Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow...

My second school year prepares to enter its fifth week and I feel it only just that I post for myself and others my thoughts and reactions thus far.

This year's freshmen are divided into five homerooms (two Friday groups) and I teach Western Civilization to them all. The nature of the new schedule means that I can only teach history this year; no religion class to comment on, but I'm kept busy enough with the 117 students in five history classes.

This year has already started to move smoother than the last in many respects, though some age-old problems do persist. Regardless, I am better prepared with a year of teaching under my belt and months' worth of plans to use. I am planning and preparing much further in advance than last year. This has added a greater amount of inflexibility to my classroom experience; one of the things I admired about myself last year was my flexibility - but I'm coming to realize that my flexibility arose more from less careful planning. I do suppose this is an issue I shall have to address as time moves forward, but for now, I'm revelling in the fact that I'm more organized than I've ever been in my life.

Last weekend, I spent a great deal of time grading quizzes. I felt like a normal teacher for the first time in a long time (if not ever): 11 out of 22 students in my developmentally-worst class passed my quiz on Egypt! Now, true, that is a 50% failure rate as much as it is a 50% passing rate, but consider that last year I had failure rates approaching 100% in my developmentally-worst class and, well.... Consider that only 2 students out of 22 failed in my "best" class and 17 of them got A's! That's phenomenal!

I am, understandably, very excited this year. I learned so much last year and this year is going much easier. More students and more work, but I'm better armed as an educator, I believe. Hopefully, progress of this sort will continue.

Finally, I have a sad bit of news. In August, a student of mine from last year was shot and killed in Newark. I felt the need then to come on here and write, but I could not bring myself to post or to talk about it much with anyone. Perhaps it was a form of denial? If I don't blog about it, he'll come back... foolishness, yes, but I didn't want to write about it.

Shakespeare's MacBeth has one of the most famous soliloquies about death:

To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

These words echoed in my mind in the hours and days after I'd learned of this child's death, the extinguishing of his "brief candle." As a Catholic, I know the deep meaning of life. I know also the deeper meaning of death. MacBeth despaired in the face of his own mortality. I was confronted with my own mortality the day the lad was taken. I replayed my high school years in my mind and reflected on what the boy would never know, never experience, never feel... It crushed me.

Life is not a walking shadow, even if it does creep in this petty pace from day to day. It does creep onward, however, without the boy's presence in our halls. But his life, far from lighting fools the way to dusty death, has inspired his fellow classmates to work harder and to love more. It has inspired me to value every Tomorrow and Tomorrow for I know that before I realize it, the sound and fury will cease. The hope will be that it signified something.

I dedicate this blog to the memory of Bukhari Washington, to all who loved him and love him still. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.

And so on I go... tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The End... and the Beginning

It has been a long time since I've written here. Many things have happened that I wanted to write about, but everytime I sat down to write, I found I had to edit/censor so much that the posts lost their value. Imagine a letter home from the Western Front during World War I and the way the Home Office in Britain would cut out important names and events, troop strengths and such... my posts would largely have looked like this.

The reason being of course is because the major events centered around the departure of students and the reasons for their departures... things I cannot post. But, also, the repetitive nature of so many of the stories... I try, I succeed, I push forward, we fail, fall back, regroup, try, succeed, push forward, fail, fall back... etc ad infinitum.

However, something did happen today (and will, I plan, happen again tomorrow) that I want preserved for myself and for posterity. Today was the last day that I had the Friday group in class (they work tomorrow and we have final exams next week). I wanted to leave them with something to know what they had meant to me, so I wrote some brief parting remarks and delivered them at the end of class. Some of the students cried and I nearly did, too, but I don't want to forget what I said (and will say three times again tomorrow) so I'm posting it here. Enjoy...

"When I was a young boy, my teachers - with my parents, naturally - had the most formative influence on my life.

My 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Randolph, taught me to read, and she was one of the people that - being someone that experienced the inhumanity of segregation personally - taught me the fundamental value of human life.

My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Burns, taught me my states and their capital cities -- and she taught me that valuable knowledge comes only with hard labor.

My high school math teacher, Mrs. Savage, taught me calculus - and helped me to understand that no branch of human knowledge was beyond me if I would only reach...

My Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Patton, yelled at me one day when I yelled "BOOM!" while playing Ninja Turtles with my friends -- and so I learned the importance of maintaining order and I enforce it in my own classroom and world even today.

Years from now, if you look back at who your teachers were and what they taught you, I can't know what you will say I taught you - or even if I will make the list of your most influential teachers. My list of teachers [that I just gave] was hardly exhaustive, but is a good sampling of the people who had the biggest impact on my life.

Whether I make your list someday or not, know that you've all made my list. A teacher's first class is the one they never forget; it's said the teacher learns more from that class than the class learns from the teacher, and I'd always assumed that was because so many new teachers tend to not know what they're doing. The truth is, I learned more from you about myself - what I'm capable of, what I believe, what I hope - than what I've learned from nearly two decades of formal education.

So, remember not to talk when someone else is speaking. Remember that if everone refused to pick up litter that they did not put on the ground themselves, then we'd all be living in garbage. Remember that persons in authority can always hear more than you think they can [reference to "cockroach peeing" inside joke here].

Remember to always tell the truth. Remember to love truth. Remember to love.

It has been a joy being your teacher. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that joy.

If you're satisfied with the condition of the room, class is finished; go in peace to know, love, and serve our Lord."

It is the rare person who comes to know the meaning of life. I still seek truth, but the secret to a life well lived is no secret at all to me. To see children grow in knowledge, to accomplish something they could not before, to witness knowledge that has been passed down for centuries passed on again, to be someone responsible for its preservation, to fight to make the world better than I found it when I arrived... I've found all the meaning I need. I've found love in my work. In the eyes and in the words and in the thoughts of those I teach, I have glimpsed the very fabric of love itself... I've found God in my students.

Were this year the final one of my life, I would pass feeling complete. But by some glorious miracle of God, I get to do it all again starting in September. Indeed, the end of this chapter has come, but it is only the beginning of the next.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Today during third period I collected my students' theses and reasons for their five paragraph essays that are due on Friday. I gave this assignment with the knowledge that most of my students would wait until Thursday night to even attempt to write the paper and that would be WAY too late. I gave the assignment because I expect them to have at least started to work on the essay by now - especially seeing as today is Wednesday.

And I gave the assignment knowing full well that the vast majority of them would not do it.

I told them yesterday (Tuesday) after having assigned the essay on Monday that I would want their thesis statements and reasons for their theses today. I knew that my 3rd period class would have study hall 8th period today when I did that. I was already plotting in my mind to give them double history today.


Because I knew they wouldn't do the assignment. It turns out that 2/3 of them attempted the assignment (probably in their second period class), but didn't finish it. The rest shrugged it off. We spent the remainder of the period trying to get cogent thesis statements comparing and contrasting the Roman Monarchy and the Roman Republic down on paper. And then we did it again 8th period. And only four kids were allowed to leave my room when school ended.

They came to me one by one asking if their thesis was any good, if their reasons were valid, to get coached on their thinking. I read and corrected and read and corrected non-stop with these kids for three hours today. They slowly leaked away one by one as I pronounced their ideas fit to be turned into an essay. Two students were done 3rd period today and actually started writing their essays this afternoon. Two students were still with me struggling to write a coherent thesis statement at 5 o'clock this afternoon.

Teaching in Newark is like being a doctor in a hospital emergency room in the middle of a war zone (I suppose that's redundant, but it's sufficient simile). I do not know how some of my students reached my classroom not knowing some of the things that they do not know. It boggles my mind and fills me with such doubt in the lower grade teachers, such doubt in the educational system as a whole. It dampens my hopes for the the future of America.

BUT, there again, I have entire classes of students now that KNOW, REALLY KNOW how to write a thesis statement and come up with three reasons explaining that thesis. Can they write an essay? Well, two of them can as far as I can tell. But the others will come along with time. At least I can hope that they will. But I've done it with some of them. I've taught them how to write! I taught students, even if they're only two right now, how to write a coherent paper! This is beyond anything I had come to hope for and is a red banner day for me, to say the least.

A colleague once said to me, "We can't save them all; even Jesus has hell." And this is most certainly true, a very sobering statement to say the least. But I must work everyday as though I can save them all - sort out the ones that don't need as much help as others and get them on their way, focus one-on-one with those that need me most... it's triage in my classroom. And I do what I can. I've lost many patients, but the saves... the saves give me reason to hope, to love, to dream even as reason tells me I should not. I can't save them all, but I want to -- and that's what keeps me doing this every day. I love these kids so much.

A final thought: I've recently learned that a former student of mine has joined a Newark gang. He is now a "full-fledged member" of one of them, the Crypts or the Bloods, I don't recall which and quite frankly, damn them all, but this is one that I loved - as I love them all. I cared. I dreamed for him. His smile made his friends smile, his thoughts were developing as they should, his work was coming along from nothing, his ideas had promise, his grammar was improving, his knowledge of history was expanding, ... and then he flatlined. He checked out. And then he found himself out in the cold. He found what he thinks is safety in the arms of the devil.

I can't save them all. But I want to. And it hurts so much to lose one. And it feels so good to save one. I don't get the good feeling of a save very often, but thank God they happen. I want to save them all.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Grand Experiment

I've reached a period of duldrums where my stories are repetitive and my successes infrequent. My posts have begun to taper off not because I've lost interest - far from it - but because the reason to write is simply not there. I celebrated a pretty big success last Friday when a girl in one of my classes that had checked out on me some time ago suddenly applied herself and earned a 100 on a map of Europe test.

This is a girl that four weeks ago looked at me and called Italy "Africa." She now can point to Slovenia and Estonia with confidence and is tutoring other students in geography. I want to celebrate this, to take credit for it, and indeed, I do both. But morale is so low among the faculty anymore that this twinkle in the night is not elating me as I should hope it would under ordinary circumstances.

Progress Reports went home recently. I have so many students failing that if I were a public school teacher, I'd be reprimanded. What times do we live in...? A wise man once told me that the world didn't work the way I thought it did. One day, I'd grow up, get my first pay check, and truly understand what it means to pay taxes. Some day finally came... I've grown up. And the world is not a pretty place. Certainly it has its beauty, its wonder, its moments that remind us that life is worth living, but all in all, we live in a pretty awful place we humans.

Michelle Obama said in a speech recently that for the first time in her adult life, she's proud of her country. Many people took offense to that remark. I did not. And that is primarily because she did not say, "For the first time in my life, I love my country." She used pride. I can agree with that, but I have to say, I've yet to find myself proud of the country that I love.

America began as a grand experiment in participatory democracy. The experiment was tested time and time again. To this day, liberty and "freedom" endure in America as they do in few other places, but what country can be called free that is shackled by debt, crippled by poverty, and increasingly blinded by what is a loathsome ignorance? I cannot be proud of that. I drive streets where people triple park without consequence, and I teach students that would rather text in some sub-English language rather than revel in the beauty of proper English. I cannot be proud of that.

My students are skipping school, lying to their parents, involving themselves with less than reputable individuals, saying a collective "F*ck you" to the faculty by not doing our homework, and all but gving up on material that, frankly, belongs in a Middle School. THIS is America. I teach and live and breathe in America.

Whether people like it or not, whether they realize it or not, America is not destined for the sunlit uplands our Founding Father saw in the rising sun of George Washington's chair. Thomas Jefferson knew that the lifeblood of a democracy endures because of education, that a people's future can be predicted by looking at their children. America is a grand experiment in participatory democracy heading for dark times. We're certainly not a failure yet, but our children are failing left and right -- and they'll be in charge someday. What of our grand experiment then?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Under Construction or "Words My Grandmother Taught Me"

I must apologize to my more loyal readers that have pestered me for not posting of late. The period since my last posting was consumed first by exam preparation (as the previous post hinted at the first signs of) and then by the exams themselves and then by what I can only describe as the fallout from those exams.

I write today if for no other reason than for the fact that it is time to bring you who are not present in my classroom up to speed, whether the "you" I refer to is someone near to me or it be wider posterity (I am rather enamoured with my own importance sometimes; I am, after all, a history teacher).

96 students took my exam. One of them earned a 100. Six total earned A's. A fair mix earned B's and C's. A full 60% (that's 58 total) failed the exam. Were I at any other school, I would have resigned my position. I decided to look at it like this: "Well, at least I reached 6 kids." When students lack any study skills, possess near-zero prior knowledge, and value things other than school, well... these are the results. I read an article recently that described the gradual dumbing down of America, and while I think the views expressed are far too pessimistic for me to adopt them myself, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that the evidence presented in the article is, even if superficialy, cropping up in my own classroom.

American students lack the structure, the push, the screaming need to succeed. Or, if I over generalize too much, MY students lack this essential quality. But, more than this motivation, they lack the base knowledge required to succeed. They have been passed forward by a system that would rather be rid of a problem than solve it. And I, as a 9th grade History teacher, am left with the dirty mop that is my children's basic skills. How am I to teach children about Alexander the Great and the rise of Rome if they are shown a map of Italy and think it Africa? If they cannot read the word "agriculture" and then, once told the word, cannot define it? To quote a paper I recently wrote, "I chase rainbows on a clearing day."

Confronted with this conundrum, I redesigned my class the weekend after exams. I sat down and asked myself the simple question: "What do I wish to accomplish before the end of the school year?" I answered myself in four parts: "1. I want to teach my students to think; 2. I want to teach my students to write & research properly; 3. I want to teach my students Western history; and 4. I want my students to improve in their geographic knowledge."

My class now has four component parts and each part has its own development aspect worth 10% and its own mastery aspect worth 15%. When multiplied by four, the casual observer will note that "development assignments" now compose 40% of my students' grades and "mastery assignments" now compose 60%. Each category has its own types of assignments to achieve the stated aim of development or mastery.

So far, I have hit a couple roadblocks and frustrations. The first is writing and research. I nearly broke down the weekend that I decided to redesign my curriculum - indeed, it was the breakdown that provided that catalyst for the redesign - when I read what I presumed were simple 5 paragraph essays helping my students to review. They were, without mincing words, the most atrocious dribble ever to be penned by human hands. I know 4th graders that have better structure and more concept of what it means to communicate in English. I nearly quit.

Clearly I did not. But I spent two weeks with two classes and now I am on my third week with the other two teaching them how to properly structure a five paragraph essay, how to write a proper APA bibliography, and how to cite a quote in a paper. I told the students the following: "Until the class as a whole obtains an average of 70 or better, I will reteach this and requiz you even if June arrives before I am done." Every class failed the first quiz. Only two failed the second. God willing, no class will fail the one that approaches this Friday and we shall move on into the bright sunlit uplands of essay writing and history studying and map memorizing. For if they do not, then shall descend a further week of study of paper writing and my students will fall even further behind - at least with regard to the historical material. With regard to essay writing, well... if I teach them nothing else but how to write a proper paper, then I suppose I have accomplished something of merit, something of benefit. Indeed, I know I will have.

The two classes that passed, well, they pressed onward this week with a deep question of history: a five paragraph essay, due at the end of this week, on whether Alexander the Great was a promoter of Greek civilization or an egomaniacal drunk with a lust for power. They have delved into the books and are scratching their collective thinking hats in an effort to produce something not only of interest about Alexander, but that meets my requirements of structure for the proper presentation of ideas.

It naturally raises a dichotomy: what happens when you move forward with two and leave two behind? And, God forbid, what happens if one more moves ahead this week and the last one gets left behind. Time is more valuable than gold to me, more precious than money, for I have so little of it, my kids have so little... They start the school year with a month deficit from day one because of their work schedules. And I'm expected to do the same as any other 9th grade history teacher with students that are not at grade level in even less time than would normally be allotted. I am reminded of a pithy sign that hung in the entry way of my grandmother's home when I was growing up:

"We must acheive more with less time, fewer resources, less gratification, and no coffee break -- and it's all due yesterday."

I doubt I've remembered it perfectly and I believe the sign was a crack about civil engineering since she worked for the county, but the words stuck with me -- and they come back now that I live them. Alas, this blog has already eaten up time I do not have. Watch for another post within the week (I hope), gentle readers. Until then, I build on.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Math Describes Everything

I am grateful for many things, but few things more than my love of math. Don't misunderstand me when I say this for I've never been a math prodigy. Indeed, I never earned anything over a C in math between 5th Grade and 12th Grade. Interestingly enough, I earned A's in 5th Grade Math and A's in 12th Grade Calculus. Go figure. But I digress.

My high school taught me many things, and my high school teachers were responsible for 90% of those things, but it was, oddly enough, my 10th-12th Grade math teacher that taught me to love math. It took her three years to do it and I spent most of that time hating math, but when I left her, I did so with the deepest understanding of the universe and how it works as I had ever had to that point in my life.

Math is all about relationships. Xs and Ys, independent variables and dependent variables, and the relationships that exist between them. Numbers certainly are dry and unfeeling and do things that can seem rather pointless to the untrained eye. But tell somebody that musical harmony has a mathematical relationship (quadratic, I belive, but then again, I'm not a math teacher nor a music major) or that food supplies and populations share a unique relationship that can be described with a linear function and, well, if they have any interest in anything, their interest in math will be (at least) piqued.

I spent today as I spent yesterday and as I intend to spend the next week: reviewing my classes for the impending semester exam in my history class. In September, before this Blog began operating and before I had received my textbooks, I decided to teach my students social scientific methodology. Take an observed phenomenon, ask a why question about it, offer a hypothesis explaining it, test it, and find out if you were right. Repeat as required. Obviously there's more to it than that, but I'm not going to write my whole lesson right here. So, after months of indirectly using the method in class, we return to where this all began and review the method itself.

I find myself faced with the need of reviewing independent variables and dependent variables. The kids have learned some things since I first taught this, so it went better than it had in September. Using questions ranging from "Why are students failing Social Studies?" to "Why were people migrating at the beginning of the Iron Age?", we proposed hypotheses such as "Students are failing Social Studies because they aren't paying attention in class" and "People were migrating at the beginning of the Iron Age because food supplies were low."

After school today, two of my students (a Friday girl and a Thursday boy) came for a deeper review of the method. We used the question & hypothesis about the Iron Age so that we could review both the method and the Iron Age (another section on my exam) at the same time. We made up fake food supply numbers (Y) and fake population numbers (X) and we went through the numbers and, after 10 minutes of calculation, we discovered a positive linear relationship between food supply and population. But that wasn't the hypothesis! So we re-attacked the numbers, this time looking at population change from year to year, and came up with a negative linear relationship... with a y-intercept that had to be discovered! 0 = m(18), and m does not equal 0, so there has to be a b.

We didn't know slope (m) or the y-intercept (b), all we had were several points. We solved for b, then we solved for m, then we had the equation of our line! Y=-333 1/3 (x) + 6,000!

The kids loved it. They had never seen math do that before, though they had seen the beginnings of that math before in math class. Both of them immediately came to understand the deeper meaning of math... and they understood that history has math in it. They instantly got the whole purpose of the method, they realized what math is and what it does and how the thinking of math is in everything else. They got how the history could be better understood using math.

They got it. Two of my students had a breakthrough that I did not have until 12th Grade. That's what I did today. Math, history, knowledge... I have to tell you that after that experience, to quote Louis Armstrong, "I said to myself, 'What a wonderful world.'"

Cheers to math from a teacher of history. Cheers to Mrs. Savage. And cheers to anyone who ever came to understand that math describes everything.

Friday, December 21, 2007

"The Greatest History of All is the Kind You Make!" - One of my Students

Yesterday evening, one of my students with a notable disability of some kind (either physical or mental or emotional, I can't be certain myself) interrupted the mundane conversation the school's math teacher and I were having about the usual teacher nonsense (when the meeting or grades or something was going on... maybe we were talking about exams? I don't remember) to tell the math teacher all about how King Xerxes invaded Greece with an army of 2 million men thus sparking the Second Persian War.

I about collapsed.

The math teacher sat there beaming, listening to this student recount the story of three centuries of Greek and Persian history with one of the most excited tones. He repeated me verbatim, acting out the wild battle I had vividly described to his class earlier in the day.

But he didn't stop there. He just had to tell his math teacher (and because I was standing there, I suppose me, too) all about everything he had learned in history for about the last two weeks of school. I knew the kid was smart, but he's always had trouble communicating with me and with others in anything resembling an organized fashion. A month ago, I told him that I was advancing him to the "next level in the video game that is history class". I told him that before he speaks, he should write down what he intends to say and then read that. He was skeptical, yes, but everytime the lad speaks in class now, he gets applause from his classmates. I tried to discourage this, but it was genuine and spontaneous and I stopped when I saw how positive an experience it was for him. Once organized, he is perhaps one of my smartest and most articulate students. And he works hard.

And he wowed me again and made me feel that I had accomplished something. Here is a student that others have written off as "slow" and "awkward" and a pain. He reminds me in MANY ways of Steve Urkel, but in the loveable way (I think I've heard him say "Did I do that?" once or twice). He is in some ways all of these things, and yet he learned the Persian Wars. And he learned the important history leading up to it, including Athenian help for the Ionian Revolt. He personally reenacted the Battle of Thermopylae, which he told the math teacher is Greek for Hot Gates. I had tears in my eyes listening to it all.

When the boy scampered off down the hall to get home, the math teacher and I stood alone in the hallway staring after him in silence for what felt like 30 seconds or a minute. We turned to each other and he patted my shoulder with his gloved hand and said, "Well, you got through to someone." I nodded my stern nod that I've developed, smiled, said good night and walked back into my classroom. The Math teacher turned to leave and said the same.

Christmas break is here and for all of us - students, teachers, staff - it could not have come at a better time. We're drained. I feel like I've emptied myself of every last ounce of strength I have for these kids. I've exhausted myself in planning and in grading and in praying and in disciplining and in just being a teacher for practically every single waking moment of every single day. I have to stop myself from telling strangers on the subway in New York to spit their gum out on weekends when I'm in the city.

I teach history. And I'm beginning to wonder if I've not been making it all along for and with my students. A girl in my homeroom told me today that the greatest history of all is the kind "you" make. I presumed she meant "you" in the sense that the grammatically-correct mean "one", but she corrected me and said, "No, Mr. Cochran, the history you [pointing to me] make." And then she hugged me and left. I was stunned. And many of the other kids said less poignant though equally telling things (not to mention all the Christmas gifts they gave me over my loud objections).

I teach history. My students teach me that being human means more than just being good. It means growing, even when it seems impossible to grow. The moments like the ones described don't happen to me everyday. I suppose I'd write every day if they did. But they happen often enough to remind me that I'm on the frontline of history everyday.

How fortunate am I to be present at such awe inspiring moments as these. How fortunate am I to teach & make history.