My Long-Held Admiration for British Writing

Kazuo Ishiguro by Kubic
Kazuo Ishiguro (Mariusz Kubik photo)

I was in the book store a couple of weeks ago, and I picked up a book from 1990 — The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.   Now, this morning, I am having a hard time staying focused on the graduate school work that has kept me from posting here for a month — and I find myself wanting to go back to the British countryside where the title character of the novel, Stevens, is “motoring” on what we Americans call a “road trip” through the idyllic British countryside.  Now, you have to understand that I picked up this Booker-prize winning novel to get myself some more serious reading and break away from my rising obsession with Agatha Christie — another British writer.   And here, as I make my tea first thing in the morning and listen to the hamster running on his wheel I reflect on another favorite Britisher, James Herriott, and his memory of his wife when he met her, wearing “a pair of purple slacks that would knock your eye out.” Since childhood, it has been my perception that “those writers from England” are somehow special.

As yes, it is language that draws me back to British writers again and again.  It is what in the writing trade we call “voice.”  The characters in  Remains of the Day have such an inimitable way of constructing a phrase:  “Why, Mr Stevens, why why why do you always have to pretend?”  You can hear it, on a different register, in Bridgit Jones’ Diary.

Yes, and Remains was written by an author who was a child immigrant, so we can’t say the British way of writing is born in only to descendants of Shakespeare, Pope and the Victorians, per se.  This construction of language is part of  a tradition that goes back hundreds of years, a love affair with English.  And I have to admit it is a love affair I share. One of its greatest beauties is that it can be adapted by those who are not ancestral Brits.

Once in a while at work, the differences between different languages, especially comparisons of Spanish and English, come up.   And sometimes with my husband, the classicist, comparisons of English and Latin or Greek are made.  My father was a Russian scholar, but he admitted to me that he knows that English is a greater literary language than Russian.  In his dissertation he wrote that “the beginnings of Russian literature were late and obscure … ” causing his professors to rise up in objections — but here at the outset he admitted why Russian must bow to English.  And with a similar aim at honesty, I have to admit that when any language is compared seriously with my beloved English, I begin to feel a certain swelling of indignation.  Deep in my heart, I know English is the greatest literary language the world has ever produced, with a wider vocabulary than any except for Greek, with a vaster body of great literature than any, with a prosody unique and quite beautiful.

Great Britain is the source of this language, and even in modern commercial writing, Brits raise the capabilities of English to the utmost.   And I think it is their love for tradition, tied up with their love for their homeland, that is operative in this nurturing and refining of language.

Now I have got this initial thought off my chest, I must return to graduate school work.  But I promise to return to the topic in further posts, as it has great relevance for the ideals of tradition in classical education, as well as for the consideration of a call for excellence in literature and how this excellence is created and maintained.

(to be continued.  Next time I will cover the British psychotherapist — the classical tradition and the Brits — a speaking tradition in regard to tropes, idioms and metaphor — and anxiety and influence in the (post) colonial writer.)

Democracy and Grade Level Management

The Greeks, as they say, had a word for it.

Last year,  our grade level was at war.  It was so bad that the principal had to sit in on our meetings.  This year, things are much smoother.  We all use the same lesson plan.  We have a team texting group and we communicate about all kinds of things from absences to photo day and we were recently able to synchronize our learning block schedules without input from the “higher ups.”

Democracy is not big in school management.  But it is my secret to succeeding as a grade chair.

Demo-cracy   means, in Greek, people-rule, and was shown in antiquity to be a powerful human organization strategy.  It can be argued that it allowed the Greeks to defeat the Persian empire, a much wealthier and more populous state, because of its power to motivate people and organize resources.

But can teachers really rule themselves cooperatively?  Yes, they can.  Democracy at the grade level is easy to implement.  In meetings, you allow every individual on the team the maximum possible voice and autonomy, and when there’s a problem, like a need to change the lesson planning schedule, you let everyone speak until a consensus is clear.  Instead of imposing your own ideas, you let colleagues discuss and, if necessary, vote.  When everyone has a voice, everyone feels connected, and people start to get along.  Friendliness emerges and team spirit.

Can it really be so simple?  Yes, through the idea of one teacher, one voice, one vote, life on the hallway can be improved.  There’s still going to be storms of various types, but for the everyday processes of grade level life, democracy is the way.

I wonder if a whole school could be run this way?  Perhaps, but it’s rarely tried.



Notes to Self in Re Future Open House Events at School

  1. Read all email regarding the event before hand.  Know when the open house begins and when you are allowed to go home.
  2. Do not start lesson planning in the hour before the event, get distracted by the free pizza spread, and spend the next 50 minutes with your teammates descending into a discussion about specific discipline issues.
  3. Talk to colleagues and ascertain who is making the presentation.   Do this before it is too late and it has to be you or else.
  4. If the person who is making the presentation turns out to be you, think of some way colleagues can help besides making the thumbs-up sign, although that is definitely appreciated.
  5. Make sure that the projector works.
  6. Remember to take chairs off desks so parents will have somewhere to sit.  Next time do this with more than a half minute to spare, as you can hear the parents walking down the hall.
  7. Make sure all the parents sign in.  At the very least, make sure most of them sign in.
  8. If anyone you know comes and does not sign in sign in for them.
  9. Be prepared for parents who want to see the gradebook.  Do not project the gradebook on the movie screen if other parents are in the room.

Okay, so after the open house I felt like a teacher version of Bridgit Jones.  It didn’t work perfectly but what did I expect?   Like the indefatigable Bridget, I was guilty of

  1. Trying to do too much.  I won’t list it all here, but believe me, I have about 3 times too many responsibilities.
  2. Hopelessly unrealistic bouts of optimism about what could be accomplished in ten minutes before an event.
  3. A nearly catastrophic devotion to something I call “Just in Time” time management, which means, never doing anything until the last minute, in the hope that some responsibilities or tasks will be superseded by others or cancelled.  Usually works like a charm, but this time, none of the cancellations came through.

That said, in the end, the truth is everything worked out.  The parents were happy, my teammates enjoyed some extra planning time while I handled the presentation, I got the projector back on line after only one or two minutes, I caught myself before I projected the grades on the screen, and the chairs, most of them anyway, were down when people arrived.

Next year, I’ll read my notes to self list, and do just as well, with less stress.

The Viral No Homework Debate or Debacle Part 2

It was about ten o’clock last night that I realized I may have been too moderate about the viral no homework debate.  To begin20160901_060805, I have long watched my teenaged children struggle with mountains of homework for hours.  “Are you done with your homework?” has actually become a depressing refrain around here.

But I began to feel real sympathy with the storming anti homework faction when I woke up this morning at five a.m. and confronted a mountain of dishes.  I went to get the young adult (high school junior) whose name was on the dish washing schedule for last night, to drag her out of bed early to do the dishes , as is my usual practice, and she mumbled “homework — too much — couldn’t do dishes — AP classes too hard.  Got Brother to promise to do it.”

Exasperated, I asked her:  “You can’t just give your dishes to Brother.  Anyway, what are you doing sleeping with the phone again!  Didn’t your dad take up your phone at 10:30 like we agreed?”  This was in order to prevent her from staying up all night texting people and, consequently, sleeping all afternoon.

“No, couldn’t turn in phone.  Using phone for homework. Let sleep.  Brother will do dishes.”

I stomped out of the room.  She had me beat, I saw.  “Brother is out of his mind to promise to help you with the dishes,” I thought.  And I knew that even if it could be right to drag him out of bed, he wasn’t going to be able to do these dishes, because just one minute before I’d gotten him extra early up to finish the homework he hadn’t finished last night.

These kids are averaging two hours of homework a day with short bursts of up to four hours.  Let’s face it, it’s almost like they don’t have time for household chores.  We barely have time to make dinner and eat it.

I slunk off down the stairs.  I did the dishes myself.  I began to consider revising my vote on the viral no homework debate to the “no homework” side.

The viral “no homework” debate — or debacle

AE Houseman, image credit: Wikipedia

On Tuesday, a Facebook post about a second grade teacher (yes, she was from Texas) who said research didn’t support her giving homework went viral.  All over the country, parents and others began the cry:  “Down with homework!” On Twitter Friday night the #ditchhw thread lit up with opposing teacher factions.  Many claimed that homework was indeed, useless. wrote that she “Tried to find research that said Homework prepares kids for college… couldn’t find it.

Others, like  Kelly Gallegher @KellyToGo said “Homework is not the problem.  Stupid homework is the problem.”  I asked my husband, a Latin teacher,  what he thought was up with this idea of giving up on homework.

“Homework is useless?” or “Homework is a panacea?”  Neither.  As Houseman taught, you have to sit down and look at every individual instance on an individual basis.


First Day Jitters

It was last night that I had to admit the truth: I was in a panic about going back to teaching in the morning. “How can I be so scared?” I wondered. “We’vestress just finished two weeks of professional development, my room is all set up. This is my eighth year, I’m the grade chair, and I’ve been told I’ve been given the gifted class!”

My husband was wondering the same thing. “It will be fine,” he said with conviction, a  conviction I could not share.

Anxiety. How would I get through the day? What if we ran out of stuff to do? What if, more scary, I forgot to do something important, such as putting the right dismissal tag on a student? That could mean sending a kid home on the bus when they were a walker.

What if the class ran away? It happened to me once. I was walking a group of kindergartners back to the building from enrichment class and the leader, then the rest of the class, for some incomprehensible reason just bolted. I got them to stop in only about 50 feet …. the literacy coach instructed me that in the future I would walk backward in front of the class.  Oh what a memory.

“Stop this!” I told myself. I put all the teaching materials I could think of in my teacher cart and went to bed early, setting the clock for 5 a.m.

By the time I got in the car, I felt like one of those guys in the troop transport boat on D-Day, traveling across the English channel not knowing what I was going to face. I got into class and looked around, put out the work I had prepared. I turned on the computer and the projector. And I waited for the kids and their parents. When they came I got the parent information sheets filled in while the kids did the “all about me” paper I’d set out.  Then the moment of truth: I called them to the carpet.

They enjoyed doing the finger play “this old man” to open up carpet time. They understood the first of a number of discussions about classroom management and procedures, and like most every class I’ve ever had on the first day, they seemed to believe that being a good student means sitting quietly. They will learn that this is not my way. They liked the book The Kissing Hand and they diligently worked at doing a four way organizer about it. By that time I had determined that they were pretty normal over all and they were responding to some of my regular teacher questions and games. In the afternoon, we practiced the dismissal and read First Day Jitters, about a teacher who is scared to go to the first day school.

“But teachers don’t get scared!” They said.

Believe me, teachers do get scared of the first day. I remember the movie Hope Floats, where the lead character says “Beginnings are scary and endings are often sad, so it’s good to stay in the middle… ” True of school, as of life. But now the year has begun and I can stay in the middle for a long long time. It’s good to be over that first day.

. And yes, I put the right dismissal tags on everyone, thank God!

The Emotional Experience of a Child who Can’t Read

Reading isn't easy for everyone

Reading isn't easy for all children
Reading isn’t easy for all children

Outside:  “I’m just fine!”  and then inside:  “I’m stupid!”

Each year there will be one, or two or three children in the class who really struggle. For these children, the usual process of reading instruction is an exercise in frustration. Students who can’t read are keenly aware of their situation. Although they are often taken from the ranks of those who are physically overactive and sometimes disruptive, many other students who can’t read sit quietly and pretend they understand because they don’t want anyone to know that they don’t. I have seen this phenomenon in children as young as 5 and 6 years old.

Children know very soon when others understand a concept and they don’t. One common response is to disrupt the class because that is something they can do. Other young children keep hoping they are just about to understand and will generally claim they do understand.

With common methods of reading instruction (one-sound worksheets, choral reading, sight-word look-say), these students often find ways of covering up their lack of knowledge, such as copying worksheet assignments and mouthing responses that they don’t actually know.

By third and fourth grade poor readers are adept at pretending they did work they didn’t do and pretending to read passages they can’t read. If a teacher decides to try to instruct them at their level with exercises that address their learning needs, many at first will be rebellious because by this time they believe they are hopeless.  But when they see that they finally understand the work they will often be happy and begin to manifest enjoyment of the work.

Students who struggle with reading need more time to learn the skills of reading than other students.  Still, every student can be helped and it is just about the most rewarding teaching you will ever do.   Without a dedicated reading teacher of some variety these students will not “just get it on their own” some day. Sometimes it is a parent or other family member who finally figures out what is wrong and takes the time to create the understanding, but usually it is the child’s teacher. For more information about what you can do to help a child who can’t read, visit Teach Reading Classically.

How to plan your home school using a personal weekly schedule for each student

img008This is how I simultaneously held my two homeschooled daughters accountable and set them free.  And I was spending only the first hour of the day actually instructing them; the rest of the time they worked independently.  They did not do all the subjects every day; in fact in some years they did not do all the subjects.  But most subjects they did at least once a week.  For an incentive, I wouldn’t give them lunch unless they were done with math, their journal, their foreign language and grammar lessons.

Here it is:  the weekly homeschool template.

Religion:  Take credit for morning devotions, prayers, or other gathering.  In a secular school they call it morning meeting.  In a religious school it’s family prayer.

Math:  I’m assuming you’ve got a math book.  Generally, math is the hardest subject to get focused on and that’s why we did it first.  Put in the page and lesson the student will do on each day.  My girls checked their own work with the teacher guide.  If they got less than 85% they had to redo the problems they missed.

Now, for English:  I have long been an advocate of the almost completely free reading time scheduled in minutes.  This plan is for once the child reads independently.  If that is not yet occurring refer to 7 steps to get a struggling reader or any child to read.  You would do this lesson right after morning meeting.

They might have a grammar book.  If they have that, write down the pages.  Also, my kids had to write a page of journal every day and a book report on Fridays.

History and Geography:  At times we used a textbook like the Greenleaf Guides.  At other times they read novels or made maps. 

Handwriting:  I assigned handwriting daily for years in a handwriting book.  The kids remember it, for the most part, fondly.

Science:  We didn’t do too much of this but we did try to do an experiment every week from Mr. Wizard’s Supermarket Science.

Music:  This was for those years and students who did music lessons.  Also, I would play guitar and we would sing.  They got credit for doing that too.

Art:  At times we had used an art how to book or other art projects.

Foreign Language:  If you’re doing it.  We had a tutor come at times.

Put down the Chores – dishes, make bed – that the child has to do.

Every Sunday night or very early on Monday morning I’d sit there with all their books and set out the week’s work for each student on one of these sheets.  And as adults, I noticed they are real self-starters.

The 4 Parts of the Reading Process



In my observation there are four discrete processes the student goes through when they process text.  For the struggling reader, the first step is figuring out where the reading process is breaking down.  Generally in my experience that will be in (1) and (3).  And usually when there’s problems with (3) the phonics have not been nailed down one-second-response tight. The “word caller” has not mastered (4) and the child with a fluency problem has trouble with (2).

Another issue:  The struggling reader perceives that he or she is falling behind and gets discouraged.  It’s important to make sure that the child receives emotional support in order to continue.  I always find it helpful to remind all students that around 4th grade a lot of kids stop trying so hard and at that time it is possible for those who were lagging to catch up and pass kids who learned more quickly.  It’s a kind of tortoise and hare effect, and yes, it really does happen.

Classic Children’s Novel: On the Banks of Plum Creek

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder has had a great impact on my life.  My own family, like the Ingalls, was rather unconventional (pioneers were, by and large, rebels to society to some degree) and although there were huge differences between our life in a suburb and the Ingalls’ life on the prairie, there were similarities too.  To this day as we drive across the country, I imagine the pioneers in their wagons as if they were beside me.

I used to ride my horse outside of town in the farms and woods and I always thought, “This is what Laura saw when she came to the prairie.”  Taking care of horses was a big part of my life so I used to think a lot about the days when horses were work animals and could be needed for family survival.  I wished I could ride to school in a buggy instead of a car!

The genre of Banks of Plum Creek is historical fiction.  Although it is based on Laura’s life, there are many details from her life that have been changed or not included.  In fact as an adult I did a study on Wilder’s life and found that, in fact, the real Ingalls family was much burdened by troubles, most of all when an infant son, Freddy, died.  I realized that in the novelization of her life Wilder failed to report heartbreaking hardships including the loss of several homes.  It also appeared to me that Pa was rather improvident, something Wilder skipped over entirely.  Laura herself had two children but the younger, a son, also died in infancy.  She tried to write the history of her young marriage to Almonzo, but never finished it, stopping after their house burned down. The pain was apparently too great.  The book, The First Four Years, was published posthumously but has a somber feel compared to the others in the series.

Asked to list a book which had impact on my life this week, I chose Banks of Plum Creek.  Perhaps because at times when I had to pull myself together and just get through things, I have always thought of the character Laura and the author Laura and  about what they had to do to survive.  If they got down their life’s road, I figured, I should be able to get down mine. And then I go on, reminding myself that I am a daughter of the pioneers, and that on some level, all Americans, from recent immigrants to Native Americans who  crossed the land bridge from Asia 10,000 years ago, are somehow pioneers inside.