Monday, June 25, 2007

My Dad's Dog "Chips" and Other Beasts: a Speech

This is the text of a speech I gave to Kanawha County's first year teachers on May 8, 2007...

Good evening. I am honored to be in the presence of so many dedicated educators on this exciting evening—-mentorship and enthusiasm are key in our profession, and I congratulate those of you are seeing the end of your very first year. I’m here to celebrate with you, but first, I’d like to share some stories about my family, myself, and lessons in learning.

Unfortunately—-or not-—it was my experience that I learned far more in the world around me than I ever did in the classroom, and most of that is because I grew up in a family of teachers. I don’t mean to say that my family members are trained educators in the official sense, though my grandmother and her sisters were, as are some of my cousins. What I mean is that my family cultivated in me the attitude that learning experiences are in the world around me and not limited to the discussion that takes place in a classroom. From a young age, I have learned that lessons are everywhere, and, more specifically, that lessons are most often found in stories.

My dad was born in 1945, and he spent much of his childhood in a rural area of Marion County. In his day, unless a boy was exceptionally intelligent or exceptionally wealthy, when he graduated from high school his career options were limited to the mine or the military. Because my father wanted my mother, and my mother didn’t want a miner, my dad joined the air force. After one term there, he returned home, worked a blue-collar job, and eventually retired at the management level. Still, his limited formal education did not and does not limit him from teaching lessons. My family of teachers is also a family of storytellers, and, looking back on my own learning, maybe the greatest of these is my father.

When my father was a kid, he lived in a hollow called Plum Run. On Saturday afternoons, he’d walk a mile to his cousins’ house, and then they would accompany him a few more miles into the nearest town, Mannington, to see a matinĂ©e, or maybe a double feature. As the days grew shorter, in the winter, those few miles home from the show on double feature afternoons often took place in the dark. Being adolescent boys, their favorite films were Westerns, but they also liked horror films. You can imagine the kind they might have watched—think The Wolfman, Boris Karloff, Dracula, Vincent Price, Orson Welles.

On one particular evening, after a horror movie double feature, three boys, hyped up on too many Good n’Plentys and Nehi sodas, made their way home under a darkening sky. Two boys came to their house and said goodbye, leaving my father, twelve years old, jittery from sugar and scary movie paranoia, to walk the last mile, alone, in the dark. He was OK for the first few minutes, until he heard a rustling in the brush behind him. As he walked, the sound grew louder, and he realized that something was stalking him.

Mustering up all his courage, he turned to look, and not far away were two shining eyes reflecting in the moonlight. Dad knew that if he ran, the animal might well chase, so he sped up his walking pace slightly. The animal sped up too; he could hear its footfalls, he could hear its breath, and sure enough, when he screwed up his bravery enough to glance back over his shoulder, those two yellow eyes were just a little closer than they had been before. So he sped up again. For several minutes they continued this pattern, Dad and the eyes, until they reached the field across which my father’s house sat, and Dad decided to make a break for it. Sucking in his breath, he sprinted across the clearing, not looking back, but sure the animal came after him anyway. He could hear it breathing hard, panting as he was panting, outpacing him, and when he reached the light of the windows, he sprang on to the porch, swung open the door, turned to see the creature that had been stalking him, and was met face to face by his dog, Chips, who often followed him to town, and who really liked to play chase.

To hear my dad tell it, Chips was a strange little dog. A beagle mix, Chips was my father’s constant companion and pal, who followed him all over the hills and hollows in the summertime. During the school year, Dad attended a one-room schoolhouse, Plum Run School, which housed the local first through seventh grades. In the days before public busing, all kids walked to school and back, and my dad was accompanied every day on his walks by Chips. On really cold days, the teacher allowed Chips to come in and warm up by the potbellied stove. Even on days my dad was sick and stayed home, Chips walked to school without him, waited, and walked home at the end of the day. Other students and parents marveled at Chips’s behavior, and on one occasion the teacher remarked to my grandparents that Chips was “the most educated dog in the county.”

Now, sometimes it takes time to make sense of the lessons in the stories we know, and sometimes those lessons change as time goes by. I spend a lot of time thinking about family stories, ones that create a shared history, a family culture, and I’ve shared these stories that came from my father with you because they’ve come to mean much to me in their relevance to teaching and learning. Allow me to explain.

In the first story, my dad found himself running from something he loved, a familiar face distorted by fear, paranoia, and tricks of the moonlight and darkness. When we allow ourselves to become overcome by our fears, we sometimes run from the things that can help us. Right now, at my school, the familiar beast in the darkness is WESTEST. With assessments looming just two weeks away, we—like about every other school in the state—are frantically fumbling, trying to ensure that our kids will test their best when the moment comes. And although we’ve been preparing them all year, it’s at this time that panic threatens to get the best of us. Our fears can lead us to believe that standardized tests punish schools, systems, and teachers, and it can be true that they do. It’s a momentary picture of a single standard test; it can’t possibly measure the growth of a child’s mind, but it’s the tool we have. I don’t need to remind you that if we know the tests and use them to our advantage, they provide us with valuable information about what our students need and what we are succeeding at teaching. If we confront and prepare for assessments, our students shine and we are all rewarded for what we do well.

Maybe our most daunting responsibility to recognize the beasts in the darkness and confront them. Seven years ago, I was just about to begin my search for teaching jobs. I was terrified of the principals I faced across enormous desks in interviews. After I was hired, I couldn’t sleep before the night of my first day, afraid that the faculty at my school would not accept me. On the first day, as I stood waiting in front of my classroom door, I was trembling, and don’t even ask me about my first parent-teacher night. Now, I know that my administrators believe in me immensely, my colleagues are some of my closest friends, and my students are a constant source of humor and joy. Well, they are sometimes, anyway. I also have found the value in enlisting families as part of a learning community. Still, at the start of every year, it’s difficult to not allow irrational fear to give way. We must also face the bigger beasts: drugs, abuse, apathy, failure, tragedy. And we do, and we go on.

The second story illustrates very clearly a nineteenth century model for education. I’ll bet that if Chips were given the WESTEST, he probably would not have reached proficiency. Just because a dog faithfully attends school doesn’t necessarily mean he’s learning anything, nor does it mean every dog has his day; whether Chips had remediation, special support, or modified testing conditions, I think he probably would have been a testing liability, which goes to show, all joking aside, that showing up is just not enough. For our kids, or for ourselves. I know from experience that most of us don’t learn from sitting quietly. The best learning, for me, occurs when my inner mind is allowed to come to the forefront in the experience. My students are this way, too. If I am sitting still in a classroom, it’s most often because my mind is somewhere else. In high school, in classes that required silence, I usually had a novel tucked inside the text I was supposed to be reading. Thinking back, I can’t believe my teachers didn’t know. Sometimes it’s easier to ignore the quiet kid who’s not paying attention, or the troublemaker who’s gone to sleep, or the one who’s doing her math homework and hoping you won’t notice. Confrontation is sometimes required when asking kids to take responsibility, and unpredictable situations that might ensue are frightening. Another familiar beast in the darkness is the moment of discomfort that leads us to growth, and we owe it to our kids to take them there, to challenge what they think they know, to pose questions, to seek answers, and to demand the same of every student we meet.

Teaching is hard. Teaching is scary, too. Yet we must not forget that every moment is an opportunity for learning. We are teachers in the classroom—and out. It is our responsibility to prepare our students for a future in the unknown—things we can’t even imagine will come to pass before the ends of our careers, and yet here we are, together in the darkness, facing our fears, and sharing our stories. You’ve almost made it through this year—it’s time to make a break for it, sprint across that field, and see your struggles in the light. Know that your kids and your colleagues are with you. And know that your irrational fears now might--someday--make great stories.

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