Thursday, February 21, 2013

How Do You Yahoo?

It's been nearly a year since I posted this piece, but I'm already planning this year's Yahoo Day, and was feeling inspired to re-cap last year's event. In the end, I paid for someone's groceries via an anonymous envelope of cash (I got to watch from a couple of rows over because I enlisted the aid of the store manager; that was so much fun) and treated my town to free coffee for a day at our local Country Store. This year, however, I will be in NYC on business and get to Yahoo Manhattan. I already have some ideas, but I am also hoping some might come in via comments. How would YOU Yahoo Manhattan?

Zach, I hope that this year's recipients of your oh-so-coveted Yahoo Day paraphernalia go out and do their noble duty. I've had a particularly fruitful and amazing year since my last Yahoo, so the things I go out into the world to do this years will be especially celebratory.

My love to you, Zach. You amaze and humble me. Not just once a year, but at least every 6-8 weeks or so.

Posted February 2012:

I have a very important and very wonderful task ahead, and I need some creative input. On Sunday, February 26, I must Yahoo to the best of my abilities, and I want it to be good.

See, I have a friend named Zach Galvin. We have been friends for a very long time - thirty years, to be exact. Fifteen years ago on Sunday, he endured his last treatment for stage IV Hodgkin's Disease (A.K.A. very bad, advanced cancer).

Zach found out about his cancer at the same time he landed his first teaching job. He had a tumor the size of a kitten, snuggled up so close to his heart that they couldn't operate to remove it. He endured radiation and aggressive chemotherapy that year while he was establishing his home at Natick High School. I thought my first year as a teacher was stressful, and all I had to worry about was curriculum planning and test writing.

In 1996, Zach looked like this:

These days, he is the Vice Principal of Natick High School in Natick, MA, and looks like this:

He's wearing that shirt and that number on his chest because in the ten years he's been doing the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk, he has raised over a quarter of a million dollars for cancer research.

But back to the subject of Yahoo Day. Every year on February 26, Zach and his band of friends all over the world, go out and commit a random act of kindness for someone, preferably someone we don't know. Over the years I have done all sorts of things in the name of Yahoo, but I want to make this year special.

Today, I received a package from Zach in the mail. He will be in Europe, chaperoning a school trip on this Yahoo Day, so he decided to make a t-shirt that he could wear in the spirit of Yahoo Day. One t-shirt became 15, one for each year he's been cancer-free. He chose 14 friends who have been active in the spirit of the Yahoo over the years, and we each received a shirt. It looks like this on the front:

...and like this on the back:

On his fifth Yahoo Day, Zach did this:

So whatever I do this Sunday, it's got to be good. I've done some pretty cool random and anonymous acts of kindness in years past, but I like to up the ante each year.

Any ideas? And why don't you join us? On February 26th, go on out and Yahoo. Do it for my buddy, Zach.

Sic Semper Tyrranis et Aspergillis Fumigatis.

I took a [very] informal poll, and it turns out that people in regular, non-dorkish professions never experience this.

People run up to me in public and toss out Latin phrases, with huge grins of excitement, expectant, waiting eagerly for approbation.

My husband is an infectious disease doctor, and people never approach him in public and holler the names of fungi or bacterium. People never run up to him and yell "Pseudomonas aeruginosa!" or "Aspergillis fumigatis!" as he's topping off his morning coffee.

But this happens to me. It happened to me this very morning, in fact.

Our town's Fire Chief accosted me this very morning in the Lyme Country Store with "Good morning, Jess. Hey! SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS!"

And then disappeared into the next aisle, in search of a breakfast sandwich.

And this isn't the first time this has happened to me.

It's pretty predictable - I get "semper ubi sub ubi" a lot, paired with a guffaw, from former Latin students with a sense of wit. Sometimes I get "semper fidelis," which is a little weird, as I was never a Marine. Once, at the library, I got "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori!" and I'm rather sure that person had no idea that they were hailing me with a jaunty greeting from a World War poet, "It is sweet and right to die for one's country!"

Is this something that only happens to Latin teachers, or do teachers of other languages get this treatment as well? Just wondering.

NB: Apologies for the re-post; I've been pretty sick and the words slowed to a trickle. There's not much interesting in the ones I was using, either: "cough," "popsicles," "sleep," and "phlegm."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Learn, Good Soul

This has been a difficult and amazing couple of weeks. I went from a small audience of teachers, parents, and writers to a larger audience of the same, and while I'm happy about most of the thoughtful rebuttals I've received, some have cut deep. The pieces I compose late at night, after my kids are asleep, are precious to me. But I asked for it, and I have received. I dreamed of a dual career as teacher and writer, and here it is, spread out before me. 

That said, I was not prepared for the HUGE number of responses to the article I posted last week at The Atlantic that are based on either a topical reading of the title, or a surface reading of paragraphs one, four, or eight, and nothing in between. While I generally appreciate any responses to my midnight scribblings, many have been downright mean. Not thoughtful, not intelligent, just mean. Conversely, and interestingly, the most thoughtful rebuttals I've received this week are from the very smart authors who penned responses to my article in The AtlanticSusan Cain and Katherine Schultz are class acts. Seriously. Amazing women and thinkers. Women who reach out rather than strike out. Writers who understand the difference between clear-eyed response and blind retaliation. Writers who understand that words have weight, no matter how many of them float out there, unedited and misdirected, in the ether of the internet. 

I love thoughtful argument; I even teach it. The Roman's word for 'argument' does not derive from anger or dissent, it signifies persuasion and open debate. That, I respect. That's the definition of argument I teach my students. Extroverts and introverts alike. 

I truly believe in my position regarding class participation and teaching self-advocacy, and Susan Cain and Katherine Schultz truly believe in theirs. And yet - shocker - they are open to discussion where so many of their devotees are not. So many want to hurl insults while the women who lead the charge of the introverts/shy/social anxiety audience are the most open to dialogue. 

I am a teacher. I love what I do, and when I write, it is to open dialogue. I write to learn. I write to become a better teacher. I've read every comment to every post I've ever published, and I take most of them to heart. Some - the mean ones - I try to brush off, but even that is hard. A few of my nearest and dearest know I've shed tears over the most vitriolic comments and blog posts, and I've even lost sleep over the ones that have accused me of not respecting and my students with everything I am.

I've had great writing mentors who have instructed me not to read comments at all, to have someone I trust read and give percentages regarding positive and negative opinions, but as a teacher, I feel obligated to learn from what I write. I tell my students to be open to criticism, and therefore, I model the same. 

This week, I have a new article coming that will open new discussions, because that's why I do what I do. I write about the art of teaching and what makes for a good teacher. I have my dream job, and frankly, it would be much easier for me to keep my mouth shut and teach.

But if we are going to improve what we do, if we are going to become better educators, we need to talk publicly about our practices and find ways to learn from others.

And that's why I do what I do. So take your best shot. I'm here, and I'm listening. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Out of the Red

I can be very, very stubborn. I am sure my parents, husband, sister, sons, friends, in-laws...pretty much anyone who knows me well can attest to this. When something or someone I love is criticized, my first instinct is to suit up for battle, stare the enemy down until he or she bends to my will while I bash them into submission with my keyboard. 

So when my beloved red ink, the ink of choice for teachers everywhere, was implicated as a weapon of teacher cruelty and cause of students' suffering, I dug in my heels. 

So much so that when one of my former students was given her first full-time post as a teacher this year, I searched and searched for the perfect fountain pen, and then, to complete the gift, provided a couple of bottles of lovely red ink. 

She sent a lovely thank you note - in red ink, of course - because she has to use all of that ink somewhere. It won't, she reported, be used at school, because teachers at her new school are not allowed to correct student work in red ink. 

I had no idea. Despite my love of researching and reading all things educational, I'd somehow managed to miss this entire controversy.

I looked around, and asked some teacher tweeps and Facebook friends about the situation, and yes, it's a thing. Apparently, the red ink controversy rears its head every decade or so. 

My first reaction was to mock the entire “controversy.” I know, I know -hello haters, I see your ire rising - but many of the early comments I got back from teachers and psychologists egged me on. 

From a middle school teacher: "Gosh, heaven forbid we express any sort of disapproval!!"
From an adolescent psychologist: "That is nuts. How much should we coddle kids?"
From a writer and teacher: "Why.... because it hurts kids' feeeeeelings? Pardon me while I barf."
From an education writer: “Oh. God. No. I remember sitting through a PD about this and how dispiriting it supposedly was for students to get papers back marked up with red ink. We read a piece about a group of teachers receiving training in this, which concluded with the newly enlightened and chastened teachers dropping their red pens in the trash as they marched out the door. Gag me.”
From a professor: “… boy can I tell which students have never seen red ink before. They also happen to be the same ones who have a nervous breakdown or have their parents call me when they get anything less than an A. One of them actually told me, ‘I don't like it that you give edits in red ink. It makes me feel like I'm not perfect.’"
And again, from that same professor: "Two years ago, one of my students told me he preferred red-ink edits. He said it made him pay attention, and it made him see those edits as corrections and learning moments rather than just notes that he might've perceived as optional or not important."

As you can see, the overwhelming reaction to the complaints about red ink was a strangled, gagging sound.

But then, a teaching miracle occurred. One of my former students offered up evidence. Actual, real, live evidence. This is sheer heaven for for me, particularly because this former student has become a teacher himself. It turns out that NPR, among other news outfits, covered the red ink controversy a while back. Guy Raz interviewed Abraham Rutchcick on All Things Considered about an article Rutchick published on the subject in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

I listened to the NPR piece, then located the original article. According to Rutchick’s article, "The Pen is Mightier Than the Word: Object Priming of Evaluative Standards:"

Because red pens are closely associated with error-marking and poor performance, the use of red pens when correcting student work can activate these concepts. People using red pens to complete a word-stem task completed more words related to errors and poor performance than did people using black pens (Study 1), suggesting relatively greater accessibility of these concepts. Moreover, people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors (Study 2) and awarded lower grades (Study 3) than people using blue pens. Thus, despite teachers' efforts to free themselves from extraneous influences when grading, the very act of picking up a red pen can bias their evaluations.

I was torn. I love my red ink. I have a large bottle of it at school, all sorts of red pens in felt-tip, rollerball, ball-point, and some fancy artists' felt tips I bought for a small fortune in an art supply store in Paris a couple of years ago. I save those for extra-special editing. 

I can’t imagine parting with my lovely collection just because a few students might be a little irked by the color. Besides, I have this lovely letter from a former student, decorated with comments I'd written on her papers over the year I taught her, and it just makes me so happy when I look at it. She saved those papers, valued those comments, and used them to become a better writer. How bad could red ink really be?

To seal the deal, I offer up the concluding questions from the NPR interview: 

RAZ: Professor Rutchick, you are a psychology professor at Cal State Northridge, right?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I am.
RAZ: And when you grade papers, what color pen do you use?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I use a red pen, actually. It's - I have to override somehow my urge to be nice and kind.

See! Even the author of the study that reveals the catastrophic psychic harm red ink can do to students is keeping his red pens!

Just when I was determined to hold on to that red pen until someone pried it out of my cold, dead, fingers, a discussion heated up on my Facebook page:

From an editor at a major publishing house: "As an editor I was always taught to use pencil, not pen, because authors might balk at the permanence of pen (as if the edits were a mandate and not a suggestion). Now I use Track Changes! I do know of one editor who objected to using red (pen or pencil) for its even more dictatorial connotations--he didn't want an author flashing back to some horrible childhood experience. Also, I remember a teacher once writing "awkward" in the margin of a junior high writing assignment, and it took me years to get over!"

And from my always-logical mother-in-law, Kate, a writer and former law professor: "I had no trouble requesting "accommodations" from my students, but only when it made sense. Pissing people off over the color of ink I used just didn't seem worth it, either personally or pedagogically. [...] The red-ink phobia wasn't my imagination; I regularly heard students complain about teachers who 'bled all over their papers.' I'd rather have a student focus on the content of my comments than on the color of my ink."

There it was: “I'd rather have a student focus on the content of my comments than on the color of my ink.”

I may be stubborn, but I am also a sucker for a reasoned, evidence-based argument. And, as I have been engaged in my own "Classroom Happiness Project" thanks to Gretchen Rubin's book The Happiness Project and Happiness at Home, I had to recognize the possibility that I might be making my own students uncomfortable rather than sacrifice my precious red ink. Gretchen writes about how important it is to "acknowledge the reality of people's feelings" in The Happiness Project, so I am. 

This year, I will be correcting my students’ papers in...drumroll...forest green. It’s my favorite color, and if there’s any possibility that my comments will be more readily heard in green rather than red, I’m willing to retire the red ink.

So if anyone out there needs to dye some clothes or whip up a batch of fake blood for Halloween, I happen to know where you can get about a half-gallon of quality red ink, cheap.

P.S. My students asked me to return to red. Or at least some of them did. I switch it up - I have orange, green, turquoise - the new Sharpie pens are lovely - but my sentimental favorite is still red.