Things I Know 349 of 365: ‘What Teachers Make’ is more than it first appears

The first time I heard Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” performed live, it wasn’t by Mali. One of the other students in my undergrad program was a champion on our speech team, and he delivered a stunning performance.

Later, once Youtube arrived, I was able to watch Mali perform the piece as he intended. It was every bit as impassioned and dripping with personal experience as I imagined. I remember showing it to colleagues and shaking our heads knowingly.

Finally, someone was speaking out for us.

I looked the poem up online recently. Watching the performance, it occurred to me how complicated the piece is from a pedagogical perspective. I tear up when he says, “I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:/I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,/I just wanted to talk to you about something Billy said today./Billy said, “Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?”/And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.”

And I cringe when I hear the recorded audience cheer after, “I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall/in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups./No, you may not ask a question./Why won’t I let you get a drink of water?/Because you’re not thirsty, you’re bored, that’s why.”

For many teachers, on their first encounter with the poem, discussion turns to its encapsulation of how misunderstood the profession has become.

For me, the poem itself has become a rallying cry for the conversation we need to have about the relics of the professional past to which we cling to proudly and the changes we might be too afraid to make.

Mali has a new book due out March 29 with the same title as the poem. I’m looking forward to reading it – especially considering its subtitle – “In praise of the greatest job in the world.”

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Things I Know 66 of 365: English is hard

Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.

– Walt Whitman

“Mr. Chase, am I getting an interim for your class?”

Interims are notifications the district requires we send home if a student is earning a “D” or “F” at midterm.

“No.”

“Ok, good. I didn’t think so, but I wanted to be sure. I’m getting one in math, and I told them, but they understood because math’s hard. If I were getting an interim in English, they’d go crazy.”

And he’s gone and done it.

English is difficult. Really. I swear.

I don’t just mean remembering how to spell “recommend,” “accomplish,” and “necessary” (though that takes a definite level of skill).

English is difficult on a user level.

I struggle with communicating the intricacies of the language to my students. For the vast majority, it’s the language they’ve been learning since birth. Economics, biochemistry, pre-calculus – these all came online later in their development. They are foreign languages.

Not only are they foreign, but communicating in them requires a specificity of detail my students often fail to see in their consumption and production of language.

Though Mark Twain may have said, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” students are often not interested in such precision of language. Moreover, they don’t consider the construction of meaning difficult.

But language is tough. To take an idea from the ephemeral and frame it in with words, send those words out into the world and then process the reaction – that is linguistic chemistry.

I’m not talking what my student could be doing with language; I’m talking about what they are doing with language.

I wish they could see it.

They look at a page with arbitrarily connected ticks and curves, they translate those ticks and curves to individual pieces of meaning, they string those individual pieces of meaning together, they connect those strings to their own experiences and then they store them away to connect to later strings or experiences.

I’m not just saying this is what they do with Kafka or Joyce or Woolf. This is what they do when they read a cereal box.

It’s what they do with one another. They take the laxidasically imprecise language of the colloquial, put it up against more formal internal language charts, find meaning and respond with the properly coded answer. To complicate things further colloquialism are shifting at lightning speeds.

Incredible.

Still, it’s math that has the street cred for being the T-Birds in our educational production of Grease. English is as easy as Cha Cha DiGregorio.

Even there, in the last sentence, I created an intertextual comparison that required the understanding of multiple meanings of “easy.” Admittedly, the joke loses something in its explanation.

This is the idea Taylor Mali is playing with when he says, “I make them show all of their work in math and hide it in English.”

Perhaps that’s the answer.

The next time I have a student write a summary of what they read, I’ll have them start at the morphemic and phonemic levels.

“Well, first, I realized I was looking at the letter I. Then I noticed there was a space after the letter, so I took that to imply the letter was representative of a singular idea…”

“I’m going to stop you there for a moment. When you say, ‘I realized I was looking at the letter I,’ what gave it away?”

This could be fun.