Monthly Archives: February 2014

No Time for the Motivation

“We treat non-school, non-sleeping or non-eating time, unbudgeted free time, with suspicion and no little fear. For while it may offer opportunity to learn and do new things, we worry that the time we once spent reading, kicking a ball, or mindlessly coddling a puck might be used destructively, in front of TV, or ‘getting in trouble’ in endless ways. So we organize free time, scheduling it into lessons–ballet, piano, French–into organizations, teams, and clubs, fragmenting it into impossible-to-be-boring segments, creating in ourselves a mental metabolism geared to moving on, making free time distinctly free.”

–Ken Dryden, The Game


I’m reading Ken Dryden’s book about his team as the Montreal Canadiens goalie, a time in which he won six Stanley Cups (impressive). His words here got me thinking about my own students’ free time, or lack thereof. Dryden’s words are 30 years old, but the argument that our youth’s time is over-structured rings more true today.


My school is on a seven-period schedule. No study hall. No recess. Seven ideally busy 50-minute chunks of learnin’. I try to fill up that time, too, for nothing’s more mischievous than 35 pairs of idle teenage hands. But when’s the time to pursue one’s own interests? In college, I used the spare hours to read back issues of Film Comment or consume the library’s impressive collection of Woody Allen films. If we want our schools to emulate a college academic environment (and I’m not saying that’s a stated goal of anyone’s, but maybe it should be), then why not build in a little time for cultivating some passions? Why not send the message to students, through their schedules, that they should set aside time to really dive into the things which excite them? Why not let them know how important it is to have time in your day to get good at something?


Dryden goes on: “…more is needed to transform those skills into something special. Mostly it is time unencumbered, unhurried, time of a different quality, more time, time to find wrong answers to find a few that are right; time to find your own right answers.”


The same goes with students’ after-school time. I don’t want them smoking pot and getting each other pregnant, but there are plenty of students I teach whose dance, band, theatre, swim, whatever obligations leave them far too little time to themselves, to think, to explore, to wonder, to experiment–not with huffing gas–but with a soccer ball, a delay pedal, a book maybe.


Dryden laments the loss of “street soccer,” wherein players became great because of their countless hours exploring, becoming one with a soccer ball, discovering new things they could do with one. These days (the 70s, too, apparently), we coach all the fun out of the game, building a team on analytics and fundamentals. I see the same thing happening in my own school, my own class, and wonder what (if anything) I need to do about it.

What Robocop Shows Us About Education Reform

A beleaguered government institution. Corporations eager to swoop in with half-baked solutions. A public embracing a hard-nosed, brutal approach to public service. Once-great workers fighting to retain their autonomy.

I could be talking about current trends in public education, or I could be talking about 1987’s Robocop. Paul Verhoeven’s classic action movie gets a shiny new re-boot this weekend, and I hope the newer blacker suit comes with some of the satire that made the first movie just a bit deeper than the penis-shoot-em-up it appears to be at first glance. But let’s look back for a moment to appreciate all the sad sad connections we can make between the Detriotpian movie (a dystopian set in Detroit, duh) and my (sometimes) frustrating job.

1. ROBOTS ARE BETTER THAN HUMANS, ONLY WHEN THEY’RE NOT I’m surprised some enterprising smarty pants hasn’t already named his new online learning resource ED-209, after the super slick but super not-ready-for-launch stop motion badass here. The sad truth is: the ED-209’s of the education world are already out there. I love the idea of online or computer-based classes, when they’re rigorous, engaging, and fluid. I’m sure we’re approaching that reality, but until then, I have to sit by and watch perfectly capable students get a full credit for a year’s worth of English study without having to read a novel, write a paper, or have a discussion with a human being about their ideas. It’s maddening.

2. GETTING TOUGH DOESN’T SOLVE THE PROBLEM I won’t argue that Robocop handles the bad guys with satisfying brutality, but one-dimensional villains like this guy are just as fanciful as Robocop himself. We don’t get to see the poverty-stricken broken home he grows up in, nor do we see the substance abuse, lack of education, or economic oppression that leaves a man resorting to robbery. And Robocop just knocks him out and goes about his robo-day. No plan for rehabilitation. No attempt from Omnicorp to solve systemic issues–just leave it to Robocop.

In school, we handle our worst kids the same way. At the high school level, it’s pretty much too late for authentic rehabilitation for some. They’ve given up on a system that never believed in them or addressed their core issues. We can pretend that discipline and Response to Intervention paperwork is meaningful, but at the end of the day, the thug is still lying unconscious in a broken ice cooler, you know?


Robocop becomes the ultimate law enforcement machine. He doesn’t need sleep (except they totally show him recharging or whatever). He only needs some weird paste to eat. And a freaking gun comes out of his leg. What a great cop that doesn’t do obnoxious things like demand adequate conditions, threaten to strike, or die! Sure would be great if we had some teachers like that. Maybe if we had a common set of standards to work with, or some high-stakes testing to dominate our culture? Maybe if we created a host of computer-based resources that took all the human error out of their lessons?

But we’re still stuck with human beings teaching our classrooms, and those teachers (like Robocop) have personalities, souls. Give them as many prime directives as you want; they’ll still desire the things that made them passionate about the job in the first place: building relationships, making a difference, shaping a better future for our society.

Naturally, we should make every effort to improve our nation’s teachers. I’d buy that for a dollar. I want higher standards for myself and my students. What I won’t buy for a dollar is a career with all the soul sucked out of it. Because I’ll still have one, yearning to twirl its gun or whatever.

The Future’s Gonna Be Wicked Hahd

Hey, it snowed a whole bunch!  I didn’t have to spend the night at the school with hundreds of stranded students, and my 13 mile commute home only took three hours.  I have a handful of colleagues who weren’t so fortunate, but they all handled themselves like the adorable professionals they are.  Go hug some teachers today or something; they probably deserve it.

But all the snow days left me with plenty of movie time, and God bless video on demand.  In the past, people had to raid their Blockbuster Video well before a snow storm.  I myself worked at such a Blockbuster during such snow storms; it wasn’t fun.  The reality we live in now, of Captain Phillips being just a few clicks away, is tremendous.  Welcome to the future.

And that’s what I want to talk about: the future.  Captain Phillips is based on a true story, but I couldn’t help but see some deeper implications about the global workforce and where it’s headed.  Captain Phillips–the movie and the character–bring up how the world is changing, getting smaller and more competitive.  It’s the first conversation in the movie, as Tom Hanks drives to the airport.  He mentions how his son doesn’t take school seriously, how that will limit his options in the coming world, where he’ll be competing with his peers on a global scale.

It’s a fear I have for my own students; I even shared my concerns with my juniors last Tuesday, as I desperately tried to get them to read some Walt Whitman instead of whatever else they felt like doing, having already found out that they were being released early on account of the snow outside (also a bit of distraction in Georgia).  “You don’t just have to work harder than your classmates,” I warned.  “You have to work harder than the rest of the world.” (Yeah! Bringing some real Dad Truth on them!)

For Captain Phillips, those fears of a changing world are realized when ruthless Somali pirates, driven by pure desperation, attack his cargo ship (I guess that’s what that thing is called).  The pirates cheer when they discover the ship is from America; it represents fantastic fortune and an easy life for them.  Phillips meets face to face with Muse, the leader of the pirates.  When Muse declares, “I’m the captain now,” it’s just as much of a warning for the American workforce as it is for poor Captain Phillips.  Desperate, hungry people want our prosperity, and they’ll work far harder and do anything at all to get a piece of what we enjoy.

And Captain Phillips is clever and experienced.  He’s backed by a loyal staff and, later, the entire U.S. Navy.  The movie’s still tense, though.  You still worry for they guy, and it’s because these pirates are just that determined.  By the end of the movie, they’re injured, starving, exhausted; they’re facing the Navy, and yet they still press on, because they have nothing else.  I hated Muse for being so mean to America’s beloved Tom Hanks, but I couldn’t help but think “Hey, he’d make a pretty good captain, too.”

And Somali pirates only represent a small “threat” to America’s youth.  I can’t help but wonder how many Asian elementary students read English better than my sophomores.  How many students internationally can run circles around my precious kids in computer coding, basic engineering, or–I don’t know–math?  It’s troublesome, and I wonder if I’m doing enough to prepare them.