Saturday, March 7, 2015

Stuck in Folsom Prison: How NOT to teach Middle School Language Arts

Note: inspired once again  by one of Knotty's posts

In eighth grade I had a truly abysmal language arts teacher. I'm not sure how it's commonly being handled now, but back then,  in middle,  school language arts was typically a two-period class. The district knew they'd made a bad hire in the first week of school (or at least when district personnel learned a few weeks later about what had happened in the first week of school; kids have a way of keeping their mouths shut about even juicy school matter when it benefits them to allow the status quo to remain)  when they learned that  the teacher  had brought in issues of National Geographic and other more graphic nudie magazines to try to illustrate to us the difference between nudity and actual pornography.) That particular practice, or the district's knowledge of it,  signified the beginning and the end of the teacher's employment with our district.

The district became aware of the "nudity versus pornography" assignment when my mother found copies of Hustler and Playboy stacked between Matthew's other school books. On a typical middle school afternoon, Matthew might not even have brought home any books or other study materials.
The stack of books was left on the dining room table. Because Matthew had a headache following the day's football practice   (unenlightened coaches were still denying students access to water during practices, resulting in many student athletes feeling ill on a daily basis following practice), my mother moved his books from the dining room table to his room herself instead of calling upon him to do it. She noticed a magazine sticking out from the stack of books and out of curiosity, took it from the middle of the pile to see what it was. She was horrified to see that it was Oui magazine - a periodical slightly harder-core  than either Playboy or Hustler on the porno scale. She questioned Matthew initially as to what he was doing with such smut, When Matthew claimed it was from school and for a class assignment,  she was skeptical  at the very least, but asked me for corroboration on the outside chance that there was any truth whatsoever to Mathew;s explanation. When she learned that he was telling the truth, the whole, truth, and nothing but the truth, she went to work the next day at our school district;s main office armed and prepared to call an emergency meeting of the school board, which, according to the Brown act, had to be publicized X number of days in advance.

The meeting was publicized the required number if days and was held, but the governing board, according to my mom, totally wimped out. They agreed collectively that the woman was not fit to teach, but also agreed with the superintendent that terminating her before the expiration date of her contract would cost more than it was worth to fire her. They instead decided to sacrifice the language arts education of roughly one hundred students for the remainder of the year.

A district more concerned with student welfare and less concerned with finances would have fired her on the spot, or at least would have found her a menial job in the district office until the end of the school year,  but it was cheaper to tolerate her incompetence for the remainder of the year and simply not offer  her  a contract for the following year than it would have been to remove her from  her teaching position mid-contract. (She's the one who assigned the book reports so she wouldn't have to prep any teaching materials the time I did the book report on THE ESSENTIALS OF PROCTOLOGY.) 

Anyway, another of her low-prep teaching methods was to hook us all up with prisoners for pen pals.  I don't know if it was through WriteaPrisoner (I don't even know if the organization existed in my middle school days, through a similar organization, or if she just happened to be acquainted with enough prisoners that she was able to match one up with each of her students. My prisoner was Johnny McFarland. He sent me his picture, which I still have stored away in my box of memorabilia from middle school.He was a lifer at Folsom Prison, though I never found out what he was in for. We had to send our prisoners stamps so they could write us back. The project lasted for me through two letters, when my mom found out about it and made a few calls to put an absolute end to the project. The teacher hated me after that because she had been able to waste an hour per week for each of three classes on that assignment. Actually, losing the project was no extra effort on her part; it was just one more hour per week that the kids ran around the room screaming and chasing each other. It's not like she had to put forth any extra effort.

One girl in the class made the fairly serious mistake of giving out her home address to her pen pal. She thought since he was a lifer, it was no big deal, but he had a buddy in prison who won an appeal and got out of the big house, and he showed up on the girl's doorstep asking for financial assistance. It was a family with a single mother, and they ended up moving within a week. They moved in with grandparents until they could sell their house and buy another one. The girl's poor mother was totally traumatized, but I don't think the girl herself was all that bothered. She was a pretty heavy ditz queen and thought the parolee was cute in a rough sort of way.

Anyhow, if you choose to go into teaching and you want your students to have pen pals, you would do well to choose some facility or organization  other than your local penitentiary as your source of pen pals for your student. Write to prisoners yourself if you feel so compelled, but don't set your students up with pen pals from Cell Block H.


  1. Jeez... that teacher was an IDIOT. Of course, our senior trip was to the now demolished Virginia State Penitentiary. It was actually very interesting, if not a bit scary. We even got to see the "death house" and the electric chair. By that time, all the death row inmates had been moved to the new prison.

  2. Do any states still use the electric chair?

    yes, that teacher was an idiot, but she got paid a whole lot of money for almost ten months to show p and do basically nothing, so I'd say the giverning board consisted of bigger idiots than she was.

    1. Yes, I believe there are still some states that give inmates the option of being electrocuted rather than poisoned. In fact, some states have other execution methods. Utah has a firing squad. Washington allows hanging. A couple of states also have gas chambers. California is one state that offers gas over lethal injections.

  3. I remember making prayer books for inmates. There wasn't anything personal about coloring a prayer book, however my grandfather didn't find it charitable.

    The nudity vs. pornography assignment, however, is insane! I mean, I support an honest discussion about sexuality any day, but you don't give middle school aged children hard core porn.

  4. The woman was nothing if not insane. She might have done wel in a hippie-operated charter school (if they had such things as charter schools back in the day) in 1968 or therabout, but in anything resembling a mainstream setting, she had no teaching skills on which to survive.

  5. Your mother seems incredibly calm about the whole thing. My mother would have flipped out and been screaming at anyone she could find if someone gave me porn in middle school! Although she is a hardcore TBM who made me leave AP US if even a clip from an R rated movie was being shown in class so there's that. The teaching system really needs some work, I had so many horrendous teachers to the point where I had many courses where I learned nothing, in a good school district, in the highest rated state for public schooling. Nothing quite as bad as this but I did have a teacher in high school who spent an entire class period (1.5 hrs) having a personal conversation with one student and left the rest of us to our own devices for no reason whatsoever other than he didn't feel like teaching that day

  6. iI's a tightrope that educational administration, politicians, and the like, walk when determining how much freedom to give teachers in their own classroom. We know that really good teachers do their best work with as few lmitations and restrictions as possible, but that obviously not all teachers are "the very best teachers," and if administrators start trying to decide which teachers are granted academic freedom and which ones are granted greater supervision, the union gets involved and, if anything, less education happens than was happening in the first place. (Teachers can scream that the NEA. the ADT, or whatever, are professional organizations, but they are unions regardless of what their leadership chooses to call them.

    We also know that, with human nature being what it is, teachers' unions need to exist. While it is , in my opinion, ar too difficult to terminate a tacher is doing his or her job poorly, if some protections and due process were not in place, teachers would be fired on a regular basis for all sorts of reasons not necessarily related to job performance.

    A happy medium needs to be found -- one where those teachers who have proven themselves to be ineffective can be dismissed, but not one where a principal who simply does not like a teacher, or perhaps would like to fire a teacher to create a job opening for the child of a friend, can dismiss a teacher without just cause. Even under the present system, I know of teachers who have not been invited back fr a second or third year because administrators were trading off on creating jibs for each others' offspring as soon as they finished college and became credentialed.

    i'm not sure what the answer is. for one thing, California teachers are tenured on the first day of their third day of employment. with deadlines for notifying teachers of not being invited to return being some time around February. February of a teacher's first year is far too early to terminate all but the most incompetent of first-year teachers.

    i don't believe even two full years of teaching is enough time to determine of a teacher is sufficiently effective t be allowed to continue teaching with a school district.

    In California, it used to be three years that a district had to decide whether or not to tenure a teacher. it still, with deadlines, ended up being more like to and five-eights of a year, but it was better than the less-tha-two-years that districts currently have now.

    I suppose if i could devise a plan, i would allow a teacher to be terminated at any time between the end of month one and the end of the first year for cause. cause would have to be outlined, and of cousre, once a reason is named, it is currently subject to litigation. Districts have to make it a point to give no reason when they fire a teacher to avoid legal challenge. That should change, but so should the option of the right to legal challenge be changed What is in it for a school district to hire a teacher four months into the year? Very little in my opinion. Perhaps to remove nepotism or even the appearance of such as a factor, any relative of a district employee should be barred from taking over for a teacher dismissed in the middle of a year. /If a district employee's relative can manage to be hired prior to the start of a contract year by someone other than his relative, it's probably fair enough, but a district should not be able to create job openings at will for connected new teachers.

  7. I(continued from last post)

    There will be poor teachers always, just as there always have been in the past (I wonder how effective St. Paul was as a teacher because of his obvious bias against women), but the number of ineffective teachers in the field can be minimized.

    I propose, in addition to a district having the right to remove an employee under contract mid-year for cause, the district should have the right to place any employee, with proper documentation as determined by committee and not just the principal, under a mentoring and assistance program. The teacher should be allowed to name his or her own mentor form a list of numerous teacher mentors. This program and the individuals managing it should not have the potential to terminate a teacher unless the teacher in question simply refuses to comply with requests made by the mentor, and even then, the decision to terminate should be made by committee. Additionally, first a change of assignment, including a change of grade level or a change of school site if a teacher and a principal cannot reach a meeting of minds, should be mandatory. Still, a new teacher who hands out pornography to twelve-year-olds, should be fired following due process in which clear evidence that the accusations happened as charged. An experienced teacher who does anything so egregious should likewise be subject to termination.

    I care a little more about this issue because I am going to teach high school calculus for summer school this year on an emergency credential. I have been extended the job offer because no one qualified in the district wants to do it, and I have the necessary math units to qualify for the emergency credential. One could argue that a calculus is too important a subject to be taught by someone on an emergency credential, but I'm their best choice at this point. I don't think anyone questions my knowledge of the subject matter, anyway. It's only my ability to impart that knowledge and to handle a class that are subjects for debate. I'm told parents are being informed that the class is being taught by a 20-year-old medical school student, and that they can take it or leave it in terms of whether or not they think I'm qualified to teach the course.

    What I have working to my advantage is that calculus students are highly motivated, as opposed to ninth-grade geometry students, many of whom haven't yet begun to worry about college if they ever will in some cases. High school calculus classes, on the other hand, are populated by motivated students wanting to understand the material, wanting the credits, and wanting to pass the Advanced Placement exam. They'll essentially .handle the discipline for me, as they do not wish to lose valuable instructional time to a buffoon whose sole purpose is to make my life miserable. Furthermore, because it's an academic elective, I can toss anyone from the class that I feel is interfering with my ability to teach or other students' ability to learn. I'll blog more about the topic soon.