Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The Ugly Truth: Teachers and Coaches Play Favorites

The following is the fifth in a series of posts written in the form of letters to my son who will be beginning high school in the fall. To view posts from the start, click here. After reading that post, select "Newer Post" at the bottom left of that post to continue the series. You can also use the "Archives" menu on the right of the page. The series starts on June 11.


You've probably figured this out by now, but I think it's important to reinforce it: teachers and coaches DO play favorites. That doesn't mean they are being unfair. They are simply getting you ready for the real world.

I'm not talking about people who favor someone because of their gender, wealth, athletic ability, etc. That happens as well, but even the good teachers, the fair teachers, play favorites. It's just that the people who become their favorites have earned it by WHO they are, not WHAT they are. 

Our favorites are the students who come to class every day ready to learn. You don't have to be the student who constantly asks how we are doing or the student who tries to answer every question we ask. In fact, that act gets old pretty quickly. So, how do you become a teacher's favorite? It's pretty simple. Always have your book, notebook and something to write with. Pay attention when the teacher or your classmates are talking. Care more about what goes on in the classroom than what goes on in the hallways. Use technology as a tool, not a distraction or an excuse. Give your best effort at all times. Help students who are less focused or gifted than you. That's about it. If you can do those things on a consistent basis, you'll become a "favorite" in no time.

None of these things will get you labelled as a "teacher's pet" (if that term is even used anymore). And guess what, these simple things translate pretty well to real life. When you are in the working world, show up prepared and on time. Listen when other people talk. Keep your work life and home life separate. Take pride in what you do. Hey, it's another "hidden lesson" in high school.

People like to be with those who are enthusiastic, respectful and work to the best of their ability. It doesn't matter if it's high school, college or the working world. If you whine, complain, mouth off and slack off, you are not going to make anybody's favorite list.



Next Post: Which type of student are you?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Wisdom of Shakespeare

The following is the fourth in a series of posts written in the form of letters to my son who will be beginning high school in the fall. To view posts from the start, click here. After reading that post, select "Newer Post" at the bottom left of that post to continue the series. You can also use the "Archives" menu on the right of the page. The series starts on June 11.


William Shakespeare
I can see you now, rolling your eyes and moaning, "Why do we have to read Shakespeare?" Yes, he writes funny and he's been dead for almost four hundred years, but believe it or not, most of what he wrote about remains very relevant today. Whether it's star-crossed lovers (Romeo and Juliet) or the corrupting power of ambition (Macbeth), the man knows what he's talking about. Take Hamlet, for instance.

In Act I, Scene 3, the character Polonius gives some advice to his son Laertes before he leaves for college.  I've studied this monologue with several classes over the years and found that the advice Polonius, and hence Shakespeare, gives still remains sound almost four hundred years later. He tells Laertes, 
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!
John Wooden at a ceremony on Oct. 14, the coac...While the character of Polonius proves to be a hypocritical fool later in the play, his advice here is great for young adults. He begins with "See thou character."  Your character will define you from here on out. The legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are." Shakespeare and Wooden both knew that you need to be more concerned with WHAT you are rather than what others think of you. It's hard to come up with more sage advice than that.

Polonius also warns that you need to watch what you say (or in the 21st Century, what you tweet). "Give thy thoughts no tongue, /Nor any unproportion'd thought his act." Be careful what you say or put out on social media. I'm not sure if I agree totally with this idea. I want you to speak your mind when you feel it is appropriate. But you must understand that before you put something out there, please think about the possible repercussions. That's the second part of that quote - think before you act. This will become especially important as your social life picks up speed. If you ever read Hamlet, you'll discover that Polonius does not take his own advice in this area and pays dearly for it.

You enjoyed great success in middle school both in the classroom and on the athletic field. To that, Polonius would say, "Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:" In high school, try to remain down to earth ("familiar") but don't be crude ("vulgar"). 

The friendships you make over the next few years will be some of the strongest you will ever have so heed Polonius's advice:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade.
Hang on to your closest friends with "hoops of steel", but don't put as much faith in those friends you have just met. I don't think Shakespeare wants you to be suspicious of everyone who wants to be your friend, but to be cautious in trusting anyone too quickly. You've demonstrated great judgement in your choice of friends thus far, so I'm confident that you've learned this lesson already.

Shakespeare also believed that you should stand up for what you believe in, physically or otherwise. "Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,/Bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee." Don't go looking for battles, but, if you find yourself in one, don't back down. Stand up for yourself, your beliefs and for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

Be an attentive listener, and when it comes time to speak, make sure you speak for yourself. "Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice; /Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment." Don't let others put words in your mouth or tell you what to think. You also need to understand that while others will judge you (often unfairly) it is best that you reserve judgement. You read To Kill a Mockingbird last year, so remember what Atticus said about not judging people until you've walked a day in someone else's shoes. Shakespeare would have agreed.

The next few lines of the monologue deal with money and dress. Since you are attending a school with a strict dress code, you don't have too much leeway in that area. Polonius also says that if you loan money to a friend, you'll probably lose both the money and the friend. I would modify that a little. If you loan money to a friend, consider it a gift. If you eventually get it back, great. If you end up giving many "gifts" to the same person, it might be time to re-evaluate the friendship.

Polonius finishes his speech with one on Shakespeare's most powerful lines, "This above all- to thine own self be true." Be honest with yourself and you can be honest with everyone else. Don't allow others to sway your better judgement. I'm proud of the sense of right and wrong you possess now, so let that guide you in your decisions from now on and you will make decisions you can be proud of.

So, now you've had your first lesson in the value of Shakespeare. That wasn't too painful, was it? What makes his stuff great is that it is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it. Literature isn't just about decoding words and phrases, it's about understanding humanity and our struggles in the world.

Next post: The Ugly Truth: Teachers and Coaches play Favorites.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

The Hidden Lessons of High School

The following is the third in a series of posts written in the form of letters to my son who will be beginning high school in the fall. To view posts from the start, click here. After reading that post, select "Newer Post" at the bottom left of that post.


One of the most frequently asked questions by my students is "Why do we have to know this?" Sadly, few of my students ever appreciate the rich language of Shakespeare, the biting satire of
Mark Twain
Mark Twain or the subtle wit of Jane Austen. Hopefully, you will be one of the few. What you, and most of my students, need to understand is that high school is not just about learning differential equations, memorizing the periodic table or conjugating irregular French verbs. Learning the hidden lessons of high school is far more important.

What do I mean by the "hidden lessons"? These lessons are ones for which you are not graded. Let's start with homework. Why after five hours of school, do we send you home with even more work to do? Is that fair? 

Here's what homework teaches you: time management and how to prioritize your life. It may not seem like it now (or maybe it does), but life gets much more complicated as you get older. I'm not going to bore you with talk of bills, insurance, mortgages/rent, etc. Right now (believe it or not), your life is probably as simple as it will be for a long time. Homework gives you some practice at time management and prioritizing. Do you do your homework or play a video game? Do you squeeze in 30 minutes of studying on the bus ride to your soccer game or take a nap so you can get all your homework after the game? Do you start this lab report now or wait until the night before it is due? (Here's a hint, start as soon as possible.) You need to start prioritizing the different aspects of your life. After your schoolwork, what comes next? Sports? Friends? Video games? Work? If you want to be an athlete, that must take precedence over your social life. If you want to earn money, you may not be able to spend as much time playing video games. Notice that none of those things take priority over your academics. That's not a decision you are free to make yet.  The lessons of time management and prioritizing you learn through homework will help in whatever field you pursue in the future.

Another important hidden lesson you will learn in high school is how to develop relationships with adults AS AN ADULT. Up to this point, all relationships you have had with adults have been with you being treated as a child. That will begin to change in high school. Perhaps the most difficult thing to learn about adult relationships is how to deal with people you do not like. As a child, we would tell you to simply walk away from that person. As an adult, you may not have that choice. What if your teacher, coach, principal or boss is the person you cannot stand? You can't just walk away. This is one of the hard lessons to learn in high school -- some people will dislike you and there's nothing you can do about it, and some of these people my be in positions of influence. Here's my advice: treat everyone with respect, even if you don't respect them. Treating someone with respect doesn't mean that you kiss their ass, it just means you treat them maturely and professionally. They may never like you, but you may earn their respect, which is far more important. Do what they ask you to do the way they ask you to do it (within reason, of course). Don't ask why or challenge their authority YET. 

I'm sure you have already learned that the adults in your life are not perfect. We occasionally make poor decisions which leave you scratching your head. If you confront us on those poor decisions, we may listen and realize we need to rethink our position. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen. Sometimes people are afraid to admit mistakes. If this happens on a school related matter, here's my suggestion: until you have the power to change the rules, learn to play their game.  If you feel it's time to challenge an authority or rule, make sure it is a battle worth fighting for and that you are willing to accept the consequences for your actions. Don't waste your effort on trivial things, and make sure the potential consequences are are not so dire that you win the battle but lose the war. Seek out advice from those whom you trust. Hopefully, your mother and I will still be part of that group.
Of Mice and Men
Part of becoming an adult means accepting more responsibility for the relationships you develop. You will be judged by the relationships you develop and maintain. I think you already understand that people will judge you by the company you keep, so choose your company carefully. True friends tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Sometimes being a true friend requires difficult choices. When you read Of Mice and Men, you'll learn how difficult those choices can be.

While you may find it useful in the future to know how to do a Punnett square or write a research paper, there are far more valuable lessons to be learned outside the classroom. Learning time management, how to deal with difficult people, how to pick your battles, and the challenge of true friendship will all serve you well after you forget all the Biology or French you learn. Look for the lessons behind the lessons and you will get the most out of high school.



William Shakespeare

Next post: "The Wisdom of Shakespeare"

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Monday, July 08, 2013

Get ready for the roller coaster

The following is one of a series of posts written in the form of letters to my son who will be beginning high school in the fall. To view posts from the start, click here. After reading that post, select "Newer Post" at the bottom left of that post.


Since I'm an English teacher, you are going to have to indulge me with the extended metaphor: high school is a roller coaster.

You've been waiting in this line for a while, watching it from the outside. You've seen friends and relatives get on before you, and some have already gotten off. You've seen some jump off the ride looking invigorated and full of energy, and you've seen some stumble off looking exhausted and drained. I  hope that some of the things I will be sharing with you over the next several weeks will help you look like the former, not the latter.

Granted, I haven't taken this ride in over 25 years, but I'm one of those who runs the ride. Some of us make sure your seat belts are fastened, some control when each car begins the ride, and some walk around the ride every day to make sure it's safe. We know where the sharp turns and drops are. We know that it's worse if you close your eyes on the ride. We do everything we can to make sure your ride is the most exciting thing in your life (up to that point). We can't guarantee it, but we do our best to make it so. When we tell you to keep all arms and legs inside the ride at all times, we mean it. If you don't heed our advice, high school can be a painful experience.

Everyone knows that roller coasters are the most fun and exciting when you ride in the front. Make sure you ride "in the front" in high school. Be a leader, not a follower. Some days you will feel like going to school is the last thing you want to do, but try to embrace every day with some joy and anticipation. Encourage your friends to get in that front car with you. If you are going to take this ride, do it with nothing blocking your view.

Keep your eyes open for the entire ride. Make sure to experience every twist and turn, every high and low. Get involved in things outside the classroom - sports, drama (the good kind), music, art, community service, etc. Unlike real coasters, you only get one turn in high school, so make sure you get as much out of it as possible - you can't get back in line and do it again.

Choose who you sit with on the ride carefully. You don't want to be next to someone who screams for no reason, takes stupid chances (arms and legs inside the ride at all times, remember?), or clamps their eyes shut for most of the ride. Associate yourself with people who look forward to the excitement and look forward to every day. Let those who complain about how long the wait was or how boring the ride is hang out with somebody else. Would you want to ride the roller coaster with someone who "can't wait" for the ride to be over? Probably not. Don't go through high school with those who "can't wait" until it's over.
Space Mountain at night
Don't miss out on the unexpected thrills. Every roller coaster has some signature twists and drops that you can see from the outside. High school is the same way. Homecoming weekend, dances, trips, semi-formal, prom and graduation are clearly visible from the beginning of high school, but what about the things not visible or predictable? Inside Space Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, there is excitement you cannot see or anticipate. Every year, every month, every week and hopefully every day, there will be unexpected thrills in high school. It could be a laugh shared with a friend, getting a smile from someone special, a snow day or, god forbid, an interesting class. Sometimes these things aren't as obvious as the big events, but over the course of four years, they will provide the majority of the good memories you accumulate. My favorite coaster ride with you was when we road Big Thunder Mountain late one night and
Fireworks #1
Fireworks #1 (Photo credit: Camera Slayer)
the Magic Kingdom fireworks exploded overhead as we whipped around the track. It was an added bonus to an already exciting ride. Keep an eye out for the unexpected fireworks in high school.

I know that it's easy to tune out the people who work the ride, but for maximum enjoyment, keep what they have to say in mind. You've been going to school for many years now, and I know you think you've heard everything you need to from teachers already. Try to fight that arrogance and take what they are trying to give you. Teachers aren't in it for the money or the summer vacations (both myths), they are in it to make a difference in student's lives. I was mentioned in a facebook posting yesterday by a former student. She was starting her own blog, and she mentioned that I was the "first person to really encourage" her to write. That's why teachers do what we do. Take what we are trying to give you and use it to get the absolute most out of high school.

Finally, don't be afraid to throw your hands in the air and scream your head off (figuratively speaking, of course). Don't be afraid to take some risks in high school. I'm not talking about THOSE kind of risks, but the kind that make the ride worthwhile without endangering yourself. Sit with someone new at lunch. Push yourself in the classroom and on the playing field/court. Run for office. Work at a homeless shelter. Don't be afraid to be yourself. If you grip the rail in front of the car too tightly for the entire ride, all you'll end up with at the end is cramps in your arms and a whole list of missed opportunities.

Here's hoping you enjoy your ride!



Next Post: "The Hidden Lessons of High School"
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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

High School Roller Coaster

The Scenic Railway at Luna Park, Melbourne, is...
I recently assigned my Public Speaking class (composed entirely of freshmen) the following assignment:
You have been chosen to speak to incoming freshmen and their parents at Tyngsboro High School’s Freshmen Orientation on this topic: “How to Survive and Thrive at THS”.
I was curious to find out what advice this year's freshmen had for the class behind them. I got mostly what I expected: "do your homework", "try your best", "listen to your teachers",  "play a sport", etc. I also got a few I didn't expect. Apparently, it is unwise to change seats in the cafeteria once things have been established early in the year, and the rules of the hallway are the same as the rules of the road: stay to the right.

My son will be entering high school in the fall, and as I thought about their advice, I thought about what I would say as a 19 year veteran of the classroom. So, that's my goal for the summer. Hopefully, by the end of August, I will have amassed a collection of essays which will help my son (and anyone's child) to survive and thrive on the roller coaster that is high school. I don't actually ride the coaster anymore, but I'm one of the operators, and I'm familiar with the ups and downs and twists and turns of the next four years.

NEXT POST: The extended metaphor of the high school roller coaster.
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Thursday, October 25, 2012

To the Undecided Voter

To the Undecided Voter:

This is not for those of us who have already decided whom to vote for on November 6. If you believe that President Obama is a illegal immigrant Socialist whose sole agenda is the destruction of our entire way of life, go back to mainlining Fox News. If you believe that Romney is an elitist, flip-flopper ready to turn our country over to Tea Party wing nuts, The Rachael Maddow Show is calling you.

This is for the rest of you who are still mulling over your choice in the most divisive election of our lifetime.

I could try to persuade you with fact, but, frankly, neither side has covered themselves with glory in this area. Regardless of the outcome of this election, the major loser will be our society's concept of "truth". When both political machines twist, distort and outright ignore the truth as much as they have this year, we are all the lesser for it.

I could try to persuade you with their stands on the issues, but, frankly, there are so many that if you haven't made up your mind based on the issues already, nothing will change your mind now.

I could try to persuade you on their records, but, frankly, both men can claim some victories and some defeats. Both men have notable achievements, and both have suffered humbling defeats.

I could try to persuade you with the performances in the debates, but, other than the President's somnolent performance in the first one, both sides have claimed victory.

Then there's the economy. One thing (perhaps the only thing) both candidates agree on is that this race will probably come down to the economy. Has Obama done enough to improve the economy to deserve another term? How much of the economy is Obama's fault, and how much is Bush's fault? They'll be writing books trying to answer that question for years. Does Obama deserve credit for preventing a full blown financial collapse, or take the blame for what Romney calls the "slowest recovery" (still a recovery, though, right?) in history? Can Romney's return to "trickle down economics" succeed where Obama's "trickle down government" has struggled?  I firmly believe that it won't, but there's really no way to know what will happen with either strategy.

So, how will you decide? I think it comes down to one thing.

Trust. Who do you trust with this job? Who will make the difficult decisions based on what he believes is right, and not on what he believes will be most popular?

So, who do you trust? Which candidate has the most consistent message? Which candidate has pandered less to the extremes of his party? Which man acknowledges his flaws and shortcomings rather than deny and obfuscate them? I think that answer is clear - President Barack Obama.

He's been far from perfect - I'll be the first to admit that. He did not deliver on all the promises he made on during the 2008 election, but what President ever has? However, three of his campaign promises (major ones at that) have been fulfilled.

He promised health care reform, as controversial as it is, and got it done.

He promised to get us out of Iraq, and he did.

He promised to refocus our military might on those who were really responsible for 9/11, and Osama Bin Laden sleeps with the fishes.

How much more he would have accomplished with a less intransigent Congress, we'll never know. He stands by this record, and even his Republican opponents cannot dispute these achievements.

What about his opponent?

Is he an elitest who doesn't care about the 47%? Makes no difference.

Is he a modern day Robber Baron looking to line the pockets of his big business friends? Doesn't matter.

Does his foreign policy amount to "just like Obama's, but better." Don't care.

Being President is all about making the difficult decisions with the understanding that the buck stops with you. President Obama knew that his decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan would be controversial and potentially cost American lives, but he did it because he believed it was the right thing to do.

He knew he would expend most of his political capital by pushing through health care reform, but he did it because he believed it was the right thing to do.

Rudyard Kipling wrote, "If you with crowds and keep your virtue...yours is the Earth...and all that's in it..." President Obama has shown he can do this. Mitt Romney has not. He pandered to the extreme factions of his party in order to win the nomination and has backtracked on those statements to win the votes of moderates in the general election. Is he pro-life or pro-choice? Is he for the scheduled withdrawal in Afghanistan or against it? If he stands for something before the election, like no tax hikes for the middle class, will he honor his commitment after the election? Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up?

Yes, the economy is still stifling the middle class, and we still face the specter of terrorism abroad. Both men have claimed they have a plan for each. At some point in the next four years, a decision or decisions will be have to be made which will have significant implications for the country. Which candidate has the backbone to eschew what's politically expedient and make the difficult choice based on firm convictions?

Whether you agree with his decisions or not, you know what President Obama stands for. If you disagree, then so be it, but at least you know where he stands. 

You can't make the same statement about Mitt Romney. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Now We Understand - Memories of 9/11

I wrote the this essay in the week following the attacks. Never forget.

"Now We Understand"