Monday, June 13, 2016

"Snowballs" Fly in History Class and Other Mistakes

I said when I wrote a book about teaching that my focus was on what worked in an ordinary classroom, with an ordinary teacher, in an ordinary American school. I wanted to focus on what real teachers do and why what they do can be infernally hard. I wanted to focus on how to improve what happens in any classroom.

So I skipped over most of my mistakes. 

Naturally, I made plenty, as all human beings do.

In my class, I’m sure former students would admit, we did all kinds of skits. Eventually, I realized how good they could be at performing what I called “plays without scripts” and we set skits up to last for entire periods. 

Early in my career I set up a role-playing activity based on the Boston Massacre, which seemed like a good idea at the time. 

I expected it to last ten minutes—and since snowballs were thrown at British guards in the winter of 1770—I decided we needed “snowballs” to enhance the show. Part of my plan, involved members of the audience throwing a few paper wads.

I was young then; but I should have known!

Once you allowed teens to throw a few snowballs, their enthusiasm for history knew no bounds. (If you remember the Christmastime incident in Philadelphia, years back, where drunken Eagles fans pelted Santa Claus at halftime of  an NFL game, you have some idea.) The snowballs were a mistake from the start; but the debacle was complete when the student in the role of commander of the redcoat guard decided to wave his sword—my blackboard pointer—at the leader of the rebellious colonists. Before I could warn him to be careful, he brought down his weapon squarely on the head of one “dirty rebel,” a student named Darryl.

The blow split his scalp neatly and Darryl did what any dirty rebel might do.

He bled profusely.

(Perhaps it is needless to say we never tried that skit again.)

Before I ever set foot in a classroom I spent two years with the United States Marines. Like my drill instructor at Parris Island and several basketball or football coaches I had admired, I felt there was a place for ass-chewing when it came to motivating people and considered ass-chewing a kind of art. So I worked in the medium whenever I thought it would help; and by “help” I mean help get students going or cut off the kinds of misbehavior that led to far more serious troubles in the end. (I explain this all in my book.)

On at least one occasion, however, ass chewing backfired and that meant it was a mistake. (Some educators might argue it always is. I leave that for wiser heads to debate.)

In the case of F. G., a student in one of my gifted classes, it was definitely a mistake. Like many gifted children, he appeared unmotivated at first glance, at second, and at third. He and I talked repeatedly about getting his work done. I liked F. G., too, but the work he did turn in was incredibly sloppy and incomplete. At some point I questioned him sternly about lack of effort. 

I found out later he took offense. 

Not realizing, I soon got on him again. Finally, I called home. His step mother answered. She liked the boy, she said (he was mild-mannered and capable of hysterical comments at any time), but she couldn’t believe how disorganized he was. His room was “filthy,” “just unbelievable,” she explained. “It looks like he’s a barbarian or something.” 

The boy’s father had blown up repeatedly, she continued. You couldn’t see the furniture in the room under heaps of dirty clothes and toys and junk. Finally, they took away his bed and dresser and chair till he agreed to clean up his room. 

He didn’t clean up, though. Passive aggression was more his style. 

He slept in a sleeping bag and kept piling up junk. 

I realized then that chewing him out wasn’t doing any good. In fact, this approach was exacerbating the problem. In later years, as I became more adept in the subtleties of working with teens, I might have recognized the problem earlier and adopted a fresh approach.

Again: I was young.

Still, in working with a 150 kids ever year, you can’t avoid making mistakes. A third example—this one near the end of my career—involved a project turned in by one of my better students. (I mean “better” in terms of work. I liked or loved all but half a dozen of the 5,000 teens I taught. In fact, I think that’s the only mindset a teacher should have. I think you have to work on it; I think you have to try to like all the kids.

The project in this case, a game of some sort, was terrible. Even a brief perusal made it clear the work was rushed and the results incredibly sloppy. I took the young man gently aside and told him he’d have to fix it or start over. 

This questioning of the quality was not my mistake. The project was terrible. But the next day, after he told me he planned to start over, and thinking no one would know whose work it was, I showed his game to a class later in the day, as an example of what not to do. As always, my message was simple. We must all work hard to produce quality work. 

The project, in my mind, was a prop, to make my point to this particular class. I knew it was going into the garbage, regardless. So I bent it double and stuck it in the trash. 

It turned out some of game maker’s friends were seated before me and had seen his project on the bus to school. They knew whose it was and told him about the fate of his work on the ride home that day. The game-maker was humiliated. 

I had held his project up as an example of what not to do.

The boy’s mother contacted me as soon as she found out and told me, perhaps more politely than I really deserved, that I had made a mistake. She could have chewed my butt. I knew at once that she was correct.

I offered to apologize in front of her sons class. 

I offered to apologize in front of his class and the class where I trashed the game. 

I said I’d be happy to apologize directly to him. 

I offered to apologize to all of my classes. 

Mom felt this might compound the boy’s embarrassment. And she said he would be angry if he knew she called me to intercede

I told her I’d say I heard about the problem from one of his friends and promised to take him aside the next day and apologize in that way

And I did.

A fourth example of the kind of blunders I committedand I think its safe to say all teachers make their own brand of mistakes—should suffice. Generally speaking, I got huge mileage out of a humorous approach in the classroom. This included using comical essays when it came to minor matters of discipline (also explained in my book). I also used to tease students, particularly ones I liked, and especially those who could give it right back.

I never once meant to offend.

I don’t believe a teacher ever has a right to insult a child. I don’t believe sarcasm directed at students has any place in a classroom. So, if I teased a kid I liked, I was watchful for any expression or hint my jokes struck the wrong spot

One year, I fell into the habit of teasing Kate whenever the subject of women’s rights came up. Kate was one of my most talented students, possessor of a superior intellect, \a thoroughly likeable young lady in ever respect.

So I used her as an example—employing what I thought was obvious sarcasm, in regard to the historical mistreatment of women. Talking about the endless battles Susan B. Anthony fought to win the right to vote for women, I might say in effect: “Oh course, Kate, you realize women do belong in the kitchen.”

I suspected Kate was going to end up in medical school—and had no doubt she could do whatever she set heart and hand to do in the future.

I thought the juxtaposition of ideas—the absurdity that women should have been limited in any way—that Kate, herself, was so talented—was clear. Certainly, Kate never complained. 

Her manners were probably too good. 

At the end of the year, however, when she filled out an anonymous survey I always used, she let me know how she truly felt. I wanted teens to answer questions about my class honestly, to tell me what they thought, and set it up, as best I could, so I wouldn’t know whose answers were whose. But seated at my desk, trying not to look over anyone’s shoulder or see their responses, I noticed Kate was using a green marker and writing on a yellow legal pad when she marked down A, B, C or D answers.

Students were allowed to add any comments they might care at the end. So Kate wrote a paragraph, saying her feelings had been hurt.

How did I know it was her?

Only one sheet of yellow legal paper with green responses was turned in that year.

My inclination was to apologize as soon as I read her comments, after her class went to lunch. I would have hunted her up and apologized on the spot.

Still, I always encouraged students to be honest about my class and promised never to question anyone who complained.

I was afraid she might feel I was putting her on the spot.

I gave the survey as close as possible to the end of the year. So, for the next two or three days, before summer vacation, I gave her the space I thought she might need; and I can only say I made damn sure in years to follow I was careful in discussing women’s rights.

Finally, after Kate had gone on to high school, I wrote her a note of apology—which was the least I could do.

If she’s not a doctor today or using her impressive talents in some challenging career, I’d be very much surprised.

Kate: again, I apologize to you.

In the "good old days" this kind of statement could actually fly.
In my mind it was always ludicrous that this was true.

"Stupid Essays" as a Creative Punishment

A few examples of what I always referred to as “stupid essays” in my class will have to do. (I have more I could offer, but you can read more in my book.) Angie got in trouble one day for some minor infraction. So I told her to write 150 words on this subject: “I Collect Belly Button Lint for a Hobby.” 

Angie didn’t stop at 150 words. She was a collector in the truest sense and her essay filled five pages! She had lint from actors, from every president in the last twenty years, and dreamed of finding the Holy Grail of belly button lint—from the button of Elvis Presley (assuming Elvis was still alive). 

In most cases, the punishment topic fit the “crime.” One day, Rob came flying through my door, with best friend in hot pursuit. Before I could tell them to slow down, Rob tripped on his feet and somersaulted across the front of the room. (My desk was in the rear.)

He dusted himself off without injury, but I made both young men write about their lives as “The Human Cannonball.” 

Wendy R. (a straight-A student) had to write after laughing too often and disturbing my class. I forget the exact title but remember she pinpointed her friend Wendy M. (also a straight-A student) and all her friend’s own laughter as the fount of her difficulties in my class. “At times,” Wendy R. protested, “Wendy’s nostrils will go in and out as if they were controlled by a motor.”

So how could she not laugh?

I loved the creativity represented by that kind of line and used all kinds of stupid essays for more than thirty years.

Max was another student who talked a little bit too much to friends during class. So I had him write about having a giant tongue. In his essay he called Landen, the friend who lured him into sin, to inform him of his tragic condition. The essay followed the conventions of a popular Budweiser beer advertisement of that time.

Here’s part of the essay he turned in:

“Hello.” [Landen answers.]


“Hey, man. I would finish the lines in the commercial but I just gotta ask. What’s wrong with your voice?”

“Miy tung.”


“Miy tung iz big,” I said angrily.

“Oh, I see.

“Wat sod I du?”

“Gee, got me.”

“Tanks, yor no hep.” Then I hung up…..

One last example of how stupid essays worked probably deserves special mention.One day a young man got in trouble for talking during detention. I told him to write “My Life as a Cucumber.” 

The story he turned in the following day began: “I started out the first part of my life in a little cold plastic bag. The bag sat on a shelf in the store, for a long time before some one decided to buy the bag of seeds.”

This essay is not particularly funny, but carried the name of the author, Brian ------. 

Only Brian’s handwriting seemed surprisingly good. Normally, his writing was an atrocious scrawl. 

I still have my notes describing what transpired next: 

“Caught Brian ------ lying today because his mother wrote his punishment essay. When I asked him about it Brian said:

1) He wrote it and she corrected it.

2) No, she wrote part of it.

3) Okay; she wrote it all.”

I had to call Mrs. ------ that evening and she offered lame defense: “I don’t see anything wrong with a mother helping a child.” 

“Nor do I,” I responded. “But you weren’t helping. You did the entire essay for him and let him off his punishment.” 

I told her Brian would have to write a different essay entirely; but if it had been in my power I would have given her a topic all her own to complete: “What Happens to a Boy when Mom is an Enabler?”

That would have been fun to read.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Teaching Geography to Donald Trump

I know people like to blame the public schools for all the problems of our nation. Kids can’t multiply. Can’t read.

Can’t even whittle.

I’ve argued before that this story of the failing public schools is just a myth. But for now, that’s neither here nor there.

Speaking of “neither here nor there,” when it comes to Donald Trump and geography, he’s a product of the private schools. So, don’t blame the public schools. 

I taught American history, myself, and always stressed to students that there are two sides or more to any story. So I understand why some people like the message Mr. Trump is trying to sell. 

I even agree in part. I agree that the War in Iraq was a huge mistake. 

I agree the GOP establishment has ignored the needs and concerns of the average American worker. 

Finally, I agree there’s way too much money in politics. In fact, for all those reasons, I’ve been voting for Democrats, almost exclusively, starting in 2004. 

Still, I wouldn’t vote for Mr. Trump in the proverbial million years. Let’s start with a little geography, first. Mr. Trump, this is Indiana:

Indiana is lodged between Ohio and Illinois. If you get in a limo and have your chauffeur head west from New York City you will find it in 650 miles.

Anyway, Indiana is, for all intents and purposes, part of the United States. You would have to drive many more miles, and turn toward the southwest, to hit Mexico. And did you know not all Mexicans are rapists? You did not? 

Well, it’s true.

Anyway, Mexico is a foreign country. Indiana is what we here in the Midwest like to refer to as “a state.” I was born and raised in Ohio. So I am a “Buckeye.” Since I was born in Ohio, I am a citizen of this country. Remember John Kasich? One of those guys who ran against you for the GOP nomination for president? He’s our governor. And since I was born in this country I am a certified American.

True, many of my ancestors were Irish. Back in the day, did you know many native-born Americans didn’t like my ancestors—didn’t like their religion at all. (It reminds me of your position in regard to Muslims!) The Irish were going to be loyal to the Pope, their enemies claimed, and not the U. S. Constitution.  “No Irish need apply,” many job advertisements read. There were violent protests, too. A Catholic church in Boston was blown to bits. A priest in Maine was tarred and feathered. In 1855, an anti-immigrant riot in Louisville, Kentucky, aimed at the Irish and the Germans, left 22 dead.

In fact, that’s another topic we need to talk about, sir: the right to protest. Did you know that that right is protected by the First Amendment?

Yes, there are more amendments than you seem to realize. There’s the First. Then there’s the Second, the one you seem (lately, at least) to love. The Fifth is cool, too; and the Fourteenth, and so forth.

No one cares about the Twelfth anymore. So you can ignore that one, I would say.

Anyway, the right to protest—against you, against Mrs. Clinton, against Mr. Sanders, against any of our leaders—it’s all good, unless violence is involved.

I can hold up a sign reading:

I cannot, however, use said sign to bash your supporters over the head. The people who attacked your fans in San Jose, California were clearly wrong. I hope many of them get arrested and spend Election Day in jail.

Maybe they can vote absentee.

One reason I could never vote for you is your support of violence to suppress peaceful protest. Yes, some of the people who have disrupted your rallies are annoying; and, yes, you have ever right to be heard. But when that guy sucker-punched a black man being led out of one of your rallies and later said, “Next time time, maybe we’ll have to kill him”—and you said you might pay his legal bills?

I thought I got a little whiff of fascism.

By the way, Mr. Trump, I would urge you to be a bit more skillful and not get your “ism’s” confused. You are correct when you identify Senator Sanders as a “socialist.” He believes in socialism.

Unfortunately, you labeled him a “communist.” Communism is not the same as socialism. You can have one of your aides look it up. In fact, communist leaders have often jailed or executed socialists.

Hitler did, too.

I know. It gets pretty confusing at times—especially when the Nazi Party was, in name, at least, a socialist party.

Not really the same.

We’ll get back to geography here in a moment, sir. I know you’re a busy man, what with all that Tweeting you have to do.

But you also worry me when you talk about using waterboarding and worse and toss out the idea of “torture” in cavalier fashion. You know who was good at torture? Well, Hitler, of course. The Spanish during the Inquisition. Also Saddam. You can get people to admit to  anything if you torture them enough. Torture Senator Cruz and that poor fellow would probably admit to being a member of ISIS. So: check out the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments when you have a moment.

The U. S. Constitution takes a strong stand against “cruel and unusual punishments,” I can tell you that.

And you know the Muslims—that entire people you so readily vilify? Remember that First Amendment? It’s right there, right in front of the Second. Well, it guarantees freedom of religion for all. 

Even Muslims are covered. I know you might find that hard to believe it; but it’s true.

In fact, did you realize that under the U. S. Constitution no religious test for office can ever be required?

Those Founding Fathers! What wisdom they had! Sure. They were a little dicey when it came to equal rights for blacks and women—but on religion, they were strong. Anyway, that means if President Obama was a Muslimand for some reason many of your supporters insist he ishe’d be qualified to run for and hold any office in this land.

And while I’m on that topic, do you remember when Fox News tarred Obama for membership in the church of Reverend Wright? (Say what you want about Reverend Wright; but he was indubitably minister of the Trinity United Church of Christ—and Mr. Obama was clearly going to a Christian church—and so he couldn’t be a Muslim—and it would be stupid to think he was—and it wouldn’t matter, legally or morally, if he was—not if he swore to uphold the U. S. Constitution—which he did.) Anyway, I know all of this may befuddle your loyal adherents and I also realize a steady diet of Fox News won’t help. But here’s another nugget of history for you to nibble and digest. You can’t possibly be a Muslim and a communist—although many on the right have claimed President Obama is both. You see, communists hate all religions. Jews? Hate them. Episcopalians? Hate them too.

Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs?

Yep. All of them.

So. Back to geography, where we started. Remember President Obama, his birth certificate and all?

Guess what! Hawaii is not part of Kenya! 

Hawaii is a state!

And, even if President Obama had been born in Kenya he could still take a seat in the Oval Office. The citizenship of a child is based on the citizenship of one or both parents. For example, a child born to a member of the U. S. military—say a 28-year-old recently returned from her tour with the U. S. Air Force in Afghanistan, and now stationed in Ramstein, Germany—would be an American citizen even if delivered on that base. Even if that soldier was a Muslim, as many in our armed forces are.

Born on an ocean liner in the middle of the Pacific? Same deal. Born on an airplane flying over Kenya. Or Hawaii. Still the same. The child’s parent/parents’ citizenship determines their citizenship. So: I’m a citizen. You’re a citizen, too. Mrs. Trump—I mean the third Mrs. Trump—can become a citizen after she waits a few years, if she is not. My Irish ancestors, good Catholics all, and good Americans in the end, were allowed to become citizens, too.

This is a great nation in that regard. You might have noticed that statue in the harbor. Statue of Liberty, it’s called.

Did you know people have been willing to die for our freedoms for nearly 250 years? So, we come full circle to that “Mexican” judge, at last. What a funny un-American name: Gonzalo Curiel. He’s probably a rapist, too.

Ha, ha. I’m just messing with you.

Actually, because he was born in Indiana, he’s an American. Just like you. Just like me. Just like President Obama.


Oh yeah, did you know, in 1970, Raul, the judge’s brother, served a tour in Vietnam? Have you ever been to Vietnam? As I understand it, you have not. You missed your chance to make the military great, back when you could have done your own part. 

I think your feet hurt or something.

Yeah, you can be a good American even if you have Mexican roots, or if, like Senator John McCain, you were born in the Panama Canal Zone.

You know Senator McCain, the man you said was not a hero? When your feet hurt too much to serve your country, his whole body was hurting because he was being tortured in a North Vietnam prison.

That word, again, too. Torture. Only countries run by scum use torture today.

Go figure, Mr. Trump. 

Go figure. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Veterans Come to Loveland Middle School

Last week, students at Loveland Middle School spent time in the company of heroes. It was part of an annual event which brings in an array of veterans to talk to the 450 members of the eighth grade class.

(And might I note up front: this day has nothing to do with standardized tests and everything to do with true learning.)

The school has been hosting this kind of gathering once a year, since 2003, in part in response to the attacks on 9/11. 

After all, if a nation is going to go to war, it seems students, teachers, administrators and the people, generally, should have a clear idea what that entails.

Every year a dozen or more veterans arrive to tell their moving stories. Joe Whitt, who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, came every year for a decade until his health failed. Melvin Burdine first visited in 2005, sixty years after a Japanese sniper shot him in the back and nearly killed him at Iwo Jima. Mark Adams comes to tell listeners (too young to remember Saddam Hussein) what it was like to fly an F-16 in combat. The most recent group also included Joe Jeffcoat, father of four Loveland students, a man badly wounded when a rocket propelled grenade destroyed his position in Iraq. Chuck Garrett, who did a tour in Iraq, too—and some years earlier a tour of Loveland Middle School as a seventh and eighth grade student—was back again. So was Bill Mansfield, who helped mop up the last Nazis in Europe when he was a young soldier with the United States Army.


I come because I helped set up the first visits and I’m a veteran, too—but certainly not one of the heroes. 

I was a clerk in a Marine supply unit during the Vietnam War and never got closer to combat than Camp Pendleton, California. 

I used to joke with students (I taught at Loveland Middle School for thirty-three years), saying: “Yeah, I defended my country with my trusty staple gun.”

If all I did was paperwork, most of the speakers dodged (or tried to dodge) enemy fire. The way the program is designed, speakers stay in one room and students rotate to hear different vets talk. Garrett was not the only former LMS student to visit in 2016. Phil McDaniel, who served with a Marine artillery unit from 2004-2008, and missed a tour in Iraq only because he broke his collarbone in training, was also present. “I begged my first sergeant to be allowed to go,” he told an audience of young people during one recent session. “I said I’d do anything, computer work. Anything! Just let me go.”

Request denied.

The man who has run the program for eight years is Dave Fletcher, also a veteran, a graduate of the U. S. Military Academy, now a hard-working classroom teacher. And this year he put together a superb slate of speakers: including Garrett, McDaniel, Mark Jacquez, who saw combat in Iraq, and Chris Tobias, who served with the U. S. Army in Afghanistan, all graduates of the Loveland City Schools.

For the day, Dave paired me off with Chris, because this was the first year the young vet had spoken to kids and Dave knows I know how the program is supposed to work and wanted to ensure everything went well.

Thanks to S/Sgt. Tobias it went more than well. 

By coincidence, Tobias was sitting in my history class on 9/11. So I brought along a yearbook and when I listened to him speak I passed it round and let this year’s eighth graders see what he looked like when he was their age. In his old photo Chris is round-faced and chunky, wearing glasses. “I was a band nerd,” he admits with a laugh.

I’ve been involved with this program, myself, for fourteen years, and every time I come away feeling I’ve just been through one of the most important days I’ve ever spent in education.

The speakers help young people—help all their listeners—understand that wars are fought by ordinary men and women. (We’re still trying to convince Kellie, a former U. S. Army nurse and Iraq War veteran, and another Loveland graduate, to visit some year; but she has trouble to this day talking about her experiences.)

In each of four sessions, with groups of 20 or 25 students, Tobias proved an engaging speaker. I talked briefly, to start, telling kids I was an average student when their age, happy to finish in the bottom half of my high school graduating class. I talked about my lack of motivation at the time—how I started college—dropped out in 1968—how the Marines finally shaped me up. I always include one funny story (now; definitely not at the time) about the day my drill instructor at Parris Island choked me.

After that, I take a seat. 

Students need to hear what heroes have to say. It turns out Tobias’ unit was responsible for “village stability operations” in Helmand Province, one of the most dangerous corners of a supremely dangerous land. Since he and other members of his platoon were expected to bond with locals they were allowed to grow out their beards and hair and don Afghan-style clothing. Chris told us he learned Pashtun and mentioned enduring broiling hot days, followed by nights when temperatures dropped to 90°, which, by comparison, left you feeling you were freezing. In an area where indoor plumbing was unknown he said he and his buddies went six months without showering.

This brought groans from the young listeners.

Eventually, the army gave each of the men three water bottles, allowed them to stab the tops with their bayonets, and “shower” with those. Chris said afterward he “felt fresh,” then had us all laughing when he described going back to quarters, where he and several men had been living for weeks and realizing how terrible they all must have smelled. He talked about the boredom of long days spent in Afghan villages. On one occasion he and several other soldiers hatched the idea of building a “crossbow” out of PVC pipe and firing an “arrow” fashioned from a rifle-cleaning rod. 

Their design worked perfectly—and away the arrow sailed. Then they realized: “Hey, we only have one arrow.”

Climbing to the top of a wall that surrounded the compound where they were then living they scanned the distance to see where the arrow might have landed. Finally, they spotted it, several hundred yards out, by purest bad luck, sticking in the side of a now thoroughly dead goat.

Tobias and his unit were deep in Taliban country, but by this point the men had survived months of hazardous duty. So he asked his commander for permission to take “five packs” (five men) out to fetch the arrow—deceased goat attached. By this time, they had had several close encounters with roadside bombs and repeatedly come under enemy fire. So they were fatalistic. Instead of donning body armor they went traipsing after the arrow wearing flip flops and shorts. Tobias had us all laughing again when he described the shorts the army issued, which were very short. 

“We called them ‘Daisy Dukes of Freedom,’” he smiled.

Chris kept his listeners interested all day, as so many of these veterans always do. But he was crystal clear about the damage war can do to those who serve. Five times he was riding in convoys when they were hit by roadside bombs. One man in his unit lost both legs. On another occasion, an IED blew up directly under the MRAP in which Tobias was riding—luckily, in a vehicle designed to withstand just such a blast. Still, the explosion blew off one of the huge tires and sent it flying like a giant hubcap in a stiff breeze. No one inside was injured—but repeated blasts and encounters with rocket-propelled grenades left Tobias, now 29, with severe hearing loss in one ear.

Certainly, when you listen to such men talk, you learn there’s no glamour in fighting. On anothe occasion a young Afghan boy approached the American position. Tobias and others shouted in Pashtun, ordering him to stop. He kept coming. They called on him again to stop. Something about his clothing looked wrong. Tobias called his commander and asked permission to shoot. Given the green light he tried to wound the boy, and did, with a single shot. Moments later, “his suicide vest detonated and all you saw was pink mist.”

Think about that next time you thank a veteran for his or her service. Think about pink mist and what these veterans go through.

In fact, Chris tells us he can remember everything about that moment—from the color of the boy’s eyes to the “taste of the sand.” He regrets having to take the shot but knows he had no good option. And it’s that kind of story that brings reality home to hundreds of Loveland teens every year.

Eventually, Tobias was badly injured, jumping off a wall when Taliban fire began striking too close. He landed badly, dislocated his right shoulder, tore about every muscle you can tear in a shoulder, and ended up being medically retired from the army. Today he attends college on the G.I. Bill.

He also tells his audience about Angie, his girlfriend, and how much her support means to him today. He admits he has frequent nightmares and says she’s learned there’s only one safe way to wake him—two quick taps to the right foot, a signal used by combat units. He admits he has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and sees a therapist for help. “I had to call her last night because I wasn’t sure I could make it through the day.” He says crowds worry him, even crowded halls at the school, and says he’s always studying people around him, looking for signs someone might be wearing a suicide vest.

In fact, the stress Chris feels is a common theme when the veterans come to speak. They are justly proud of what they did, but you’d never hear them brag. Mark Jacquez tells us he joined the U. S. Army in 2004, tired of listening to those who had never been to war talk about what the military should be doing. He and Chuck and Phil spent part of the morning just sitting together and talking. Chuck said at one point, in regard to the Iraqis, “Their commanders are corrupt and you can’t train the soldiers. There’s absolutely nothing you can do.” Mark agreed. I asked if they thought we should still be involved in the Middle East. Mark said he’d “gladly go back, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, it wouldn’t matter.”

I wondered aloud—if the guys we were trying to train weren’t anxious to fight—why would he risk his life again? Why should his younger brother Eric, who did two tours in Afghanistan, going after “high value targets,” have to go again?

“Humanitarian reasons,” Jacquez replied. He’d like to help bring an end to the chaos in that part of the world.

At any rate, Mr. Fletcher always has something special planned for the end of the day. All 450 students gather in the auditorium for a few final words. Ace Gilbert, a former Marine, has been coming out to LMS every year since 2003 and he has always been a gifted speaker. So Dave gives him the final word. This year he told the eighth graders about his friend, Jim Cashman, a Marine from Cleveland, who was killed in Vietnam in August 1969.

“We were out on an ambush one night,” Gilbert explained. “Something was bothering Cashman and I asked what was wrong. ‘If I die,’ he replied, ‘I’m gonna die this month.’ I got mad,” Ace continued. “‘If you go looking for death in a war zone you’re going to find it,’ I warned.”

That night all was quite; but a few nights later, when Gilbert was off duty and asleep, he awakened to heavy machine gun fire. It was Cashman blasting away at North Vietnamese troops sneaking up on Marine lines. What followed was a three-day firefight against 1200 NVA, the Americans badly outnumbered. One of those killed was Cashman, “a big guy, probably 6' 2" and 240 pounds,” Ace recalled. “He suffered a stomach wound, could see his own intestines, went into shock and died.”

Gilbert has never forgotten his friend’s last moments. “‘I want to see my Mom, I want to see my Mom,’” the young Marine kept crying.

For thousands of Loveland students who have heard these veterans speak over the last decade and more, that’s the last word on what Memorial Day is really about. It’s a time to remember those who served—especially those who paid the highest price possible to safeguard our freedom.


I  discussed the the experiences of Adams, Gilbert, Whitt and others who served in a previous post on my blog.

I also included an entire chapter and part of another in my book, Two Legs Suffice. You can also read about my experiences in the Marines if you like—and how those experiences shaped my successful teaching career.

Um…I think it was successful, at least.

(As most of my readers know, I am adamantly opposed to the insane focus on standardized testing that has warped American education today.)

Remember: When you go to war, somebody has to do all the dirty work.

Somewhere in Afghanistan.

Somewhere in Iraq.

Not every veteran comes back.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Should Businessmen and Businesswomen Run Everything? (Including Schools?)

We often hear how much better K-12 education could be if only we would introduce business methods in the public schools. 

Whenever I hear that line, I imagine British Petroleum or Henry’s Turkey Service or Lehman Brothers making decisions about children. 

Or even Pearson, the giant test making juggernaut that keeps coming up with new tests after old tests prove useless. 

Or I like to imagine Pfizer and money-mad pharmaceutical companies bringing their methods to public education. 

Who thinks businessmen and businesswomen have a lock on good ideas, good intentions and good methods, anyway? Some of the biggest crooks in history have run businesses. In a recent study, for example, it turns out Medicare and private insurers are wasting almost $3 billion on cancer medicines that end up getting thrown away. And this is happening every year.

Or, as Big Pharma might say, “Hey, we make an extra $3 billion!”

According to cancer researchers, many manufacturers market drugs in vials that hold more medicine than patients need. Nurses inject the required dosage, then, due to safety concerns, throw the remainder away.

Could this problem be fixed? Of course it could.

The companies could market cancer drugs in vials of varying sizes. Nurses could pick the bottles containing appropriate dosages. In fact, if U. S. lawmakers allowed it, we could start ordering vials of the same chemicals from Europe—where, magically, such medicines are sold in vials of varying sizes.

In this country, Takeda Pharmaceuticals sells 3.5 milligram vials of Velcade, to treat melanoma and other forms of cancer. One vial goes for $1,034. Each contains enough to treat a 6' 6" male, weighing 250 pounds. 

By comparison, Lena Haddad, 53, an average-size woman, receives 1.8 milligrams weekly to treat her cancer. That means, if I did the math right, that $502 of Velcade is wasted weekly. Or: $26,104 annually.

For a single patient.

In England—where I might add, they have socialized medicine—you can buy vials of Velcade in 1 milligram bottles. So, I am thinking: Why not put Ms. Haddad on a plane and fly her off to London. She can see the Tower and watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and then bring back a few dozen bottles of Velcade. All of us who pay taxes, all of us who watch our insurance premium soar, will be better off. Plus, Ms. Haddad would enjoy a fun vacation.

Oh, wait: the hitch! The drug companies would see profits decline. Takeda, the study indicates, might easily offer Velcade in vials of three sizes, cutting waste by 84%. But Takeda would lose $261 million in annual sales.

“Drug companies,” says Dr. Peter B. Burch, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering, “are quietly making billions forcing little old ladies to buy enough medicine to treat football players, and regulators have completely missed it. If we’re ever going to start saving money in health care, this is an obvious place to cut.”

As it stands now, $1.8 billion worth of cancer medicines are thrown away every year in this country. Another $1 billion is wasted when doctors and hospitals mark up prices for these drugs they throw away.

Meanwhile, if you do get cancer, good luck. You’re going to need it—and Obamacare—or maybe wait until Republicans repeal Obamacare and you can sell your house. According to The New York Times, the last ten cancer drugs approved for use in this country have an “average annual price of $190,217.”

Big Pharma complains any time we accused them of gouging customers. “Oh, we need to spend all that money on research and development!” Yet Pfizer and Merck devote only 17% of revenues to developing new treatments and spend more on marketing expensive drugs they already sell. 

Also: lobbying Congress is expensive! The biggest lobbying organization for the drug companies spent $208 million in 2014, alone.

You know: buying lawmakers can be expensive.

Speaking of Merck, in February 2015, the company stopped selling vials of Keytruda, a drug to treat lung cancer, in 50 milligram bottles. Yes, it might be true: a 150-pound woman might need only 136 milligrams for treatment. But why offer three 50s when you can sell two 100 milligram bottles instead? And, Merck now has an even better idea—if only they can foist it off on the Food and Drug Administration. (Again: send in the lobbyists!) Why don’t regulators set a fixed dosage of 200 milligrams for patients? Then let Merck sell Keytruda only in 200 milligram bottles, enough to treat any jumbo-sized patient. That way, none of the drug will, technically, be wasted—even though doctors say there is no evidence the higher dosage would help most patients.

Then again, who cares about patients!

Merck is in business to make money! And in the next five years, even if the F.D.A. says no to the 200 milligram scam, it is estimated the company will collect $2.4 billion for Keytruda that gets thrown away.

P. S.: Teva Pharmaceuticals sells Treanda (used to treat leukemia) in four different vial sizes. In other words, it can be done.

Even in America.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Opening Pages of Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching.

Here are the opening pages to Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching. Chaucer is quoted on war (werre). I believe the school reformers who talk about fixing schools know almost nothing about the real war to save children. 

Woot = knows.

Grunts = foot soldiers in the Vietnam War; in education, men and women who do all the fighting.


Talk to the Grunts

“Ther is many a man that creith ‘Werre!  werre!
that woot ful litel what werre amounteth.”
Geoffrey Chaucer

I don’t drink much. Besides, it’s seven a.m. and I’m hardly awake.

“Not again,” I mutter, rubbing my eyes and adding a string of pungent expletives.

I hold in my hands another stinging editorial directed at teachers. This one, from The New York Times, carries the headline:


The author is assistant professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. So you might assume he knows what he’s talking about.

            (You’d be wrong.)

He starts by outlining a “tidal wave” of school reforms since 1983. I taught for decades. So I remember them all. The professor lists vouchers, charter schools, state standardized tests, No Child Left Behind and “Race to the Top.” With implementation of Common Core in the offing a fresh round of reforms is about to commence.

He leaves out a laundry list of changes veteran educators might include but sums up results. U. S. K-12 education remains “stubbornly mediocre.”

I feel myself wavering. Is it too early for bourbon?


What is it we keep failing to learn? Apparently, the problem with education in this country is teachers.

According to the professor we have too many dumb ones manning the classrooms. Only 23% come from the top third of their college classes. What about Finland, a country whose schools are almost too good to be true? Finland has smart teachers. America needs to find smart teachers, under some rocks or something, and pronto.

As a former teacher, suddenly I feel like such a dolt.

“Well,” I wonder, “will we ever learn?” 

I set the editorial aside and gather my wits. I don’t think I’m deluding myself when I say I was a good teacher. I don’t think I’m hallucinating when I say I worked with a number of excellent educators and all kinds of good ones during my career. Call me stupid, I guess, but I would argue that teachers come in the same varieties, excellent, good, fair, and poor, as lumberjacks, car mechanics, Congress persons and Harvard professors.

I tell myself: “You can do your bit to answer the professor’s question if you do it right.”

The dilemma is how? How write a book about education that might offer useful insights? How capture the interest of some fraction of the general reading public? And is there some way to poke all the self-styled “education experts” where it hurts most?

I mean—in the ego.

Perhaps some sleazy sex and the right title might help: Fifty Shades of Grade Book? Nope. No way that’s going to sell.

All I did was spend my career in a large rectangular room in close company with teens. All I offer is a memoir about life in the classroom, a love story about working with thousands of kids.
Still, I’m compelled to try.

First, I mean this book as a defense of good educators—an explanation of what they do—and a look at the daunting problems they confront. There are plenty of bad books to choose from if you want to read about what teachers do wrong.

I also believe my book has value because of what it’s not. I won’t be offering the latest plan to fix the schools. I’m not an authority in the fixing field. I’m not Steven Brill or Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee. U. S. Secretary of Education Duncan and former Washington, D. C. School Chancellor Rhee we shall meet again. Brill is the prototypical critic and school fixer—a lawyer—who wrote a book about education, lambasting teachers: Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill never bothered to teach. He studied “war” at a safe remove and didn’t have to worry about getting killed or maimed.

What do I know? Part of what I know I know because I sat in class as if in a coma during my own misspent youth. Another chunk I know because I dropped out of college in 1968 and joined the Marines. I know what I know, in part, because I’ve pedaled a bike across the United States.

Most of what I know I learned by teaching: American and Ancient World History, for thirty-three years, at the seventh and eighth grade levels, for Loveland City Schools, near Cincinnati, Ohio. That’s not an especially long tenure in the classroom. Nevertheless, it represents more time spent working with kids than Rhee and Brill and all nine U. S. Secretaries of Education combined. That fact alone ought to tell us something.


Naturally, training in history informs my thinking. More than two thousand years ago, when ancient Greeks named their Seven Wise Men, they placed Thales, scientist and philosopher, at the top of their list. Thales was once asked, “What is hard?” 

“To know thyself,” he replied.
“What is easy?”

“To give advice.”
America’s teachers know what Thales meant. Since passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, the focus of school reform has been almost entirely on those at the front of the classroom. Will we ever learn, the Harvard professor wonders? I’m not sure. But I suspect you might have asked any of four million U. S. educators and they could have told you the utopian law was flawed from the start.

But the promises of politicians and pronouncements of policy makers were unequivocal. By 2014 every child was going to be proficient in reading and math. Not 88%. Not 96%. Every single one.

In the thirteen years since NCLB was enacted into law, countless editorials and TV reports have bolstered one theme. Google: “education crisis in America” and 300,000,000 results pile up. Don’t have time to do all that reading? Here’s the capsule version: America’s schools are failing. Teachers are at fault.

Ms. Rhee became a brand name in school reform, turning up on television during one stretch as frequently as Law and Order reruns. In 2008 she graced the cover of Time, broom in hand, promising to clean out all the lousy teachers in Washington, D. C. and fix the biggest problem in education. Sweep! Just like that! Even Oprah gave Rhee, who taught for only three years, some televised love.

Meanwhile, “Fox News and Friends” did an interview with John Legend, the singer, and asked him to comment on school-related issues. The segment, titled “America’s Education Crisis,” was accompanied by tags like: “The Trouble with Schools,” “A Broken System” and “Teachers Behaving Badly,” lest viewers miss the point.

On CNN Campbell Brown hosted a series called “America’s Schools in Crisis,” leading off with talk about “broken” and “failing” schools. When Geoffrey Canada, who runs a charter school in Harlem, insisted that “the people who produce the children are the teachers,” Brown let that stand without batting either of her lovely green eyes. I remember scratching my head, trying to figure out how my teachers produced me or how they produced my four kids.

Well, good job, teachers! All my children turned out fine.

And so it came to pass.

The “heroes” of school reform sounded the charge, stood back, and let educators storm enemy lines. Tens of billions were spent to implement NCLB. Hundreds of millions of hours were devoted by teachers to preparing for, and by students to taking, standardized tests.

Standards didn’t rise. 

They fell.

President Obama rode into office in 2009, promising to fix flaws in how NCLB was implemented. A “race to the bottom,” he said, had been touched off when states lowered standards to avoid punishment under complex provisions of the law.

Mr. Obama would task Arne Duncan, ninth Secretary of Education, with leading a “Race to the Top.” Fresh billions would be offered to states if they created more charter schools and linked teacher pay to scores on standardized tests.

“It’s all about the talent,” Duncan assured any who would listen. It’s all about teachers.

In 2010 Davis Guggenheim set out to discover what was wrong with U. S. public education. (His view may have been impaired because he sent his children to elite private institutions.) In a critically-acclaimed documentary, Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim put a finger on what he saw as the issue. Rhee featured prominently, sneering at the efforts of      D. C. teachers. While viewers watched in disbelief the film seemed to strip away the last fig leaf of doubt, “revealing” teachers in all their sloth and shame. The message of the movie, focusing narrowly on five children trying to escape “awful” public schools and get into charters, boiled down to this: If families could pick their schools problems in education would fade away.

I remember watching with disgust as Guggenheim painted a simplistic picture.

Yet, Brent Staples, critiquing the film for The New York Times, could come away from a viewing stunned and impressed. Readers who planned to see the movie, he warned, should take along handkerchiefs. Staples left no doubt who filled the villain’s role: “Public schools generally do a horrendous job of screening and evaluating teachers, which means that they typically end up hiring and granting tenure to any warm body that comes along.”

(Hmm…maybe I should title my book: 98.6°. Or: I Was a Teacher! I Had a Pulse!)

If assessments in the Times were harsh, educators had to take two steps back to avoid fire and brimstone from the right. Ann Coulter, in Godless, slammed teachers’ unions, labeled public schools “the Left’s madrassas,” and compared the U. S. education system to Soviet era factories, staying open even though products were hopelessly defective.

At best public schools were:

…nothing but expensive babysitting arrangements, helpfully keeping hoodlums off the streets during daylight hours. At worst, they are criminal training labs, where teachers sexually abuse the children between drinking binges and acts of grand larceny.

Neil Boortz, in Somebody’s Gotta Say It, argued that the danger went deeper. Teachers weren’t just incompetent. They were a threat to the Republic.

“Our government schools are killing the spirit of our children and, in the process, our country,” he groaned. “Our wonderful government educational system produces graduating classes of young Neanderthals with no sense of individuality, no sense of self-worth, and no understanding of what it means to live in a truly free society.”

Somebody had to say it—even if what Boortz had to say was incredibly stupid. So he spewed. “Teachers’ unions pose a graver long-term threat to freedom, prosperity and the future of this country than do Islamic terrorists.”
(If he was right it would indicate a need to scan teachers’ baggage more carefully at airports.)

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