A Modest Proposal: Compulsory Teaching



Do you know how challenging it is to be a teacher who has integrity? Do you know what goes into the every single day? Do you have any idea how much time it can take to plan one solid hour of instruction? Do you comprehend how much free time is relinquished in favor of catching up on emails? Or contacting parents? Planning a field trip? Talking a child away from wanting to kill herself? Making a personalized journal for someone who needs that level of love? Cutting through red tape for the sake of an 8th grader? These questions go and go and go and go. Because great teachers are more than teachers. They are mothers, counselors, shoulders, fathers, rocks, support systems, sisters, pin cushions, scape goats, punching bags, translators, bouncers, cat herders, and so so much more.

I’ll warn you that this post is pretty self-aggrandizing. Let me climb on my soap box (no short jokes, thanks). Join me as I tell you about the job that creates all other jobs. There are plenty of things I’m modest about, teaching is not one of them.

In 2010 actor Tony Danza starred in a TV show called “Teach” on A&E. He said that he always wanted to try teaching. He always wanted to give it a go, see how he’d do. He sweated so much through his button down, kids suggested he start wearing more undershirts. In the show and in reality, he only teaches one 10th grade English class  and for only one year. And from what I’ve read, it ate him alive.

Tony, thanks. And we get it. Eight years was my max. It’s hard. I often hear people say, and I always agree, that everyone should have to work in the food service industry at some point. You learn a lot about people, food, humanity, smells, employees, drugs, hygiene, integrity, your own hygiene, rodents, mozzarella sticks, what you aren’t willing to eat, what you will eventually start eating again. And yes, this is so true. We should all have to be a server, counter person, barista, something, at some point. For sure.

But because of how much you can learn and how much it matters for the WHOLE WORLD, I wish that everyone had to work in a school (especially Betsy Devos). You’ll never learn more than you will learn in two months in a classroom, as the person in front of it. That feeling of 20-something sets of eyes staring at you, 20-something screeching voices yelling at one another, 20-something human beings about to be launched right into the real world to lead it or ruin it or terrorize it or own it or love it. There’s nothing like that. Also, if everyone had a stint in school (essentially like Israel’s compulsory military service but certainly minus the guns – FYI you will NOT regret clicking this link), I guarantee funding for education would increase, teachers would receive more respect, some people who really, really do not get it, would start to get it. At least a little bit. Oh how I wish…

So I want to give you a sliver. I want to give you a taste. The title of this blog will not seem to make sense because other than the creativity aspect, you (the general you) will want to do the opposite.

Here’s a lesson I wrote in 2014. I was really proud of it at the time and looking back, I am still really proud of it. I wrote this lesson while teaching The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass has mixed thoughts on negro spirituals and I wanted to tap into that aspect of the book while getting my students to interact with some incredible music. This lesson lasted two days for a total of one hour and 45 minutes. This 90 minute chunk easily took me eight hours to plan. Now that wasn’t always the case when I planned something I was really into but it wasn’t that rare.

I give you…a really good lesson plan–minus the plan itself–more the documents and the flow of the lessons. I hope this clarifies what kind of effort is required to make them.

This PowerPoint will guide these lessons.

Start with the drill. Students connect prior knowledge of the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “We Wear the Mask” and with their knowledge of figurative language and symbolism, already taught this year. Remind students several times that “Yes, you have already read this poem” and “Yes, it was just two days ago.”


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Tasks involved: Find copy of the poem online, copy stanza, match font, use clip art from previous lesson so that students can connect poem lesson with new lesson, consider how to connect the poem with today’s topic of slave songs. Make text box look cute.

Connect poem with Narrative of the Life. Analyze pieces from Narrative to examine Douglass’s perspective on negro spirituals. Discuss Douglass’s conflicting views. Help students find text evidence of this. Highlight. Review. Ensure that students understand. Explain that we will begin looking at the spirituals ourselves, starting tomorrow.
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Have students complete an exit ticket listing Douglass’s negatives and positives of slave songs. Encourage them to use specific evidence from the text. Say the word “specific” at least 43 times per class period.

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Cover background knowledge of figurative language. Tap into what students already know about each term. Then teach them the new terms of allegory and allusion which we have learned before but because of how difficult they are, we will hit these hard again. Use some examples to assist understanding. Cover musical elements of “tempo,” “call and response, and”a capella.” Explain and practice. Teach using the example of “Roll Jordan Roll.” Identify these elements in the song as a whole class. Using rhetorical devices knowledge, apply this to the song to determine the meanings of Jordan and Roll.

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Tasks involved: find a song to use as an example, define terms and locate terms within song, once found. Find emotional video of song. Cry each time you watch it for lesson planning purposes. Determine meanings of “Jordan” and “roll” and decide whether or not students will get it. Decide you’ll take a gamble. Create sheet above (text boxes, clip art, etc.)

Divide students into predetermined groups (spend an hour creating groups that will not result in physical fights). Allow students to access computers to watch a video on the purpose behind negro spirituals via symbaloo. Ask students to complete the chart together to record the purposes behind negro spirituals. Walk around the room as students work and don’t work. Assign songs to each group. Encourage students to then listen to one assigned song per group. Remind students repeatedly to huddle in so that the song is not too loud as to disturb other groups and spawn aforementioned fights.

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Tasks involved: Locate a video on music for enslaved people. View video several times to create appropriate note taking form. Find 4 different negro spirituals that contain these figurative elements. Identify figurative elements and meanings behind each. Find appropriate and accessible links to each. Post to symbaloo. Create sheet above.

Locate lyrics to each of the spirituals. Redo formatting. Define ANY words that may be questioned. Create a sheet for each group to accompany audio version. Accidentally or purposefully become an expert on all four songs. Consider leaving teaching to become a music producer. Decide against it because you’ve already worked really hard on this lesson–gotta see it through.


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Have students locate their drills (some are on the floor, some in desks, some in the trash, some eaten by a goat) flip their drills over, and locate today’s exit ticket. Go over the directions for the exit ticket. Annotate with the group, as needed. Encourage, rub proverbial backs, repeat over and over again, “Yes this is for a grade,” and “Yes this counts,” and “Yes, you have learned this.” Collect when class is over. Spend 90-120 minutes grading three classes’ worth of these the following Sunday.


Tasks required: Find the simplest way to take a Common Core standard and place it into 8th grade language + fit it to this lesson. Add music notes clip art. Regret making a written exit ticket because then you will have to grade them.

Could you do what Tony Danza did? Another guarantee forthcoming. I guarantee that most lawmakers these days, including if not especially, those involved in the Federal Department of Education, wouldn’t last a week in a middle school classroom, let alone a single Sunday-long lesson planning session.

But wouldn’t the world be better if everyone had to try? Would we fund our urban schools better? Would we respect teachers more? Would we understand, really, really understand, that these kids will soon be the adults? Would we get the urgency of education and make it as urgent as public safety?

I am going to climb down off my soapbox now and head into work.

5 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal: Compulsory Teaching

  1. WOW! And that’s all I have to say about that!! Is there any way you can forward this to DeVos – and could the idiot even understand it? LOL, D


  2. No and no, most of us could not do it and would not do it. NO to guns in schools, please, put your thinking caps on (really old saying that teachers used to use) and come up with another solution to the violence.

    Since my Mom died I find that everything I hear or read or see relates back to her. She sang negro spirituals to me from the time I was 2 that she learned from her great grandmother in Vermont, who hated slavery and was 11 when the civil war started. These songs will rip your heart out. Can’t imagine trying to do a lesson plan about them….


  3. That is really one well-connected lesson! It’s packed with opportunities for growth and understanding. There are not many people (if any) in the Departments of Education who could perform the magic of teaching in an urban middle school. It’s the one of the most difficult jobs in modern times. Ms. Besty DeVos agreed to appear on 60 Minutes last week. Clueless would be my way of describing her knowledge of public schools and education, based on her responses to relevant questions.
    No guns!! In my school, and others, this is a very dangerous proposal.
    Cindy, loved the memories about your mom, Elfreida!


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