The System of Things

This post is in the style of Don DeLillo's White Noise.

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Lesson plans, IEPs, 504s, ESL, LEP.

The paperwork never ends. The system speaks, and I must answer. I type my lesson plans for the month and place them in the AP’s electronic dropbox.

Sunshine State Standards and FCAT. No, that’s Common Core Standards and EOCs.

The days of being alone in my classroom are gone. The students, with their cell phones and hoodies (even in this 90-something degree weather), new school clothes, small gaming systems and no paper or pencil, return. It is this way every year that I teach the Level 1 students. The students who grossly failed their prior year’s assessment test. But as ninth graders, that test did not determine whether or not they would graduate. There was no incentive for them to do well. No incentive for those who might have been able to pass to actually spend the three hours trying to pass. So I end up with seventy-five students for two class periods each for a total student count of one hundred and fifty students who do not want to take English II much less its paired class of Intensive Reading.

Job readiness, employability, functional literacy, basic skills, academic skills, OJT, integrated curriculum, literacy, lifelong learning.

As department chair of the combined English and Reading Departments I have created my own place. Out of twenty English and reading teachers, only two of us are certified in both English and reading, and the other teacher only teaches one pair of classes. She has moved to psychology. So I do my own work. I create my own lesson plans. I use the district’s curriculum maps and merge the requirements for both English and Reading into lesson plans that supposedly meet all of the standards.

Accountability, accreditation, SACS, competencies, Florida statutes, best practices, FTE.

It is my seventeenth year teaching high school English, and each year the lesson plans become more complex. It used to just be a matter of writing “The Student Will,” adding a verb, and naming the outcome. Now I must do that, determine pre- and posttesting for each segment of a lesson, determine activating knowledge strategies to connect to background information, preteach vocabulary, scaffold the reading passage, add a writing component, and test, test, test.

It is boring. Essay prompts, essay grading. I care more than they do. Work at 6:15 a.m. and leave after 4:00 p.m. Work at home, work on my planning period (if I have one that day), work at lunch, work at night, work on the weekends, work while getting a snack at Dunkin’ Donuts. Grading, reassessing, rewriting lesson plans. Paper practice tests. Practice computerized tests.

It is halfway through the year, and we have already had two computerized practice tests and sixteen lab sessions with practice reading texts and summaries to prepare for April’s testing whirlwind. They have failed them all. But they are mine because last year I moved my students’ scores the most, a fifty-seven percent improvement in test scores over the prior year, an unheard of number. A number I do not know how I got for I did not write lesson plans the last two years. We were given a curriculum that combined reading and writing for me. A curriculum that fit the research regarding the reading-writing connection. And. I. Used. It. I didn’t care that it was for Advanced Placement students, those who would take a test at the end of the year and receive college credit. I didn’t care that it was scripted. I learned how to make it mine, and I implemented it with fidelity. I followed the rules. My teaching style of humor, anger, frustration, and never-ending cajoling have given me only more work. And now, in the politics of the school board, those pushing college education for all were out and so were my premade Springboard lesson plans. The plans that put aside dead white men and their words and encouraged students to read Native American, Spanish, Asian, and black authors from around the world. The plans that let my Hispanic students translate a poem for my black students, instilling pride in my Latino students and awe of them in my black students because they knew what the poem said without being told. My Haitian students spoke creole to each other to show they, too, knew other words.

Parent-teacher conferences, teacher-student conferences, administrator-department head meetings, faculty meetings, department meetings. Why are there not more parent-teacher conferences? They are failing. Do the parents know this? I’ve mailed letters. Did the letters arrive at home? Were the letters intercepted?

I still care more than they do. I must try to reach them. Let’s pull out some of those old plans that I did not write. All Things Fall Apart. Surely they’ll relate to a novel about some of their own history. About what happened when colonization happened and men were deemed less than, were deemed Other as my Level 1 students are deemed Other. But they don’t get it. They don’t get the names. Okonkwo, Nwoye, Ezinma, Ikemefuna, Obierika. I have to force them to act it all out. I have to read each chapter to them. And I am tired.

The system calls louder. ESL testing, Foreign language EOCs, Algebra I EOCs, Algebra II EOCs, Geometry EOCs, World History EOCs, Biology EOCs, Reading FCAT retakes, Math FCAT retakes.

It failed. So I try again with my premade plans from last year, but it is not the same. The continuity of that system does not fit with this system. Julius Caesar. I haven’t read it in years, but I no longer care. I have premade lesson plans. We read. I try to get them to discuss the words, but their words don’t come. Manipulation, military power, ethos, pathos, logos, rhetoric, opportunity, authority, the Ides of March. I try to pull the thoughts from them. Read. Listen to the audio tape. Discuss. Watch the movie. Repeat. Are they even paying attention? They ask when Caesar will die. “When will he die? When will he die?” It’s the only thing of mine, and yet not mine, that gets their attention for even a fraction of a second. “When will Caesar be murdered?”

Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, Snap Chat, Tumblr.

Caesar dies and they miss it. Two lines in a play in which they eagerly anticipated something. I told them it was all a bunch of words and that the death was not gratifying, that it was too quick for the page. All they wanted was to see Caesar die. The movie’s death scene was a let down as well. “That’s it?” they asked.

That’s it! I yelled. That’s it! Okonkwo lost his life to those who did not understand his culture, and Caesar died in two seconds because of his pride, and you say, “That’s it?”

But they do not hear because I do not shout. It is Flappy Bird who gets their attention. It is Flappy Bird who is starting to get my attention. Google, Android, Apple, Mac, App store.

I enter more information. ACTs, SATs, Sunshine State Standards. No, that’s Common Core Standards. DOE, NEA, DCF, PEA.

And then I tell them, “Next week you will have a substitute.” I don’t tell them it’s for the rest of the year, but then I think that I owe them something, so I add, “She’ll be with you until the end of the year.”

They hear that. “What? What’s wrong? Are you okay? Is it cancer? Are you sick?”

Fine. Let them think I’m ill. I am ill. I can no longer bear the burden of being the one who cares about whether they pass English class, whether they pass their graduation exam in reading and writing.

“I’m fine. I just will be taking the rest of the term off. It’s something that’s been coming, and now I’ve had to tell you about it.”

“What will we do? Who is our sub? What about our grades?” Now they care? Thirty out of thirty-six weeks finished, and now they care?

“I know your sub is a she, and she is in charge of your grades. You’ll be studying poetry, and she has the final say about your final grade.” Let’s make it clear that I no longer will be part of this. I am sick; I am ill, but not as they think I am.

I break up with them. I spend six weeks more or less in bed. Spent. Getting used to new anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. Recovering from so much energy expended. Letting the system leave my body. It is exhausting work recovering. Seventeen years and I leave. But I recover. I join the college as an adjunct professor of English, specialty: composition.

PAL, Passport, ENC1101, ENC 1102, prompt, response, syllabus, quiz, discussion.

Notes

1. “Glossary.” Florida Department of Education. n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2016. <http://www.fldoe.org/schools/higher-ed/fl-college-system/glossary.stml>. I officially resigned from the local school board 4 Aug. 2014 and needed a reminder of the terms I so easily used as a high school English teacher. This site proved useful for my litany of terms. The site provides definitions.

2. Olson, Carol Booth. The Reading-Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom. Allyn and Bacon: Boston, 2003. After earning an MEd. in Instructional Technology in August 2005, I decided that I did not want to be an administrator. It was a disappointing realization. The irony is that I went for the MEd. so that I wouldn’t have to do an MA in English. Guess what I’m doing now. From January 2011 to December 2013, I earned eighteen graduate hours in English (rhetoric and composition) and a graduate certificate in teaching college composition, so that I could teach dual enrollment classes at my high school. I left before that could happen. From May to August 2011, though, I researched the connection between reading and writing, basing my research on Carol Booth Olson’s text, which in turn became the basis of all professional development activities I presented to the staff at my school regarding what they could do to help improve student writing in nonEnglish classrooms. I was initially hesitant to adopt the College Board’s SpringBoard program because I do not believe that every student wants or needs to attend college. I eventually adopted the curriculum (mostly because I was told to), making changes to suit how I teach, because it met the criteria in Olson’s text and it meant that I would not have to spend years creating a new curriculum if I used this one. I was teaching Honors English to sophomores (the year of the graduation exam), but I had one double blocked class of FCAT Level 1 retake students (juniors and seniors who had repeatedly failed the test for high school graduation). The bonus, I discovered when I did a trial with these disengaged students, was that my juniors and seniors immediately became more involved in the lessons even if they hated having to repeatedly re-read both long and short passages, one of SpringBoard’s pedagogies as well as a good study practice. For the next two years I solely taught FCAT Level 1 sophomores in double blocked classes of English and Intensive Reading, earning a fifty-seven percent increase in test scores my second year. I do not know my scores for the third year since I left, but I imagine that they declined as I was simply trying not to fall apart. Another irony since I decided to teach Things Fall Apart that year.

3. “Things Fall Apart Character List.” SparkNotes. n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2016. <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/things/characters.html>. It was 2014. I couldn’t remember the names so I looked them up.

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