Sunday, March 27, 2011

Is She a Sport, Eh? A Sport?

 She likes sport, yes…but that’s not what you mean, is it?


            Back in my college education days, I was in a language arts games, er, “curriculum” class and one day the professor said this: “You should never ask students to read aloud in class. It’s embarrassing. Some students have lisps, or dyslexia, or other impairments. It’s cruel.” The professor smiled.

            Students nodded. I stared and furrowed my brow.

            I’m an actress before I’m anything else (if I’m honest with myself, and why that admission embarrasses me, I don’t know), and I know that public performance is vital for personal growth. And to read aloud is humiliating? Really? But being a Taurus I tend to believe anything people tell me, so I took that in. And yet.

            Would you not ask the kids auditioning for the school play to audition in front of others for fear of embarrassing them? Would a sports coach have all the prospective players try out solo, so as not to humiliate them if they lack talent? It’s insane.

COMMENT: Lisa, prospective participants in a show or a sport WANT to be there.  It’s a choice. Lisa, English class is not a CHOICE. They are not volunteering to read aloud.

RESPONSE: So you are saying that I, Teacher, have no right to ask students to do anything in class that might draw attention to their ignorance or lack of proficiency in a skill.

COMMENT: Exactly.

RESPONSE: You are saying that I should lecture and give out worksheets and grade them quietly and never call on a student to do anything out loud.

COMMENT: Exact…uh. Well, you know what I mean.

RESPONSE: No, frankly, I don’t. Enlighten me.

COMMENT: Now you’re just being an asshole.

RESPONSE: Am I an asshole?

COMMENT: Oh, GOD, shut UP!

RESPONSE: [Hums, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”]


            When a high school teacher, ANY teacher, has 150 students, she has to find out as quickly as possible whether or not they are LITERATE. (And NOT JUST the English teacher, though you wouldn’t know that to hear the pressure people put on the English Department.) Props for today's lesson go out to a student I had my first year, whom I’ll call Lamont. Lamont was 17 years old in my freshman class. He never brought a pen to class, never had paper. Never brought a book. But he behaved. He was charming. He slapped hands with kids, made the rounds, complimented my hair; as I say, he behaved. He just never did any work. This was because Lamont was illiterate.

He stealthily copied homework on occasion; he faked tests by doing the objective portion and never answering the discussion or essay. He’d laugh and cop attitude if you tried to enlist him to read. In other words, he was a brilliant actor.

            And a drug dealer, but that’s another story.

            I was flailing in this 6th period class of 20 kids: about half were 17 years old, all had failed school for years, and were sent to the high school because they were, you know, 17. They were waiting until they could legally quit. A few exemplars: Latrice was a smoker, liar, cheat, and future murderer of America, and if I didn’t let her go out to “fix her bra strap” (“smoke”), she would stand there and scream, “OH MY GOD I CAN’T B’LIEVE THIS WOMAN WILL NOT LET ME PUT MY BOOBY BACK IN PLACE, OH MY GOD.” (The administration told me I had to be patient, learn to work with her. So I let her stuff booby/light up in the girl’s bathroom, to which she insisted on taking 14-year-old Janet to “help” her and if I didn’t let Janet go, well…”OH MY GOD…”). Shawn just couldn’t stop laughing, fighting, singing. (The administration told me I had to be patient, learn to work with him. Did you know that no one in our school did drugs? Nope. “We don’t have that problem here.” Uh huh.) One very old-looking kid, T.J., was 6’6” and couldn’t play sports because he was failing every single class. He had a farm to run and school was just something he had to do “to keep the law from coming down” on him. T.J. watched this loony bin with detached enjoyment, roaring with laughter most of the period.

            So by comparison, Lamont was easy. I ignored him. But Lamont, seeing me in near total emotional ruin and on the verge of quitting by year’s end, took pity on me. One day he stayed after school and set me straight: He did not want to be in school. He had deals to make; he had finally turned 18, and he was OUT. “Miss O’Hah, you a nice lady. But you stupid. Ain’t no one in this class gon’ amount to shit. You tryin’ to save people. Ain’t no point.” He paused, considered. “I can’t read, Miss.”
            I couldn’t take that in. I looked at him. “But you take spelling quizzes…”

            “No, Miss, I COPY spelling quizzes. I can’t read.” He laughed. “Ain’t no one know that. You all so stupid. You mean well, but you know.” He left the room. And I had no idea why I had become a teacher.

            So after that first year, I changed. The first week of every school year for the rest of my career, I did a “read around.” The day I gave out the textbooks, I had the students open to a story and everybody, but EVERYBODY, had to read a paragraph. If they refused, I didn’t make a big deal out of it. But I took them out in the hallway and made them read to me one on one. Most all could read, but were shy about the quality. No problem.

            But here’s one example: I’ll call him Randall. I’m doing the read-around, he rolls his eyes, grins, shakes his head. I pass over him. I give a response assignment when we finish (so I can see if they all can WRITE) and take him out in the hall. He literally cannot read. He is shaking.

            “This is a lot of stress for you,” I say, gently.

            He tears up. He nods. But he is a . . . wait for it . . . STAR FOOTBALL PLAYER.

            I refer him to Guidance, to the Reading Specialist, but there is a waiting list. In the meantime, I contact his coach, who is a social studies teacher. He writes a note back, “Let’s meet with Randall!” And then, silence.

            You know why? The coach couldn’t risk exposure during football season. And after that, who cares?

            Not all sports coaches feel this way, not by a long shot. Some of the finest human beings I have known were sports coaches, and those coaches cared about the whole child, not just the athlete. But I want to talk about the implications of sports in the school culture, for good and for ill.

            I really take a long time to set up my points, don’t I? And that’s because school is just fucking complicated. How I came to understand its workings is all interconnected, if you see what I mean. So I pull you in the same way that I came to learn about it.

            To begin, I want to talk about the Arts, and more specifically, Theater.
SCOREBOARD: Sports: $$$  Humanities: [sad face]

A Justification for Teaching Theater in Public Schools
Right Alongside Math and Geography and Lab Science and PE, Dammit

            I’ll say it in this first sentence: The performing arts are the great civilizers. What I am going to say about Theater Production in later blog posts I could just as easily say about Chorus, Band, and Orchestra. And this is not to dis the visual arts, the fine arts, or the homemaking arts, to say nothing of sports. Here’s the thing about the performing arts: Kids have to work with other kids as well as with an adult in charge who is an artist before he or she is a teacher, and then get out there, at some point, ready or not, in different clothes from their everyday wear and sing or play a trumpet or dance to unusual choreography or act Brecht in front of a real live audience that usually includes people who know them as NOT that kid. This is huge. It cannot be stressed too much. There is nothing like being better than yourself and in public; and for the teacher, nothing like figuratively kicking a young person in the patoot, turning the lights up full, and saying, “Well, here you are. Now what are you going to do? Kid, this is life, only without legal consequences.”

            I will talk more about this throughout the blog, with specific examples of how I saw kids transform. But suffice to say, to the principals, school boards, and superintendents out there, if you want kids to behave better in every way, then expand your performing arts programs and open them wide. Don’t make them mandatory: No arts class should become a dumping ground, no more than you would force a kid to play football. And while both sports and theater embody skillful teamwork and public performance, the arts demand another level of work, something that draws on deeper ideas, broader skill sets, and a rich social and cultural awareness that a team sport doesn't demand. Like sports, the arts should be about participation and encouragement, and you can’t encourage when there’s nothing there at your school to encourage kids into. 

            A teacher who is an artist first--just as with a social studies teacher who is a historian first, or a science teacher who is a biologist first, or a shop teacher who is a craftsman first--is one of the best things a kid can have, provided the artist is ALSO a real teacher and loves teaching. The trick to being a successful teacher is to be passionate about what you teach, engaging actively with what you teach. And knowing how to write a hall pass at a strategic time.


            And sometimes a teacher is teaching because he can COACH. (I realize I am gendering it with he, but my experience was that most coaches of the big team sports were men. Most teachers in my experience were women, so I often say she when I refer to teachers. Cope.)

            Not to be a dick, but sometimes teachers are only “teachers” because they can bring in a winning season. I noticed that many of them were in social studies (though I knew brilliant social studies teachers), and I think this is because it’s a standards curriculum that mostly focuses on factual knowledge rather than on experiments, writing, or critical thinking. If you read the standards documents, you don’t see standards for writing, argument, speaking, and listening as you do in Language Arts, for example. It’s idiotic. (ASIDE: Colleges often complain that their students don’t read enough nonfiction. I spit. ALL of their classes—science, social studies, math, even the early years of foreign language—are exclusively nonfiction. English is the exception, and yet apparently English has to “do it all” at the expense of reading more fiction and poetry, the most important reading of all. If the nonfiction subjects’ teachers choose not to read a variety of articles and texts critically, looking at facts and opinions, problems and solutions, and keeping an eye on the author’s purpose, why is that always MY fault? Sorry to be pissed off, but it just really pisses me off.)

            So is a “pure” teacher better? That's not what I mean. Most of us do the best we can, no doubt, whether we have extracurricular assignments or not. As I have noted, I am not arrogant enough or stupid enough to think that I did not have some negative effects on, or indifferent responses from, some students, that I have done it "right"--you know that. I am getting at the way good teachers are hired, maintained, and evaluated: It just really pisses me off when the main evaluation for many teachers is a winning season in sports.

            The kids can't read? Look at the nice, shiny trophy. 

            As I mentioned in my last blog, I learned just as much from teachers I disliked as from the ones I loved. I can point to teachers who were, I realize in retrospect, deeply depressed and just couldn’t get up from behind what educator Nancie Atwell calls “the big desk.” Sometimes the teacher was the basketball coach; he sat and read what was in the book, the book you were also looking at, and just couldn’t really say much beyond that. I often struggled in those classes. While I learned what kind of teacher, what kind of person, I did not want to be, what about the kids who just gave up in that situation?

I also had a few teachers, several of whom were sports coaches, who were wildly popular with my classmates, and whom I found to be (whether I had the vocabulary or not) misogynistic, racist, or bullying; I would keep silent, but those teachers didn’t like me much, I’ll tell you that. That was okay, because--now hold onto your muffins--the actual world is full of misogynistic, racist, and bullying people. I’ve had to deal with them every day of my life, whether in the Virginia countryside or the New York subway system or just watching them on the FOX network. And guess what? I can. (Blown away by the depth of my psychoanalysis? I know. Me too.) It's a sports network world. But shouldn't schools try to do better?

Finally, the best teachers I had—whatever the subject, coach or not—were genuinely glad to be there, or at least put on that show. They had a sense of humor, they talked to me as if I were a real person, they had expectations, they expressed exasperation, joy, disgust, and interest. They were present. They had flaws, bailiwicks, prejudices, passions, but mostly they wanted to be teaching. 

Some teachers see themselves as coaches first. And that can be a problem.

"Where are all the great teachers?" Some of them couldn’t get jobs because they weren’t basketball coaches. Some of them only got the job at all because they agreed to coach cheerleading or assist with soccer. Coaching is time-consuming: between the practices, the games, the traveling, the health concerns, the liabilities—to say nothing of the competitive parents and fanatical fans—you wonder why anyone would do it. And when do they grade papers?

Or do they even assign much work? Because that’s a real question, too.

And some people coach for the stipend. My first job came with a $1,000 stipend for coaching drama, taking my salary from around $17,000 a year to $18,000, which made a difference, no kidding, since it was a few months’ rent. To get that stipend, I had to direct a fall play, a competition one act play, a Christmas play, and the Senior Class Musical, and host the district and regional one-act play festivals on two weekends (procuring the judges, sending out the information, designing the lighting, arranging for trophies)—on top of teaching my three preps, and this was all my first year. For a thousand bucks extra. And in order to get the job.

Arts stipends, compared to sports stipends, are shit.

As my principal said to me when I asked about the crumby stipend for coaching drama at Luxe High ($1200 which 6 of us divided: two directors, a set builder, a scenic artist, a box office/house person, and a choreographer—all teachers; we did two big shows a year, 10 weeks of rehearsal each show, plus a competition one-act, involving some 200+ kids year round; by contrast, an assistant volleyball coach got $3,000 for coaching 9 girls for a 6-week season): “Lisa, if the drama club ended tomorrow, about 6 parents would complain for about 6 minutes. If my volleyball team loses even one game, my phone rings off the hook. That’s life.” He smiled.

So why is this “life”?

Ain’t that America?

The only equalizer, at least in Virginia, was that all outside school organizations—whether drama club, literary magazine, girl’s softball, the newspaper or varsity football—had to be self-supporting. You made your money from gate receipts, or ticket sales, or by selling copies of the literary magazine or newspaper. Fair enough.

But I was stunned to learn that in many states, sports are TAX SUPPORTED, whereas the arts are not. By supporting sports with tax money—and I'm not sure which sports and how that’s allotted—not only are we saying sports matter more than the arts (this is Republican America, so I’m not surprised), but we are saying, unintentionally or not, that it’s more important to hire the best COACHES than to hire the best TEACHERS.

Ain’t that America?

Listen: Sometimes the only reason kids come to school is for the extracurricular activities: band, orchestra, baseball, drama, what have you. It’s air to them. I would have DIED in school without the drama club. I know that. I went to every home football game for all four years of high school and loved it. I had friends who lived to run cross country. I’m all for it. But, come on, sports fans, what is going on here? What is going on with America's schools?

Schools have to step back and answer this question: WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?

Are you really so AFRAID of the parents? Because that’s what it sounds like to me. Look at our American culture of fear, once again. “If we lose the game, my phone rings off the hook.” Stand up. Where are the leaders who fearlessly articulate the mission of public schools? We are attempting a HUGE task: to comprehensively educate every child in this country in language arts, math, science, social studies, civics, culture, health, art, fair play, and decency. You're afraid to say that? So you pick a winning baseball season over education for all? 

And it doesn't stop there. I’ve had coach friends who were under constant threat of being sued by a disgruntled parent. I’ve known of times when parents called in and demanded that a coach be fired for a losing season, and indeed the coach would be let go, and then fired from the teaching post, so another coach could be hired. Yes, this happens, even if the coach is an outstanding teacher, only to be replaced by a coach who couldn’t give a shit if his star player is illiterate.

The humanities are always under fire when sports almost never are, and it makes me mad. So I tossed off this post today rather than go into the city and play. It’s time for spring training on this March day. But baby, it’s cold outside.

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