Monthly Archives: October 2010

Who’s Been Cheating?

My cell phone rang at 9:00 AM. It was the high school office asking if I could come in right away. It was unusual for me to be called in to substitute after school had already begun. The office said the History teacher had to leave due to an emergency and it would really help if I was available. Since I had not been called earlier, I was making other plans for the day, but the tone of urgency changed my mind and I agreed to come in. The school said they knew I would be a little late for the beginning of second period but these were honors students and they would be OK until I got there.

I quickly dressed back into my slacks, shirt, and Pooh Bear tie and drove to the school.

I arrived breathless after running up the stairs to the tenth grade History classroom.

I had been with these students before. They were well behaved and lots of fun. They must have come from good homes because they all had relatively high self-esteem and didn’t seem to have a lot of personal drama going on in their lives like so many of the other students I substituted for.

When I entered the room, I saw that half the students were gathered around one of the girls. She was holding a tiny strip of paper in her hand and was reading from it. The students surrounding her all had pads of paper and were writing down what she was saying.

“Number 3 is A,” she said. “Number 4 is C. Number 5 is C.” She kept reading, and they kept writing, until she said, “That’s all the problems.”

I walked to the front of the class. After everyone had greeted me and taken their seats, I asked the girl what she had been reading to the group.

“Last period I took the math test they will be taking next period. I was just giving them the answers.”

I was stunned, especially at how casually she confessed this. For some time I stood, trying to process what she had said. They watched me and waited, wondering what I was thinking. Surely they knew I could turn them in and they would be expelled from school. I didn’t know what to think of an honors class being expelled for cheating.

Finally I asked, “You were giving them the answers to a test?”

The girl with the answers answered my question. “Yeah, they all know that I get A’s in math, so I just give them the answers so they can get A’s, too.”

I was holding a stack of worksheets (translate: busywork) in my hand, ready to pass out the day’s work. But, at the same time, I honestly wanted to know more about what I had just witnessed. I didn’t understand how they could have such a laid-back attitude toward something I regarded as almost sacred: cheating was something a student didn’t do.

I knew these students didn’t consider me an ordinary teacher. I enjoyed a level of camaraderie with them and now I wasn’t altogether sure that was such a good thing.

I sat the papers on the empty desk in front of me. I was so conflicted by what I had just seen, I decided to explore it further.

“I am really intrigued by this idea of cheating and how it can be OK,” I said. “Can you tell me your thoughts about why it is OK? Seriously, I’d really like to know.”

One of the best dressed of the boys began, “Mr. C.D. Look… What we are studying in math…” His sentence trailed off as if he was struggling to put his thoughts into words. He seemed to be trying to explain a very complicated matter to someone whom he thought would probably not understand. His voice was sincere. “Look. What we are studying in math….” Again his voice trailed off.

A second boy picked up the explanation. “Mr. C.D., we are smart enough to know that what we are learning in math right now is not important for our future. Some things are important for our future. We know that. But, in school, everything is taught as if it is just as important as everything else that is taught and we know that can’t be true. We do know this: what is important to our futures is that we get good grades.”

“In my time, cheating would be one of the worst things anyone could do,” I said weakly.

The second boy continued, “Look, I know you think we are cheating, and we probably are. But, try to see it from our side. Most of us are headed for college. We need good grades. We all spend hours doing homework after school. We don’t have a life. The last time you were our sub you asked what we did in our spare time and we told you we don’t have any spare time. We all know what is important and what is important is that we get good grades. We do what we have to. Isn’t that what people do? They do what they have to? We just understand how the system works and we make it work for us. If Maria can help us get an A on a math test and we don’t have to spend lots of time studying for something we know isn’t worth it anyway, what’s wrong with that?

Everything he said made sense to me; yet, it was all so wrong.

“You say you do what you have to and that’s the way things work. So, when you get out into the real world and some of you are businessmen or bank presidents, or politicians, does that mean you will cheat your customers or lie at work in order to get what you need?”

They looked back at me with pained expressions.

“Then, tell us what you think we should do,” asked the girl with the answers.

 

I didn’t turn them in for cheating, but for months I have thought about that morning. I thought about what they had said: about the need to do just about anything to get good grades; about never having any time of their own because of demands put on them by school; about everything they were being taught having the same value as everything else they were being taught.

I also began thinking about how a nation is strengthened by the opportunities its individuals are given to express their personal creativity. The creativity of Americans was once the envy of the world. But, if a nation’s youth are robbed of the opportunity to develop personal creativity, the nation will eventually grow progressively weaker and weaker.

When every detail of every school subject is given equal value, students are forced to prioritize everything even though they know this is absurd. Every moment students are required to give their time to what ends up being irrelevant, they are cheated of precious time they could be developing their individual creativity. We grind irrelevant information into the minds of our youth during their formative years and then tip our hats to their interests by allowing them to choose from a short list of electives during their final school years. What percentage of young people might be developing their creative passions if, as they are growing up, they are given time to develop them? Yet, we abort this possibility with our school curricula and their personal giftings are stillborn.

Not everything a young person might learn is as important as everything else he might learn. There really is a hierarchy of important information. For instance, virtually every child dances. But dancing is something we don’t value as a future because we don’t see it as turning into a real job. Again, most all kids are artistically expressive. But, as Picasso said, “All children are artists; the problem is to remain an artist as they grow up.”

Sir Ken Robinson has said, “Schools don’t train children into being creative; schools train children out of being creative.”

What makes something a person does more valuable than what some other person does?

Recently Ellyn Davis wrote an article in which she profiled a research study designed to determine how many hours it takes for a person to become truly good at a particular undertaking. The task involved might be anything from playing the piano or tennis to becoming a computer programmer or mechanic. Essentially, the conclusion the researchers drew was that a person needs to spend about five thousand hours in order to become truly good at something.

Do the math. If a person works at something two hours a day,  five days a week for one year (taking off two weeks during that year), he will have spent five hundred hours on that task. To get to five thousand hours, he will need ten years of two-hour-a-day practice.

The researchers also discovered that it takes about ten thousand hours to become world-class at something. That would take twenty years! If the person wants to become world-class in ten years, he will spend four hours per day working on the task.

The question is “who would spend that many hours doing something for that many years?” The answer is someone who has a passion for it!

I suggest that every young person has a passion to be creative in some way: in athletics, in the arts, in the sciences, in something. But, when would the average school child be able to spend that much time for that many years? The answer is not many. By the time a person is released to spend time on him- or herself, too much time has passed. And, after twelve years of being told what is important, most young people have lost touch with what they had a heart to do in the first place.

We cannot long for individual expressions of creativity while, at the same time, we commit millions of children to being treated as generic human beings and to a school regimen where the only thing in their particular grade they have in common is that their ages are the same.

If your child is going to become truly proficient at what is in his or her heart to do, when will you allow them to begin? And, how many irrelevancies are you willing to let go of to allow enough time for that to be accomplished?

My son, James, once shared a quote with me. It said, “If I will spend a few years doing something no one else will do, then I will spend the rest of my life doing something no one else can do.” This quote became a source of motivation for James. As James’ Dad, my motivation was to make sure I wasn’t putting anything irrelevant in James’s path that would impede his ability to spend the necessary time doing what no one else would (or had time to) do. Today James may not be the world’s greatest dancer, but he is good enough to make a fine living at what he loves to do in life.

We talked about cheating, that morning in Honors History. I can only wonder who has been cheating whom all these years.

Pythagoras, Anyone?

The rest of the day I was really excited. I went over in my mind what I would do on Thursday and how I would do it. I felt that I was about to do something that would put me in the running for Teacher of the Year. Everyone would Oooh and Aaahh.

I thought back on my own school days and my exposure to math. I hadn’t learned my multiplication tables until I was in eighth grade. Somehow I had stayed under the radar long enough for this not to have been detected. That is, until one day in Mrs. Sage’s class when she began asking me what this times that was. I was discovered! From then on I had to stay after school until I knew my times tables. I hated it. With some maturity under my belt, however, I eventually came to bless Mrs. Sage.

I arrived in ninth grade right after my thirteenth birthday. Maturity-wise I was thirteen going on ten. The first day of Algebra class the teacher stood at the board and wrote X + 1 =. I looked at what she wrote: X + 1 =. I actually said out loud, “I don’t think so!” I was emphatic. One was a letter and the other was a number and no one in their right mind would suggest that a letter and a number could be added together!

My second experience taking Algebra came in summer school. The first day of class the teacher told us that Algebra was nothing more than a game. We would be looking for something we didn’t know. We would be like math detectives. For simplicity we would call what we didn’t know X. Everything we did that summer was to solve the puzzle of finding X. I was immediately enthralled. I loved games. From that day all the way through Geometry and Trig (now called Algebra 2), I loved math. I was playing games and finding the X.

I believe anyone is willing to learn if he or she sees the purpose, even if they don’t have a particular passion for it. The best way to present information is to tie it to something the person is already interested in. The next best way is to present it as something worthy of the person investing his or her time. The next best way is to make it enjoyable, a game. The worst way is to say “Don’t ask why. Just learn it. The Test is coming soon and failure is not an option.”

All that to say, I was stoked for tomorrow.

Thursday morning I arrived breathless and almost not early enough. On the way to school I had stopped at Walgreens to purchase several balls of string. Once at school I went next door to Mr. Cotton’s room and borrowed his yardstick. I took Mrs. Thornton’s yardstick and placed the two sticks on the floor in the front of the room end to end and taped them both to the floor, giving me a 6’ measuring stick. I set about cutting the string into 3 foot, 4 foot, and 5 foot lengths creating a big pile of different lengths of string on the table in the front of the room.

On the board, next to Mr. C.D. I drew a right triangle, adding an “a” next to the shortest length, a “b” next to the tallest length, and a “c” next to the diagonal length, or the hypotenuse of the triangle.

I watched happily as the students filed in with questioning looks on their faces. No one spoke.

“Please don’t step on the yardsticks,” I said.

While they were finding their desks, I asked, “By the way, how many feet are in a yard?”

Several moments passed.

“Well? How many feet are in a yard?”

One of the students finally spoke up. “Three feet are in a yard,” he said with no interest.

“Nope, that’s wrong,” I said.

“What do you mean? There is always three feet in a yard,” retorted several of the students. “How many feet do you think are in a yard?”

I was feeling frisky. “That depends on how many people are standing in the yard!” I laughed heartily. They rolled their eyes. Who was this guy who had invaded the controlled environment of Mrs. Thornton’s math class?

I began the day, “How many of you have heard of the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras?” I didn’t expect anyone to know. They didn’t.

“Well, this guy, Pythagoras, was a really smart dude,” I declared. “He lived about 500 years before Jesus—in other words, about 2,500 years ago—and, while he was growing up, he decided to travel the world searching for smart people whom he could learn from. That’s a pretty good way to grow up and learn, don’t you think? Eventually he became a famous philosopher and a religious system grew up around his philosophy which had some pretty weird beliefs. One belief was that fire, water, and earth are all holy. Think about what that means: When a person dies, he can’t be buried because earth is holy and you don’t want to defile the earth with a dead body. But, water is also holy, so you can’t bury a person at sea. And, since fire is holy, you can’t cremate the dead body.

Some people even today practice the religion of Pythagoreanism. What do you think they do with the bodies of dead people?”

They didn’t know.

I told them. “People build buildings with lots of shelves built into the walls of the rooms. They don’t put a roof on the buildings so birds can fly into the buildings from the sky and pick apart the dead bodies until there’s nothing left but bones. Bones won’t defile anything, so what’s left can then be buried or burned. There was a famous English writer who was born in India where people followed the Pythagorean religion. His name was Rudyard Kipling. He wrote the Jungle Book (you may have seen the Disney movie). Anyway, one day Kipling’s mother was out working in her garden and an arm fell out of the sky and landed—plop!—right in front of her in the dirt.”

“Grooooss!” said several of the girls.

I continued, “But that’s not all. This guy Pythagoras invented a magic math trick that has been used for 2,500 years by every builder in the world. In fact, without this magic math trick, you can’t even build a wall or door or put up a fence in your yard that is straight.”

In our community, a lot of construction is going on and several of the students spoke up to say that their father or uncle or brother worked in construction.

“Well then,” I said. “You’ll have to ask them if they’ve ever heard of Pythagoras. Even if they haven’t, they can’t build anything without knowing his magic math trick. The ‘trick’ is called the Pythagorean Theorem. The word ‘theorem’ means something most people accept as being true.

I asked them to repeat the name: Pythagorean Theorem.

“So since Pythagoras came up with this Theorem, it was named after him.

“OK, now look at the board. What kind of triangle is this on the board?”

“Right Triangle,” they answered correctly. I thought, “Bless you, Mrs. Thornton. You have made my job easy.”

“Yes, that’s right” I said, emphasizing the word Right. “A Right Triangle has one angle that’s always right.” Again eyes rolled.

“And what size angle is always right?”

“Ninety degrees,” they said. They were growing weary and I knew I had to do something soon other than talk about some dead guy.

I asked someone to go to the board and point out which of the three angles was ninety degrees. A boy from the front row obeyed.

I said, “So, if these two lines that come together and make the ninety degree angle were actually two walls (I pointed out two of the room’s walls where they joined)—“or if these two lines were the frame on a door like this” (I went to the door and pointed to where the upright and top of the door frame met)—“then the angle that is made where the walls join, or where the door frame meets, they are ninety degree angles. Would that be right?”

They nodded, and I knew they were wondering what was going on.

“Ninety degrees is also called square. If you are building something, in order for walls to be square with each other, and door frames to be square so the doors will open and close, and in order for your desk top to be square, you have to know Pythagoras’ magic math trick—called the Pythagorean Theorem. You have to know how to make a ninety degree angle.

I then put on a serious face. “I have walked all over this school. It is really old. Sometimes old buildings fall apart if they weren’t made well in the first place. How could we tell if our school was built right in the first place? You probably never though about it. You just come to school and expect that it won’t fall down while you are in class. But, schools are falling down all over the country because they are getting too old. Some of them are actually dangerous. Some of them have been closed because the walls can’t be trusted to stand up.” With each statement I had raised the level of concern in my voice.

“Did you know this school could fall down if it wasn’t built right when it was first built?”

They didn’t.

“Here’s the deal,” I said, coming to the point. “Let’s say that the School Board has just hired me to inspect the school to find out if it is still a safe place for students to come to. How many of you would like the school to be condemned and closed so you couldn’t come here to school any more?”

Most of them raised their hands. Right away I wished I hadn’t asked the question.

“What we have to do is see if the walls, the door frames, the window frames and the brick walls are all square. It’s a big project and you are going to help me do the inspection.

Now I had their attention.

One of the boys pointed to the board. “What does Py—what’s his name—have to do with all this?” he inquired.

“Pythagoras. And I thought you’d never ask,” I said.

I went to the board. “The trick that he came up with—his Theorem—says that if you measure the length of one side of a triangle and square it—fortunately they knew what square meant—(I pointed to the “a” on my triangle on the board); and if you measure the length of the other side of a triangle and square it (I pointed to the “b” on my triangle on the board); then if you add those two squared numbers together, the hypotenuse of the triangle (I pointed to the diagonal line of the triangle) will be the square root of those two numbers if this angle is 90 degrees.”

I knew they needed an example, so I offered them one. “Let’s say this shorter, bottom part is 3 feel long. If we square 3 feet, what do we get?

“Nine feet,” they all said.

“Good. Now if this tall part, the one going up, is 4 feet and we square it, what do we get?”

“Sixteen feet,” they answered.

“Now add together the square of three (which is nine) and the square of four (which is sixteen) and what do you get?”

“Twenty five,” they all said.

“Here is Pythagoras’s Theorem written out.” I wrote on the board a2 + b2 = c2. “Therefore,” I said, “if a = 3 and b = 4, then c equals what?”

They looked at the board for awhile. Finally one student said, “It equals the square root of 25, which is 5.”

I then went to the pile of strings on the front table. “In this pile of strings you will find some 3 foot, 4 foot and 5 foot pieces of string.” From the pile I pulled out one of each length.

“I need three helpers,” I told the class. Up went everyone’s hands and I picked three. “Come up here,” I said. They left their desks and came to the front. I gave each a piece of string. “Now, go to the door and stretch the 3 foot string across the top of the door frame with one end at the corner. Put one end of the 4 foot string against one end of the 3 foot string.” They had to get chairs to stand on. “Now, you with the 5 foot piece of string should put each end of your strings at the ends of the others’ strings and they should meet exactly if the door frame is square.”

We did this several times with window frames, walls, and desk tops until I was convinced that they understood. So far, everything had been square.

I had them form themselves into groups of four. Three would be string holders and the fourth would take notes. Once they were formed into groups, I told them, “OK, now each group come to the front and find the three strings of 3 foot, 4 foot, and 5 foot. The measuring stick on the floor is there if you need it to help you find all three lengths.”

Before letting them go, I said, emphatically, “Please understand that this is a serious matter. You are determining if your school is a safe place for students to be. Each group should go to a different part of the school because you only have about 45 minutes to do this. Return five minutes before the end of the class period. Tomorrow, each group will give their report. Now go check out your school.”

Off they went, in groups of four, pencil and paper in hand, trailing string behind them.

I did this with the students in each of the three math classes. After going all over the school, each class returned just before the bell rang. They wanted to give their reports right away but I told them there wasn’t time and we would have plenty of time on Friday.

One of the girls could not hold in her excitement. “We even asked the principal if we could measure his office,” she said.

“Oh, really,” I was surprised at their courage. “What did he say?”

“He thought it was cool. He said it was OK with him.”

Next morning was Friday, my last day substituting for Mrs. Thornton. As I entered the school, I saw Nicholas coming out of the school office. Nicholas was one of Mrs. Thornton’s math students.

“Hi, Nicholas. How are you this morning?” I asked.

Nicholas had a somber look as he walked toward me. “Hey, Mr. C.D. You know we are all in trouble, don’t you?” he asked. I didn’t know. As he got close to me he whispered, “You are especially in trouble!”

“Trouble?” I was surprised. “Why ‘trouble’?”

I quickly found out. The night before, Mrs. Thornton had received several calls on her cell phone while she was in her husband’s hospital room. Other teachers wanted to know why she had allowed her classes to run around the school and make noise in the hallways. Noise in the hallways during class period is not routine, and it was distracting all the other classes in the school.

Most of the students were unaware of the trouble I had caused. They bounced into class ready to give their reports.

I apologized to each class in turn. They promised that they had not been running around or making too much noise.

“We had a lot of fun, Mr. C.D.” They all agreed. Several had asked their fathers or uncles or brothers if they had heard of Pythagoras or his Theorem. None had heard of Pythagoras, but each one had said, “Of course, I know about 3 feet, 4 feet and 5 feet. I use it all the time.”

All the kids had pretty much the same report about the structural integrity of the school. “The only place we found that might not be square was in the upstairs stairwell. Other than that, we think the school was pretty well built.”

I asked them, “So you feel pretty good about coming to school?”

One of the boys said, “Not about coming to school, but we don’t think it will fall down. Too bad, huh?” he added with a wry smile.

By the end of the day I had made the rounds of all the classrooms and personally apologized to every teacher. Fortunately, there were only three grades in the school and the school was relatively small. Most of the teachers were philosophical about what I had done, telling me they understood that I wasn’t a regular teacher and that I probably didn’t understand that 12 and 13 year olds cannot be allowed to go about unsupervised. What if one of the students had simply left school and gone home? I smiled at this because it reminded me of the time I was in seventh grade and one of my teachers had yelled at me in class. I simply walked out of his class and went home. I don’t remember the details, but I must have decided I’d had enough schooling that day.

The storm I had caused blew over quickly. Although no one Ooooed or Aaaaahed (and I was not even considered for Teacher of the Year), still I was called in to sub the very next Monday. I immediately found Mrs. Thornton and apologized to her. She said the calls had caught her off guard and she didn’t appreciate what I had done, even thought she understood I was only trying to be creative. The rest of the year I continued to be asked to substitute teach at this school. But, never again for Mrs. Thornton.

The Teacher’s Task

I was substitute teaching in a middle school English class when the office called over the class loudspeaker.

“Mr. Davis?”

“This is Mr. Davis.”

“Can you substitute for Mrs. Thornton’s seventh grade math class the next three days?”

“That would be Wednesday, Thursday and Friday?” I asked just to make sure I understood the request.

“Yes, that is correct. The rest of the week,” said the voice.

“Yes, ma’am, I can,” I said.

“Thank you.”

I arrived early for class on Wednesday morning. I wanted to make sure I read any information the teacher left for her substitute so I would be ready when class began.

I sat at Mrs. Thornton’s desk and waited for the students. Since this was my first time in Mrs. Thornton’s class, I had written my name on the board: “Mr. C.D.” And, I had my rock and little pieces of paper for the rock drawing.

A lady opened the classroom door and walked back to the desk. She was carrying an armload of papers.

“I’m Mrs. Thornton,” she announced. There was nothing welcoming in her voice. “I know you were called in to sub for me, but I decided to come in for first period. I can only be here for first, so if you want to sit in one of the chairs and watch, then the class is yours the rest of the day.”

“Would you rather I go to the library during this period?” I asked, thinking my presence might make her uncomfortable.

“That’s not necessary,” she responded. “You can actually help me. While I’m teaching you can walk around the class and make sure the students are doing what they are supposed to be doing, such as paying attention and not copying each other’s work.”

“Sure,” I said and I sat down in one of the student desks in the corner to watch.

The students began filing in as Mrs. Thornton placed a large, cloth bag on her desk. As she spread out its contents it appeared that she was preparing to demonstrate an entire line of make-up instead of teach math.

She began making up her face and glanced up only briefly to speak to the class. “Get out your work and no talking.” She said flatly, pronouncing the last two words slowly and with no small hint of danger should there be any infringement of her order.

For a moment, the only sound was the movement of papers and the sharpening of pencils. There was no talking.

As I watched Mrs. Thornton put on her face, I saw a woman in her element. On went the blush while she looked in a hand-held mirror. I sensed that she did her make-up like this every morning. This was Mrs. Thornton’s turf, her piece of the planet and she ruled it with a no-nonsense seriousness. Brush, brush, comb, comb.

During the next hour and a half I became impressed with this lady. I decided she was one of those Master Teachers I often hear about. She knew seventh grade math and was truly prepared. She explained the subject in detail and which step to present in which order. As I sat and listened, brain cells long dormant from my public school days began to remember pre-algebra. I was learning along with her students.

 

It was now second period and Mrs. Thornton had left—for the hospital I was later to learn. She was looking after her father and he had been admitted for observation.

In most public schools, teachers have what is called Plan. Plan is a period set aside for teachers to grade papers or set up their schedules for the next day or just to get caught up on work. I remembered the many evenings and weekends my English teacher mother spent grading papers or planning the next week’s work. There was no Plan Period when my mother was alive.

Of course, I didn’t need a Plan Period. If it was a nice day, I usually went outside and walked around the school. If not, I stayed inside and read a book I brought to pass the time of Plan. I especially liked it when Plan was either the first or last period of the day. They I didn’t have to be at school so early or I could leave school before the normal school day ended. But, in this room, Plan was second period.

It was raining, so I sat at Mrs. Thornton’s desk and pondered my experience of watching her teach math to seventh graders. Yes, I had been impressed at how she held the class’ attention. But, as I thought about the previous hour, I was aware that it had left me feeling depressed, and I’m not easily depressed.

Mrs. Thornton had conditioned her students that they dare not fail to learn under her watch.

Even if they didn’t care.

And that is exactly what I was feeling as I watched each student dutifully following their teacher as she solved equations for x and y on the board and then plot the answers to x and y on the proper graph coordinates. If they didn’t end up with the same line or figure she showed them, they had to find out what they had done wrong.

Even if they didn’t care.

The Question hung in the air like a presence. It was the proverbial “elephant in the room” and I sensed it passing through nearly everyone’s brain like the undisciplined thought that it was, ready to challenge the entire public school philosophy of education. Of course, no one asked it. It was never worth asking because the entire System would have to change in order for The Question to be given any validity. However, I knew that, one day, one hundred and fifty years of standardization would finally come to an end and The Question would finally be considered.

As I had watched the class that morning, I whispered The Question under my breath. “Why do we have to learn all this stuff, anyway?” “There,” I thought, “I’ve said it for the millions of kids who aren’t allowed to say it.” Not so anyone could hear, of course. That would be disrespectful.

Naturally, some students need to learn this stuff. After all, we do need mathematicians and scientists and engineers and statisticians. But does every thirteen year old need to know how to plot graphs on x and y coordinates?

As I sat there during Plan, I considered Mrs. Thornton. She was a math teacher and, as a math teacher, she was tasked with teaching math. Nothing more. If some people think learning how to plot x and y coordinates on a graph is a little (or a lot) like taking medicine, what does that matter? Medicine is good for you. If the one administering the medicine knows how to “make the medicine go down”, that is helpful. If the teacher has a great personality, or the students respect her, or if she can make math fun, or even give it some practical application, those are real pluses. But teachers are not tasked with being nice or friendly or even knowing how to give practical meaning to their subject. Their only real task is to make as many students as possible learn the subject they have been hired to teach. Be whatever kind of person you have to be in order to put math into the heads of your students. At the end of the day (or the year), no one will ask what kind of human being you were. The Test will expose how well you accomplished your job.

 

Now it was third period and another group of students was back in the room.

“I have good news and bad news,” I said as I held a stack of papers Mrs. Thornton had copied for the rest of the week. “Which do you want first: the good news or the bad news?”

“The bad news,” was the general response.

“OK, the bad news is that we have busywork to do.”

“Great,” said one of the boys with disgust. “So, what’s the good news?”

“Since I’m a substitute, I don’t have to make you do it!” I said cheerfully.

They brightened. “You mean we don’t have to do all that paperwork?” they asked gleefully.

“I didn’t say you don’t have to do it. I said I don’t have to make you do it. I only have to tell you what Mrs. Thornton said you were supposed to do.”

“Right!” they all said with resignation. They did the work.

 

Classes were over and I walked around the room picking up the little pieces of paper that always accumulate around students’ desks during the day. A table was butted up against Mrs. Thornton’s desk and on it was a poster displaying the Pythagorean Theorem.

I suddenly had a brilliant idea. “Mrs. Thornton is supposed to teach the Pythagorean Theorem. Well, I will teach it for her while she’s gone.”

I was delighted with myself. “What a happy thought,” I reasoned. “That should be a lot more fun than doing sheets of problems. If Pythagoras is medicine, I know how make that medicine go down.”

I sat in Mrs. Thornton’s chair and smiled. “I am so smart,” I thought.

Little did I know that I was about to learn a painful, but valuable, lesson. I was about to unleash the displeasure of The System.

Rock Drawings

The other ritual I developed when I met a class for the first time was to hold a drawing for a rock.

I had a student pass around little pieces of paper, just big enough for each to write his or her name on it.

“What’s this for?” someone always asked.

“We’re having a drawing this morning,” I would respond. “Write your name on the piece of paper and fold it twice. Put it into this basket in the front of the room.

They wrote their names and they folded the paper. I always had to say, “Twice. Fold it twice.”

“What for?”

“For this,” I said, showing them a smooth, rounded rock about half the size of a golf ball. The rock was in a small, zip-lock baggie. I passed the rock around the room.

“Why would I want a rock!” someone would invariably ask, insulted that I would have a drawing for something so stupidly ordinary.

“If you don’t want the rock, just don’t put your name in the basket,” I said. My lack of concern for their cynicism always seemed to intrigue them.

Once all the names were in the basket and the rock had made its way around the room, I said, “I am going to give you clues about this rock and let’s see who is the first to guess what is so special about it. Are you ready?” The all nodded.

“This rock does not come from the U.S. It comes from a country whose name begins with an I.”

“Illinois!” someone shouted.

“No, stupid, Illinois is a state,” said another student.

“Oh, yeah, then is it Indiana?”

This always made me laugh. It didn’t seem to matter the grade. I always got these two answers first.

“No, no, guys,” I would say. “Think of countries that begin with an I. Not states! There are, actually nine countries that begin with an I.”

They began naming countries until someone finally said “Israel” and I told them, “Yes, this stone came from Israel.”

I asked several other questions, asking them where smooth rocks are usually found (in water); if you wanted to kill someone with a rock like this, how would you project it (with a slingshot); who, their age, might have killed someone really big, in Israel, three thousand years ago. This last question was tough until someone tentatively said, “David and Goliath?” When they had guessed all this, I then told them the rock I had passed around was one I had taken from the same brook where David had picked up the stone he used to kill Goliath.

“How many stones did David pick up from the brook?” I asked. A few knew: “Five”.

“And, how many did it take to kill Goliath?” I asked. A few knew: “One”.

“What happened to the other four?” I asked, holding up the round stone in the little zip-lock baggie. “Maybe that’s one of them!” they responded.

I had their attention. Everyone wanted to win a stupid rock.

A girl in one of the classes was desperate to win. I never knew why. But, when she didn’t win that morning, she was devastated.

“Do you have another one?” she asked.

“Yes, I have one here,” I said, holding up another little baggie I had placed on the teacher’s desk.

“Can I have it?” asked the girl.

“No. I’m sorry you didn’t win, but I may need this one if I have to have another drawing later today.” She didn’t look happy.

I did need to have another drawing the very next period, but when I looked at the desk for the rock, it was gone.

Next day, I was called to sub at the same school but for a different subject. During lunch I walked down the hall to the lunchroom and scanned the room. Sure enough, sitting and chatting with friends was the girl who had wanted the rock. I suspected she had taken it as she had left the room the day before. I went over to her table and set beside her.

“You really wanted that rock, didn’t you?” I began.

She nodded casually.

“But, you shouldn’t have taken it.”

“I didn’t take anything,” she protested.

I held out my hand and waited. After a moment, she dug into her pocket and took out the baggie and handed it over.

“I really wanted to win,” she said.

“I know,” I smiled. “I’m sorry you didn’t.”

Later that day, the girl appeared in my classroom as she obviously was taking the subject I was now subbing for. She didn’t look me in the eye the entire period.

Just before the class was to end, I motioned her to come to the teacher’s desk where I was sitting.

“You know, when you took the rock yesterday, you became a thief.” She lowered her head and nodded.

I continued, “A long time ago, a man said that if someone is going to steal something from you, she becomes a thief and she feels like a thief. But, if you just give her what she would have stolen from you, then she isn’t a thief anymore. Do you know the person who said that?” I was a little surprised that she did.

I took the baggie out of my pocket and held it out to her. “Here,” I said, “I don’t want you to be a thief and I don’t want you to feel like a thief.”

It hurt me to see the pained expression of guilt on her face. “Oh, no, Mr. C.D., I can’t have it,” she said. “That would be wrong.”

“No, it won’t be wrong. It is wrong for someone to have something they stole. But, you know,” I wrinkled up my face as if trying to remember something really important, “I don’t recall this having been stolen. Do you?”

Her expression changed from guilt to wide-eyed wonder. Then, as if she was just understanding a joke, a broad smile came over her face. “No,” she said softly, “I don’t recall that, either.”

“Here. Please take this as a gift from me to you.”

“Thank you,” was all she said, as the bell rang to dismiss.

All Right, My Daughter’s a Good Writer!

For years I have spoken at conferences, mainly telling stories of what I did, or learned, while teaching my own sons in our home. After every talk I braced for the onslaught of parents wanting to know how what I just said would work in their situation. Most parents know only one way to raise their children academically: the way they were raised. The Public School way.

I saw her coming toward me with head up and nostrils flared. She had a look of determination on her face that said, “I’m going to talk to you and nobody had better get in my way!” I couldn’t tell if she was angry or just determined.

Behind her followed a girl about twelve or thirteen years old. The girl’s expression was the antithesis of the woman’s: head lowered, eyes looking at the ground, shoulders bent forward. The girl looked as if her self-esteem had tanked a long time ago.

The woman began almost before I could acknowledge her presence.

“I can’t get my daughter to do anything,” she said with obvious disgust. I looked over the woman’s shoulder and immediately understood from the girl’s pained expression that it was the girl this woman was so disgusted with.

The woman continued, “I can’t get her to do her schoolwork: her math, her science, her history…”

Again I glanced over the mother’s shoulder to see a slight shudder as the girl listened to her mother explain to a perfect stranger how frustrating her daughter was.

I tried to picture what the woman was saying. “What do you mean she won’t do anything? Does she just stay in bed all day?” I wasn’t trying to be cute, I just wanted to be able to picture what a girl does when she isn’t doing anything.

The mother looked at me as if suddenly I was the problem.

“No! Don’t you understand? She won’t do any of her schoolwork, like her math or her science or her…”

“OK,” I said, “I think I get what she won’t do. But are you saying that she just sits on the edge of her bed and swings her legs all day?” A cloud came over the mother’s face and her eyebrows furrowed. I wasn’t anywhere near on the mother’s wavelength. It was partly because I was watching the little girl’s face over Mom’s shoulder.

Finally I said, “So she won’t do her math and science and history. But, when you say ‘She won’t do anything’, do you mean she has no interests at all?”

The mother gave a deep sigh. “Well, she’ll write,” she admitted flatly.

“Write?” I said with way too much enthusiasm. My curiosity was piqued but I needed to remain as serious as I could. “You mean like ‘write her boyfriend’s name’?”

“Noooo,” she responded. “Like stories. She writes stories.” Mom was resigned to doing this conversation my way and she didn’t like it.

“Well, from the way you said that, it sounds to me like you wouldn’t want anybody to read the things she writes. They must be bad,” I said matter-of-factly.

By now, mother’s frustration had definitely transferred from daughter to me. She blurted out, “All right. My daughter’s a good writer!” The words stuck in her throat. She dropped her head as if I had just gotten her to admit that her daughter was a drug addict.

My attention was immediately drawn to daughter who had jerked up her head, her eyes were wide with anger and disbelief. Her thoughts weren’t difficult to discern. “You knew this! You believed I was a good writer and you never said anything? All these years you were forcing me to do things I didn’t care anything about but you never told me I was good at the one thing I loved more than anything?”

Involuntarily my eyes filled with tears. I am a wuss when it comes to emotional pain. I hurt for both of them. The mother was afraid she was raising a defiant child who would grow up uneducated. The girl had never been allowed to express the one thing that could have opened doors to all the other academic disciplines her mother considered so important.

I didn’t know how to help them. All I could do was mumble, “I’ve met thousands of parents who would kill to have a daughter who loved to write and was good at it.”

“Really?” said the mother. “Really?” she echoed herself, not knowing what to do with this piece of information that had just come from a place outside her personal worldview.

“Really,” I said softly.

One of the things I find myself telling parents over and over is that, when children are given the opportunity to thrive in the areas for which they have a natural-born talent (translate: love), they also draw to themselves the other disciplines they need to thrive in life. It’s a principle adults find hard to believe.

My oldest son had created a computer program when he was fourteen. It became very popular in the early days of the Internet. One day he received an email from the Sheriff of Nottingham. Believe it or not, there really is a Sheriff of Nottingham. It is a ceremonial post for tourism purposes. However, during this time, the Sheriff had something to do with a group who was responsible for emergency issues throughout Great Britain. He was asking my son for permission to use Seth’s program for free since they were a non-profit organization.

“I don’t want to answer this man’s email,” Seth said.

“Oh, and why is that?” I asked.

“Because he will know I’m just a kid.”

“Why will he know that?”

“Because I can’t spell,” said Seth honestly.

It’s true that we hadn’t pushed spelling. We had taught Seth to read before we learned how kids came to the reading process and the difficulty of teaching him reading caused us to back off other Language Arts issues. Spelling was sort of hanging around in the shadows until we could figure out how it was going to happen.

“What do you think should be done about the fact that you can’t spell?” I asked Seth.

“I know,” he said with a very heavy sigh of resignation. “I guess I need to learn to spell.”

As I recall, Dad helped Seth spell his response to the Sheriff and Seth, now knowing it was important to know how to spell, learned that task willingly.

As I write this, I am reminded that his younger brother decided it was time to read when I stopped being willing to read the ever more complicated directions to the legos he was always building. He was ten years old when reading became important to him.

A Montana youngster had a passion for writing. At the age of fifteen his parents agreed to let him spend the next year writing and illustrating a book about a mythical land and a boy who found an unusual egg. Another year rewriting and editing. However, no company would publish his work so his parents created their own company and published it for him. The young author’s parents spent another year taking their son to visit 135 schools and libraries dressed in the garb of his mythical realm. Eventually the son of an author of children’s books read and loved the book and the father brought it to his own publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. The fanciful story of a dragon and her boy, brought Christopher Paolini to the attention of the world when his book, Eragon, rose to become one of New York Times’ bestsellers in 2002. Eventually, a movie followed and then The Inheritance Series and a young man who loved to write quickly became wealthy and famous.

What if Christopher’s parents had been disgusted with their son’s passion for writing? Not only would the world have missed the joy of reading about a beloved dragon named Saphira and her boy, Eragon, but the Paolini family would have missed a massive financial windfall.

How many parents have said to me, “All my daughter wants to do is practice the piano.”

Part of me wants to be sarcastic and say, “Doesn’t that tell you something about your daughter and what she should be doing right now?” But I am not sarcastic because I know they don’t understand the gift both she, and they, have been given.

Instead, I explain for the umpteenth time what it means for someone to want to practice the piano for hours.

Or write stories.

Or, learn every computer program in existence, like Seth did.

Or, become a great dancer, like James did.

That morning, the woman whose daughter loved to write never understood what I was trying to say. It was my fault. That day I just wasn’t communicating very well. The mom and daughter walked away from me and I wondered if the girl ever wrote the poetry or the story or whatever else was locked inside her heart.

When will you write your story? I am just now writing mine and I’m in my late sixties.

When will you learn the piano, or become that gourmet cook, or…

Mr. Pooh-Bear

Chapter Two: Mr. Pooh-Bear

I had made the rounds of all the schools in the county, dropping off my resume and introducing myself as the new substitute.

If a teacher called in sick in the morning, the school would begin phoning substitutes to see who was ready to make it to school before classes started. From the beginning I was ready to leave the house by 6:30. Sometimes I got a call. Sometimes I just went back to bed when the phone didn’t ring. Pretty soon schools began calling me in the morning or sometimes even during the school day to ask if I was available the next day. I substituted in several middle schools and a high school. But, eventually I must have become the substitute of choice for one middle school because nearly every afternoon they told me to come in the next day.

Whenever I entered a class for the first time, I wrote on the board Mr. C.D. If the students asked what the initials stood for, I would tell them. But, from that first day in sixth grade, the students in every school and in every class were happy to call me Mr. C.D.

That is, every student but one.

Although I was never told, I concluded that the dress code for male teachers was slacks and some sort of decent shirt. I decided to add a tie to this uniform. I don’t know why I wore a tie. I must have felt that I needed something to make me look more formal since I was only a substitute.

All my ties had cartoon characters on them. One tie had Mickey Mouse figures. I wore Mickey Mouse for a few days but soon began to feel that other teachers might think I was trying to make a statement about public school. Of course, none of them were even paying attention, but I decided to put Mickey Mouse away just the same.

Next was a tie with my favorite cartoon character: Daffy Duck. But the one I chose to wear most often was blue and covered with little Winnie-the-Poohs sitting next to honey jars.

Carmen was an African-American girl in eighth grade. She had a bubbly personality and she must really have liked Winnie-the-Pooh. The first day I wore my Winnie-the-Pooh tie, Carmen decided that the name, Mr. C.D., might be OK for the rest of the school, but not for her.

As soon as she saw my tie, she declared loudly to the whole class, “My name for you will be Mr. Pooh-Bear.”

“I like that,” said another student. “That’s what we’ll call you: Mr.Pooh-Bear.”

Carmen turned on the student. “Oh, no you don’t!” She was incensed. “That is my name for him. I made it up. You have to call him Mr. C.D.”

“Why can’t I call him Mr. Pooh-Bear? Just because you made it up? That’s not fair!”

“Doesn’t matter what’s fair,” warned Carmen. “That’s my name for him and no one else can call him that. Understand?”

I was really taken back by this dialog. How weird, I thought. What was the big deal? What was Carmen going to do if someone did call me Mr. Pooh-Bear? But, I let them work it out and I became Mr. Pooh-Bear to one student exclusively.

I developed a ritual whenever I entered a class for the first time. After letting them know they could call me Mr. C.D. (except for Carmen, of course), and after explaining my one rule about being rude, I told the students a little about their substitute teacher.

“I have been a teacher for over twenty-five years, but never in a classroom”, I would tell them.

“What do you mean? How does that work?” they would ask.

I threw the question back to them.

“How does that work?” I asked.

“You are a coach.” “You teach students online.” “You are a homebound teacher.” “You drive a school bus.” All of which I answered “No” to.

Finally someone guessed, “You taught your own kids at home?”

“Yep,” I answered. “I am a homeschool Dad.”

The same question always followed: “Why did you do that?”

I was honest: “Because, I hated school and, when I graduated, I decided that if I ever had kids of my own, I would never send them to school.”

Mostly the kids were stunned by this honesty. They wanted to know how old my sons were now and how they were doing.

I answered, “All of them are grown up. Eventually they will be OK as soon as they get out of prison.”

The shocked look on their faces was worth the joke. The kids’ eyes were as big as saucers. “Really!” they said.

“No, I’m kidding,” I reassured them. “Each of them is doing exactly what he always wanted to do.”

Then the class asked what each of my children was doing and how they got the opportunity to do such interesting things.

They wanted to know more.

“Look at you,” I answered. “You have to sit still at these little desks all day and learn things you know have little meaning for your futures. I just couldn’t do that to my kids. I wanted them to flourish at the things that were in their hearts to do with their lives.”

I hadn’t noticed a little, African-American child sitting to my right. “Mr. C.D.,” he said in a small voice, “Would you be my daddy?” There was no humor in his question, but a longing I couldn’t quite read. What was behind his request I could only guess.