Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rubrics in the Creative Writing Classroom II

I've always been amused by the idea of a rubric for fiction writing partly because I would have liked to have had one when I first started writing stories, and partly because I know it wouldn't have a made a whole lot of difference.  Once upon a time I posted my fiction writing rubric on this blog.  It was a conglomerate of practical and impractical advice stolen from both Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King.  I don't think it was very good.  I'll go ahead and post a revised version here that I hope is more practical.  The idea is that a student reads a book and feels inspired to write something of their own.  Here's how I attempt to grade such goings on in my world:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Oh(io) What a Night

Imagine a tall building.  It is a monument of human striving, yet the process of its composition oppressed many human lives.  Drag butt, cigarette ass, sawdust memoirs.  Concrete drying the spit from our mouths.  Steel beams are not bones.  They're better.

Or are they?

I think I've been away from the city for so long that I've grown a phobia.  The last time I remember being in the city that city was Akron, Ohio, and I was reading (for the first time) the opening lines of Hermann Hesse's Peter Camanzind while driving.  I paused long enough to let the opening lines set in, and, taking my eyes from the road long enough to peer up at the GoJo building almost ran over a Canadian goose that had wandered out into the road.  For some reason the whole incident struck me as so absurd I've never forgotten it.

Yesterday at the polls I looked with admiration at my mud streaked truck parked next to an errant Harley.  The Harley was one of those gratuitous jobs with the fringe and everything, my truck being an ultra-sexy black Ram struck alongside me as some kind of working man's chorus of unspoken tenor, a heathen's litany, the local baseball field named after a local person of note, the guy with long hair, an unscrubbed farmer-philosopher, a time traveler, a San Francisco refugee speaking into someone's open window about some idea, the idea that we should all be able to agree on healthcare, and that it's something we need to support at a state level (why not?).  Inside, working the polls, was the woman from whom we bought our house, a single book on a shelf: Laura Bush's autobiography.  A scrofulous Paul off work as some I.T. guy in the dungeons of steam.

Afterward the meat store, Ohio's largest meat market, a black family: man and woman and two small girls smelling of hash, hugging over the butcher's counter.  The shiny pork livers and blood sausage, the smell, according to one cashier "of straight shit" in the air.  A wonder manure.  A wonderful manner.

Home, nervous.  The washed truck, well earned muck scrubbed from quarter panels, Windex on the wheels, Armour All, Amour All, Issue 2 results on the laptop while my son seeks me from footie pajamas, daddy is in the front yard moving the burn barrel, no need for it now, save the STRIKE for another day.    

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fantasy Class: Stephen King

Why does he rock so hard in those purple Converse, elastic-cinched-waist jacket and creeper-stache? This is just a sketch of a course that I've always thought would be one of my life's work as a teacher of literature.  He's always been there for me as Constant Writer and this would be my preferred way of giving back as Constant Teacher.  

Our staple texts would be On Writing, Duma Key, Lisey's Story, Misery, The Shining, Night Shift, and Carrie.  I  would be tempted to include the complete Dark Tower Series on the syllabus, but I think it would discourage interesting people from taking the class while encouraging maybe the wrong kind of people (i.e. those who think they already know everything there is to know) to sign up.  As a compromise I would make constant references to the books with the hope of intriguing (if not shaming) those who have not read them to do so.

We'd have to start with On Writing to establish the man's story, and in part his aesthetic, though I think his works speak to that better than anything he says in On Writing.  

Next, we'd move on to Night Shift, speficially the following stories, which I think all have the earmarks of the blue collar society in which King was raised:

"Graveyard Shift"  Hall strikes me as a character close to Stephen King's heart: a "college boy" trying to make it in the world of blue-collar folks.  Hall's latent obsession with the macabre is an obvious tribute to King's own dangerous aesthetic.  In this story it leads to his death; in King's life, the terms were different, but the stakes were the same.

"The Mangler" is a fun piece colored by Ruth Pillsbury King's experience working a machine much like the one that becomes possessed by a demon in the story.

"The Boogeyman" boasts a narrator that is socially backward when it comes to the defining cultural themes of King's generation: namely the quest for greater civil rights for both women and blacks.  I get the impression King got a lot of pleasure out of torturing this guy.

"Grey Matter" if only for the Maine dialect.  This piece is a masterwork of voice.  It also comments on alcoholism, a demon King himself was fighting.

"Sometimes They Come Back" is, I think, a comment on King's days behind a desk.  More on this in Carrie .

"The Man who Loved Flowers" only because it proves you don't have to be gory to tell a horror story.  In this case King describes the mania of a hammer-murderer without mentioning a single drop of blood.  He also uses a pretty nifty bait and switch to get the effect of the surprise ending.

I'd probably stop with these stories, but would be tempted to include: "The Ledge" a brilliant suspense piece that seems to deal with class issues, "Strawberry Spring" for offering a brilliant take on the wicked Poe's unreliable narrator, and "Quitters, Inc." for just being really frigging fun.

We'd move on to Carrie in conjunction with the section in On Writing that corresponds with the writing of the piece.  I find it fascinating that King's wife encouraged her husband to write a book based on the merits of a scene like the one found in the opening pages of this novel.  The resulting conversations may be awkward, but I think this book was ahead of its time given the Columbine phenomenon and our heightened "bully" radar.  Maybe we'd come to see it as a cautionary tale.  Who knows?

The Shining and Misery would have to function as a kind of unconscious autobiography during King's darker days of substance abuse and his life-long fear that there may be something truly and inescapably damaged in his psyche.

I see Duma Key and Lisey's Story (and to a certain extent Insomnia) as autobiographical during the days after he kicked drugs and alcohol and after the near death experience of being hit by a van.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fantasy Class: Cormac McCarthy

Punk everyone out the first day by calling The Road Cormac McCarthy for Dummies.  "You didn't actually think we'd read an Oprah book in here, did you?"

The Border Trilogy.  My favorite is The Crossing, but you need all three.  All the Pretty Horses might attract female students to the class, which would be a necessity.  An all-guys McCarthy class would consist of smatterings of sparse dialogue, a mysterious aroma of whiskey, a lot of whisker stroking, and everyone would smoke and look out the window for a long time.

Suttree. There's nothing like getting kicked out of your estranged son's funeral.  Well, maybe waking  crusted in your own vomit.  Many of McCarthy's characters wake to find themselves crusted in various bodily fluids.  Suggest that someone write a theme paper about it.

Blood Meridian.  Suggest someone perform an interpretive dance inspired by The Judge.  Give extra credit to the student with the largest scar.  Challenge them to cut something's head off and bring it in for show and tell.  Give vocabulary quizzes until someone cries.

No Country for Old Men.  Spend an entire month making them read Yeats' A Vision even though it's not on the course syllabus.  Whenever students complain stay very calm and unfold your pocket knife.  Pick your fingernails and ask them if they'd like to file a complaint with the department chair.  Deem at least one student "The Hunchback."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Fantasy Class: Non Fiction

When teaching public high school has me down I fantasize about courses I'd like to teach given the ideal students, resources, and amount of time.  I always feel kind of sleazy when I do this.  I'm not sure why.

I've read a lot of good non-fiction lately, so I have been fantasizing about writing a non fiction course outline.  The class would be designed around getting the students to find expression for their own stories.  I once saw a cluster of video diaries that a teacher had inspired his students to create.  These were all really cool and artsy and highlighted the constrictive nature of being human while offering glimmers of hope, so in my fantasy all of my students will create really arty video diaries.

The reading material is what got me thinking in the first place, so I might as well name drop of bunch of books I'll probably never get to teach.

Non-Fiction books about Work

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.  I think this is a memoir.  It is mostly about working as a chef. I'm not even sure if it would be ethical to teach this book, but it's my fantasy, so I guess I don't really care if it's ethical or not.

On Writing by Stephen King.  After listening to this in my car a couple dozen times over the past ten years I can recite entire passages from memory.  The narrative has so permeated my mind that I've tried to imitate it in writing... without really knowing I was trying.  Scary.

Working by Studs Terkel.  I love this book.  It is one of the great un-hailed masterpieces of its day.  And in my fantasy we'd read ALL of it.  Not just the interview with the prostitute.

Non-Fiction about Coming of Age

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt.  I feel about Angela's Ashes the way young Frank feels about Shakespeare: reading passages out loud is like having rubies in your mouth.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls . This one is still fresh in my mind as I finished it not three days ago.  It would, I think, begin to round out the "growing up" section of the course with a female voice.  Plus it's a hell of a read.

Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski.  Again, I know of no one with the cojones to teach Bukowski.  In my fantasy, I have the cojones.  Besides, this book is a great memoir.  It's kind of heartbreaking while managing to be funnier than hell.

Non-Fiction on Old Age

A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.  One of my proudest achievements in life is having read all of Hemingway.  This one is unique, and a lot of fun to picture the big guy doing his thing.  It is retrospective, hence the old age thing.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom.  If you think it's Lifetime movie material you're also one of those people who think Harry Potter is just for kids and I don't want you in my class anyway.


Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure by SMITH magazine.  These are like popcorn, okay?

I'll supplement the reading with in-class writing drills and lengthier out of class writing assignments.  There would be a workshop or two.

Anyway this is just a draft that I will probably obsessively come back and edit (12-4-11...there are probably errors regardless), like all of my posts, so if you're pissed I didn't mention your favorite book, it's probably because I haven't read it.  Drop me a line.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Short List

Things I Know:

Yeungling tasted better when I thought they didn't want to give it to us because of the Browns / Steelers rivalry.

Some guys have all the luck.

Dead leaves smell better than live ones.

Some guys have all the pain.

Cats demand the perfect amount of attention from me.

Some guys get all the breaks.

Old stuff, generally, is cooler than new stuff.

Some guys do nothing but complain.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wednesday's Lesson Plan

Given a month of priming, what's wrong with posting, at 8:20am, "Write with cautious optimism in a way that is creatively satisfying," stepping back and getting out of their way?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How to Become the Kind of Jerk Teacher that Gives Pop-Quizes Over Reading Assignments

Admit that your students have more interesting things to do than read a five page description of clouds from Peter Camanzind.  Don't become bitter and admonish them for being a generation of You Tubers with the attention span of goldfish.  Or gnats.  Bottle up your rage when they look at you like unthinking, unfeeling automations.  Ignore the fact that they are still bleary eyed from having worked the night shift at the kind of restaurant where one's feet may, more often than not, stick to the floor.  It is at 9:47 pm when you will loose this rage in the form of esoteric multiple choice questions.  You will print the questions on the back of old driving directions because you are too proud to steal paper from work.  Wield this quiz as if it were a cudgel or some other cruelly blunt object.  Sleep with satisfaction knowing that you are singlehandedly vindicating the poor, neglected snow-globe that is modern literature in public schools.  Have a dream in which you knock Shakespeare's books out of his hands and make fun of his goatee.  

“How to Become a Writer”                                                Name_______________________________

1.  Why does the narrator’s mother prefer to wear the color brown?
a)     It complements her dead husband’s eyes
b)    Trick question.  She actually prefers orange.
c)     It is the color of her skin.
d)    It hides spots.

2.   The narrator writes what spiteful quip beneath her English teacher’s comments?
“plots are for dead people, __________ face.”

a)     Horse
b)    Fart
c)     Doughnut
d)    Pore

3.  Instead of a bird-watching class, the narrator finds herself enrolled in:

a)     Creative Writing
b)    Underwater Basket Weaving
c)     Dermatology
d)    Child Psychology

4.  Find the only plot the narrator has not admitted having written:

a)     A man and woman have their lower torsos blitzed away by dynamite and with the insurance money they open a frozen yogurt stand together.
b)    A tale of monomania in the fish-eat-fish world of insurance sales staring the menopausal suburban husband “Mopey Dick”
c)     A woman accidentally severs her boyfriend’s head with a malfunctioning laser pointer and, with the insurance settlement, has it put on ice for when she is elderly and alone.
d)    A married couple stumble upon an unknown landmine in their kitchen and accidentally blow one another to pieces: called “For Better or Liverwurst.”

5.  In what terms, unfortunately, does the narrator come to judge all new people?

a)     Some like to dip their food into white substances while some do not.
b)    Some have a great sense of humor while some have no sense of humor.
c)     Some are smarter than her while some are dumber than her.
d)    Some wonder where dust comes from, while some do not.

Extra Credit

The expression “face as blank as a ___________ “ is used three times in “How to Become a Writer,” in which Lorrie Moore compares a blank face to what three specific objects?            

Thursday, September 8, 2011


For some reason more than ever I feel adrift in an ocean of information.  Writing has always helped me feel more centered.  On occasion playing the guitar does it as well.  Sitting in a circle with the kids I teach and carrying on a conversation in which everyone is present and turned on does it too.  Driving without a destination sometimes helps and sometimes makes it worse.  Buying things online or in a store has worked.  I wish more activities could lend this kind of focus to my life.  Reading used to, but now it seems as if I'm just dipping my big nose into other worlds of information.  I made a movie from some footage of friends playing disc golf, and putting that together was a mild form of what I'm trying to describe.

I'm still trying to finish Salinger's biography, which seems like a bunch of information.  Mary Oliver's poetry can be soothing.  Gertrude Stein's writing on Picasso is nearly indiscernible for some reason.

In the meantime I entered a few contests.  They are Rattle's poetry contest, and the Norman Mailer writing award for high school teachers.  I usually care way too much about these kinds of things.  

I've attached a picture Wyatt took.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Summer 2011

Random things that don't suck about this summer:
My Truck
Stray Cats named "Rabbit"
Reading Poetry
Graduation Parties
Disc Golf
Barefoot Skateboarding
Hungarian Sausage
The Thought of Apes Taking Over

Random things that kind of suck about this summer:
Mini-Van Prices
Mowing Three Acres
Strange Noises Coming From My Truck
Japanese Beetles
Scrapping That Old Stove
Rainy Days
The Thought of Apes Taking Over

Random things that totally suck about this summer:
Dusty Guitar
Unfinished Book Project
Trimming The Ditch
Motor Oil On My Shorts

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bukowski (sort of) for Toddlers

The Robot and the Bluebird by David Lucas is, as Publisher's Weekly pointed out, more apt to work on adults than on kids.  The story goes that a robot's mechanical heart is broken, and he lies despondent on a junk heap day and night.  It is here that in winter he meets a bluebird, struggling to fly south.  Of course he suggests that the bluebird live in the empty place where his heart used to be, and the robot uses his remaining strength to walk south to a more temperate climate.  Releasing the bluebird from his chest is his dying act, and his husk becomes a refuge for birds of all shapes, colors and sizes.

This story kind of pulled on my heartstrings.  Just a little bit.  I found out it's apt to appeal to dads more than moms when I read aloud the last page and my wife glared at the book with disgust.  Wyatt was indifferent to the book.  I seemed to be the only one upon whom the story was working.  "So he died?" my wife mouths over Wyatt's head.  I shake my head "yes."

In my mind the death and sacrifice in the story isn't any more extreme than The Giving Tree.  I suppose the robot makes this a guy book.  I suppose it may also have to do with the fact that I thought of "Bluebird" by Charles Bukowski, a very guy-macho poem, which probably won't be suitable bedtime reading until Wyatt's six.  Maybe seven.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Children's Book Review: Cause and Effect... continued

If you don't know who Scaredy Squirrel is, your life lacks color, meaning... and probably a three year old.  Scaredy Squirrel at Night by Melanie Watt is a very cute story tackling one of the toughest topics a parent can face: nightmares.  I can remember laying in bed as a kid dreaming up all kinds of nonsense at three a.m. the voices in my head screaming away, and irrational fears winning the day... or night, that is.  Wyatt's always seem to involve spiders.  Scaredy is, of course, scared of a whole slew of different creatures, so he decides to stay up all night by undertaking a variety of hobbies, such as scrap booking.

The book includes some of the real life side effects of sleeplessness, such as poor reflexes, moodiness, and hallucinations.  He has read in his horoscope (he's a Libra) that at midnight, all of his dreams will come true, so he begins his Bad Dream Plan Action Plan (see below).  His plan involves a spotlight, cupcakes, banana peel, fire extinguisher, safety cones, fan, molasses, decoy, pillow and blanket, and teddy bear.  The Plan will repudiate all of Scaredy's most feared creatures, and had me wondering how they will work together to tell a story.

The Plan, in a cruel twist of fate, involves hungry raccoons (they were drawn in by the cupcakes and molasses; their shadows looked very monster-like because of the spotlight)  and Scaredy ends up falling victim to his own traps.  He remembers the caveat that if all else fails, one should "play dead" until morning, so he plays dead... only to fall asleep!  The next day he awakes refreshed, and we get a list of some of the real-life effects of a good night's sleep.

The book is very clever and shows little kids the power of cause and effect by stringing together some very unpredictable events to tell a story.  For a cartoon that does the same, tune in to the exploits of Finn and Jake on Adventure Time.

For other posts on children's books click here, herehere, or here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Soulless and Didactic Lecture on the Topic of Humor in the Classroom

The only thing I've read lately that sticks in my mind... and it is only sticking now because I am making it stick by remembering it.... is a line from the recently released Autobiography of Mark Twain... and I'll probably misquote it, but it's something to the effect of a man can't hope to be funny if he is afraid of being funny.  I don't know why this struck me as absolutely true, but there it is.  I suppose it has to do with my time in the classroom.  I try to use humor as much as possible.  For one, I don't think I could stand the lugubrious colors, nor the institutional block walls, (or the complete lack of sunlight for that matter), if it weren't for laughter.  I tend to use a poker face when I deliver material.  I suppose this is because I want my students to laugh, but not take my goofy grinning face for an invitation to try sophomoric humor of their own.  I know this rationale may sound cruel if not strange, but if you spend any amount of time in a room full of teenagers, you'll find they take nonverbal cues more to heart than the words coming out of your mouth... and if you can get them to listen to the words coming out of your mouth it is often a miracle to get them to consider the words strung together as a whole rather than as individual specimen flying around the room like so many distracting bees.  So, I reason, if my face looks serious, but if I'm saying funny things or projecting funny images on the board, they will laugh and pay attention... but not get carried away with the hilarity.  If I use humor and laugh and giggle and generally cut up however I've found that students get out of control very quickly because they don't take you or your "lesson" seriously no matter how serious it may actually be.  So... the mixture of humor with a deadpan delivery is effective, but that kind of "cyborgism" takes its toll.  For instance, just the other day someone mentioned something about sin.  So I started talking about how my concept of sin is that it is a sin to experience the world through the senses.  And that if we had "a cosmic proboscis with which to sniff the armpit of God" we might be a whole lot less sinful. I don't think they knew what a proboscis was, yet, when I looked out at one particular difficult-nut-to-crack, I want you to understand that he almost never laughs, but when I looked him directly in the eyes and grinned a goofy grin, this particular stoic burst out laughing.  If the material hadn't been so serious in the first place (that of sin) and the theology kind of heady, I might have gotten some more laughs, I reasoned.  That's not to say their humor can't be sophisticated in its twists of cultural hoodoo and Internet/YouTube sensationalism.  It is as sophisticated as it is superficial at times, and tales involving slapstick violence almost always work.  It is amazing how quickly a teenager will tune out an adult that is attempting to give directions or be didactic, but when an adult starts telling a story that involves blowing something up or roundhouse kicking something in the face... well, that is a different story.  I prefer to make stories up and deliver them in the same deadpan I use for humor.  I can only speculate as to the long term effects this type of storytelling may have on the teenage mind, but it certainly works in a pinch to grab their attention.  I survived an entire year with a particularly energetic eight period though weekly installments of my last job: driving an ice cream truck in the ghetto.  Teenagers love tales of the ghetto.  Of course, I've never driven an ice cream truck, much less one in the ghetto, but these tales had a marginal authenticity due to a few years spent living in an apartment near the lesser appetizing streets of Akron.  Tales centering around Smitty usually work as well.  Smitty was the kid I sat beside in high school art class.  He is interesting to high schoolers because of one particular quality: he was a legitimate, card carrying Neo-Nazi / Skinhead.  After I drop this fact (and in this case, it was a fact... he tried to get me to join the National Alliance on more than one occasion) students are rapt.  I often make stories up entirely out of my head.  A recent tale involved my plan to get back at the baby bunnies who have developed a penchant for the bubble gum growing in my garden.  I chalk my madness up to two causes.  Either  1) I have not had time to write, or  2)  the class makes demands of me I am not capable of satisfying in any other way, save storytelling.  Most of the time, and lately, both causes are true.

My original conceit dealt with something Mark Twain said.  He said that humor is only effective if the humorist is not afraid of being funny.  Or, I suppose, not afraid of being not funny.  This was in relation to a speech he once gave poking fun at Emerson, Whittier and Holmes.  He said the speech didn't work because the crowd went stiff and he began to doubt the humor of his material.  Twenty five years later he decided the speech was hilarious, but that the audience was not able to laugh at the relative mockery of such sacred men.  What I'm getting at is that with high schoolers, one never knows if the joke will go off.  Past success is never an accurate yardstick because individual teenagers are unpredictable by their very nature, and to complicate the situation even more,  individual classes are just as whimsical, and a joke can be spoiled by the rotten atmosphere of any particular moment.  Often a joke needs a butt so to speak, and if a particular teen is not up to being that butt, the humor is spoiled.  So, I suppose what I'm getting at is that the high school teacher who values humor in the classroom is up against astounding variables and that he can never be entirely sure of his ability to make teenagers laugh.  I suppose this is what makes the endeavor worthwhile to begin with, its tentativeness, but one can't have much confidence in oneself in front of one of the most difficult crowds in the history of humanity (the modern American teen) and according to Twain this is a very intimidating obstacle.  I agree, which is why I so love the end of the year.  We are in a place where I have been able to convince them that if I make fun of them it is only because I love them, which is true from my heart.  So the relative hilarity of the end of the school year is one that has me making the jokes, and more often than not, smiles abounding.  I imagine, given the recent political climate, that any non-teachers who may be reading this are wondering why I get paid to tell jokes all day.  If any of you are out there reading this, first of all thanks for sticking with me through all of these words.  And I mean that.  Secondly, I want to make two points as to why humor is invaluable in the classroom: 1)  students learn best when they're having fun, and laughter is symptomatic of fun, and 2) that any issues relating to discipline of classroom management can be instantly dissolved (more often than not) through humor.  So, cheers to all you kiddies and all of you that spend your days amongst those kiddies.  It's an exciting time of year.  Don't forget to laugh.    


Monday, February 28, 2011

Obama to Governors: Don't Vilify Public Workers - The Atlantic

I knew there was a reason I voted for him.  Many of my friends have expressed their frustrations with President Obama lately, and these are all folks who voted for him.  They feel that he had a chance to change our country's healthcare for the better, but chickened out by making all those concessions.  I think we as Americans are our own worst enemies, and that Senate Bill 5 is in some ways symptomatic of this need to wallow in mediocrity.  If public employees have it so good, why aren't folks from the private sector trying to figure out how to make it work for themselves?  I know that advocates of SB5 feel that somehow the rich salaries and benefits packages of public employees are in some way draining the economy, but I don't believe it, and I will never believe that it isn't possible to provide free health care to America's people.  So all of you ready to let the presidential pendulum swing in the opposite direction in 2012, keep in mind that we live in a republic where our elected officials work together in as expedient a fashion as possible, and while Thoreau felt that the formation of government should be an expedient of the people's will, there isn't a whole lot that's speedy about our governmental process; that which happens speedily generally isn't representative of the people's will.

Obama to Governors: Don't Vilify Public Workers - The Atlantic

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Union Teacher's Thoughts on Senate Bill 5

By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Senate Bill 5 and understand that it is causing unrest among public employees. The following bullet points are proposed in a sponsor testimony by senator Sharon Jones (R):

• Eliminates collective bargaining for state employees and employees of higher education institutions
• Existing collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) covering those employees expire according to their terms
• Eliminates salary schedules and step increases and replaces them with a merit pay system
• Eliminates continuing contracts for teachers after the bill’s effective date
• Eliminates teacher leave policies in statute and requires local school boards to determine leave time
• Eliminates seniority as a sole criterion for Reductions In Force (RIFs)
• Removes healthcare from bargaining and instead permits school boards to govern healthcare benefit plans for employees
• Requires employees to pay at least 20% of their healthcare costs
• Allows public employers to hire permanent replacement workers during a strike
• Limits bargaining for local government employees (including school districts) to issues of wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment
• Eliminates binding arbitration for police and fire
• Abolishes the School Employee Healthcare Board
• Prohibits school districts from picking up any portion of the employee’s contribution to the pension system
• Allows a public employer in “fiscal emergency” to serve notice to terminate, modify or negotiate a CBA

Now, the proposal that has most teachers I know up in arms is the proposal to eliminate the right of unions to engage in collective bargaining with school administration. If teachers in the state of Ohio were to lose collective bargaining and the right to strike, we would be subject to the absolute rule of the administration and local school boards. There are some people out there who think this isn’t such a bad idea. Most of these people are employees in the “private sector,” or members of the Tea Party. They think teacher unions are responsible for providing laundered union dues money to fund Democratic campaigns. They also think these union dues go to pay for “stand-in” hired protesters at political rallies. They think this bill will help balance the state (maybe even the national budget), because, their logic is, if the state can cut teachers’ (and other public employee’s) bloated paychecks and cushy benefits packages, not to mention organizations like NEOEAs teacher retirement package benefits, we might just balance the state and national budget. Ohio Tea Party members believe that their income tax dollars are squandered to provide a luxurious lifestyle for teachers who only work 184 days a year and, for all intents and purposes, “coast” in their professions.

My father worked as an Ohio educator for 32 years in the classroom.  He paid into STRS (state teacher’s retirement system) his entire life, every paycheck. He is now receiving that money (his money) in the form of a pension in retirement. My parents pay for their health insurance. That is they pay for their health care premium. They’ve done the math and pay any dental and vision expenses out of pocket reasoning that the cost to fill an odd tooth or the cost of glasses is less than a monthly premium. And they’re right. Their “luxurious” lifestyle involves a senior priced cup of McDonald’s coffee.

My grandfather was a policeman, and to this day I remember him sitting in his recliner sporting duct taped slippers and getting up to unplug the microwave because he saw the odd penny of electricity used to power the digital clock as a horrific waste of money. Now, to be fair he behaved this way not necessarily because he was penniless, but more likely because he lived through the Great Depression and had stories about standing in lines for sugar and flour. I suppose the portrait I’m trying to paint here is of two men who worked hard their entire lives serving the public and that certainly did not, or do not, “live in the lap of luxury.”

My parents aren’t starving in the street, and they have been able to enjoy their retirement unlike some Goodyear retirees I know that had to go back to work in their old age because of pension cuts and now paint houses well into their late sixties and seventies in order to make ends meet. So there’s the private sector for you and all the good it’s done the gentlemen I used to sell paint to when I was in college and worked at an independent little paint store long since run out of business by big boxes like Home Depot, who by the way aren’t union either, but at least they sponsor the homosexuals. Anyway I had to carry these five gallon buckets of paint to their cars and trucks because they’d had rotator cuff surgery for the sixth time from the debilitating effect of the brushing motion involved in painting houses, and couldn’t lift the weight.

I remember standing on the picket line with my father while he and the other teachers he worked with were on strike. I was eight years old and warming my hands on the fire they had going in a steel drum. I was not to go to school during the time the teachers were on strike, and many of my friends and neighbors supported the teachers by keeping their young ones at home as well. Keep in mind this was during the 1980s when inclusion was in full swing. When I asked my dad why the teachers were on strike, he told me that the administration wanted to count disabled students as ½ a student. I remember feeling that this was fundamentally wrong. I remember his stories of these disabled students, his eyes usually watery behind his big bifocals. Whenever my father spoke of Victor, a child bound to a wheelchair due to some horrid disease I can’t remember that killed him in his twenties, or the story involving a child that ate his lunch every day with my father and his colleague, his eyes (even now twenty years later) are usually watery. I don’t know what particular disability this latter child suffered, but I remember my father telling me that it took them nearly an entire year of question and answer to teach him that the capital of Ohio is called “Columbus.” The administration wanted to count special needs children as ½ a child. I could only sense that this was wrong from a moral standpoint. My father explained how it was also wrong from a labor standpoint. “Most of those little boys and girls (he taught sixth grade) need more help than the average child. If they appear as ½ on my class rosters, on paper I could have 25 students, but in reality I could have near thirty, and many with special needs.” At the age of eight, I sensed that the teacher strike was for a just cause, and I was proud to be on the picket lines with my father. “Why would the administration want to do something like that?” I asked. My dad rubbed his thumb against the fingers of his right hand: his universal gesture for “money.” And not just money. My father uses this gesture now and forever with scorn to mean ill-begotten money. I came to understand that if the school was able to “hide” student numbers on paper, they could give teachers bigger class loads and hire fewer and fewer teachers.

Senate Bill 5 is designed to take away a teacher’s right to strike. I read today that now they (the Republicans in the Ohio senate) want to allow us to keep collective bargaining, but only in order to negotiate wages. I truly believe that most school administrators are good people who want to do a good job. Unfortunately “doing a good job” for district superintendents means saving the district money. I foresee that if this bill passes schools will indeed begin saving money. However, at what moral cost? At the expense of student learning? Most school administrators were once teachers but only a few years out of the trenches can cause them to forget what it was like. If this bill goes through, and we lose our right to strike, I think all school administrators as well as the boards of education must be held accountable for spending a certain number of hours in the classroom.

There’s a lot of comparing private sector to public in this debate, and quite frankly it smacks of a pissing contest to me, and the best advice I ever received regarding pissing contests is: once you realize you’re in a pissing contest, get out. So I will keep this brief. As it stands I agree with Thoreau: “Education should not be a mass process.” Can you imagine what a mess education will become if we run our schools like businesses in the private sector? School should be a place of ascetic learning and ideas, more like a monastery than a place where young people learn to become only what the corporations can use to make a profit. I just wrapped up teaching the novel Feed to my seniors. You should read it. I hate the idea of one day sending my boys off to School 

Being a relatively young teacher, the idea of merit pay amuses me. What kind of system would these folks have to create in order to evaluate student learning? Test scores? The state is doing away with the Ohio Graduation Test, and they’re putting it in our hands to create a high school exit exam for our students. So, they propose to put us in charge of our own salary? Okay. I guess I can deal with that.

Eliminating seniority as sole factor in Reductions in Force doesn’t bother me so much either. But now I’m a young cocky teacher with high efficacy who is well liked for my youth and connection with my young students. Now, I’m over thirty but still pretty hip. What about when I’m a crusty old man, “a tattered coat upon a stick”? Will I be the first to go because I pull down a big paycheck? Not because of a bloated union pay scale based on seniority (they’re doing away with that, remember?), but because I’m such a master teacher my students’ performance is off the chart. Could we ever see a day when administrators value the mediocre teacher over the excellent teacher simply because they have to pay them less?

Many folks have concluded that this bill is more about union busting than balancing the budget. So, okay, the Republicans want to destroy unions. Is this really such a big surprise? The “Haves” want to make “Have-Nots” labor cheaper. Big bloody shocker. Some folks are indignant that we’re calling SB5 a class issue, but that’s what Marx was going on about in that little Manifesto, the likes of which I can’t even mention in print because most Americans think it’s a dirty word. What aggravates me most, I suppose, are state employees that align with the Tea Party. I can’t imagine the amount of loathing these individuals have for themselves and their profession. By all means, go join the private sector, but leave our unions intact. And to all the rest of you out there sitting on a fence. We teach your children. We watch you while you sleep. Don’t you think we should have a voice?

Friday, January 7, 2011

There is a crack in the whole,
the crack becomes the whole.
This is all I know.