Friday, March 07, 2008

Gratuitous Self-Promotion Sheltered By The Wafer-Thin Veil Of Analysis

Former goofy-nerd student comes by looking like he'd be right at home in the hipster maze of the 415, holding this pink piece of paper and talking about how his sophomore English teacher gave him an assignment about me. Entitled Side-by-Side Essays, it is just that: two essays split down the middle by five reading questions. The one on the right is actually about me. I'll quote in full.

Mr. [TMAO] was my English teacher at [that school in the east 408] during 7th grade. He was a big, chunky white guy who wore a formal suit with some dirty, ripped Converse sneakers.

On the first day of school Mr. [TMAO] gave us a reading test. I had really low scores, at the 4th grade level. I felt like retard. But Mr. [TMAO] encouraged me to do my best. Every day I would have to read at least two books from my grade level.

After a few months I had improved two grade levels. I felt really good about myself. I felt smarter, confident, and proud. When I went home I read books, too. My favorite book was House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. It was really hard work because I had problems reading. But I wanted to learn badly enough to read at my house! I didn't want to fail, and I wanted to show Mr. [TMAO] that I could do it.

When school ended I achieved my goal of reaching my reading level. I got a B in Mr. [TMAO's] class thanks to his help and my hard work.

My thinking here is don't need a résumé anymore. I'll just send this along.

You want to know how I get things done? Second graph, where I bust out a diagnostic and share the results – no matter how bad – in affirming, positive ways. From there we see evidence of meaningful practice and relevant work. There is a clear goal evidenced in the third graph, an ambitious end-point students work toward. Better still, we see communication regarding progress toward this goal. We see investment, empowerment, and in the last sentence, a clear understanding of that success equation: "his help and my hard work."

And man, you want to know if I get things done? Take a look at the first graph. Someone taught this kid how to utilize adjectives, and I'm pretty sure it was me.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an inspiration!

7:34 AM  
Anonymous Joanne Jacobs said...


3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for encouraging him.

Isn't it sad he doesn't get it from home?

1:58 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


I don't know who wrote the original essay, and you probably don't either. How do you know this student does not receive encouragement from his or her family?

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All that work just to get a kid upto grade level?

Kind of depressing - the kicks of teaching the disadvantaged...? Kind of like coaching your brains out to make a basketball team mediocre...?

10:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Taking the behind and moving heaven and earth to make them average... this is your life's work?

10:19 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Bell, Ph.D. said...

It's so wonderful to get positive feedback from former students. I don't think people who aren't educators understand how hard it is to a) motivate a student who "feels like a retard" and b) to see true progress. The real progress is the inspiration and academic self-confidence and self-efficacy the student has now.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. (William Butler Yeats)

You go TMAO.

5:42 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


No man, not depressing at all. On the other hand, you're kind of depressing. What's your deal with all this?

7:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I teach advanced high school students who with only a little instruction just makes leaps and bounds on their way to UCLA, Berkeley, or the Ivies... academic all stars who are so smart it makes me, their teacher, feel unworthy in comparison to them at their ages.

But to put all this work day after day, as you do, to get an 8th grader from a 6th grade reading level to the 8th grade reading level... and to maybe make it into San Jose State... education minor leagues, to put it mildly.

8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After thinking about it for a minute, I imagine it might be a big deal to that kid who gets into San Jose State. Point well taken.

How strange that you and I ostensibly share the same job (teacher) in the same profession (education), but our paths will never cross since we operate in such different environments. Same with our students: in their very different academic trajectories, they will not travel in the same circles -- it is like we share the same country but have little in common.

Good luck and goodbye.

8:35 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


I may be working in the minor leagues, but it sounds like you've spent quite some time knocking em outta the park in slow-pitch, short-fence soft ball. Over here in single-A ball, being good at my job, bringing creativity and passion and focus and will to this work fucking matters for the life outcomes of these kids. We're playing with live ammunition round here, and while the stakes my seem piddling and disdainful to you and the kids you teach, the difference between SJSU and not-graduating is a greater distance and a greater journey than plumping those application stats for a run at Stanford.

I don't expect you to get this. But in the process of not-getting it, I don't expect to see multiple comments disparaging parents and a community you know nothing about.

9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, TMAO,

Way to go. Awesome that you taught adjectives and helped find the thread of Ariadne with this kid. I read your blog and frequently cheer with you, lament with you, and sometimes shake my head. But man, what a moment.

Yet I'm wary of the fierceness (aggression?) you display on this blog. Courage is admirable. Exasperation and anger at the apathy of teachers, a culture that doesn't support schools, and the system is understandable. And your commitment to kids just rocks.

And yeah, we've got a long way to go. What's the best way to get there, you think? I know for one I give a damn (and I work in the inner city bay area, too), but I'm also a single mom with a little kid. I can't spend the hours like you and Dan do, designing the way cool lesson plans, layouts, powerpoints and Kinsella workshop-based handouts every day. I know a lot of us want to do a great job, but railing at your colleagues and making martyrdom some kind of prerequisite is hopeless, too.

I'm pretty frustrated with what I know my kids need and what I'm able to give, and sometimes it just eats me up. Enough to make me want to leave, because I'm not Sisyphus and sometimes the rock's too damned heavy. And I can't let this gig run my whole life.

Know what I mean?

Sign me,

Middle School Mom

10:34 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


I think both here and at Dan's you can read about us struggling with the interplay of work-life and how that affects our commitment to do this work the best way we know how. (For what it's worth, I think he's gonna find a way to avoid the hit I took over all this...) I'm ferocious and aggressive to the exact extent that so many are complacent and hand-wringing, willing to lay blame and point fingers in every direction except back at our own efforts and our own labors. A small percentage of all that is admittingly a rhetorical stance to prove a point, but the rest is just how we need to go about doing this. I'm not trying to be a martyr, because the like outcomes of martyrs tends to suck a little, but I will rail against those who are satisfied with so little and make the work for the rest of us that much harder. Like, what if my 7th graders could read on a 4th grade level instead of a 2nd? How much easier would life be...?

What's the best way to go? Teacher prep. Focused, specialized teacher preparation that adequately gets folks ready to be successful high need urban educators, and eliminates the need for disastrously soul-sucking learn-on-the-job work loads.

Train teachers the right way, and provide a tiered professional system that recognizes that effectiveness of successful educators, and gets them working with other teachers without completely leaving the classroom. What if my day was teaching 5th & 6th period core to the lowest 7th graders in the school, while the rest of the time I spend developing materials and working with teachers? How rad would that be? How beneficial for all?

12:21 PM  

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