much later. But uneasiness crept immediately into the moment.

Melancholy blankets the memory of our frost storm day. My snowstorm is a grey, slippery sadness. A beautiful ache, sweetened with children’s carefree laughter. When briefly-white muffles the City that Never Sleeps, I again slide down Ken Circle. But next time, I’m determined to get those donuts.

The Lone Ranger

This bears only a coincidental, unfortunate connection to the recent movie by the same name. I assure you I always treated Imaginary Tanto with the utmost respect—and as my absolute equal. My shifts as the Ranger typically began around 5 a.m., so my mom’s role in my escapades began around then as well. No villain remained free for long on my watch. Whether hiding out in the sandbox-cum-litterbox frequented by Mr. Madey’s cats, running in circles around the Great Oak out front, or scurrying up the cherry tree (a frightening 2.5 feet, give or take), I soon apprehended the scoundrels.

They invariably cowered when faced with my dual, gleaming six-shooters. Thankfully so, as I was reluctant to ever load and use the exploding powder caps. I saved them with a care more appropriate for silver bullets, you know, for when I’d really need them. Or at least until mom threw them away.

Each morning, true to character, I donned a baby-blue set of scrubs, my faux snakeskin boots (made with real imitation rattlesnake skin), and my 10-gallon (20 oz.) grey felt cowboy hat. Sure, I was taken aback when I saw my first Technicolor episode of the Lone Ranger riding again. But who was I to question the Masked Man’s skin-tight blue ensemble? No, no, I had a job to do, and I accepted it with its accompanying burdens, responsibilities, and strict-rationing of silver bullets.

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My duties took me as far as the distant Hills, on which I would mount my horse and pursue all manner of bandits. If you have the unfortunate experience of happening upon home videos of me from this period, you might think you’re watching me peddle a tricycle around a neighboring church’s handicap ramps. I assure you none of my missions were nearly that blasé.

A few of my more dangerous quests even took me to the wilds of Colonel Glenn Road, where I saved Ms. Anne’s farm from more than a handful of nefarious takeover plots. At my age, I should have been terrified to mount the noble steed—suspiciously resembling a docile Shetland pony—and gallop off after the meanest crooks to wander near the municipal boundaries of Little Rock, Arkansas. No mind. My rock-solid back-story, imaginary sidekick, and unwavering sense of purpose sent me blazing off into the sunset, shouting “Hi-yo, Silver, away!” 

Mom, could you please take this Grape Tick off my leg?

Do I want to work here?

I began knowing little about job searching in general. Or about the position I’d like to find. My father suggested What Color is Your Parachute?, by Richard Bolles, as a decent starting place. Creepy, oddball cover photo aside, this book proved a wealth of information addressing my career search ineptitude. This ignorance alleviated, I was able to begin effectively answering the second question (which is really the first)–what do I want to do? Or, practically speaking, what is it called?

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With 5-6 months to go this school year, I decided it should likely be my last year in the classroom (reasoning for that decision here). Having previously experienced the stress of a truncated job search, I resolved to begin developing a plan of action as quickly as possible. Bolles’ book empowered me in this aim. I had previously viewed job interviews as a lesser version of my Bema seat evaluation, and I had no understanding of informational interviewing beyond the term itself.

The informational interview–the first date, or a step before that even (eyes meeting across a crowded room or drinks after work, perhaps?). Sitting squarely in the midst of the school year, I had negative free time to compose cover letters, fill out applications, and arrange interviews for jobs I had no interested in taking yet. Besides, why clutter recruiters’ mailboxes prematurely and make them ignore or discard more of my letters than absolutely necessary? Informational interviewing, differentiated from basic networking by the amount and type of knowledge you aim to accumulate (and the overarching outcomes you’re seeking), provided incremental, meaningful steps in the nascent months of my search. Before applying to a company or specific position, I seek out friends and connections (even once or twice removed) familiar with the industry, company, or position (ideally someone currently or recently IN all of the above). Meeting or chatting in a low-pressure setting, I get to learn whether I want to work–if I want this job–or not.

It may seem simply, painfully obvious, but this was a revelation to me. Of course, in theory, I knew that I got to decided as well. Certainly I didn’t have to apply for a job or take it if offered. But I’d never operated as if this were true. I acted like my role was to throw myself in front of companies with abandon, seek out merciless judgement, beg for approval, and then approach despair whenever I met with rejection. As crazy as it sounds to write that out, those are startlingly accurate descriptors of how I’d approached job searching in the past–and of how I see most people my age quixotically throw themselves at the process.

Realigning my view of Omnipotent Interviewer to something more akin to dating, I realized each side was taking ever-increasing risks in interacting and dancing towards a working relationship. Forms, applications and interviews are often (not always: certain qualifications are clearly vital, especially in fields heavy with licensure and regulations) more about building trust in an awkward vacuum, only just removed from anonymity. If you can inspire or otherwise foster trust in other ways, it’s often possible to circumvent or supercede other, more preliminary dating steps. It’s also an indispensable way to meaningfully distance yourself from the crowd.

We should probably stop torturing the dating metaphor at this point. Otherwise, I’ll end up recommending you elope with your best friend’s sister (allegorically speaking). But you get the idea: two parties, both making themselves vulnerable in measured, guarded increments, requiring some sort of validation or reassurance before engendering further intimacy. My question no longer reads: “Will you please hire me?”. Instead, I’m asking: “Do I want to work here? Do I fit? Can we work together?”, and I realize potential employers are making similar inquiries about me.

Happy Trails

Or: upon leaving teaching.

As a teacher, I often found myself compelled to stop learning. Overwhelmed. Floundering. Forced to focus and compartmentalize. To survive. That lesson, PowerPoint or paragraph your teacher showed you against plagiarism? Undoubtedly stolen. I’ve stolen with great abandon and zero shame. Creativity and originality are great, in theory. But you have 30-34 students stampeding through your door in 15 minutes. So yeah, theft also sounds pretty good.

 

I want to write because I want to learn. To chase the rabbit trails, smokescreens, and mirages that appear endlessly (sometimes proving to be the real thing). To ask a question and detour to a meaningful answer. To ask questions that interest me and others, without worrying whether they align to year-end goals and learning objectives. To devote a year to things besides the Earth Science Reference Table and a test made by career bureaucrats in Albany and the full force of Pearson’s education behemoth.

 

Sure, I can see problems of economy arising. Can we eat tomorrow if I follow this footpath today? Track down one more detail to polish this story or article? Sacrifices will be made. Necessarily so. But I don’t believe I’m admitting defeat before even starting this campaign. Rather, I was quixotic prior to my previous one (as every teacher entering the classroom is, again necessarily so). Expecting too much of myself has propelled me to places I’d never have dreamed, never have predicted I could survive and thrive. But it’s also left me empty. Hollowed out and flayed open. Drained of whatever it was that first helped me awake at 5am, ready to work until the next day.

 

I’ve survived on adrenaline, drive, and guilt. But that’s no way to live. I saw a goal and a problem worth tackling, but I didn’t question whether it was mine to tackle–or how I might best be geared to attack it. I just did it. I’m glad and proud I did. And I’m glad and proud to walk away.

 

Am I leaving because the kids were too tough? Too mean and demoralizing? Sure, they were at times (Or, I should say, a few were most of the time). The pay too low? Hours too long? My wife and I have enjoyed a lifestyle these past few years I couldn’t have designed for us, and there were plenty of days I left within minutes of the final bell. But leaving work and leaving the day behind were invariably disparate things. Our evenings and even weekends, often shaped and molded by whatever had most recently happened at school.

 

As the years have gone on (that sounds melodramatic, considering there have only been 3), I’ve retained frustration and grown weary. I’m leaving now raw, just ahead of callousness setting in. I’d have said I’d never be that kind of teacher. Another few months in the classroom, and I can predict the roughened, chitinous shell that would soon form. My options: head down, steamroll ahead, or find something else to do. I’m glad to escape with my life. I’d never want to do that to the kids. They’re just kids, after all. Sometimes terrible people, at least as miserable as they’re making you. There were plenty that made me hate a particular hour or period of my day. But kids, nonetheless. No, it’s not their fault I’m leaving. There’s so much pain, so little progress.

 

I think that, more than anything, is what I couldn’t handle anymore. Not that Michelle was being disruptive on Tuesday, but that Michelle will fail her test on Friday, will fight and get suspended next week, will fail this marking period, will fail the semester, will squeak by in summer school, will continue not knowing how to read, will try again next year, and will be lucky to graduate high school. Knowing that, every hour of every day, for most every kid. That weight, I can’t bear it anymore.

 

You can say I’m defeatist or discounting her or not doing enough to change things, but you’d be wrong. I want nothing more than for Michelle to ace her test on Friday (without the help of her impressive cheating abilities) and for the rest of the ‘wills’ to reverse as well. And it’s not that any one of those things inescapably begets the rest. I don’t have that narcissistic or narrow view of my classroom. But that is what happens. 2 years in, I think I’d begun to suspect this. To see the patterns. I didn’t want to admit they were real. I can’t tell you exactly how I know where those observed events will lead, but I do. I’ve seen and heard the super seniors remark how much they wished they’d done differently. And I’ve seen that year’s freshmen making exactly the same decisions.

 

To want what’s best for them, and know the worst is just around the corner. To warn, cajole, convince, direct, advise, predict and otherwise flail your arms in universal signs of danger, and see the steady, precipitous journey to the cliff’s edge continue. To try helping those who try and don’t comprehend, who remain lost and confused, and see understanding remain out of reach. To dam up the cracks and still watch helplessly as many slip through. These are the burdens of teachers. Not exclusively–many other walks of life come to mind as I pen this. But this weight is in the classroom, and the stakes are heartbreakingly high in our neediest classrooms. The loss is real–and human.

 

I’ve struggled to reject the standards of success and value of our world–standards which many of my students will likely always be hard pressed to meet. Numbers on a transcript, college acceptances, scholarships, degrees, job offers, paychecks and passing on a better version of the American Dream to your children do not amount to a measure of self-worth. I know this. I believe this. I reject other philosophies and modi operandi. But I still find daily tension in this place. Yes, I believe that in general, but this kid has to have this or do that. They have to! Or else.

 

These measures are not definitive or self-defining. But the correlations are real. And the alternatives often bleak. The lines between my classroom and prison–between it and financial ruin, addiction and death–are thin at best and ever-greying. I’ll never forget the times I’ve seen those lines crossed. Nearly as bad are those more-frequent times when I’ve seen those lines toed and reluctantly backed away from–knowing that those toes will likely be back, more daring upon a return visit.

I should be reflecting on the victories. There were many. Many more than the defeats described above, in actuality. But the victories aren’t why I’m leaving. Nor would they be why I’d stay. A doctor is for the sick, a teacher for the ignorant, in the original Latin sense. Am I proud of every reason why I’m leaving? No, but I’m at peace with my decision–at peace as I grow in understanding of why now is indeed the right time to leave, understanding of why I’m leaving, excitement at where I’m going. Am I in flight, looking to leave and forget? Not at all. But I leave knowing it’s no longer for me to fight this battle this way.

Mamoun’s Falafel, NYC

Short and sweet: as much fun as a vegetarian can have for less than $5.

Quick. Produce a pocket full of goodness. Cover it in mouth-melting hot sauce. Sell it for $3.00. Too much for you to handle? That’s okay, Mamoun’s kind of already has that market cornered. Whenever you’re in the Village or partying near St. Marks, let your nose lead you to  the line that inevitably snakes out of either Mamoun’s Falafel location. Be prepared for one of the best fast food experiences of your life. So much so that I hesitate to call it “fast food”.

But there’s really no other way to put it: the only person faster than the cooks will be the guy taking your order. “Be prepared” refers not only to delicious anticipation, but also to self-defense. If you’re not ready when it’s your turn in line, then prepare to be ground up and included in tomorrow’s baba ghanoush. Not by any Soup Nazi behind the counter, but possibly by the other customers. Sound harsh? Then, clearly, you haven’t yet tasted Mamoun’s Falafel.

Soon, you’ll find yourself justifying taking the 6 to Astor Place. Or claiming that MacDougal St. was “on the way” to wherever you’re supposed to be. Yeah right. But, while you’re there, mind saving me a spot in line?

Standards Deviation

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Yesterday, a class of my students repeating Earth Science took our subject’s January Regents. The Regents are summative state tests, and high school graduation in NY state is contingent upon passage of at least five of these s (1 math, 1 english, 1 science, and Global and US Histories). If past performance gives any indication, then at least 2-3 of my students will score between 62-64 on this January regents. A scaled-score of 65 indicates passing and attains Regents credit. Anything between a 0 and 64 is effectively (except in a few select circumstances for students with disabilities) the same.

Upon entering this test, with one exception, none of my students had yet passed a science Regents. Each of those students are missing the one science exam credit they need to obtain a NYS Regents diploma (the statewide designation for high school graduation). They’re also 2 science exam credits away from an Advanced Regents diploma, a distinction earned for passing more exams, that helps them demonstrate ‘college-readiness’ to CUNY and SUNY system universities.

When my students’ tests arrive today at another school, they will join thousands of other identical exams for assembly line-style grading. Completely divorced from the locality and individuals where they originated, the tests will have to speak entirely for themselves. The teachers grading my students’ Regents have never heard them speak, deciphered their handwriting, worked with them after school or discussed science concepts with them. They’ve never seen these students work their hardest, or persevere through difficulties. They don’t know what something sounds like when my students put it in their own words. All they have to work from are a stack of inanimate tests. Some pass, others fail. And this is fair, because personal knowledge will not sully their grading or mar interpretative integrity. Heaven forbid a teacher looks twice through a 6th-year senior’s exam, just to check if maybe, just maybe, amidst the blur of hundreds or thousands of identically-structure testing forms, s/he made a mistake in grading. To see if maybe, just maybe s/he missed one point that the student had earned, making the difference between a 64 and a 65. Between credit and failure. Graduation and retention (or dropping out). Or maybe, just maybe, that junior applying early-admission to a competitive college should have had an 85 instead of an 84 (the magical distinction between “mastery” and simply getting by). But the teachers grading can only work from what appears on the test in front of them.

Before working as a teacher, I would have wholeheartedly subscribed to this outsourcing system, believing that it offered validity and fairness. Now I see the lacking wisdom and potential destructiveness of such an approach. Without personal investment and some measure of interpretive freedom, a 64 is a 64, an 84 an 84; and that’s that. What essential bit of knowledge does a 65 demonstrate that the student scoring a 64 must be lacking? If I hadn’t worked with her for an entire semester, how would I know how much Gio had grown? Or how well Isaiah understood Earth Science and applied it to the world around him? Or how Shea, taking the class for the 4th time, helped communicate his knowledge to others during activities? What’s more meaningful, the number on a test booklet at the end of Rating Day, or the understanding a teacher has of his or her students, combined with the data of a summative exam? Which determinant seems more relevant, more fair? A more holistic, less standardized mode of assessment certainly offers less efficiency, but this does not equate to injustice or unfairness (more to come on efficiency in a later post).

Surely, not every student I sent to take the Earth Science Regents deserve to pass. Some have shown little to no understanding of science concepts or behaviors befitting a student. Here I speak about those who will leave that test no closer to graduation, simply by merit of a point or two. Granted, I see where you could argue alternatively that students should be prepared to get 70s or 80s, and then the arbitrary line-in-the-sand has its power revoked. I echo the rigorous sentiment behind that stance and view it aspirationally. But, if that’s your argument, I invite you to join me in reforming the entirety of America’s educational system, ensuring educational equity across-the-board, and tutoring students after or before school 4 times a week. Your assistance is welcome. While we’re at it, let’s eradicate poverty too. How’s Tuesday for you?

It’s ludicrous, really, what we have done to education in the name of reform to focus systemic efforts on “accountability”. Teachers will be held accountable, therefore teachers will teach better, therefore students will learn better. This supposedly “students first” agenda really only reaches students as a third-order end. Certainly, unscrupulous educators, schools and departments exist (case-in-point, Atlanta, circa 2011). But current policies effectively elevate accountability–and the identification of the aforementioned bad apples–above the interests of the students themselves. Schools do not exist to be held accountable. They are held accountable to something–to the preparation and education of students. If we aim for accountability and trust that students will reap trickle-down benefits, we guarantee that we will fail to effectively educate our children. At best, we will reach students in spite of our concentration on district, school and teacher accountability– not because of it.

What are your thoughts on the issue? Would you give this article a 64 or a 65? Did I pass?