I’ve been reflecting a bit on the title of this blog. I started this thing eight or nine years ago. I can’t remember exactly when, because I started it on another site that I don’t even have the password for anymore. It gets kind of fuzzy up in the ol’ teacher brain, and the current historical moment doesn’t help much.
At the time I started this blog, I wanted something that staked a claim away from the heroic teacher blogs I kept comparing my practice against. I felt there was a missing perspective, that “in-the-trenches” view on what works and what doesn’t work in a New York City classroom where you might have 100 percent attendance one period and 5 percent the next.
The image in my head was of the famous opening battle scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. We see Kirk Douglas, playing the iron-jawed Colonel Dax, a French commander at what looks to be the Battle of Verdun. Dax marches down the trench, past cowering men, his men. It’s a bravura tracking shot, cutting between Dax and Dax’ POV which gets more and more obscured by smoke and dust from the shelling overhead. It ends with Dax walking up to a set of periscoping binoculars which give him a final view of the “Anthill,” a forbidding German redoubt he and his men have been ordered to assault. Shells explode. A sergeant calls down the time.
Everything is going according to plan. And there isn’t a man in the scene, Dax included, who has any faith in that plan.
Not to be negative but there’s a certain level of absurdity at the heart of the teaching game. Big goals generally lead to small, demoralizing outcomes. Meanwhile, some of your biggest successes come from simple, dopey lessons that you can’t even believe the students took as motivating. Take last year, for example. I had a sophomore algebra class that struggled with nearly everything I put in front of them. Just getting them to take notes was an uphill battle. One day, in frustration, I printed out 30 worksheets on the topic of fraction-to-percentage conversion and dropped it on them with even so much as a mini-lesson.
They worked to the bell.
“Mister, can we get more lessons like this,” two kids told me at the end.
As I prepare myself mentally this weekend for another round of remote learning, that notion of kids pushing back against a lesson already feels like a fond memory. In the new regime, the kids who show up to the live session generally want to work with you. The ones who don’t show up will sometimes try to sneak the assignment in a day later. Then you’ve got the kids who don’t show up at all.
I’m seeing other teachers put much better thoughts into the mechanics of remote instruction, how to assign and review authentic work, how to give feedback, what to hold on to, what to let go. As a teacher, you learn to rely on routines almost to the point of sacred ritual. That many of the routines which once kept the classroom running smoothly clearly do not work in a digital landscape is the painful reality of the current situation. From conversations with students, I’m hearing that life on the other side looks like a sudden firehose of Google Classroom updates at the 8 in the morning, followed by a distinct urge to crawl back into bed. “The work isn’t hard,” one student told me in a Thursday seminar where “let’s vent” was the theme. “There’s so much of it and it comes in so many pieces.”
Teachers, myself included, have since lightened up a touch. I, for one, try not to ping my junior students with much more than an online attendance check-in. They know where and when to find me during the school day and they know my online syllabus — developed on the notion that I might be a force for transforming U.S education away from a high school whatever-keeps-butts-in-seats mentality and more towards a collegiate get-your-butt-to-the-library instructional approach — is still the default starting point for any lesson or graded activity.
Now that I’m experiencing something close to collegiate teaching style, I find myself, like a lot of my students, mourning the classroom experience I once took for granted. For me, the thinking over the Spring Break That Wasn’t was along these lines. Where does the spiritual center of my classroom now reside? Is it the syllabus? Is it me? Is it the community of learners which, in the case of my juniors, I barely had six weeks to stitch together.
That initial question felt a little heavy on first pass, so I’ll took a second swing at the question: How should the social contract of the classroom, the baseline expectations between student and teacher, be rewritten for this new situation. Should it be rewritten?
As always, this reflection comes out of the ready student feedback in my so-called “better” classes, my Theory of Knowledge. Online attendance has been better with those groups, but, even there, I’m seeing steady attrition. What’s more, I have access to the students’ online journals and I can see the mental toll that remote instruction is taking. Kids report staying up too late and sleeping in and missing the live morning video sessions. They talk about the mental difficulty of doing classwork on their bed, of letting the camera into their home, of having to mind siblings and make sure they’re on top of their classwork before getting to their. They talk about not looking good for the camera, of not wanting to put in the effort to look good for the camera. We talked about this all rather openly in the aforementioned venting seminar where I suggested rethinking class norms so that students were encouraged but not necessarily compelled to show their faces during live chat.
In my freshman algebra classes, the feedback isn’t nearly as coherent. Barely a handful show up regularly to live class, so orchestrating a seminar-type discussion falls under the “no yet” category. Most students check in later in the day, well after the live session, and attempt the tasks we’ve linked to Classroom. I see plenty of complaining: The lessons make no sense. The video is too fast or too confusing. The questions I’m asking to prompt thinking are too wordy or opaque. To be honest, these are similar to the complaints I got before remote learning, so I take them in stride. I might not be the best teacher for this kind of group (a 30/70 mixture of on pace freshmen algebra students and struggling algebra students, with half of the strugglers qualifying for team-teacher education, if not other IEP entitlements. In every case, my push back is “Update your algebra journals” in the hopes that, even if the resulting entries come back as more specific complaints, I’ll at least have a conversation going in which I can get a deeper understanding of mental state or home life situation is an uphill battle at best.
Then you have the kids who have gone dark totally. They were always there in the physical school, too, of course. What’s different now is that many of the kids who aren’t showing up for digital work are the ones who, at the very least, sat through your regular lesson and maybe gave you a moment’s brilliance from time to time. Even the ones who did absolutely nothing tended to grow from the experience. The more I teach, the less weight I put on test data, but each year you can count on at least two or three students to post less than 55 on the June Regents after a year of ducking almost every task and activity only to jump to a 65 or 70 on the second try in January. Sometimes it’s the next teacher performing a miracle, sure, but usually it’s just a mixture time, maturity and the warm bath of math language that comes from sitting in a high school classroom for a full year. “Maybe we’re communicating something to them through the chair,” I once joked with a guidance counselor who noted the same trend.
Reflecting on the attrition rate of the last two weeks, though, I fear we’re losing even 55-level seat time as a backstop. This fear is what sends me circling back to the trench warfare image that started this blog.
Not to overdramatize, but there’s a sort of mental toughness aspect to teaching at the moment that I see a lot of teachers struggling to articulate. Almost all of the standardized tests used to assess student progress this spring have been canceled, and here in New York, it’s doubtful that I’ll have to stress about administrative observations and ratings. Having taken away these measures of accountability, it’s easy to ask at both the student and teacher level: What’s the point?
Having already asked and answered that question in a previous post, I put myself firmly in the camp of those who see the current moment as its own ethical and spiritual test. The teaching profession, generally speaking, attracts the kind of person who’s had a positive educational experience — by that I mean straight-A students, people good at following directions, especially directions that have been chopped up into little pieces with strictly defined indicators of what outcomes warrant positive vs. negative feedback.
I was an A student myself, so I can play the game as well as any of my colleagues. Then again, I was an A student who went off to college and watched those As turn quickly into Bs, particularly in the math and science courses. I grumbled at first about the exchange rate before accepting the fact that the so-called “grade inflation” of college was nothing compared to the hyperinflation of high school. Either you knew the topic cold or you didn’t. Hoping for a letter at the top of the test or paper to validate that knowledge was, in its own way, the first indicator you needed to work harder.
I’m meandering, which I’m allowed to do in a blog, I suppose. My point is this: If taking away the clarity of a test grade or observation score takes away the student’s motivation to learn or the teacher’s motivation to teach, it’s probably best we, dear reader, part ways now. As for those who say, I don’t care about tests, we’ll let the next few weeks separate the wheat from the chaff. Based on the last two weeks, I’m predicting that 66% (students and teachers alike) will be mailing it in by May 15.
So, back to the trench warfare analogy: Another reason for the title of this blog, I now realize, is that during my second or third year as a teacher, I read Robert Graves’ World War I memoir Good-Bye To All That. I was a big fan of Graves’ Greek Myths I and II growing up, and my Dad, a fellow Graves fan, sent me a copy of the memoir right after I graduated college. It followed me through five of six moves, including a coast-to-coast relocation to my current home, New York City, and yet I never read it fully until I started teaching.
I don’t know what got me to me read. I might have been starving for something non-math related or what, but I found that the more I read, the more it spoke to the mental stamina side of math teaching. This was at a time when surviving ten years in the profession seemed almost too impossible to imagine. I was coming home so fatigued and, though energized by the job and the daily challenges it posed, felt fully on the burnout track.
I was, in short, perfectly primed for the story of a British officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers trying to balance the twin pressures of survival and duty. In a war that showed little sign of ending and a military culture in which the best one could hope for was a “good” wound and an honorable discharge, maintaining morale, both your men’s and your own, became the daily foreground concern.
In one chapter, Graves meets an officer his age but with a few more months’ service time. The officer schools him on what a modern writer might call “the new normal.”
When I came out here first, all we did in trenches was to paddle about like ducks and use our rifles. We didn’t think of [the trenches] as places to live in, they were just temporary inconveniences. Now we work here all the time, not only for safety but for health. Night and day. First, at fire-steps, then at building traverses, improving the communication trenches, and so on; last comes our personal comfort – shelters and dug-outs.
The officer goes on to recall a “territorial” battalion, the British equivalent of America’s a National Guard unit, who couldn’t make the same mental shift.
They used to sit down in the trench and say: “Oh, my God, this is the limit.” Then they’d pull out pencil and paper and write home about it. Did no work on the traverses or on fire positions. Consequence – they lost half their men from frost-bite and rheumatism, and one day the Germans broke in and scuppered a lot more of them.
Eleven or twelve years ago, I read this as an imperative to sweat the small stuff, one of those phrases that seems inane unless you’re a person like me who has spent the bulk of his life ignoring the small stuff. I didn’t become one of those teachers who puts color coordinated borders around every bulletin board, mind you, but I did start to challenge myself. Was I leaving the classroom with the desks properly aligned or was I trusting the night custodian to do it? Was I leaving my papers in a messy stack or was at least I taking them home in a bag with me so it wasn’t standing as a towering memorial to wasted effort?
I’ll be honest. It was a drag at first to be tidy. Still, I forced myself to do it and took advantage of the mental stability it added.. With time, I came to realize that the room kids saw the moment they entered had a sizable impact on everybody’s mood, both theirs and mine.
I’ve since softened a bit — I now make it the kids’ duty to arrange the class properly at the start of the day, relying on the early arrivals who usually share my small stuff mentality — I also have a bad packrat’s tendency to leave things cluttered in corners or strewn about in closets. Still, I feel a bit like that officer when asked to cover a class or accept a room re-assignment to a place where the other teachers sharing the room clearly don’t give a shit about appearance or the morale it conveys, just as I feel a bit like Graves when I walk into the room of the female teacher one floor above me, the foreign language teacher who decorates her room with flags, charts and color coordinated posters and immediately think: Don’t fuck with this one.
In light of the current situation, I see the shift in thinking from the trenches as a forced necessity to the trenches as a de facto home as the new lesson. As Graves and other junior officers of the era noted, there were many in the upper levels of the British (and French) officer corps who saw the discomfort of the trenches as a necessary goad. Like football coaches barking from the sideline, they demanded aggression not caution. Get out there and hit somebody. “Digging in,” to a certain 19th Century senior officer trained in the mindset of l’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace, was akin to surrender.
That such officers rarely exposed themselves to machine gun fire goes without saying. Eventually, as the reality of modern weaponry imposed itself on command philosophy, it was left to the junior officers to hammer out a new, survivable approach — way to keep the fighting spirit alive without losing every last man to bullets, disease or battle fatigue.
For Graves, the solution that kept him and his unit intact proved to be a mixture of cleanliness, aggressive patrols and obsessive attention to drill. In a later chapter, he describes a momentary eight week reprieve from the lines. His survival has made him a valuable commodity and go-to instructor for younger officers. It also puts him in contact with other survivors who trade what a teacher might call “best practices.”
We all agreed on the value of arms-drill as a factor in morale. ‘Arms-drill as it should be done,’ someone said, ‘is beautiful, especially when the company feels itself as a single being, and each movement is not a synchronized movement of one large creature.’ I used to get big bunches of Canadians to drill: four or five hundred at a time. Spokesmen stepped forward once and asked what sense there was in sloping and ordering arms, and fixing and unfixing bayonets. They said they had come across to fight, and not to guard Buckingham Palace. I told them in every division of the four in which I had served—the First, Second, Seventh and Eighth—there had been three different kinds of troops. Those who had guts but were no good at drill; those who were good at drill but had no guts; and those that had guts and were good at drill. These last, for some reason or other, fought by far the best when it came to a show—I didn’t know why and I didn’t care. I told them that when they were better at fighting than the Guards they could perhaps afford to neglect their arms-drill.
This post is going long, so I’ll wrap with a reflection on this particular passage. In teaching, math teaching in particular, we tend to diminish the importance of “drill.” There’s a phrase — drill and kill — that is its own dismissive commentary on the practice. It is a sin, in the current pedagogical doctrine, to prize “procedural knowledge” over “conceptual knowledge,” to put tactics before strategy in other words.
Normally, I’m one of those who does the dismissing. It goes back to my memory of sitting in college classes on differential equations where the procedure seemed easy enough to follow (if you memorized it), but the underlying conceptual knowledge required reading and re-reading the same textbook chapter a few more times than I’d been trained to do.
I don’t think it’s too extreme to liken our current educational situation to a battle. If the readers accepts the analogy, then I would add that the enemy in this battle is the state or the curriculum or some rapidly approaching test. It’s the inevitable sense of inertia that creeps into any human system when it feels like the “light at the end of the tunnel” has been thoroughly extinguished.
Taking the trench metaphor to heart, I find myself circling back to the notion that maybe class time should be less about pushing for rigor and more about rebuilding that “single being” vibe. It seems impossible. How can a far flung community of learners act as a single being? I mean, getting students to do anything in unison was already enough of a challenge when you had them all in the same room and could take advantage of clever group psychology tricks a teacher picks up over the course of a career. Now that we’re scattered to the winds, what does “unison” even look like?
Trying to keep a positive mental attitude here, so I’ll end with this. As a math teacher, facing up to the impossible is sort the daily challenge. I mean, it’s not like all of my students were going to pass their state exams. Truth be told, I doubt that even half had the capacity to score 65 or better. The work needed to build towards mastery was that sizable. And yet, I was starting each week as a teacher with the mindset that this next lesson might make the difference. It’s what you do as a math teacher. For me, what we do now is channel that blind optimism into building virtual classroom culture that sustains student morale. Like the officer learning to turn his swampy trench into a home, I think it all starts with cleanup, making sure activities are short and tight, making sure everybody has assigned role or duty and, finally, shifting the focus from individual survival to group survival.