The Miracle and the Moment (Michele Kerr)

Michele Kerr is a second-career teacher with a master’s in education from Stanford University, with credentials in math, history, and English. She will start her fourth year of teaching in the fall.

My best moment as a teacher–so far–came right after a miracle.

It was the end of the school year. I was teaching a unit on Elizabethan theater in my freshman humanities class, and on this day the students delved briefly into the sonnet. With reading abilities ranging from fifth grade to college-level, they wouldn’t all be capable of close analysis, but that was beyond the scope of my lesson anyway. I just wanted to give the students an hour of listening to and thinking about sonnets, with the hope that they would later be able to tell me later that sonnets had 14 lines.

I’d chosen five poems; three because they are high on the list of Sonnets: All-Time Greatest Hits, making them useful content knowledge (and they are, still, beautiful). The other two are personal favorites that never fail to astound me with their power (and they are, still, well-known).

I played the poems in chronological order. First up were Shakepeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” and Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud.” The students listened politely and, when the reading finished, wrote their initial response. Most of the kids wrote for five minutes as required; some of them scribbled a few desultory thoughts and then waited out the clock. The kids then shared their responses in a class discussion. I threw in some literary terms as needed. Things were going well.

Third in line was the Milton sonnet, “Methought I saw my late espoused saint,” a poem drenched in grief, loss, and longing, a poem I’ve loved since adolescence, a poem that I thought, perhaps, they wouldn’t entirely understand.

And so the miracle.

Ian Richardson recited the poem. I had no projector that day; they only heard his voice. You should click the Youtube link above, to hear it.

When his voice faded away, I opened my mouth to instruct them to write their response….and then closed it again. The kids were just sitting there, stunned.

A good twenty seconds passed before Luke spoke. “Holy crap. That was…..”

“Sad,” Sadie finished.

“Devastating,” Melissa added.

“Tragic,” said Kylie.

“Beautiful,” from Narciso.

“I’m depressed,” said Frank, in astonishment. And….

“Play it again,” said Daniel. The class murmured assent.

I played it again. When it was over, twenty-three heads bent down to write. Many students struggled to tell me that yes, the poem was sad, but that wasn’t the point. What mattered, to each of them, was they got it. They understood suddenly how loss can be so crippling that the dream of its return, the mere memory of happiness, can “bring back the ‘night’ of grief during ‘day’,” as one of my strongest students wrote, when the respite of the dream ends. I still remember another student’s sentence: “Being happy in your dream only makes pain worse.”

And then I told them that Milton was blind.

“Auggghh,” said Annie , holding her head. “So he was dreaming of two losses that came back to him.”

“…and then left. Again,” Armando finished.

The comments came fairly quickly; I jumped in a few times to define “paradox” and point out that the “day” brought back at least two “nights”–that of grief, and that of sightlessness, but for the most part the kids carried the conversational load on that poem for 10 minutes.

I always think of those minutes as the miracle. Was it their response to the poem? My recognition of their response, my decision to keep my mouth mercifully shut (a rare event of itself)? I honestly don’t know. But no sensible teacher would ever plan such perfection as twenty-some-odd adolescents with no particular interest in literature being touched to the core by a Milton sonnet.

Of course, nothing about that miracle improved my students’ academic skills. Some of them spelled “feel” with an a, “wife” with no e’s, and “grief” with two. Had I wanted to push on and ask them to analyze Milton’s use of metaphor in an organized essay, no more than five of the students would have even known where to start, even though they’d written several analytical essays that year.

Moreover, had I been observed by an administrator that day, I would have been dinged in several important areas. I wasn’t helping the students make progress on ELA standards. The students had no vocabulary list to define by reading the words in context. They had no pre-reading guide explaining key concepts. They hadn’t been given specific learning objectives, and had no clear writing template to follow for their responses. The literature was focused entirely on Western lit (four dead white guys, one dead white chick).

I knew that at the time, and know it even better now. I didn’t care.

Don’t get me wrong; I support standards. I believe that state tests measure important information. I want my students to demonstrate improvement, and find it entirely reasonable that schools should be held accountable for student academic progress.

But I’d spent the ELA portion of that year focused on standards-approved objectives. I’d pushed through Twelfth Night, an obscure Indian novel, and Filipino magical realism literature, texts that a number of my students couldn’t understand even if they’d wanted to—and many of them didn’t. I’d assigned them essays that they wrote by rote by design, using the irritating Shaffer chunk method, a routine that the strongest writers found limiting and dull (the rest listlessly followed the rules to write sentences they didn’t mean and hadn’t thought about). Meanwhile, I couldn’t spend too much time helping students remember the importance of spelling “wife” and “grief” properly, or of constructing a simple sentence that expressed thoughts that they did care about, although I did create my own customized SSR/SSW program that gave them time to gain content knowledge and informal writing skills.

All I wanted was a day dedicated to listening to, and thinking about, sonnets that connected the poetry to the history of Elizabethan theater, the larger unit.

We moved on. They found Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee” pretty shallow, after the intensities of the three previous poems. (“She loves him yeah, yeah, yeah” wrote one student, a la the Beatles tune.) But Robert Frost’s “Design” went over very well. Although they weren’t able to visualize the poem’s tableau the first time through, they wanted to know more because on that day, at least, they were beginning to realize that confusing poetry can make sense with more context and information. When they learned the “white heal-all” was usually blue, they asked to listen again.

After the second recitation, I told them to underline the last two lines: What but design of darkness to appall? If design govern in a thing so small. Then I reminded them of the Calvin and Hobbes raccoon story, and the panel that shows Calvin hiding under the bed: “It’s either mean or it’s arbitrary, and either way I’ve got the heebie-jeebies.” They got the connection immediately.

“So was Calvin and Hobbes copying Frost?” one student asked.

“No. They’re both illustrating the same theme. The world can be an unforgiving, cruel place. Is it part of some great plan? Do things happen for a reason–Design, as Frost says–or is it arbitrary and random, as Calvin worries? And which is scarier to contemplate?”

“Does that happen a lot?” asked Alexandra. “Do people write about the same thing in different ways?”

“Funny you should ask. Listen to this song and tell me what sonnet explores the same theme.”

The specific logistics of this lesson were fuzzy until 30 minutes before class, when I belatedly realized that professional recitations were obviously superior to my original vague thought of the students reading the poems to themselves. But the sonnet and this song had been in the lesson since I’d originally conceived of it, several weeks earlier. In fact, the song may have been the unconscious premise of the entire lesson. Still, I hadn’t really expected them all to be familiar with John Mayer, adult contemporary pop crooner.

I was therefore caught entirely off-guard when the opening strums of “Dreaming with a Broken Heart” came over the speakers and the class exploded with energy and excitement. Everyone in the room instantly knew the song and recognized the connection. Some students literally jumped up and down as they realized that over three hundred years earlier, poets had gotten there first, that all those years ago grief and sadness, loss and longing were still best told in verse, not prose, and they began feverishly writing, underlining and circling words to make it clear that John Mayer and John Milton were writing about the same thing.

Looking out over a class nearly incoherent with excitement at their new awareness and understanding, I bit my lip hard to stop from crying and told myself ferociously to just enjoy the gift of a perfect moment.

Like all teachers without tenure, I spend a lot of time job-hunting. Along with the obsessive, hopefully illogical, worry that I won’t find a new position comes a litany of memories, favorite moments I won’t find in any other life, moments when I know I made a difference, when I helped students feel more competent, have more confidence, feel a greater awareness of the world or how it works. And of those moments, this is the one I remember first.

Yet not a second of that moment had anything to do with test scores, with measurable academic outcomes, with improved reading ability, or the correct spelling of “wife” or “grief.”

Do truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks need to write compare and contrast essays on sonnets? Probably not. But surely, at some point in the past, our educational system gave truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks a sense of the beauty of the world, our heritage, the history of our country–and, ideally, the ability to spell “wife” and “grief.”

Today, our educational system has no interest in truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks. All students must perform as if they are college bound. Since most of them can’t perform at that level, regardless of their desires, teachers must spend all their time getting as many students as possible close enough to understanding to fake it on a multiple choice question, to get those test scores as high as possible, even knowing that many students will never gain a real understanding of the demanded material. We can’t teach them what they need to know, and we can’t spare any time to give them knowledge they might find actually interesting, or experiences they can enjoy without forcing them to process it into analysis.

Implicit in the expectations for all students is the belief that truck drivers, manicurists, retail clerks, fire fighters, and all other occupations that aren’t driven by intellect, simply aren’t good enough. They don’t matter. These aren’t lives that might benefit from beauty or poetry, an opinion about the Bill of Rights or, hell, even an understanding of why you should always switch if Monty Hall gives you the option.

Naturally, anyone on the “college for all” bandwagon, reformers and progressives both, would vehemently deny such beliefs. But the logic of their demands is inescapable. Students have no way to step off the college train. They can’t say “Hey, I don’t want to take trigonometry. I just want an interesting math class.” or “No more lab science; can I just take a writing class that focuses on modern ethical issues in medicine?” or “Can’t I just read and write without having to think like an English lit major?” Denying them that choice leaves failure as the only other option. That lack of options betrays the value system at the heart of those who deny education the right to sort by abilities and interest.

Obsessed with ending the achievement gap, our current educational policy pushes everyone down the same college path and then blames the teachers when they don’t get the desired results. Lost in these demands are the millions of students who are doomed to years of boredom and, worse, a sense of inadequacy-lost, that is, until the teachers are blamed, again, for failing to help them achieve more.

And so, many people will read of my miracle and that perfect moment and point out that my students hadn’t improved their skills. Yet I defy them to say I didn’t teach my kids something important that day.

I don’t know if my students even remember the day. I’m certain they never think of the lesson as an important moment, much less a miracle. But I am also certain that in that moment, all of them understood—some for the first time—that they could understand and empathize with great poetry. They realized intuitively that art could explore themes and ideas using metaphors so powerful that artists return to them time and again over centuries. They learned, too, that this knowledge had value and meaning to them—not because it made them better readers or writers, or got them better grades, but simply because that knowledge led them to a better understanding of beauty….and so, of life.

And it is of moments like this one that teachers think of when they say that education is more than a test score.

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44 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

44 responses to “The Miracle and the Moment (Michele Kerr)

  1. Sandy

    Beautifully written. Your point is so well made. I grind my teeth in frustration that reformers see numbers, but we teachers see human beings.

  2. In the context of this terrific, inspiring piece is this, that I can not fathom, “Don’t get me wrong; I support standards. I believe that state tests measure important information. I want my students to demonstrate improvement, and find it entirely reasonable that schools should be held accountable for student academic progress.” Why?

  3. Gary Ravani

    A beautiful essay. Memoir, really.
    And a fine (sic) example of the “cognitive dissonance” that has been embedded in the minds of many contemporary teachers.

    The young lady states: “Don’t get me wrong; I support standards. I believe that state tests measure important information. I want my students to demonstrate improvement, and find it entirely reasonable that schools should be held accountable for student academic progress.”

    And then she goes on with the rest of her observations to prove herself wrong in that statement.

    What she experienced with her students was learning, a far different thing than “academic progress.” And no, in most instances, the state tests do not measure “important information” in valid and reliable ways. Her own informal performance assessment, i.e., listening to student responses to the sonnets, constituted a far more accurate evaluation of student learning than any state test.

    With the imposition of the new national Common Core standards she may well find it even more difficult to rationalize “wasting” class time with works of fiction like those sonnets in the future. Industry, as well as the self-appointed masters of contemporary “school reform,” assert students need more non-fiction to become more highly polished cogs in the machinery of a “competitive economy.”

    Here is a wonderfully intelligent and sensitive teacher who will, in the course of time, come to trust herself more about what constitutes real education and what kinds of classroom experiences students need to attain that education.

  4. Pingback: Remainders: On the last day of school, tallying the memories | GothamSchools

  5. Cal

    Hi–I’m Michele; I post as Cal most places, including here.

    Thanks for your kind remarks. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece and thanks, Larry,for publishing it!

    I see nothing inconsistent with my position. If someone is reading at the 6th grade level in ninth grade, I would hope that I could advance their reading skills to the seventh grade level. However, I would want to do that with a content-rich, ability-level curriculum. Forcing such a student to read material three or four years beyond their ability and then write about it in a manner that is at odds with both their ability and interest is simply cruel.

    Another example: no matter what someone’s reading ability, I would hope to be able to teach them about American history and would think it appropriate to have the students tested on their knowledge to see what they’d retained–and, to some extent, the ability they can read and process historical data.

    I think we must be accountable for the money we are given to educate our students to be productive workers and citizens engaged in our country’s future.

    The issue, to me, isn’t the tests, but the expectations of students who lack either the interest or ability (or both) to learn material that is demanded of everyone.

  6. Cal

    Oh, and by the way: I’m not young! It does mention that this is my second career. I’m ancient, alas. And I’ve been teaching and tutoring for nearly a decade, even though I’ve only been teaching in public schools for three years.

  7. This is a powerful piece. I had no difficulty with the passage ““Don’t get me wrong; I support standards….” To me, it made her story more moving, more convincing.

    She’s saying that standards and demands, however important, can never be the whole of education. At certain moments they seem to disppear altogether–as in the lesson she describes. At other times they loom large. A wise teacher knows how to give them their place without letting them eclipse everything else. A wise administrator understands and supports this.

    Ms. Kerr is right. Her lesson might well have received an unsatisfactory rating. There was no measurable objective. There was no indication that students improved their reading or writing. There was no differentiation for different “learning styles”; the “visual learners” were at a disadvantage, since there was no projector. (I don’t believe that stuff, but I can see that appearing on an evaluation.) And so on. Yet a lesson could contain all the “right” things and lack the soulfulness that this one had.

    The two things–specific and soulful instruction–are not at odds with each other. It’s just an ailment of education reform that the part (such as standards) is mistaken for the whole. Yes, students should learn good grammar. Yes, they should know how to spell “wife” and “grief” (and should get some etymology while they’re at it). None of that has to kill interest or joy–not even when tests are in the picture. What kills interest is a reductive view of subject matter and of education.

    • Cal

      Diane, that’s exactly how I see it, too. And thanks for seeing that the “I support standards” is not a glitch, but an essential part of my point!

  8. Maggie

    I am so very proud of my sister Michele. I was moved to tears as I read of your moment with your class ..Beautifully written !! The door will open for you sister!! I love you !!

  9. Pingback: The Miracle and the Moment (Michelle Kerr) @Larrycuban « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  10. Theresa

    Michelle/Cal,
    This is lovely! Congratulations on getting them there! I know the feeling, though it doesn’t happen every day.
    I’m sad to think that with Common Core, this kind of experience (for teacher as well as students) may become even more rare. After all, you encouraged them to make connections, think for themselves, and not rely exclusively on the page of text.

  11. As a former teacher, I agree that not everyone should be pushed into college. And as a former teacher, I know that my wife’s hairdresser made more than I did…as does one of the truck drivers I go to church with. However, I also know of people in their 40s and 50s who feel that they have no other career options, and are stuck in jobs they hate precisely because they don’t even have a college degree in (art students, please forgive me) Advanced Basketweaving. How do we balance these two realities?

  12. Wampus Cat

    This was so beautifully written. It brought tears to my eyes several times. And the larger points about the educational system are, as always by Michelle, well explicated and illustrated. Thank you.

  13. As others have noted, Cal, a wonderfully well written, insightful little essay. Having taught and published books on Milton, Donne and Shakespeare I couldn’t help but be fascinated. (The final couplet of Donne’s sonnet is on my father’s grave.) I learned early in my teaching career never to let a child even look at a poem until they’d heard me read it first, and very few children are strong enough readers to engage a whole class of their peers. Am I right in thinking your class only heard the readings as audio? Because if so, it does demonstrate something simple but well worth stressing in the current, techno-zealot climate: how to use technology skilfully as a teacher. Richardson’s reading of Milton is in a different league to Muffet’s or even Julian Glover’s and I’m not surprised they were gripped.

    I’m increasingly convinced that the zeal of the reformers and “college for all” brigade you note, is actually a wickedly betrayal of huge numbers of kids who are being fed the lie that they are being taught “21st century skills”… for 21st century jobs that don’t exist. Colin Crooks’ recent talk from the Royal Society for the Arts in the UK seems to me to offer a wiser solution.
    Listen again here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/fourthought

    • Cal

      Thanks, Joe! Yes, you are correct that they only heard the audio. I thought of hunting down a projector, but decided it’d be better to let them focus on the voice alone, since the presentations weren’t uniform. Some focused on the speaker, some simply displayed the text.

      Ironically, I only thought of using audio rather than simply reading the poems silently in the last hour before class. I am not much of a planner (she confesses) and knew only that I wanted to introduce the poems. I hadn’t thought much about the specifics until I started putting the final touches of the lesson together. The minute I thought of it is one of the more embarrassing “Duh” moments of my teaching career, but in my defense, I wasn’t used to having tech in my room at all at that point.

      Yes, the Richardson reading is simply stunning. I hunted around on three of the poems to decide which was the best of a mediocre bunch, but Glover and Richardson were instant calls. I agree that the reading had much to do with the “miracle” of their response.

    • Bob Calder

      Everybody has commented on the “standards” and the classroom, let me comment on the technology. Indirectly as is my wont.

      The phenomenon “Cal” invoked is called entrainment. Let’s say I want my kids to watch Hans Rosling. I know they make fun of foreign accents and will “expect” the presentation to be uninteresting. So I warm them up with Michael Shermer on why we believe things that are wrong. Next, I move them to Ken Robinson because his humor is dry like Rosling’s and he has an accent. Finally they get Rosling and by then they’re softened up and willing to give him a try.

      This is necessary because students do not trust me at the beginning of the year. Later on, if I tell them something is funny, they won’t necessarily agree, but they will try to understand it because they have trust.

      Educators have a deep misunderstanding of video as a medium. They think “the medium is the message” in the superficial way most people miss the meaning of McLuhan which was the obverse.

      Technology allows flexibility in delivering a message, unrivaled in history, that allows one to make instant adaptations to a lesson, to broaden it or change the direction in response to feedback. This is technology’s strength and “Cal’s” uncertain feeling about making changes midstream is key to understanding how it works. If you are information literate, you can dip your hand into the magic hat and pull out a rabbit. If not, you’ll pull out something from MacDonalds – ie some garbage from the Discovery curriculum.

  14. Susan Weston

    In this wonderful lesson, these energetic students got the deep meaning out of great literature.

    From Michelle’s wonderful account, I’m essentially certain those students were able to:

    • Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
    • Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
    • Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
    • Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
    • Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
    • Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

    As in, this sounds to me like a slam dunk lesson aiming right at Common Core anchor standards 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 9.

    Truly wonderful, definitely worth a few tears of delight, and certainly on its way out to all my social networks to pass on the excitement.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Fredrick Bruce

      Great original article and great response from Susan. I’m 54 years old; I went back to school a couple years ago in an attempt to broaden my skill set when the economy cratered and the industry I’ve been involved in for the last 20 years went with it. I also wanted to enjoy the educational experience as well as prove to myself and anybody who knew my past that I could persevere and succeed in attaining a post-secondary degree. Prior to then, my business career had been largely successful; however, I fit the profile of the typical “self-made man”; I dropped out of high school in the 10th grade (for a lot of reasons I won’t go into here), got a GED in 1977, and then floundered for a couple years until there was nowhere else to go but the Army. I did well there too until it became boring and I left in 1990. I know this is a little rambling, but I want to first make the point that I’ve been around the block a few times and seen my share of unrealistic expectations and foolish and wasteful practices such that I feel at least somewhat qualified to comment on education in general and how it is approached in this country. First, as a student in a Community College, I have rarely observed that “miracle” Michelle described. There were times when I felt that I was connecting with the instructor on a deeper level than most of the other students, the majority who were of an age young enough to be my children. I spoke about this lack of focus and determination on the part of many of the younger students with one of my profs, a PHD in economics with an extensive background in field work (the Fed, IMF, World Bank) as well as teaching, and he remarked that he had not observed anything resembling the general apathy towards learning as he had encountered in this part of the country (the Southwest). I see it too; talking (loudly and sometimes actually using profanity) in class, cutting class, showing disrespect to instructors and other students (there was a time in my life when I took situations like this into my own hands; I’m a a Christian now and that’s no longer an option. Still, I must confess to engaging in a certain inward chuckling over seeing one of these little miscreants having to explain to his buddies how it was that an out of shape 54 year old put him on the deck. Sigh..) The only way out of this mess that I can see is to, from the earliest grades, work to instill a hunger for gaining knowledge and a sense that is the appropriate thing to be striving for. People generally do what they want to do. It’s the job of educators to convince students that they should want to learn.

  15. Reblogged this on …not that kind of psychologist and commented:
    This is not psychology. It is teaching. But, it is beautiful. By one of my invisible friends.

  16. Speaking as a chemistry teacher, that is a really wonderful story, Cal/Michele! Nice to hear from people who have both eyes open. :)

  17. Pingback: The Miracle and the Moment (Michele Kerr) | Ripples | Scoop.it

  18. don

    Michelle,
    I teach (anatomy and physics) and am frankly, quite tired of the “college is for all” mantra. I enjoyed your essay and it resonates strongly with me. I see our students struggle to fit the “newest one size fits all” education fad and it is hurting them so much.
    I can remember, way back, way back, when our “new” English teacher walked in the door. Mr. Burke was a retired teacher called back to duty to replace our original teacher who walked out the door at Christmas break.
    Because of this man, I still will read Shakespeare, that I looked up Milton’s poem to read and the background of the poem.
    There were no standards (like today) then, just English literature and grammar. Mr. Burke was a no-nonsense English teacher that knew his stuff and to be honest, I wish I had had him for all four years.
    Today, he’d be fired, forced out and forgotten due to the fact that he didn’t teach to the test, standards or college prep.
    The kids beside me were sons and daughters of farmers, factory workers (my dad worked in the factory) and were destined to fill those same shoes. Few of us went on to college, but everyone of us listened and learned from Mr. Burke when he did the same thing.
    He played the sonnets, the poems, the plays (on a record player!) and we discussed the meanings of what we heard. (We read along while we listened, a great technique because then we could understand the words in the stories).
    I appreciate so much, of what you wrote. It is a telling indictment of what is wrong with education today and the “path wrongly chosen”.

    • Cal

      What a great story about your teacher.

      The pushback from those who want “college for all” is that kids who aren’t going to college are “doomed” to a worksheet existence. I’m not sure that was ever true, but if it was, it’s a problem we can fix with a meaningful curriculum.

  19. SLG

    Cal (Michelle). I loved your essay, but it made me sad too. Nearly every day in my classroom feels like this moment because I teach English at an independent school. While we look to the common core as a guide, I have curricular freedom that is unmatched in public schools. I’m not sure I could continue teaching if nearly every day did not unfold in the way you describe. It’s not perfect, but it sounds like you are searching for a job. You sound like an independent school teacher at heart! Good luck and thank you for your inspiring essay.

  20. Eugene

    She is a lovely teacher with intellectual beauty and concern for her students to learn and emotionally grow. Test taking does not allow the spread needed to understand life and the emotional contacts it provides to nature, personal happiness and sadness. Academic smartness does not guaranty of success in life. Without solid foundation at the college level these students will struggle and become extremely unhappy. Why don’t we ask the National Academy of Science, Maths etc., to come up with the real learning tests and select the best teachers like this lady to be the mentor and teacher. Politicians will not like that at all.

  21. Reblogged this on vorpalina y yo and commented:
    An incredible article of Michele Kerr in the Larry Cuban blog.

  22. Stephen

    another teacher
    thanks for letting me be a student in your class ! PASSION, the missing ingredient when ONLY concerned about the standards, is the problem. Thank God for the teaching moment.

  23. Reblogged this on Dover Beach and commented:
    This is a great post from the blog, “Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice.” I think that the writer is addressing something important, and I would like to commend the post to your attention. Here is an excerpt:
    “Do truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks need to write compare and contrast essays on sonnets? Probably not. But surely, at some point in the past, our educational system gave truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks a sense of the beauty of the world, our heritage, the history of our country–and, ideally, the ability to spell “wife” and “grief.”

    Today, our educational system has no interest in truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks. All students must perform as if they are college bound. Since most of them can’t perform at that level, regardless of their desires, teachers must spend all their time getting as many students as possible close enough to understanding to fake it on a multiple choice question, to get those test scores as high as possible, even knowing that many students will never gain a real understanding of the demanded material. We can’t teach them what they need to know, and we can’t spare any time to give them knowledge they might find actually interesting, or experiences they can enjoy without forcing them to process it into analysis.

    Implicit in the expectations for all students is the belief that truck drivers, manicurists, retail clerks, fire fighters, and all other occupations that aren’t driven by intellect, simply aren’t good enough. They don’t matter. These aren’t lives that might benefit from beauty or poetry, an opinion about the Bill of Rights or, hell, even an understanding of why you should always switch if Monty Hall gives you the option.”

  24. Such a beautiful, evocative essay. Thank you for writing this.

  25. Would have loved to have you as my teacher. A beautiful and poignant moment. Thank you for sharing this.

  26. Cal

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the article! I know Larry is out of town, so if you want to get in touch with me I think you can still send me a message on Facebook. Or I’m a stanford alumni (email hint), and my first initial is j.

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  29. This is what teachers want in their lessons. It is a perfect example of how all the “structuring” and “scaffolding” we teachers are supposed to use when creating our lessons are actually stifling the content.

    Those students WILL have learnt something. They will have learnt important truths of life and of humans. This lesson has just opened up those students’ minds to the fact that people in the past, in history, had the same worries, concerns, griefs, loves and joy that we have now. They aren’t different in the essence of what it is to be human.

    The lesson may well encourage those same students to hunt out more in the way of sonnets and then history. Find out more of the individual authors and their lives and the society they lived in. In the course of their reading, they will absorb how to spell wife and grief correctly.

    That one golden lesson may well lead to a vast ocean of human experience across time, and who knows where those students will go then?

    Some may even become a poet or an author or perhaps a historian. Maybe a teacher, who will think back on that one golden lesson and how it may have set them onto the life path they are on.

  30. Pingback: The Miracle and the Moment « Hypersensitive

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