FlaglerLive is proud and excited to announce that Jo Ann Nahirny, a teacher at Matanzas High School and a past contributor, will be writing regular pieces from the trenches, reflecting on the challenges and experiences teachers and students face every day.
By Jo Ann Nahirny
“Who the hell ever told you that you could write?”
My college journalism instructor’s sole comment, scrawled in red across the top of the first piece I wrote for him as a freshman (in 1980) stung me deeply, the pain more intense than any physical injury I’d endured in my 18 years on earth.
What does this old codger know anyway? I asked myself. After all, I’d graduated from high school as valedictorian a few months earlier, served as managing editor of my school newspaper and earned A’s in nearly every subject. And this short, gray-haired old fart had the gall to insinuate I couldn’t write?
Enraged, I clutched a drop form in my hand and marched to his office later that afternoon, to get his signature so I could withdraw from his class. Though the professor stood a head shorter than me (and I’m less than five-and-a-half feet tall), I trembled as I approached the door. Not even turning around to see who’d entered, he asked, “I assume you’re here for me to sign your drop form?”
“Yes, well, I was… I want …. um… What’s wrong with my writing, anyway?” I blurted out.
More than 30 years have elapsed since I posed that question, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about how grateful I am for not indignantly dropping Professor Conniff’s class, for listening to what he had to say –and for realizing he had so much to teach me. Ultimately, I enrolled in six of his writing courses as an undergraduate. It took me several years to fully implement the techniques I learned from this great man, a man who not only taught students how to write, but who practiced what he preached, authoring several books and more than 1,000 magazine articles and short stories in Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, Better Homes and Gardens, Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, Good Housekeeping and many more.
These days, as I teach my own students at Matanzas High School how to write, I incorporate as much of what Jim Conniff taught me as possible into my own lessons. This much I know: you can’t become an effective writer overnight. It takes time. A long time. Yet the Flagler County School district expects me and some other English teachers to teach tenth-graders how to write well in just five short weeks –at least well enough to earn a passing score on the FCAT Writing test, which the state administers at the high school level only to sophomores.
Thanks to the “hybrid” schedule implemented at both high schools this school year, I just started teaching two class periods of English 2 to tenth-graders on January 24, when the second semester began. I have exactly 24 class meetings to spend with these kids before they take the FCAT Writing test on February 28. And if they can’t draft a reasonably well-developed persuasive or expository essay in 45 minutes, English teachers like me become the scapegoats. What likely won’t be blamed is an unusual schedule configuration requiring kids to take three classes all year long in traditional 46-minute periods, and four “block” classes of 81-minutes each, two per semester.
Why do we even have such a schedule? You’ll hear different explanations based on whom you ask, but essentially, the schedule increased the number of classes high school teachers must teach from six to seven, resulting in those teachers also having to teach 25-35 additional students per year. This move, along with mandating that all teachers at the secondary level take their (already woefully short) planning period before or after the school day, rather than during the school day, allowed Flagler to reduce the total number of teachers needed. District officials say it saved millions of dollars.
But what’s the real cost of this “savings”? The true costs will undoubtedly manifest themselves in the coming weeks, when high school students must take multiple standardized tests assessing their competency in various subject areas –when many of them haven’t even had the majority of the school year to cover all the material they’ll be tested on!
And this isn’t just happening to English teachers and their students, either. Those who teach biology and geometry are facing the same outrageous situation. Their students will be taking the state-mandated EOC (end of course) exams in biology in early May even though, for example, the biology course doesn’t actually end until June. Some teachers who just got their biology and geometry students on January 24 as the second semester began must now cram a year’s worth of material into about 13 weeks of 81-minute classes, rather than cover it during nine months of daily 46-minute classes. You don’t have to be smarter than a fifth grader to calculate that the kids unfortunate enough to get stuck taking biology or geometry in the second semester will receive only about 90 hours of instruction before taking the end-of-course exam, while those who have the class as a traditional 46-minute period all year long will get about 110 hours of instruction prior to taking the exam.
Ditto for my students. Their friends who’ve been in an English 2 class since August in a standard, 46-minute daily class period, have already had the opportunity to write, rewrite and edit nearly a dozen essays so far this school year. By the time the FCAT Writing test rolls around on February 28, these students will have had more than 80 hours of instructional class time to prepare. However, the students who just came to me on January 24 will only have enough time to write a few essays prior to the test, and will have received a mere 32 hours of instructional class time to prepare. Again, you don’t have to be smarter than a fifth grader to know whose scores will be better.
During the past two years, when my English classes met daily all year long, my students excelled on FCAT Writing, with 97% of them earning a passing score, and a good portion of those attaining a superior 5 or 6 (out of a maximum of 6). As part of the English 2 curriculum (in addition to covering grammar, vocabulary and literature) I taught them about efficient planning, drafting, revising and editing. They learned how to interpret a writing prompt, how and why to consider their audience when writing, and how to use transitions to help paragraphs work together, reference one another and build to a larger point. We studied various sentence structures and discussed the importance of diction and syntax. As I pointed out earlier: you can’t become an effective writer overnight. It takes time. A long time. But this year, with this schedule, there is no way I can possibly cover all of these things in the scant 24, 81-minute class sessions before the test, and little to no time for my students to practice the techniques I’ll introduce.
School officials have been meeting over the last few weeks, trying to figure out whether to keep or ditch the hybrid schedule which has created headaches for teachers, guidance counselors and students – and which even confounded, for a time, the electronic grade book, Skyward, which the Flagler County School District uses. Some decision-makers have asked high school teachers what we see as the benefits and shortcomings of the hybrid schedule – which, by the way, is the fourth different class schedule used between the two high schools in the past seven years.
More than 30 years ago, my journalism instructor gave me a message I didn’t want to hear. Fortunately, I realized that teacher had something valuable to teach me. And so I listened. Perhaps those who are now planning the 2012-2013 school year will hear what their teachers have to say –teachers who have a lot to teach them… if they’re willing to listen.
Jo Ann C. Nahirny, a 1985 graduate of Columbia University and a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches English at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast. Reach her by email here.