“The elephants are dancing on the graves of squeeling mice.” Cream, Anyone for Tennis

I wake up.
I sit in class.
I take notes.
I finish assignments.
I go home,
Do hours of homework, and
Go to sleep.

Then I wake up a do it again.

Why?

How does this stuff matter?

Obviously, it doesn’t
Because we learn the same stuff
Year after year.
After year.
After year.
Maybe that’s why I don’t care.
Maybe that’s why I don’t try.

I get it.

My choice.

It’s just school.

“Comedy is, for the most part, just an obsession with injustice.” Whitney Cummings

He came to school hungry
She never satiated on breakfast.
He acted out,
She sent him to the office.

Later they learned about nutrition
He taking advantage of the program
She realizing Pop-Tarts aren’t that great
The food allowed them to survive.

Years later,
He was working and shopping for produce
She was retired and doing the same.
His basket ran into her little cart.

They recognized each other
His maturity not masking the child
Her wrinkles not scratching out his memories
Of their year together in fifth grade.

They never realized the food bond between them
They never put it together that “hangry” is real
They only knew that giving each other a chance
Created a flood of memories right there in the safe part of the store.

Thank you to my students who make life interesting. They bring their baggage to school and make me stretch to figure out how I’m going to motivate them to be attentive to the lessons I’m trying to teach them. They have their personalities that rise and fall with the sun and moon and give teenage moods keeping me from being stagnant. They challenge me with questions gathered from lives on the internet and talk from whatever social media they follow. I love their dynamic ways of being because it keeps me thinking young. Thank you to all of my students.

On the first day of NaNoWriMo
I took yoga and learned
My core is weak and my hips are tight.

Duh…

I went to school and had the great laugh
As a student with seventeen years of life experience
Found it appropriate to yell and me,

“You’re pulling rank and telling me where I can poop?”

(Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, LMAO…!)

“Yes,” was the answer.

I rediscovered my iPod!
Oh, how I wish my Classic could last forever.
Buried in there and resurrected today
Was a Lucinda Williams and Tony Joe White duet
That hit my chakras the way good music should.

I discovered a brownie with and Oreo and fudge in the middle
And carried it around in my gut like I was three months pregnant
Which is something since
I can never be pregnant, wrong plumbing, you know,
Being a guy and all.

The yoga did a number on my awareness
Bringing sensitivity to my abilities
To find connections, entertainment, enlightenment as each period passed.

Another student, during yoga of all things,
In my class to help students strengthen their abs
And loosen their hips,
Yelled out, “My lenses are so smeary.
I go to Lens Crafters and they clean them,
But they are still smeared. What gives?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him
It was the ocean of sweat dripping from every pore
Near his recently commercially cleaned glasses.
He tried to dry them, really only smearing them more
And went back to Downward Dog
To puddle them more.

The day ended with a TED talk
Shown to my class without the safety of a preview,
But they seemed like they needed some inspiration
And the story of a woman surviving a bike accident
Seemed like a decent place to find some.

Little did I know that the talk
Was being directed at me
And how starting over begins best
At the bottom with a thought asking,
WHY NOT ME?”

Being given opportunities, we must seize them
By starting something, anything, to let us live.
To deny that we are ants going about ho-hum lives
In lockstep with the other ants.
While my novel is not even close
To recovering from paralysis and learning to fly,
It’s a start nonetheless.
I mean, “Why not me?”

And to think I almost ran this morning…

The first few weeks of school are like the early rounds of a boxing match. The fighters circle each other and throw a few scout punches to see how the opponent will react. If the pugilistic espionage is met with an offensive move, then the fighter can understand how to defend and later attack his enemy. The start of a school year is similar in that the teacher and students must get to know each other. The dynamics of the relationship of everyone in the classroom is more important than the skills of the teacher or the acumen of the students.

Jack knew this and liked to take his time getting to know his students. He would throw ideas at them just to get a reaction. With the younger students getting that reaction was easy. He could push their buttons just by mentioning anything that went against the culture that had been shoved into their heads for their previous eight years in school. He would ask them why rules were stupid? They would nearly get out their seats to explain how unjust life was in the eyes of a teenager.

On this day, Jack decided to push a button. As he started to explain the focus of the class and how it would relate to the students’ lives, he stopped, looked at them with a pained face, and asked, “What do y’all think of PIOUS?”

The groaning started right away. Jack felt the angst rising and all he had to do was wait for the frustration to supersede their fear of answering in the way they figured he would want to hear. The fighters stalked each other and stared, neither wanting to throw another punch.

Finally, Bob said, “Why are all the teachers doing this? I hate listening to how this is going to effect my life.”

“Yeah,” said Millie. “Can’t we just take some notes and then the test. My mom says none of this will matter when I go to college anyway.”

Jack stepped around the desk, “Why do you think she says that?”

“I don’t know. She just says that we will probably forget what we learned in high school and then we’ll learn new stuff in college.”

Jack leaned towards Millie and lowered his voice to a loud whisper, “Your mom is wise. Go home and thank her.”

The class looked stunned as if a straight right had hit them right in the nose. They were trying to figure out if a teacher had just told them that school was a waste of time. This went against everything they had ever been told. Sensing their confusion, Jack knew this was the time to reconnect the circuits in their discombobulated minds.

“PIOUS is a strategy to help students make sense of what they are learning. It’s a scripted program that attempts to make connections between what you are learning and how it might be used in real life.”

Rodney asked, “Dr. Rice, when will I ever have an egg carton in my pocket to help me count change.”

Everyone laughed. It seemed that a math teacher had made a big deal of teaching money using egg cartons when this group was in elementary school. The lesson was not her most popular, but Jack saw a chance to go “gotcha” on his class.

“That was a pretty Disney trick, but it’s a teaching strategy that has some good qualities.”

“Like what?” asked Rodney.

“First, it helped to teach you about different values of money. The egg carton was just a way to help you sort the money so that you could see the amounts of change. Second, and I think this more important, it created a memory about school that each of you can share.”

“Memories aren’t tested, Doc,” said Bob.

“True, but memories are the basis for learning. Look, if you can remember the ridiculousness of that lesson and remember the reason that your teacher was using that trick, then you have committed your brain to making a connection. That is learning.”

Had they been in a ring, the students’ knees would have been buckling. They were ready for the knockout punch.

“PIOUS is just another trick. The key is you. What will you choose to remember? Will you see everything as stupid? Will you seek to make those connections so the content finds a connection to you. You will make those connections for no other reason other than because you have made it important. Then again, you may decide that some things are not important and the connections won’t be made.”

“Like my mom,” said Millie.

“Maybe, she may have just forgotten most of the stuff. She is getting old, you know. Oops, did I say that out loud. Each of you knows about forgetting in school. It’s like what happens when the bell rings and I don’t see you again for a couple of days. Many of you forget what we talked about in just that short time. What’s important is that you start finding the memories and asking yourself why you remember them. The connections will happen, then you won’t ever have to worry about egg cartons or PIOUS again.”

Several days passed and Jack received an email from Allen. The message was short and the tone was aggressive.

“SEE ME!”

The first days of school have a lyrical quality. The students arrive with varying degrees of energy. There are those who are serious about school and have learned to play the game. There are others who have given up on the game and only come because they are compelled to attend. Still, there are others who think they are the game and do everything they can to make a mockery of what is happening. The first days are on homage to the frenetic pace with which learning must take place and a tribute to the every style of spoken word from socially conscious rap stylings to the laid back ballads of a country crooner.

Jack found that the best way to deal with the first few days was in embracing the energy and letting it take him wherever it went. He had learned that having an unassuming manner allowed the kids to find their place in his classes and gain the confidence they needed to fit into high school. All the while, though, he was a spy who was hacking their social status code and preparing to take them to places they probably did not want to go. Jack would go about his random storytelling creating the impression that his was a class that had little to do with actual learning. Just when the students would start to have a look of “where is this guy going,” Jack would drop a serious question on them that would require the students to relate the non-sense story to a concept that they had talked about in a lecture. The impact was predictable. The students would make faces and say that there was no connection, then Jack would lead them through a series of “What about” questions that guided students towards the realization that the story had a purpose.

The first few days of storytelling and questioning were often slow and combative. The students, who were not in school shape yet, had a hard time making connections to the stories. They would complain that the class did not matter or that they weren’t learning anything. Then, like every good song or poem, there would be a moment of insight. They would understand that the stories did relate to something. They would start to think about what they were hearing beyond the entertainment value and start looking for the messages of the stories. Before the end of the first marking period they would start asking for stories instead of PowerPoint lectures and canned educational instructional materials.

The beginning of the school year was no time for jamming the students with the prison like expectations of law and order learning. Jack had learned his lesson there. He had given up on the “my way” method of teaching and taken his classroom control to a different level of coercion. Instead of demanding that the students be the way he wanted, he taught them how the skills they were learning in class would help them be successful in all areas of their lives. He integrated the course expectations with course content so that the students could see the relevancy of his madness. He praised their successes and retaught whatever was necessary to help them understand that his class was about learning how to be successful and all the Health stuff was just a tool for their achieving success. There was no rush for all of this to happen because as Jack saw the calendar year, there was ample time for this methodical kind of learning.

Unfortunately, this year, Jack would not be afforded the freedom to teach as he had found was best for him. He was being given a program, PIOUS, that was marketed as a non-scripted design framework to improve student success. Fortunately, Jack was done resisting and trying to figure out what educational researchers and school power brokers were trying to do. He had become like the students who just come to school and get through it. His goal was to stay as true to himself as he could without ignoring the wants of the people who were developing the vision for the school district. The Commander was one of those people. His role as the principal seemed to be survival. He did that well, submissive to his superiors and aggressively dishonest to his subordinates. Perhaps the one thing that truly allowed him to stand out was his Trump-styled hair.

The Commander only answered to The Commandress. She was a longtime school administrator with a short time of teaching experience. Her background was in budgets, mostly spending the budget on canned programs with little relevancy to what students needed to learn. One year she spent thousands on math manipulatives so students could learn to do math in egg cartons. Another year she spent money on technology that did not have the ability to upgrade. There were few who questioned her judgement, though. She ruled with an iron will that was exercised through her principals and bevy of central office administrators. This year they were pushing PIOUS as the latest and greatest thing to hit education since real estate taxes.

The PIOUS model was a joke to many of the teachers at Wilnetsburg High School. They saw the program as dumbing down, an easing of standards, and a script that took away their professional judgment in the classroom. Jack listened to The Commander’s raggedy speech about demographics and achievement with the same survival instinct he could tell was being used to deliver the speech. He submitted to the will of The Commandress and a strange thing happened to Jack. He became happy and on the first days of school he felt no frustration as he spoke about the practical reasons for the students learning what they were. After all, PIOUS was no different than what he had been doing for nearly a quarter of a century. District policy was finally going to let Jack be Jack.

As usual, the students wrestled with the stories. They also complained that most of their teachers were practically teaching the same way and that school was really boring. Jack thought about how he would respond to his students’ concerns. As he was about to answer, The Commandress and her minion, The Commander, walked in for an informal observation.

“Ella, I’m not sure what the best way to answer your question is,” said Jack. He looked at his two bosses and continued, “Learning is a process. Let’s look at it this way, there are many ways to Richmond. Once you decide to go there, you have to figure out what you think is the best way. Hopefully, you’ll get there safely. The way were are teaching this year is one way to help you get wherever it is you want to go. However, you define success your success, whether it be AP tests, trade school, the military, or entering the workforce. That’s up to you. There are lots of ways to get there and we hope that this way will help you figure out where you are going. Your job is to take what we do and figure out how to make it make sense for you because without your acceptance, this program will not help you at all. But…there are many ways to Richmond, so don’t give up on learning because it takes many forms and is going to be important for wherever you decide to go.”

Jack looked at his bosses who had the expressionless look of administrators who walked into a class expecting to see one teacher and got someone totally different. He smiled with confidence and a puffy chested attitude that was true to himself, student centered, and educationally reasoned. The stone faced duo left and Jack continued with his class. Ten minutes later his computer dinged and let him know that he had a new email. It was from The Commander and all it said was, “Stop by my office after class.”

“Damn, back on the radar,” thought Jack.

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Photo Credit: pixababy.com via Pexels

There is a fine line between prison and school. Prisoners are given cells. Students are given desks. Prisoners get recreation time. Students have physical education classes and recess. Prisoners do time. Students meet hours. Both are told when to speak, how to act, and when they can go to the bathroom. Guards roam the cell blocks and halls to protect the sanctity of both environments to protect the individual missions. Prisoners are supposed to learn from their mistakes and take advantage of their sentences so that they may be reformed, thereby becoming productive members of society. Theoretically, students are allowed to learn from their mistakes in an effort to prepare them for the rigors of living as adults. Minus the bars and guns, prisoners and students have similar existences, although, the student experience is more lockdown than it was when Jack Allen was a student.

Jack grew up in an historic town just after court orders forced the school system to desegregate. His public school experience had been one that rode the energy of punk, disco, and classic rock music. He took away an appreciation for people and social justice instead of the book based lessons that seemed too limiting for his education. Thirty years after his graduation from high school and nearly ten years after getting a doctorate in education, Jack sat with the rest of his school’s colleagues in folding chairs that erased every bit of suppleness from their hips. They had been herded into the frigid gymnasium so they could taught the school district’s latest initiative, PIOUS, Practical Instruction Offered Uniquely System. The training began three hours earlier with batches of teachers talking about batches of students. Librarians were paired with English teachers, math teachers were grouped with foreign language teachers, and all of them talked about the relationship between poverty and language readiness as predictors of school success.

PIOUS was simple enough. The premise was that students learn better when the complexity of a concept is deconstructed into its essential parts. Jack found the discussion fascinating and sad. He was sad because he had become the old teacher that he swore he would never turn into. He remembered his first year of teaching when the initiative was to build academic vocabulary so that students would understand the key words in the directions of tests. Back in those brown haired days, Jack thought this to be enlightening, but nearly twenty-five years later, and under a full head of gray hair, he only wanted to push a button and go home to walk his dog. The PIOUS model promised to raise student achievement with a multitude of strategies that were gathered from lists of best practices and slickly packaged under an empirically tested model. Jack found that piece of marketing to be fascinating as the studies supporting PIOUS had been conducted by the same hucksters who were putting out the latest, greatest model of instruction and had been conducted under questionable research methods. Evidently, validity, reliability, and random sampling had no real place in educational research.

An administrator from the district office said, “Jack, what do you think about the relationship of the PIOUS framework to student success.”

Jack thought for a moment. On one hand, he knew that the correct answer was that PIOUS was the answer to helping close everything from achievement gaps to the problems of politicians who control public education funding diverting those funds to charter schools that are run by the very politicians setting educational policy. On the other hand, Jack, knew that the most important player in the educational process was being ignored by policy makers and educational opportunists everywhere. PIOUS removed all of the responsibility for learning from the students. The program while opportunistic removed the focus of education from the students to the teachers, thereby making learning an extrinsic proposition.

“If I might quote, Seneca, ‘You may, then, boldly declare that the highest good is singleness of mind: for where agreement and unity are; there must virtues be: it is the vices that are at war with another.’ I think PIOUS could be good if it promotes a singleness of mind.”

The administrator looked confused. “I don’t understand.”

Jack said, “The purpose of PIOUS is to strip the content down to the essential components of a lesson. In theory, this will allow students to develop a single minded view of what they are learning. Hopefully, they will be able to filter out all that noise that exists in childhood and see the importance of what they are learning. In that way, I think PIOUS is a tool to help students learn.”

“I hear a ‘but’ in your voice.”

Jack smiled because he knew that his answer would be received with the same appreciation as a rake being dragged over sunburnt skin, “The excerpt from Seneca suggests that vices compete with each other to interfere with finding virtue. If we are able to remember anything about our schooling, I bet we each had vices in the classroom. Maybe we didn’t like the teacher. Maybe the subject matter was boring or irrelevant to us at the time. Whatever they were, those vices competed with our ability to focus on what we were learning. It wasn’t until we were mature enough to give learning its due that we could allow school to become virtuous. We had to deal with our vices to find success in school.”

The administrator asked, “Are you suggesting that we bag PIOUS?”

“Not at all. I am suggesting that education, like prison, is not about what we do to them, it’s about what they come to realize while they are going to school. Prisoners who accept the opportunity of reform are able to survive outside of the walls. Students who become virtuous in an educational sense make the most of their school years. PIOUS is one tool that might be appropriate for a student. However, no matter how sincere we are in our belief that this is the best way to teach students, PIOUS is unlikely to fulfill its promise if the students don’t buy into the program.”

The meeting ended at its mutually agreed contractual time. As usual, little attention was given to the greater philosophical implications of why the current initiative was being chosen. There is a blind spot in education that is as vacuous as a cesspool. The assumption is that if a message is delivered with recommendations and data, it must be the best way. In the coming months, the virtues and vices of PIOUS would play out with Jack being the dutiful implementer and open-minded seeker of the capacities and abilities of this new program.