Essays | Lit

The Staples Letters: Smile!

Lizzie Smith

Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the Staples Letters are a new series of essays in the South Side Weekly written in the form of letters from a veteran teacher, Staples, giving advice to a young teacher, Ms. T. All events in the Staples Letters are drawn directly from real-life experiences in Chicago schools, and names and identifying details have been removed in the interest of privacy. Though fictional in form, the letters are used to address a variety of issues in education, from quotidian classroom considerations to national policy.

Hey Ms. T!

I completely understand why you’d feel the need to start off the year as tough as possible—you know,  give millions of detentions, scowl, that whole routine. That was certainly the plan for my first year. I thought it’d get the students to respect me and impress the principal. What’s the cliche—don’t smile till Christmas? Ugh. Who came up with that horrible advice? Someone who hated kids, probably. There’s a surprising number of adults like that running around schools.

No, the main thing to remember is you’re allowed to have fun in class. Or maybe fun isn’t quite the right word. Fun is too limiting. Fun ends. Joy, on the other hand, is the sort of background hum that sustains a classroom. You can lend a student a pen joyfully, you know? I would say if at the end of your first year, you can at least say your room is a joyful place, it’s a success. The problem is your department chair isn’t going to mandate joy. There aren’t any Common Core standards that deal with joy. There aren’t any metrics that measure it.

And your principal is going to be actively hostile to the idea, though of course they’ll never say it out loud. They will express this preference by requiring any good idea—any idea that encourages community, happiness, relaxation, or joy—to have all sorts of paperwork, endless meetings, permission slips. Whereas any idea that will increase the amount of student discomfort, pain, or suffering will be fast-tracked and incorporated by end of day. Suffering reads to them as rigor, like if the students are really unhappy it must mean they’re learning a lot. It’s nuts.

The admins at your school, I’m sure, are mostly interested in order and control. They distrust noise, fun, desks arranged into a circle. They’re a little like the Grinch in that respect. The Grinch didn’t really hate Christmas, right? He just thought the Whos were too annoying about it. Which, I mean… fair enough.

Anyway, nobody ever felt any joy doing the same seven worksheets over and over again. Nobody ever felt anything but drudgery doing that, especially when it’s eight degrees outside. I sometimes think that’s what’s meant by students being “career-ready.” It means to prepare them to obey orders even when they’re really bored, really beaten down, really tired, depressed. Those are twenty-first century job skills, right? For most of us? Well, what do you expect when the bosses get control of the schools? What does Bill Gates know, or care, about teaching joy?

So you don’t have to do that. I really hope you won’t. It’ll feel right to do it their way ‘cause that’s what your principal will praise you for doing. But just because it feels right doesn’t mean it is right.

In my school now, there aren’t any music classes or art classes or gym classes or photography classes—except in horrible online versions. That’s right, they literally take P.E. online and answer multiple choice questions about tennis and yoga. One kid, an English Language Learner who was working quietly at his computer the other day, asked me what a “cleat” is. I had the hardest time answering him! “It’s like a shoe…with, uh, nails in the bottom…that helps you grip the ground…” Seriously, is there any way to learn what cleats are except by putting them on and running around? But if you check his transcript, it will say he passed P.E. even though he never once left the computer lab.

A woman from the charter came to my room earlier this year. She patiently explained to me that our kids are just too far behind,  that we just don’t have the time to do things any other way. Welcome to “skills-based” education. Forget assemblies, Christmas parties, dances, student newspaper, yearbooks. Hello, online P.E.

So you will have to provide these things, because in all likelihood they have been taken. Do not ask for permission. Do not see it as extra or as part of a standalone “fun” day. Embed joy into the DNA of your class. Play music constantly—and let students make the playlist. Decorate your room with art and posters, not test score data and rules. Ditch the phony competitiveness that infects every inch of childhood. Death to worksheets, death to test prep, death to Scantrons.

You must instead focus your students and inspire in them a feeling of solidarity with one another and with you. It’s impossible to achieve this by teaching in the manner your administration will be comfortable with because the isolating nature of worksheets and standardized tests is completely antithetical to the joyful community of learners a true educator strives to create. Your own classroom should exist as a microcosm of the world you’d like to live in; by creating this, you and your students are, each day, bringing one infinitesimally small piece of that world into being.

The fact is, everything that might happen in your classroom will be useless, boring, ridiculous if it is not obvious at every moment you’re all working cooperatively in the service of justice.

So for goodness’ sake—smile!

Your Affectionate Cousin,

Staples

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