Monthly Archives: November 2014

Respecting my introverts

My end-of-term reports for Term 1 have all been submitted, and the school’s proofreaders are busily at work downstairs marking typos and misspellings. As they look over the sixty reports I wrote for my freshman and sophomore English students this term, there is one thing they won’t find: critical comments about students who don’t speak up enough in class.

The influence of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts has caused me to rethink the reflexive impulse I have to write about quiet students as if there is something wrong with them. Cain makes a distinction between introversion and shyness, and I do worry about young people who suffer from crippling shyness. However, lowering the grade of introverts just because they do not conform to a standard that praises the cocksure and egocentric does not make a lot of sense to me. I do find much that is admirable in the students who are leaders in class discussion, who are brave enough to put their ideas out there without fear of censure, and who take ownership of their learning by seizing every moment. But it is simply not the case that students who are quiet in class are doomed for failure in school or “the real world.” In fact, there is reason to believe that they may be destined for great things.

As I pivot to a new way of thinking about this topic, I still need to find ways to get the introverted students to work on their oral skills. There are many options out there beyond participation in discussions that allow a teacher to assess a student’s ability to contribute in a social context. Small group work, recitations, presentations, and so forth all can serve this purpose. I notice that there seems to be no connection whatsoever between the quality of recitations I see when I ask my students to memorize Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech and my perceptions of which students are introverted or extroverted. In other words, some very quiet students who rarely speak up in class will deliver bold, daring recitations, and some extroverted, “alpha” students will crumble under the pressure and fail to deliver at all.

Susan Cain is the keynote speaker at the upcoming TABS Conference in Washington, DC. I’ll be attending the conference in two weeks, and I look forward to listening to her ideas vis-a-vis the boarding school world. Because of our small class sizes, we tend to put a premium on confident class participation. It may be time to rethink that.

Niche Rankings ranked 29th out of 36 high school ranking surveys

The faculty, students, and alumni of Saxon Hall School, an independent boarding school in Southeastern Pennsylvania, released their annual rankings of secondary school ranking publications. Niche.com’s recent “2015 K-12 School and District Rankings” placed a disappointing 29th out of 36 similar publications.

Saxon Hall’s Head of School, Ken Turlington, noted that Niche’s rankings methodology seemed as lazy and unscientific as the other 36 high school ranking publications that have sprung up in recent years. However, Niche was penalized for not even hiring talentless, out-of-work, Millennial college grads to write summary paragraphs about each school. The Niche survey didn’t copy and paste photos of the schools taken from Google Images, nor did they present the schools in the standard listicle slideshow format.

“Niche.com really seems to be phoning it in,” said Turlington. “They just aggregate free data from the Department of Education, make a half-hearted attempt to get people to fill out a survey, and then slap some cheesy advertising on the page in order to make .001 cents per page impression.” Turlington continued, “Our survey gave their survey a D- based on their doomed business model and ineffective fear-mongering. I mean, when the US News and World Reports‘ survey ranks our school poorly, at least I get a couple of emails from parents. With the Niche.com survey, there was about twenty seconds of attention on Facebook, and then a loud thud.”

When asked why Saxon Hall’s survey gives D or F range grades to all 36 surveys that it ranks, Turlington cited their uniform methodological weakness. “None of these surveys hire the hundreds of full-time researchers necessary to conduct hours of site visits at each of the thousands of schools that they claim to rate. Nor do they conduct telephone interviews with students, parents, faculty, or alumni. Basically, they just look into a crystal ball and then irresponsibly hide behind their First Amendment rights to publish gossip and innuendo.”

“Perhaps someday a media company will invest the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to actually visit and research every high school in America,” said Turlington. “But until that time, the best surveys will mostly be vehicles for low-quality, click-bait cat videos and stuff from Buzzfeed.”

Cynthia Borger, an unemployed writer and recent graduate of Bard College, expressed outrage that none of the high school ranking businesses were interested in hiring her to invent things about the high schools and then write about it at a rate of two cents per word. “How are recent humanities majors like me supposed to build a trumped-up LinkedIn profile unless bottom feeders like these surveys hire us to crank out junk?” she asked. “I need to get published on some web sites somewhere in order to parlay that work into a $36,000 per year job at a dying glossy magazine company.” While Ms. Borger acknowledged that print media would soon be dead, she noted that, “They throw really great parties with lots of decent quality champagne.”

Boarding School Eats

This weekend I asked my AP English Language and Composition students to write about their experience as consumers of food at our boarding school. In class on Friday we read Chang-Rae Lee’s piece “Immovable Feast” from the New Yorker, and I asked them to write something in the same vein. I neglected to mention to them that Lee’s title is a riff on Hemingway’s A Movable Feast, but they’ll figure that out someday. Anyway, I’m doing this assignment with them . . .

My first seven years as a teacher were spent at another school, teaching at the Middle School level. That meant I was required to eat in the cafeteria with the students every day in order to help assure that everyone was well behaved, eating politely, and back to class on time. I got into bad eating habits: burgers, breaded chicken tenders, fries, and ice cream with every meal. During my early years at that job, I was still in my twenties and could eat anything I wanted without any noticeable impact to my waistline, but eventually I started to notice that I was looking a bit doughy. I vaguely remember that I would visit the school’s snack bar after the middle schoolers were done with their classes and doing PE (which for them was an hour before the high school students; roughly 2pm to 3). I’d buy a can of Coke and a pack of Reece’s peanut butter cups. How many days a week was I eating like that? I can’t remember now, but that’s pretty horrifying. As I write this, I am on duty in the dean’s office and have been all weekend. A big tub of candy sits on my desk which I refill from our stash whenever it runs low. Students (and quite a few faculty members) grab candy when they pass by; often several times a day. I have somehow developed the willpower to completely resist, and I haven’t touched the stuff at all.

When I came to work at my current job, I no longer had the onus of supervising meals as I did when I taught Middle School. All of us contribute to watching over the Dining Hall during meal times here at George School, and I do less than my fair share. I think I’ve been making up for all of the years that I had to eat in the cafeteria by using my lunchtime to get off campus and go to the bagel place across the street. Despite the fact that our school serves terrific lunches, I use that 45 minutes as a breather in the middle of my day. The folks at the bagel place all treat me like a regular. I love it when they start working on my order before I’ve even stepped up to the counter. They often work on my food before other customers’ who got there first. Now that’s a perk!

The one year at George School that I was dorm head, I went to breakfast in the Dining Hall every weekday. I actually would eat breakfast in my apartment first: always Honey Nut Cheerios, orange juice, and a cup of coffee. But I would sit in the Dining Hall from 7am to 8 each morning to greet colleagues and see which of my boys was getting up and eating. In truth, not many of them made it to breakfast with great frequency, but since dorm heads have a reduced teaching load, and I typically didn’t have 8am classes that year, I felt like assigning myself breakfast duty was a good way for me to pitch in and help our residence life program. While I rarely ate on those mornings, that was a year that there were fresh doughnuts every Friday morning; real ones, I mean. I must admit that I had my share of those warm little ovals. The cinnamon sugar doughnuts fresh from the fryer were about as addictive as anything I’ve ever eaten.