Letter from an English Teacher

Back to: Berkeley High School Recommendations
November 22, 1999

Dear Parents of Teens,

As a parent of a Berkeley High student as well as a teacher at the
school, I have been tempted many times to jump on to this discussion
group but have never had the time to develop all the points I want to
make adequately.  Many writers to "Parents of Teens" have complained
that writing instruction is inadequate and the curriculum is not
rigorous enough.  The fact that students are sometimes doing art work in
English has come up again and again as evidence of the weak instruction
at the school.

First, I'd like to plead guilty to many of the charges laid against the
English department.  Writing instruction is inadequate and the
curriculum is uneven.  Sometimes students are pushed and sometimes they
are passed through with very little challenge.   I'm not happy about
this and I and my colleagues work on making it better.  Of course, I
can't help but wonder if we are projecting some idealized views on the
past.   Reading a recent excerpt from Frank McCourt's "'Tis" about his
teaching experience in New York in the 50's was a good reminder.

The complaints on the parent list parallel the article in November's
Harper's by Francine Prose ("I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read.").
Indeed that article, which decried the state of English teaching today
for its lack of rigor and challenge, was copied by BHS English teachers,
distributed and discussed.  For a fun read, check out the December issue
which features pages of letters responding to Prose's attack on this
easiest of targets, public education teachers.

When I put down my Harper's yesterday, I picked up the Quarterly put out
by the National Writing Project.  Theresa Manchey contributes a
fascinating article which would make the people who write to the Parents
of Teens blanche, "Drawing:  Another Path to Understanding."  Now
there's an interesting read.  Dare I broach the drawing issue?  Well,
let me try.  Let's see.  I could mention the graduate program I did in
which drawing was part of the curriculum.  No, not an art class.  It was
in media and government.  Or we could talk about the time I taught high
school kids about making comics, had a guest speaker from Dr. Comix come
in, studied Maus, and had students draw strips.  The main thing is that
we are trying many ways to develop ideas, real ideas, original ideas in
young people.  Teaching structure is one thing.  But teaching from
structure only is dangerously stultifying.  Often pictures and art work
are great ways to engage students and to deepen discussions and, yes, to
inspire good writing.

Now, if you'll excuse this disorganized piece of writing, I will touch
on a few more points.   While I will say something about our obligation
to make school successful for all students below, I want to touch on the
preparation of the academically strongest kids.  Sometimes I get tired
of hearing the complaints and facing the hand-wringing from the most
privileged parents.  With all of our flaws, let's face it:  last year
BHS had seven students accepted at Harvard.  Seven.  That's the highest
number of any high school in the country.  That's seven more than CPS
had accepted.  And the same acceptance numbers come in on colleges all
down the line.  Talk to college admissions officers.  You know why they
love Berkeley High students?  Because they come from a diverse school,
because they have an edge, because they are critical thinkers.

Talk to students who come back after one, two, or three years.  Were
they prepared?  Well, many of them are amazed at how much they have to
read.  I certainly was when I first went to college.  And they are
challenged by the long writing assignments.  But they make it.  I know
quite a few teachers who teach freshman composition in college.  They
have the greatest complaint for the students from elite, suburban high
schools who write bloodless, if orderly, prose, who are timid and
grade-grubbing and dull in their writing.  Our writing program could be
greatly improved, no doubt.  I worry that my daughter's writing is still
more a product of obligation than inspiration.  But I see the problems
of teaching reading and writing to her and others more from the inside.

Which leads me to a point about bad English instruction.  I have read
ten or fifteen critiques of the English teachers.  But I have not read
one suggestion that parents should lobby for better pay, smaller class
size, or fewer classes for English teachers.  My father used to say that
education was not a problem you could just throw money at.  But, you
know, throwing some money would help.  As I write this, I am finishing a
weekend that included 20 hours of grading papers.  That was 60 papers
which got 20 minutes each.  English teachers have 120 to 150 students.
We try all kinds of ways to get expression out of students, including
journal writes we don't grade carefully, group writing, art work, and
direct essays.  We also put our own money, in many cases $1,000 to
$1,500 into our classrooms and teaching materials.  When we are berated
for our bad work by parents who make two to five times what we make, we
often feel like the hired help receiving a scolding.

Yes, we should assign more writing.  We work on writing instruction
techniques all the time.  Most of the English teachers meet in Ms.
Cook's room every Tuesday during our 40 minute lunch to continue working
on writing instruction methods, on articulation, and on rubrics and
standards.  But we are overwhelmed with the work load.  Yes, Berkeley
has wonderful support, from the Development Group to the BPEF, and a
community willing to raise money for the schools through BSEP.   But we
are overwhelmed.  Many schools are moving to having English teachers
carry four classes instead of five in recognition of the paper load.
Berkeley has chosen to support double period science.  It should not be
a trade-off but that's what has happened.  A few days ago I came upon a
group of five teachers sitting talking after school.  These were young
teachers, inspired teachers, smart teachers.  They were discussing where
to go, next year, because they can't take another year teaching under
current conditions.

And another thing.  I've been defending the teachers here but sometimes
I worry about the students in this situation.  I worry about students
whose parents hover too much.  I worry about students who hear their
parents decry the school every day.  I get essays with extensive parent
editing on first drafts.  That's often fine.  But I also get essays in
which the parents have written whole sentences, whole paragraphs, by
hand on the early drafts.  It certainly results in a great essay.  But
is that the only goal?  I know this kind of worrying is a way parents
are expressing love but sometimes it helps to step back, to look at the
whole picture.  Sometimes we should have a broader discussion:  What is
an educated person?  What kind of teenage years should our kids have?
What stage of development are they in?  Sometimes your child has decided
he hates chemistry, or writing, not because of an evil teacher but
because she is trying to figure out who she is.

And finally, I leave you with one last plea.  We talk a lot about
diversity at Berkeley High School, about struggling to make the school
work for every student.  The shame of our school is that it is still two
distinct schools, one which works quite well for the more privileged and
mostly white students, and one which represents failure and
frustration.  I suppose it is part of the hypocrisy of liberal Berkeley
that we all love bragging about our integrated high school but we put so
much focus on erecting the barriers.  Think about what you are modeling
for your student.  If you are a white parent who spends all your energy
positioning him/her, pushing for the highest AP class, complaining about
the lack of rigor - and you never ask your student how the African
American students in his/her class are doing, how he/she is getting
along with Chicano/Latino students - perhaps you are modeling everything
we are trying to work against.  We need to build real community at the
high school because that is the kind of world we want our children to
live in.  If we want them to simply excel, to leave classmates behind
and live in gated communities, then we should only push for their
success.  But teenagers can dream, and they dream of a better world.  I
like to think most people who go into teaching do it because they want
to help young people create that world.  We could use a little help

Anonymous Teacher X

Parent Responses

BRAVO, BRAVO  to Teacher X
Thank you for taking considerable time to express so many important
thoughts and values so succinctly.


Dear Anonymous Teacher X:  Thank you for writing an excellent, thoughtful
response to the frustrations and challenges you face.  Many teachers have
been providing a fabulous education at BHS; I appreciate them all.  I
agree, teachers need more time and more support if we, as parents, want
them to spend more time grading/responding to papers.    Anonymous Parent X


A reply to Anonymous Teacher X,
I hear you loud and clear. You touched on many points, the most
important one for me being this- "The shame of our school is that it
is still two distinct schools, one which works quite well for the more
privileged and mostly white students, and one which represents failure
and frustration." As a white middle class parent with 2 non-white
children, i have a very unique window into this reality. Many of my
white friends have the high achieving AP students, whose experience at
Berkeley High was wonderful, with the best teachers and most
challenging classes, and who ended up in great colleges. My daughter
is latina, and graduated from B High last year. Through her friends,
who were mainly latina, not middle class and not high achieving, i got
an up front and personal view of what life at B High is like,
especially if your parents do not speak english, perhaps never even
graduated from elementary school, and cannot be your advocate at B
High, despite their love and concern. Its as if these two schools
exist in parallel but totally seperate universes- and the parents of
the high achiever/AP kids have absolutely no contact with the parents
of the other group, so they really have no idea of that other
reality. And i think that is really the essence of the dilemma- that B
High mirrors the real class/race division in this society, and that we
as parents need to figure out how to bridge this division- and it is
not easy.  Thank you for your letter. I would love to know who you
are, because my son, who is Vietnamese and in 7th grade, will probably
be coming to B High in a few years. Please email me,


Thank you to teacher x for voicing the viewpoint we need to hear and don't 
often hear from the classroom. The gripe session in the newsletter does get 
to be a drag.  We do need to work together to make the entire student body 
successful. My son's experience with BHS English classes is frustrating 
because he complains of the lack of respect the students have for the teacher 
and school.  He says he is not challenged enough, but his writing - essays, 
position papers, poetry, debates, book reports is fabulous. Far beyond 
anything I can write! As for drawing in class, language Arts classes include 
all forms of communication, not just writing.  Howard Gardner has done 
extensive research on the different intelligences, and though cartooning 
isn't one of them, reading and writing aren't enough.  Education needs to 
include all modalities of teaching and expression.  Parent and teacher G


Thank you to teacher X. Thanks for the gift of your time - a lot of
thought has gone into this letter, which is inspiring, thrilling, and
poignant. I was one of the parents who ridiculed the drawing
assignments; you make a very persuasive and eloquent argument in favor 
of including drawing sometimes.
I am so proud that we have teachers like Teacher X at Berkeley High
School.  What can we parents do to get these teachers the support they
deserve?  How can we help?


What a great letter by the BHS High School English Professor!!!!
    I loved it and it was right on and a pleasure to read.  My sentiments 
exactly!  As a parent who has had 3 children go through the system, I think 
the schools are doing a great job given where they are coming from (the 60's) 
and where they are going (the 00's). Sometimes I wish my kids could have gone to
smaller, country school but then where would the diversity, the dialog, the 
great moments in teaching be?  They have all loved their years in school in 
Berkeley, with some exceptions.
    I think the schools need to spend more money on personnel/ 
machines/maintence at the schools.  The student/teacher ratio is too large 
and some students have major problems that make teaching difficult.  The 
district spends too much money on rebuilding schools when the people that 
work there have terrible working conditions.  Theresa Sanders has no personal 
secretary.  There are only two working copy machines.  Bells, don't work, 
phones are never answered by real voices.  These are things that should be 
taken care of by the administration of the district -- the maintenance crew, 
gardeners, etc.  There is only 1 plumber in the district -- who refused to 
fix my perpetually running faucet in my classroom because he said there were 
more pressing problems in the district even while he stood in my classroom 
discussing this.
    I worked in an office by myself at the University that has more machines 
than my whole school in the BUSD.  A personal computer w/ my own 
e-mail/Internet, a scanner, a 2 line phone, a copier, a fax machine, a coffee 
pot and a microwave.  I bet most of you have the same facilities at your 
    Whole departments (or nearly) leave BHS at the end of the year because 
the demands are just too great -- especially for young unskilled teachers, 
who are paid about $13. an hour for their 80 hour a week job.  The inner-city 
youth are a lot to handle.  When I have worked at BHS, I am amazed at the 
talent and intelligence of the ordinary student.  I am repelled by the 
disrespect of many disadvantaged youth, who hate me and see me as "Whitey" -- 
the last class sang Ms. America to me and did gigs in the aisle and wrote slut 
and fuck all over the sign-in sheet, and this is before I had gotten two words 
out of my mouth, which were "Sit Down and we will begin the day's lesson."  I 
know this is not the usual, I was a hated sub, a foreigner in a foreign land.
    These things are going on all over the US.  This is our slice of the pie 
- My first went through B. schools, made the jump into high school where they 
compete with students from private schools for AP classes, graduated and went 
through Cal and is employed.  My second went to BHS, floundered and went to 
Independent Studies and did great -- loved the atmosphere, the smaller 
environment.  It is often more challenging than regular BHS because they have 
more time on their hands, graduated, went off to college (I think it is 
treated like a regular part of BHS when applying to Universities).  
    My third is now in the CAS program at BHS.  It is a great program. 
(See CAS Discussion.)

Thanks, an employee of the district -------- Clarification to the letter of "Anonymous Teacher X" I would like to correct some information in your letter that is wrong: Last year several of the 75 seniors at CPS were accepted to Harvard, and one chose to enroll. Otherwise, thank you for your letter, you touched very good points that had been overlooked. Victoria, mother of a King 6th grader and high school teacher. ------- Three cheers for you and your colleague who was also understandably reluctant to sign his/her name!! I have long felt that teachers are overworked, undervalued and underpaid for the huge responsibility they have of educating our children . You deserve so much more respect and support than you are given. Teacher X - you raise many important points, but the one which touched me most was in your last paragraph, where you talk about BHS being two distinct schools and you ask parents to think about what they are modeling when so much emphasis is placed on their student's academic achievement and so little on concern about how their less privileged classmates are doing. The white middle class mom of two non-white children also describes very well this problem when she writes of the lack of contact between the parallel but separate universes of BHS. My children, thanks to the diversity of Berkeley public schools, have close friends from both universes and our family has been enriched by this experience. We've seen up close the challenges faced by children from families of non-English speaking immigrant parents who struggle to give their children the middle class life and at least some of the amenities which students from the other universe have such easy access to. Too often the children from the less privileged situation end up needing to work many hours at a job - this makes school success even more of a challenge. What I'm trying to say here is that all of our children need to learn from us parents that education has to do not only with academic achievement but also with how to appreciate and care about people from all walks of life. What better place to do this than at Berkeley High? -------------- I refuse to feel guilty for seeking a better education for my child. And I still think the students should not be drawing. If they are inspired by art, let them listen to Britney Spears or look at Georgia O'Keef paintings. I think the number of essays required each semester should be a school policy that everyone knows. And the kids should be turning in vocabulary in any week an essay isn't due. Sally ----- I am very concerned about the idea that by demanding some sort of standard in classes, we are hurting less privileged kids. I think in fact we help them by insisting that teachers adhere to some sort of public policy. I think there are certain kids that will do well no matter what happens in English class. Their parents will take them to Italy, have them write a page in their journal every day, and correct it one-on-one. Other kids will not do their homework no matter what. It is the third group, who could do well, that is helped by the standards. They need to write those essays. If they write enough, they may be able to get by in the business world. They may be able to transfer into a four year college after they finish a community college. These are the kids that Jaime Escalante tapped into in the barrios of LA. And these are the kids that really benefit when parents speak up and ask for standard old-fashioned math or an essay every week in English. If parents insist on more AP classes, that means that not only will those classes be available for the many privileged kids who want to take them, but for the very few less priviliged who are trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The real problem lies in the one-size-fits-all education. Anonymous please --------- I want to thank the teacher who spoke up about his/her concerns about the proposed Monday schedule, "Teacher X", and Laura Leventer. Having your input here is invaluable. I appreciate the time and care you've taken in your letters. It made me realize, again, how few opportunities there seem to be for parents and teachers to connect and talk--and what a difference that can make. For 9th and 10th grade, my son was in the CAS program. This year he decided not to continue, because he wanted to fit in a different elective, and couldn't make it work in his schedule without dropping CAS. He has missed being part of that community and it's programs, and I've missed being included in that community. There were several CAS events throughout the year when students, teachers, and families got together for a picnic or other gathering, and there are committees on which teachers and parents work together. I so appreciated the chance to get to know those teachers a bit, and to have chances to ask a question about something in the program without it having to be an "issue/problem" that's likely to prompt a phone call. I think BHS would benefit tremendously from some additional "school-within-a-school" programs that build this kind of community--and from other formats in which teachers and parents can talk. (Back to school night, with 10 minutes in a class, is a bare beginning, but only that.) Perhaps there could be some presentation/discussions to talk about "math at BHS" or "English at BHS" or "science at BHS"--events that would both provide information about the program, and give parents (and students) a chance to ask questions, have discussions--a place to talk about what works and what doesn't, from all perspectives. Or perhaps such events could be targeted in specific ways--"Helping our students: getting the most out of math, when math's a struggle." I know the teachers are swamped, and imagine that having such an evening might sound like the last thing they want to add. But some parents and teachers could jointly plan such events, so that all the effort doesn't fall on the teachers. (Is this the sort of event that would be typically done through the PTSA? I don't remember any quite like it. Or perhaps the new Parent Resource Center could be a vehicle for this.) Or perhaps small groups of English and History classes, or Math and Science, or whatever groupings make sense--could all decide to host a potluck, for the students, teachers, and families? Even without a formal structure such as CAS, we could make those kinds of events happen. On a different note, I was particularly distressed by the mention in a couple of recent letters about how it hard it is to keep new teachers at Berkeley High, because the working conditions are just too hard. **WE NEED TO CHANGE THIS**. We do need to push for better pay, smaller class size, and better working conditions. Teachers--what do you need? How can we can we parents help? As parents, we don't see all the problems...often only the symptoms, as they come to us through our kids. I hope you will let us know the specifics of what you see that needs to change, and the best ways we can help. Thanks to Sally Nasman, and Ginger Ogle in her absence, for hosting this newsletter. It's a real service, for which I am very grateful. I'm also acutely aware that there are many, many parents and families who would find it valuable, who don't have computer or email access. We need to change that, too. Linda ---------- Happy New Year Parents of Teens! A look from the inside out is very revealing after reading Anonymous X's response to the general dissatisfaction from parents about English, and also the response from the Math Chair Laura Leventer. Scheduling later Mondays seemed like a good idea until I read the teacher's viewpoint and how it further reveals BHS needs more communication between its teachers and the administration. My main fear is that BHS will become more splintered because of its image as diverse, yet revealing within its diversity the separatism among its students (not much has changed since 1969 when I was in high school). Students bring from home their socioeconomic values--it stretches from those kids who have overcaring, intrusive parents to those kids who have no one, or worse, parents who care little for their success as people, and the anger comes to school with them. It's a very fragile relationship, teacher-student, parent-child, and as a parent I want to support the teachers as much as possible because all children need adult role models beyond their parents. Teachers are there on the frontline--they do need more pay, they do need more support (in Japan, teachers are treated like gods); however, among gods and people there are the good, the bad, the ugly. I look to the future and hope students' voices will be heard--to have great teachers, to be encouraged to go to college, to learn about who they are. I hope administrators will fashion a school for all to feel they can succeed, as teachers and as students, allowing teachers to teach to the highest level of a student's intellect, to enlighten and turn on the lightbulb even if it reaches just one child, but regardless of a sutdent's socioeconomic background or color. I believe AP classes should be available to any ambitious child who wants to learn more and is curious. Let the teachers teach and parents can gripe about art in English classes and CPM Math, but these methods and problems should be used in the elementary and middle schools so students come into high school prepared for a college prep English course, where expository writing can be taught and students learn to read with a critical and analytical eye--all necessary to succeed in college and beyond. I've learned a lot from the parents who've written the e-tree, how thoughtfully they grapple with the problems that face their own teens and all other teens today--drinking, drugs, underachieving, alienation--they're our children and society's future. I need support too, and the resources and wisdom the many parents bring to this e-tree have opened my mind and I am grateful for it. I've been left with so much to think about as I've read every one of the e-tree newsletters. So, many thanks and wishing you all good cheer, and a happy, safe millennium -- will read you in 2000! --j