Honking My Own Horn

For the first few months after I left teaching, my brain was busy trying to make sense out of a 30+ year career that had ended. I wrote about it (big surprise), a small text dump of philosophy and experiences. A blog reader here on WP suggested I post on Medium. I found myself part of a “magazine” — The Synapse — dedicated to teaching.

One of my pieces, “Student Centered vs. Teacher Center Learning” has been read by thousands of people, mostly young teachers. They’re highlighting passages, clapping for the content, following me. It makes me so so happy to have said something useful — after all — and helpful, for the ones just walking into the classroom now as teachers.

Another thing that’s happened related to teaching since I left, the Youtube videos I posted for my students (and never took down) are helping students today. Once in a while I get a comment thanking me. “That was the clearest explanation of the thesis statement ever. Thank you Mrs. Kennedy.”

I don’t think of myself as a teacher any more. I’ve also realized it was a way to make a living and I enjoyed it, mostly. It was NOT the grand “vocation” I often believed it to be back in the day. It seems to have been a long, long time ago that I was teaching, though it was only 3 years. But when I learn that something I’ve written has helped a young teacher or a kid in an English class, I feel warm inside.


To Teachers on the First Full Day of School

Watching the news and stuff… I see all these young people in Anti-fa outfits, old people marching with signs that hearken back to the last time they carried signs, I see a post on FB by a kid who doesn’t know what happened in the 60s re: race and thinks that the counter-protestors are no better than the White Supremacists. I try to explain history to him, and, to his credit, he Googles Birmingham and comes up with a church bombing.

It’s something. He realizes that he’s in the lurch; he has now looked into Fibber MacGee’s closet and doesn’t want to do the work. It’s a whole lot easier to say, “Violence is bad and the White Supremacists were planning a peaceful demonstration. Do you really think it’s all-right for the anti-fas to use violence? Anti-fa is fascist!”

He’s found a soapbox from which he believes someone of my generation will be cowed. But, no. I was never a “Peacenik” or whatever. I envy the Anti-fa outfit. It’s black. It’s scary. It says “Anarchy!” How to fight evil? Give it no quarter. I have learned that the hard way.

“Fascist, my child, is a particular thing,” I tell him. “Anti-fa may or may not be thugs, I do not know, but they are not fascist.” I see the whole thing sinking even lower into semantics. I end the conversation and ask my friend who this kid is.

“He’s an OK kid. Just got married. The nephew of my son’s ex. Rescued a husky last year.”

Rescued a husky? He’s OK in my book whatever his politics. Well, almost. I don’t think a Nazi husky rescuer would be OK. I’m going to have to take this on a case-by-case basis. I see that now. This kid hasn’t gone that far. And he’s curious. Curiosity means a lot. And he rescued a husky.



All you teachers out there, past, present and future, heading to school today, you have your work cut out for you. I’m glad it’s not me any more. I honor your effort, I respect your challenge, I love the work you do. Please help this kid out in whatever shape or form he arrives in your classroom. Our world depends on you. Seriously. I’m weeping as I write this.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry you don’t have a better salary. I’m sorry the gubmint doesn’t recognize the vital work you do. I’m sorry for acting out in 9th grade (3rd grade, 10th grade, 11th grade). And thank you for everything. ❤


Viper Dip

Back in the day when I was teaching English as a Second Language at an international school in San Diego, there were many Arab students in my classes. I enjoyed teaching them because they were open, very friendly, willing to try to speak in the new language and undaunted about making mistakes. I taught writing at the intermediate level, so I got to enjoy many of these.

Because English is written in the opposite direction of Arabic, there is a particular kind of Arab dyslexia that led to some funny mistakes, usually confusing words — kitchen and chicken for example, Spinach and Spanish. Some letters — particularly the silent ones — look the same to Arab students. E and C are commonly confused. Because S can sound like C they are also confused.

My favorite one was confusing snake for snack. For example (this is a real example), “We were angry (hungry) after the movie so we went to store for snakes.”

All I had to do to help the student with this one was draw a cartoon on the back of the paper of the student buying snakes at Vons (the local supermarket). What would make a Korean girl blush in shame and anger — and never return to class — only made the Arabs laugh — and proofread.

And that, Mr. Trump, is your lesson in international relations for this Friday.


Dr. Mueller

“Fair is for soccer,” said the Intro to Religious Studies professor. He said this every semester, maybe to every freshman class he taught. There are things that must be said to university freshmen, and that’s one of them. “Don’t expect ‘fairness’ out of life.”

“Yeah, but…” sputtered a long-haired blonde girl in the front row.

“There’s no ‘yeah, but.’ It’s how it is. Fairness is something humans have made up. It’s why we have laws.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” said a kid in the third row from the left, toward the back.

“It doesn’t? Why not?” asked the Prof.

“Justice comes from God.”

“Does it? Tell that to the mother of the baby born dead. Tell that to the family whose husband/father is killed by a drunk driver. There are plenty of people who believe God ‘did’ that to punish those people. Is that what you mean but ‘justice comes from God’?”

“Well, the 10 Commandments.”

“Law. Those are laws.”

“But they came from God.”

“They came from someone who didn’t want to give his name.” The professor smiled. This is how it went every semester. “Anyway, law is our attempt to create fairness in an unfair world where some people are just plain luckier than others.”

“I don’t believe in luck.”

“You don’t think you’re lucky to have a chance to study at a university while that mentally retarded guy two doors down from you is lucky to tie his own shoes? You don’t think that’s luck?”

“I didn’t think of that.”

“Maybe human ethics means we’re able to equalize the unfair portions of luck just a little bit. Let’s say you discover, through your time here at the university, that you want to do research on the human brain or you want to be a social worker or teach special ed. Any one of those things could change the life of that mentally retarded guy two doors down for the better. Your luck could improve someone else’s. That is higher justice. See what I’m saying?”

“There’s no law that says I have to help that guy, Professor.”

“No, there’s no law. Laws are for the lowest common denominator of human behavior. The laws forbid you from hurting him and tell you that you’ll be punished if you do. There is no law that says you must help him. There can’t be.”

“Why not?”

“That’s a question I want you to answer in your journals for Monday. I look forward to finding them in my office by 9 am.”


P.S. Dr. Mueller is/was a real professor. His lectures were so well delivered, so animated and engaging, that I used to sit in on them. Lecturing was not my strong point as a teacher, but it was a necessary evil especially in the beginning of a semester. I saw this dialogue play out three or four times and it always amazed me.


Back in the Goodle Days of Teaching Freshman Comp

As many people know, I was once an English teacher. I taught composition, critical thinking and business communication. Once in a GREAT WHILE (like twice in two decades) I was “allowed” to teach summer literature. I spent 35 years of my life reading student papers. What’s more (and possibly strange) I liked it. I liked teaching post-adolescents and I never got tired of it. Everything I ended up hating about “teaching” really had little to do with teaching or students.

There is a thing about college freshmen and sophomores, it’s a good thing, but it’s also challenging, funny and annoying, they think they’re VERY VERY VERY smart and that they created the world and everything in it when they hit 18. I thought this, too, at that time of my life, so I have and always have had total sympathy with the hubris of youth. Now I know two things about it 1) their frontal lobes are not completely grown, 2) if we didn’t feel that way as young people the world would never change.

They wrote papers and they confused words. They confused words because they wanted to use big words. They had a few things going on in their minds. 1) they wanted to use big words because they were smart people and smart people use big words, 2) they wanted to impress their English teacher and everyone KNOWS English teachers are impressed by big words, and, 3) you get good grades by impressing your teacher. The advent of “spell check” made this problem even more interesting. :p

I think “plethora” is probably the favorite big word of college freshmen to use in their English essays. I’ve read that word almost exclusively on freshman English papers. One student even said, “Did you like how I used ‘plethora’?”

They also liked to get on their soapboxes. In order that they learn to be logical in presenting their arguments, they were required to write a PERSUASIVE PAPER on a controversial topic. I made rules. They could not write about legalizing pot, capital punishment or abortion. “Why, professor?”

“Well, here’s the deal. I don’t want to read a bunch of papers about legalizing pot, capital punishment or abortion. You gotta’ see this from my side. You’re going to write ONE paper. I’m going to take home 30 papers from each of my 3 freshmen comp classes. I don’t want to read 90 papers on abortion, would you?”


“All right then. Come up with something YOU really care about.”

“I care about that.”

“Find something else.” If a student were too invested in one of those three topics I was pretty sure they already had a paper and works cited page, probably from high school. There was also the reality that there are  9 million freshman papers available for sale on those three topics… I hated dealing with plagiarism.

If you have never sat down to a stack of freshman level persuasive papers, you have not lived (huh?). 🙂 Usually they were pretty OK. Occasionally they were abysmal, often they were cliché, sometimes they were inspiring. There was always at least one paper that took it upon itself to defend Freedom and the American Way. Almost always that paper told me that it was my right to peruse happiness.



“Kennedy, You’re Weird”

“I never feel like I get any closer to you,” she’d say. When the Carpenters came out with their song, “Close to You,” she’d say, “That’s how I think of you. You’re difficult to reach.”

It made me feel guilty, but I didn’t understand what she meant. I was just me. I was just a kid. What were other people like?

“I never feel as if I really know you, or touch you. You’re always somewhere else.” Echoes but this was the great love of my life, not my mom.

What in the world did they want?

Now I believe the “complaints” came from fundamental differences in personality that I didn’t know about until I required hundreds of business majors (my students) over a period of years take the Myers/Briggs Personality Inventory as part of a report project. My goal was to:

1) teach them how to write a business report as a group project,
2) teach them about different kinds and levels of research,
3) expose them to a work problem — there were two; one was using personality tests in hiring which is done fairly often and the other using personality tests for team building, also used fairly often,
4) give those who were unhappy in their major a chance to question their direction if they wanted to.

I learned about me.

Some of my students rejected the tests out-of-hand saying, “It’s like a horoscope” to which I replied, “Sure if you get your ‘sign’ by answering questions about yourself then it is. I agree.”

Most of my students thought the project was kind of fun. One of them said, “Whoa, I’m changing my major to ceramics.” That was the ONE kid out of thousands who had the same MBTI type as I have. INFJ, (Introverted/iNtuitive/Feeling/Judging) statistically the rarest personality type. No, that doesn’t make me think I’m special. It actually makes me special. Sorry. So all the people who have said over the years, “Kennedy, you’re a freak,” knew what they were talking about. 😉

A group of business majors is already a self-selected, elite group of people who are unlikely to be introverts, and very few were. Most were men, my direct opposite ESTP  (Extraverted/Sensint/Thinking/Perceiving) and ESTJ with one or two “accountants” ISTJ sprinkled in. Since the class wasn’t required for accounting majors, there were never many of those. Once in a while there was an “N”, an intuitive person, usually a girl, who was tuned in to the feelings of others. All of these types are very common in our world. They are the people that keep the world going every single day.

Their personality types were extremely outgoing. They were not prone to self-reflection, not aware of the feelings of others or overly concerned about them. Extroverted, Sensing and Thinking, they went through life without a lot of interpersonal awareness. This is all a way to say they were not the most sensitive people in the world and were strongly ego driven. I, as an introverted, intuitive am almost always aware of what’s going on with other people and I wear my heart on my sleeve. They could hurt my feelings easily. They would say things to me and get in a physical proximity to me that were very challenging. When I understood who they were, I realized it wouldn’t hurt them at all if I gave them back what they were giving me, and it didn’t. They expected it. They gave it to each other. It was the way things were supposed to be in their worlds, from their perspectives. I stopped defending myself ever.

“Why did you give me a D?”

“I didn’t give you a D. You earned a D. If you don’t like the D, you can talk to me about what you could have done better, otherwise, I don’t have anything to say.”

“OK. What could I have done better.” Challenge, provocation dripping from his/her voice.

“I’ll tell you if you’re really going to listen, but if you’re just angry at me right now make an appointment to come and talk to me next week.”

“I’m angry.”

“OK. Come see me Tuesday before class. I don’t talk to angry students.”

I don’t think those kids ever knew what it took from me to be the classroom teacher whose classes they fought to get into or the teacher in the office who sat with them for hours helping them learn to see their own work, their own selves, take responsibility for their own achievement. They naturally figured I was like them, deriving boundless energy from proximity to other human beings.

Until I had done this project with several classes, I’d been skeptical about the tests. I’d seen it simply as a good project that would interest my students at this moment in their lives — 19 is all about self-discovery. I became a believer when I saw how knowing the overall personalities of a class of business majors could help me teach them.

We are not all the same. That “special little snowflake” thing has more than a germ of truth to it, but we’re stuck with the other people in the world. From this experience, I saw why I’m hard to be close to. I need a lot of psychic and physical privacy. I have a lot going on inside my head. I thought everyone was like this, but my 10,000 business majors taught me that is not the case. They also taught me how to compensate, how to reach others, and that was an enormous gift I wish I’ld learned earlier in my life.



Rock Star

I got an ovation once. It was at the end of a student show at the end of the term at the international school where I was teaching. I was thrilled, surprised, honored by the ovation. Proud of my students and of myself. The group in the auditorium — students — stood up and yelled, “Martha! Martha! Martha!” But now I don’t even remember the amazing thing they did under my Professor Keatingesque tutelage!

For some reason, for years I was kind of a “rock star” to students. My classes were “not like the other teachers’.” I don’t know how they were different, but… For a while when I walked across campus students would cheer. It’s true. It’s weird, but true. I’m a humble person, and I found it kind of embarrassing and still kind of cool.

I wasn’t even completely aware of it as a phenomenon until, one day, one of my former colleagues at the international school asked me, “How’s teaching at the university? Are you still a rock star?”

That’s when I started noticing it. I also began noticing the way my colleagues looked at me.

We all know teaching is a serious business. Teachers aren’t supposed to have fun and students aren’t supposed to have fun. If the teacher and the students ARE having fun, no one’s learning anything. My experience over the years showed me that teachers are often among the most conventional and unimaginative purveyors of social norms. Thinking about that some more, I began to see that’s what’s expected of teaching. A teacher’s job is to keep the values of society intact. A teacher’s job is not to challenge and provoke and inspire. I began to see that clearly in the response of my colleagues to me.

If students do well in your class and get high grades, you’re an easy grader NOT an effective teacher. If students do Hamlet  as an extended role play, you’re not teaching Shakespeare. If, in a class that lasts 4 hours, your remedial writing students turn out a complete essay, you have failed to teach them discipline.

I viewed teaching as a dance. The students were my partners and we were trying to get through the song with as much grace and joy as we could. I believed nothing was too hard for them IF they wanted to do it. I believed some things that were difficult were so good and so important that they needed to deal with them — but I’d help them. I believed they were human beings, and, as most were 19, they were human beings in search of self not in search of society’s expectations of them.

I’m glad I was a rock star. It’s kind of hard to imagine at this point, but it really happened. And there are students out there — now in their 30s or 40s — who know that some of our best friends are “dead friends” (exist for us between the covers of books) and that the Crossopterygii was our ancestral hero.


There is Nothing More than This

A teacher is the carrier of a baton. Most of the time, we never know who grasps it as we pass by, but once in a while something happens and this morning  I woke up to the most amazing thing, messages on Facebook and comments here on WordPress that needed my approval. What?

I got an early Christmas — and the BEST — present today. Fifteen years ago I taught a young man — a kid — he was 17 — in a summer intro to literature class.  He had — at that point — never studied literature. He asked me outside the classroom if I thought he could do the class even though he’d just gotten out of high school. He didn’t just do the class. He fell in love with literature and with Goethe and then with German. His dad was German; his mom Mexican. One of HIS students found my blog post in which I had written about him as he was long ago and she wrote me this:

Hello, Ms. Kennedy,
Your former student, Prof. Schorsch Kaffenberger is my world history professor at a college I attend (I found this blog from a year ago by googling his name to find his office). Professor Kaffenberger must have been an extraordinary student for him to be remembered after 15 years. He’s one of my coolest and most supportive professors. 🙂

This student was exceptional in many ways, mostly in his courage and passion for learning, his curiosity and openness to all that was new. In that first class (I taught him in a few classes) he was shy and young, but stepped forward to read lines from Oedipus when no one else would. He took what I had to give and he ran with it. That his student describes him as “cool” and “supportive” means the world to me.

I might have always had other dreams and aspirations, but when I turned that corner in 1976 and became a teacher, all the other dreams and aspirations took second place. In my heart lives the hope that the people who grasped the baton handed me by my teachers carry it into the future with love, faith and passion. There is really no treasure worth more than this.






Talkin’ ’bout — Speak up, Sonny!

Back in the day when I was teaching Business Communication I had my students do a group research project to help their (fictional) co-workers communicate better with colleagues from different generations. It was a good project because the research was pretty simple, and there is a lot of stuff online about the four (almost five now) generations currently in the work place. The biggest differences between the generations related to preferred communication media and fundamental values. As part of the project, students had to conduct a survey that would allow them to determine if the research they found was true of the people around them. This was important because it was a way for them to penetrate stereotypes. For example, the stereotype of Gen X is that it puts family before work and expects people to do the same; they might leave projects for another day: the stereotype of Boomers is that they put work before family and will stay at work until the job is done; the stereotype of Millennials is that they need constant communication and reassurance. What this means is that a Millennial with a Boomer boss or a Gen X boss is going to feel like they’re treading water in the deep end.

For a while the project was very successful, but over time, as No Child Left Behind had affected the learning abilities of more and more of my students, the big picture faded for them and it became a dangerous enterprise to write this report. How would they know if they got it right? What questions should they put on their survey? How could they have 20 questions when SurveyMonkey only allows 10 for free? The questions went on and on, most of them questions that could be answered by just a tad of critical thinking/reasoning/problem solving. They could actually do that — but their fear that their reasoning would lead to the wrong answer paralyzed them.

And they always felt I was holding out on them. When a student (one I liked!) said, “Fuck you!” to me one day when I passed back the projects, and the one done by his group earned a B (for concrete reasons that had been specified in the assignment) I knew I was done. He apologized profusely and often afterward, and I heard from him a couple of times after I left California when the “kissing up” couldn’t BE kissing up, but the damage was done.

His generation and my “generation” were not going to last long in the same class room.

Generations probably didn’t matter when four of them lived under the same roof and did the same work the family had done for, uh, generations. Nowadays they reflect social changes that affect a (I hate this word) cohort of people in the same age group — No Child Left Behind is one. Dr. Spock was another — most Baby Boomers’ mothers had and used that book as part of raising their children. Kids who went to a one room school were less likely to be affected by some governmental edict regarding education. But still technology affects a generation. Plate armor saved lives.

The other day I read a very long and well researched discussion about why Hillary Clinton will be indicted for whatever crime sending classified emails on a non-State Department server would be. I was stunned by ONE statement:

Clinton’s only justification for the private server is that this system was more convenient for her. Because government issued blackberries could not control multiple email accounts at once, she argues it was simpler to carry out all her correspondence, work and personal, on one phone under one email rather than through different emails between two phones.

While that answer has generated abundant scorn and skepticism from the Republicans (and Democrats), was technological simplicity really that ridiculous of a request from a then 60-year old Hillary Clinton? Would you expect your grandma to want to use two different cell phones?  Read the whole article here.

Try as I might, I don’t understand why that comment is there. But I do recall how my students were somehow convinced that because they could use (so-called) “technology” more easily than their parents, that they had somehow invented it.

“No guys, you just grew up with it. Someone invented it back in WW II. That’s right. Your great-grandparents.” I wanted to say that, but I knew it was all they had to cling to. 😉

The gap between THAT generation and MINE is enormous, but it isn’t what many of them (and/or us) think it is. It’s not that Millennials are more technologically advanced than we Baby Boomers. When I walked out of the classroom FOREVER I was far more adept at using current technology than my students were; I had to be if I were going to teach them.  The gap is more profound — but the biggest part of any gap between generations is…


…the gap of maturity and experience.





In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Night and Day.” Have you ever had an experience that was amazing the first time, but terrible the second time around? Or vice versa? What made it different the second time?

Not exactly the “second time” but a definite change… For most of my career, I loved teaching. I was a college and university writing instructor. I engaged easily with my students and I was effective — and entertaining — in the classroom. Since I never taught anything anyone WANTED to learn (I taught only required classes) I as lucky that I had conviction about the importance and intrinsic interest of learning how to write.

As a part-time teacher (no, I didn’t teach part-time; I taught more than full time) I just had to go into a classroom prepared and “divest myself” (as a jokingly referred to it). For decades I was one of the most popular teachers in every school in which I taught.

Then it changed…

The final two years of my career, I actually had classes that never came together filled with students who — for one reason or another — I could not engage. I began hating what I had once loved, and dreading what I had once anticipated enthusiastically. In my final two semesters I had both the worst and the best of the classes of my whole career — and the best was good beyond all expectation and the worst was heart-shattering.

The factors leading to the change are complex and myriad. Was I part of the problem? Yes. I was done. I’d reached a point that — at the beginning of my career, in my early 30s — I didn’t even imagine possible. At that point in my career I went to a conference and heard an older teacher talk about dealing with burnout. I thought, “Then you were never a REAL teacher, you lump of fabric.” Now I know, she must have been a real teacher or she would not have cared enough to burn out.

Other factors? I think the biggest other factor was the change in the school system before college. By the time I left teaching, my students did not have the same basic foundation of knowledge and skills my students had had when I began. I could not assume the same foundation. These creatures shocked me daily, from a girl (not a good student or an interested student in the first place) raising her hand and saying, “You have to print on the board because I can’t read cursive,” to the kid who didn’t know there was such a language as modern Greek. Because they were so ignorant — and so arrogant about their ‘knowledge” (they could use electronics) — I began to feel contempt for my students, a contempt which, sadly, they deserved and yet could not have cared less about (or in their parlance, could have cared less…).

No one should teach if they view their students with contempt. I had plenty of those professors in my life and they, oddly enough, inspired me to become a teacher. When I became them, I knew I had to get out of the classroom.