Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Honor of Our Inner Circle

Yesterday, a colleague forwarded an essay about reading by Nanci Atwell called The Pleasure Principle.

This morning, I drove by a book fair at the elementary school at the top of my neighborhood. I was out buying Dunkin Donuts coffee, and children in winter jackets hustled to buy books. The parking lot was almost full. This was at 8AM.

Published in February of 1984, One Goal: A Chronicle of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team may have been the only book I read in 1984--I picked it myself. Honestly, I very well could have and very well should have read more than one book that year, but if I did I do not remember it. I was between my sophomore and junior years of high school and I was not an inspired reader.

In 1983, I vaguely recall talking over some kind of literature in Mr. Carey's 9th grade English class. But I don't remember the books. And I liked Mr. Carey. And I remember liking his class. But I certainly don't draw on what we read from that year. If I read any of it at all.

Remembering something I read from my junior and senior years is also challenging. Yet, in grade school, I walked dozens of blocks to a variety of libraries in the city. What happened that stopped my developing joy of reading when I got to 8th grade and then high school?

Even with that enormous four to five year gap in my reading, I recall my engagement with  A Farewell to Arms on the floor of our family room--the summer after high school graduation. I bought it on my own at a mall bookstore. I picked it because I had heard of Hemingway and I liked the title. And I remember quietly sobbing at the conclusion, and trying to hide it before my parents saw me.

When the 1980 U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets, it edged out my beloved Phillies 1980 World Series victory in my child's heart. I loved both, but I really loved hockey. I don't recall ever writing about it--but I could have. I do recall cutting a picture of Wayne Gretzky's face in half, pasting it on a page, and then drawing the other half with colored pencils--it was an assignment for school.

No wonder I devoured that book when I got my hands on it as a sixteen-year old.

While I can't go back to correct what happened when I was a middle school and high school student, I can try to make things right for my students today by continuing to foster their joy of reading and guiding them to write about the things that matter to them today.  The rest of it is my job to make work within that framework--I have to find a way to teach the other things they need.

So, yes, teach them grammar and literary terms and the elements of setting, plot arcs, and conflict. Yes, by all means, teach them theorems and battles and cloud formations. But teach them where they live. Teach them in the zones that matter most to them now. Give them choice and talk with them.

But don't shut them out either. Unlock the penitentiary within all of us. The penitentiary that places the handbooks and disciplinary codes over the spirit of kids. The penitentiary that makes us focus 90% of our energy on 10% of the kids. The penitentiary that makes us rush through a unit so we can get to the next one and the one after that.

If we don't say it, and say it to ourselves...who will? No one outside of the inner circle of teachers will make that change. This is where the honor of our profession lies.

When we say we want to develop life-long learners, we need to mean it by our actions within the framework we are given. In my mind, American schools only look like penitentiaries--we have to be mindful our behaviors and reactions don't mirror those correctional institutions.  I have failed at this probably at least once a year over my 19 year career.

We have to remember, even when kids create circumstances which we must address in the fire of the moment, we are not rehabilitating criminals. And those moments of sudden kid shock and shrift happens to all of us in this vocation.

If you are a teacher, try grasping and believing that whatever grade you teach is not a sprint. No matter what your curriculum says--and I know this is difficult and might seem idealistic. Yet, I disagree with the notion that we are preparing kids for the middle school...or we are preparing them for the high school...or we are preparing them for college. Or for the next grade. Those statements make me cringe deep inside; they are convenient excuses for the sprints we create in our schools. Why do we make each year a sprint?

Aren't we preparing them for the education of a life? And in that process, kids will make mistakes. And in that process, kids will be playful. What happened to being the people in their lives who provide a rich experience today?

Kids will find their greatness or their passions with or without us. I prefer to be a part of their potential greatness and passions and not the obstacle...or the education they forget.

We all know, education policy will change. Our buildings will change. Our communities will change.

We all know, a teacher feels the pressure of the canons of public pressure pointed dead at him. We will feel pressure about curriculum, and grades, and state testing, and standards, and teacher evaluations.

Those things are here. They have always been here. And they are never going away.

Therefore, we have to be better that all of those distractions. There is honor in what we do. Embrace the honor in it.

The bottom line is the lives of our students will change. Change is a constant in all of life. Just as I changed from the boy who can't remember what he read in high school except a book about a hockey team he loved a long time ago.

My teachers played a part of my change, and I wish they played a different part. Similarly, we are a part of the change of our students today--whether we embrace it or not. Perhaps that self-selected book or self-selected topic in their writing will help them make sense of those changes. Perhaps the way we speak to them...or with them...will make the difference the next time they need a teacher for help.

Maybe the lab can be adjusted...or the way we manipulate math...

It doesn't matter what subject you teach--keep opening the doors of books, magazines, comic books, pamphlets, newspaper articles, artwork, charts...whatever it takes to provide them the coal to stoke their fires. Have those things available. And if you don't know what they are...ask...find the part of their change that matters and that can't measured by any score. That is the honor of our profession.

The memories children have are often fostered from the decisions they were permitted to make.

Or denied.


  1. This is great. I feel inspired! You're so right and I'm going to save this and reread it when I'm having one of those off days. You addressed my pet peeve here:
    The penitentiary that makes us focus 90% of our energy on 10% of the kids.

    Ugh, does that bother me!
    thanks for the inspiration on this Saturday morning!

  2. Brian, I look for your posts daily. I love the way you write. I love how sports are written about but there is always a deeper message. I love how you have vowed to make change for your students. I'm sure that you are inspiring readers and writers everyday. I know that I am inspired by you.

  3. I couln't agree more. I hate the "we are preparing them for the world they will live in." Let's focus on the world we are in. Perfect.

  4. Your last two sentences are very true. As teachers we must help our students, but not push our students. I agree with you that it seems like everything today is done at the pace of a sprint, but in reality, we need to slow down to the pace of a marathon. And along the way, we need to stop and take a break. Thanks for the read!

  5. Brian, Thank you for your response. You are a terrific writer and I feel like I am learning to be a better writer just by reading your blog. You are right too. Sometimes I do feel like I am writing into the air and no one is really reading what I am trying to say. You have captured me as an eager audience and I look forward to tomorrow's post. Thanks for taking the time to write back. Keep writing!!!