Professional Learning Teacher as Writer

Teaching in a Time of Dogs

A number of years ago, I was a middle school teacher. One morning I was standing outside my classroom as my first-hour group assembled when one of my students approached me in tears.

“Mr. Goodson,” she sobbed, “I think my neighbor skinned his dog.”

As she stood there crying, and I stood there looking at her, it occurred to me at that moment that I really had no clue how to handle this situation. I knew there were interpersonal and cultural and ethical and perhaps even legal issues unfolding in front of me, but I didn’t even know what they were, much less what I, as a teacher, was obligated to do. But as a crowd of curious middle-schoolers gathered around us, I knew I had to do something. I decided to start with the obvious question.

“What makes you think your neighbor skinned his dog?” I asked.

“Because it’s hanging from his clothesline,” she wailed.

Her answer didn’t help my state of mind all that much. For a moment I wondered whether it was the neighbor’s dog’s skin or the neighbor’s skinned dog hanging from the clothesline, but I decided it probably didn’t matter. (Except, of course, to the dog.) The real problem at the moment was my student, still standing there, crying, waiting for me to resolve this matter. I decided on a bold course of action.

“Have you told your mother about this?” I asked.

She shook her head no. “I saw it on my way to school,” she said.

“Why don’t you go down to the office and call your mother?” I suggested, and I was more than a little grateful when she nodded and turned away, leaving me to curse those idiot education professors who didn’t prepare me for this encounter.

A few minutes after she left to call her mother, she came back to my classroom. She wasn’t upset anymore. In fact she bounced to her seat and started whispering and giggling with her friends. I drifted through the room and back to her seat.

“Is everything all right?” I asked, now thoroughly puzzled by her dramatic change in mood.

She seemed confused, as if she didn’t know what I was talking about.

“Your neighbor’s dog,” I reminded her.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It was just a coyote.”

“Great,” I said. And I suppose it probably was. (Except, of course, for the coyote.)

Years passed. Today I’m an “idiot education professor,” trying to figure out a way to teach young people things they can only really learn from experience and writing about the curious magic of literacy and its teaching.

But I’ve reflected considerably on the skinned-dog matter over the years, to the point that the skinned dog has become, for me, a darkly comic metaphor for the uncertainty that is the beauty and the challenge of teaching. You see, I was just minding my own business that morning, standing in the hallway, waiting for classes to start. I’ve long since forgotten what I had planned for that day, but I’m sure it was something that seemed important at the time. I had probably prepared my lessons according to the Madeline Hunter Model, which was popular in those days, and I imagine I had something cute planned to launch the first hour.

The skinned dog changed everything that day. The skinned dog forced me to step out of my abstract plans and deal with students in a world that doesn’t respond to even the most carefully worded behavioral objective, a world where students are human beings and not the idealized student construct we have in mind when we produce the standards documents, curriculum guides, and lesson plans. The ideal student of the standards document comes to school like one of the McGuffey’s Reader “scholars” of a long ago era: well-scrubbed and eager for the learning we have designed. But real students sometimes live in neighborhoods where anything can happen. Despite our best efforts to take the mystery out of teaching and learning and to standardize the process, we will never standardize or eliminate the skinned dog. No matter how many years I teach, I know that each time I open the classroom door, the skinned dog might well be waiting on the other side, ready to force me to confront a situation I have not planned for and could not have planned for because schools and students are, by nature, nonstandard.

We live and work in a time when we have tried to preordain crisp and neat learning outcomes for all of us. We have studied teaching and learning. We have invested lots of money in writing standards and spelling out benchmarks for students from kindergarten all the way through high school, and we have created the same sorts of expectations for teachers, from their preservice years through their completion of National Board certification. And it is good to spell out our goals and to rigorously investigate our practice and to measure ourselves and our students against ideals, but the certainty of our current approaches neglects the stark image of the skinned dog, reminding us that the art of teaching, like the art of writing, lies as much in how we respond to the irregular as in how we plan to create regularity. The skinned dog teaches a few simple-but-powerful rules about teaching.

Truisms of the Skinned Dog

We never know what to expect.
We’ve never seen it all.
In every interesting situation, we never really know what to do.
We should always proceed with caution.
We should always proceed.

And if we apply the truisms of the skinned dog to our contemporary educational reform effort, we come to understand how our efforts to raise standards for all students in an effort to narrow the gap between the top and the bottom don’t take into consideration the unpredictable quirkiness that is part of the teacher’s and learner’s daily diet. The skinned dog helps us understand that students at the bottom of the achievement gap are there because of complicated social, economic, and cultural reasons and a forceful application of the upper-middle-class system of rewards and consequences will not likely have the desired effect.

When a student confronts a skinned dog on her way to school, the last thing she needs from the school is the opportunity to sit in class and move through a carefully scripted lesson pointed toward a high-stakes test. She needs an opportunity to tell her story. She needs a little help in understanding and interpreting her world, and she depends on us for that help. The fundamental flaw of our contemporary model for school reform is this: It begins with what we want students to know not with the students themselves. It is nice (perhaps even essential) for us to know and agree upon what we want students to know and be able to do, but we will never be successful with this as our starting point. We can only improve schools and schooling by taking the students and their worlds and their cultures as our starting point. We have to work from the students toward the standards. We cannot simply work through the standards. In short, we have to account for the skinned dog.