Wednesday, February 07, 2007

This One Hurt

“I wish I could go back to the time when I was smart,” D. says, staring at another unit exam D-.

I want to say I wish the same thing, that I wish we could do a time-freeze and kick ourselves back Marty McFly style to those days when someone was trying to teach you letter sounds, or sight word recognition, and how to put it all together, because unlike R. or A. or C. your learning gap profile is less clear, revealing less obvious deficiencies except for the fact that you’re not learning, not at all, not nearly enough, and I want that too, to travel backwards to a point where the distance between what you know and what you need to know was measurable in thematic units of study, rather than a number of years nearly half the total number you’ve been alive, that point where we could have filled that mental backpack with some tools -- bright ones, sharp ones, powerful ones that whir and buzz and hum and dig deep – and done something about all this so that all the time between then and now would not come across as such an exercise in waste and futility, endlessly starting at the bottom of an ever-growing mountain and trying to summit the damn thing with tools everyone knows are insufficient to the task. But the Libyans won’t sell me any plutonium, and we’re stuck in the endlessly expanding present, where everyday yields another iteration of vocab-spelling-fluency-grammar-essays-reading strategies-application-tie-in-assessment groundswell, and the best I got is pushing and pulling and giving speeches about habit-breaking and new habit-forming, and about wanting it, because I know you can remember the myspace display-name of everyone who has commented in the last 48 hours, and therefore you could also learn 30 vocabulary words, subject-verb agreement, and the means to interpret non-fiction subject headings.

“There is no going back,” I do say, and some of the bustle of filling out test record reports, step-up awards, English Experts sheets subsides, one of those autonomic responses to tone found in the teenager of the species, “there is only going forward, and we can go forward. That time you miss is also in the future, and we can find the way there again.”

And from somewhere over my shoulder a voice says, “Let’s hope so,” and in that dusty-over-the-bifocals-English-professor phrasing, no doubt acquired from my own over-use, I am hit with the sudden wish to go back in time myself, back to point where arrogance and unworldliness provoked more forceful rejoinders, instilled greater refrains in students than "let's hope so" -- a grandmother’s response to promises of improvement that I have apparently saddled them with. I want my own November 5, 1955, a fulcrum point where a confluence of events could reverse the fade-out wash-away translucence that makes quiet mockery of the all the reform-attempting, conference-going, leadership-acquiring of the past years.

Or maybe just this: “I wish I could go back to the time when I was smart,” is so completely not what I meant when I affirmed my belief in the theory of malleable intelligence during my TFA selection interviews.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What would it take to get him to that place in the future besides your teaching and his will?

Hope isn't going to cut it.

8:34 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

If that kid is willing to make learning the priority in his or her life, I believe eventually he or she will be in that place again.

I really loved this post.

8:55 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


For D. to get there, she needs shore up phonics. She needs to build academic language, and gain an understanding of English syntax. She needs to read all the time and think about what she reads. She needs to work harder, frankly, and participate more accurately. She needs to further her understanding of non-fiction text, its structures and its purpose.

Yes, hope alone will not cut through this.

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Jeri said...

Nope, hope alone won't cut it. But hope on YOUR part is so important as you help her do all the things you listed in your reply to anonymous.

That's why we must continue to hope. Even when the hoping is a habit we have formed through discipline and determination.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is anonymous, again, from the first post. I just want to say that I appreciate when you spell out what needs to be done--the actual steps to your students' literacy. I find what you know about getting kids to read fluently and with comprehension more compelling than bankrupt rants about how far behind they are.

Don't you get tired of people responding to your posts with sentimentality?

10:24 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


It's a matter of venue and context, isn't it? I need to know those things because I need to teach them. This is a given. But I do I need to write about them? Do people need to read about phonics practice? On some level, maybe not. This is not a blog about best instructional practice, and I find those that intend toward that to be tedious.

At the same time, I hate the word "rant," hate that it has been appropriate as an acceptable form of discourse or as understandable thing people do from time-to-time. To the extent that anything reads that way, I'd like to think it is rhetorically intentioned, as opposed to organically derived. Are those writings "bankrupt"? You tell me. Is awareness important? Is a continued refutiation of this awful state of affairs of value? Or do we already know all this? Again, you tell me.

Where is the interplay of emotion and intellect, and how fine needs be the balance?

7:23 AM  
Anonymous astevens said...

I am not sure that I would even classify this post as a "rant". I think it is a reflection on what you and your students are currently thinking and/or facing, and if you are anything like me, writing about it can sometimes lead to a solution (or at least an acceptance of sorts).

Plus, I think we have all felt that way at least once in our life, and we can empathize... I wish I could go back to a time when I was smart, or young, or carefree... the thought itself is the first step in acknowledging where you are so you can get wherever you would like to be.

At least that is hte way I see it.

7:54 AM  

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