Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mr. Tritt's Parent-friendly Guide to Why Teaching Didn't Completely Suck



I taught for a long time. I don’t want to get into it. It depresses me. Yes, all you students who still write me, call me, see me, visit me - it depressed me. It affected my voice, my habits, my health mentally, spiritually and physically. Hell, I even ended up with a bladder infection because we, students too, were thought so much as mechanisms that we had to pee by the bells. See, that’s how much I hated it. You have never heard me use the word pee before. Now I’ve used it twice.


It’s ok the students know that. The students who still write me, call me, see me, visit me were generally depressed too – thoughtful, curious, intelligent, sharp and kind. People like that tend to get depressed when treated like mechanisms.


I have written about it before. Suicides, mementoes, workshop trips, field trips, those special students. I have taught classes of one hundred and thirty at a time, had an attempt on my life, been told by a principal he was tired of teachers who thought they were artists and our job was to surround, capture kill and destroy (Yoo-hoo, Mr. Johnson, how come the website blurb next to your picture, as of this publishing, is outdated by three years? ) and by other principals that Shakespeare and Homer were being removed from the curriculum because a classical education would do the students no good if they could not pass a standardized test. You have to be able to run a frialator.


I once had a high school principal, Andrew Taylor of Piper High School in Ft. Lauderdale, mandate all poetry being taught needed to have parental permission slips. Seriously. He would call teachers to stand during faculty meetings and dress them down using such language as "coward" and "useless" coming withing inches of their faces with his wagging finger. Seriously. Not long after, he abruptly resigned after the married fellow was found to have several "inappropriate" relationships with members of the faculty. But I’ve written about all that. I’m much better now.


You see, it was never the students who I had problems with. Not even the one who tried to kill me. Administrations, on the other hand, that’s another story. Really, that’s the whole story. The only story.


Still, after a while one begins to doubt oneself. This one did.


Once in a while I peruse the Internet looking for folks who have co-opted my writing. I find bits of me here and there and usually let them know they are using it without permission (which they know) and what the copyright rules are (which they usually don’t know) and that I could sue them (which I have never done but that is also something they don’t know) unless they remove it or send me something or say please and thank you. Sometimes I even find my work non-cited. I ask for that to be removed. Fair is fair.


This week I found the work copied below. It is from a school at which I taught eighth- grade Honors English. This was the school at which I taught six week workshops to the entire eighth-grade and then the entire seventh-grade all while teaching my normal classes. State assessment scores went up remarkably. I was told I could no longer do this as it was not duplicatable. It upset the department head who could not write an essay even if she were being paid to do so which, essentially, she was. When I asked her for one, to share with the students as an example that everyone writes, she balked. The principal caved. You should have seen their scores the year after that. Flushhhh…


So slow is their movement, so high their inertia or so great their apathy, I still have my web page there even though I have not taught there in two years. In the midst of state assessments, we were requited to learn to make web pages on Macs. Stop everything. Build a page. And so I did. Prostitution is prostitution. They want a page, they get a page.


And it is still there. So I read through it. It was good for me. Very good for me, in fact. I’ll let you read what I found before I tell you what it means, as far as I am concerned.

Mr. Tritt’s Parent-Friendly
Field-Guide to 8th Grade
Choice team Language Arts

Ok Mom and/or Dad/and/or Legal Guardian, you are confused. No problem there at all. I understand. Like you, I’m a parent too so I spend a fair amount of my time confused as well. My son is fifteen so I also find myself addled, perplexed and confounded. Some of this is just because he is fifteen. Much of this is over his classes and what their requirements are. While I can’t belay my own confusion, maybe I can alleviate some of yours.

In the next few minutes we can answer most of your questions as long as those questions are about writing and Language Arts in the Eighth Grade Choice Program at Stone. If your questions are about anything else, we’ll see what we can do but I won’t make any promises.

First of all, let me introduce myself. I am Adam Byrn Tritt. I have a bunch of initials after my name. Some are of consequence to teaching, like my masters in Education and my masters in English and in Communications. Others aren’t. I am a writer who teaches and am a published author, essayist and poet so you know and, more importantly, your student knows I practice what I teach and teach what I practice. This adds up to an authentic workshop and class experience for your student where they learn how it is really done (no matter what the ‘it’ is we are learning).

Books. We use plenty of books. But we don’t use textbooks very much. I prefer the students pick books they are interested in and get as deeply into those as possible. I’ll check them for difficulty and appropriateness, of course. We want subjects that can be discussed openly and have literary merit. We also want to make sure the books will develop the students ability to recognize the use of literary devices and themes, have a vocabulary that will allow your student’s minds and brains to stretch and grow, question and reach.

I provide ample opportunity for this with novel suggestions as well as shorter works. Your student can choose among essays old and new, collections of short stories, plays and poetry. Many of the more meritorious of them are worth more points. When I say that I don’t mean the longer ones. Some short essays are worth extra points as well. Have your student ask.

What are they to do with these? Read them, examine them, enjoy them (we hope) and struggle with them. Most weeks they students will prepare a reading log. It consists of five entries and each entry has what book was read, how many pages, plot summary (Colonel Mustard was killed in the parlor with a candlestick. Scooby Doo is on the trail.) New vocabulary, what the student thinks it means from context and what it means when your young’n looks it up in his or her favorite dictionary. The last part is a small portion for notes of whatever your student found was of interest or even a statement of how much they like or, sometimes, dislike the book. Perhaps it mentions writing style, devices used or word choice. In the end, this reading log makes the creation of note cards and the literary analysis a breeze.

I give the students some suggested forms but they make their own. If typed, I give them extra credit for them. If they are for an extra credit book, they get even more credit on top of that.

Five entries per week from whatever novel or essay or collection he or she is reading. If there are no new words one day, this happens. If it happens more than a few times we know the book material isn’t stretching your student. Time for harder material.

Once a month we’ll be doing a literary analysis using the material your son or daughter read. We’ll start off oral with note cards. Oral presentation is mandated by Sunshine State Standards. After a few the students will have a choice to do this orally, on video, by PowerPoint, in writing or in any other creative way s/he can think of as long as the points on the rubric are covered. Of course they have the rubric and we practice hitting each point first. All this gets them ready for the FCAT and Pre-AP English.

Speaking of books, we don’t make great use to the Literature textbook, which most students appreciate. We also don’t make great use of the Grammar text. Do we use them sometimes? Sure. When we see specific difficulties in the writing we address them in small groups or mini-lessons.

We study grammar in a real-life context; in the context of writing and communications. Studies show we can give grammar instruction and tests but, when given a writing assignment, the tested material does not translate into correct use in writing. So we learn grammar while writing.

If your child doesn’t need help with comma use, we aren’t going to waste her or his time with work on comma use; we’ll save that for the students who do need that instruction.

Likewise, the Literature text is used selectively when we want a specific story or poem to illustrate a point or device.

So what will your child be bringing home? Writing and plenty of it.

We will be working on the ability to format our typed papers in any number of ways. The ability to follow a format means your student will learn his or her way around a word processor and will be able to fulfill the requirements of any class. It means he or she will be able to follow directions, enter contests, publish in the newspaper, submit essays.

Your student will also be learning how to revise and proofread and we hope we can count on your help to support this. Please read your child’s essays out loud so s/he can hear them. Help with grammar is you are able. Look at transitions and check of elaboration, organization, clarity. I have one hundred and twenty little darlings and I could sure use you to check their work at home since we often can’t check them as thoroughly as we’d like in school.

I have provided plenty of guides for your child to use as tools and add to his or her notebook. Don’t throw these away at the end of the year. I assure you your student will find these of great use next year and the years after. You can use these as well when helping your son of daughter proof essays. He or she will have sheets on transitions and transition use, on words to use instead of ‘very’ and other weak words, sensory words, color words, words to use instead of “said.” Verbs to use instead of adjectives and adverbs. S/he has rubrics and evaluation guides so you an look at the work and see, ahead of time, what sort of grade it will get before the paper is turned in. In other words, your little one has tools-a-plenty and, at home, you can help make sure he or she uses them.

Reading the essays out loud to your son or daughter will allow him/her to hear what the writing actually sounds like to the reader. This is invaluable. I assure you, if that is all you do it will be an immense help.

What will your student be writing? Essays to start. Essay after essay after essay. FCAT mandates essays. Our school has the students write at least one every week. Many of these are timed and check as first drafts.

We’ll be writing essays on surprise prompts, essays on literature, essays for Science, essays for Social Studies. Some essays will be for contests in English and we’ll be writing essays for Science contests as well. We write for FCAT and we write for real life.

We practice many kinds. We write some which are descriptive to get use to describing carefully and accurately, we practice using verbs to describe instead of adjectives and adverbs, just alike Twain did. We practice sentence combining and transition use.

We write expository essays to explain, expose and express. We write persuasive essays to convince and persuade. And all the while we practice better writing overall.

We have a monthly week-long writing workshop where the students learn not only to write, revise and proof better, but why we do this. We learn techniques, we learn reasons and we practice again and again. We even learn about the brain and how words affect us physically. We are, after all, a science program.

Students also learn the essay was, originally an art form and we treat it as such, rewarding chances taken and skills learned, creativity as well as accomplishment.

We also do journals. The students will have specific topics and will have to answer, in writing and within a short timeframe, specific questions or write to a prompt or quote. No help is given. This is graded on how well they applied themselves and stuck to the instructions (just like the FCAT) not content.

Let us have a word about homework. I dislike homework. I have to give some. After all, our classes are just 45 minutes long. But it will be minimal. If you help your student with time management and organization, it will be a breeze. We have our reading logs. That means reading a few nights a week and filling in the log.

Sometimes they will have an essay to revise and proofread. As I asked before, please help them with this even if that means only reading it so they can hear how it sounds. Rarely will homework be something they must have back the next day. Most assignments are long-term. I expect about an hour to hour and a half of homework a week.

And speaking of homework and assignments, the work due is listed on the board in our room often more than a week in advance. The work is also listed on StudyWiz so it can be accessed by your student or even by you from any Internet connection. Since your child is probably on the computer typing away in IM, just ask him or her to pull it up for you.

If there is ever a problem with an assignment, please write an email note (best) or send a note with your student. I know things happen and emergencies come up. Late work can be accepted with a note as well. If there is even a problem with a printer at home, just bring the work to me (in the morning) on a disk, flash, thumb, floppy or send it in an email and I’ll happily print it out for your darling.


In the end, no matter what your student chooses to do academically, she or he will be better of, will have the skills to write what he or she needs to, the flexibility to do so for and under any circumstances and the confidence to know he or she will do it well. With your help, we can make their grades reflect the new skills and confidence.






Holy cow. This was the teacher I wish I had. At any point. Middle school, high school, college. Anytime.


I was told once we teach the way we learn. In this case, I taught the way I wish I had the opportunity to learn. And I did my best to bring that to my students. Among them are many in Harvard and Yale and other ivy league school, the youngest Discovery Award winner on record, several students who published in magazines while still in my class instead of just writing for a grade.


Reading this I remember something important: I did good. I did the best I knew and then worked to do better than that – for my students. Because they deserved much better than just ok, deserved better than I got, deserved the best possible and I worked to the end of my strength and ability to give that to them.

I was the teacher I always wanted.

Bless them for that opportunity.


As far as Stone Middle School and their still using my material on their webpage, I get five cents a word standard. You know where to send the check.


3 comments:

Sewa Yoleme said...

I have to admit to some frustration as I read this. I think you are such a superb teacher -- no, the word is gifted -- that it breaks my heart to know how the System ruined everything for you. You are the teacher you always wanted for yourself; your students testify that you are the teacher who changed their lives.

So of course I want to fix it. I want to find some venue where you can teach, where you can find eager, fully engaged students (don't know if they're kids or adults or both), in a wise and supportive organization with no bureaucratic hassles or internal politics.

If you could design a perfect scenario, who, and how, would you teach? Would you in fact teach again, if ideal circumstances could be found or created?

Adam Byrn "Adamus" Tritt said...

I would, as a coach and facilitator, as a partner and equal: an equal who simply knew more about writing and wished to share that with students who want to be there, wish to be engaged and can look critically at their own work with a strang desire for improvement of a talent that may or may not already be in evidence.

Know-it-all teachers and students would be shot upon entering.

Editors would be welcomed.

Indigo Bunting said...

This is fabulous. I had some good teachers, I had some bad teachers. Having you as a teacher would have been great.

As a kid, though, I would never want my parents reading my stuff.