June 13, 2014
Three Clover Press
Walnut Creek, CA
Crazy is Normal by Lloyd Lofthouse is a memoir, completely different from The Concubine Saga and Running with the Enemy, two earlier books by Mr. Lofthouse that I have reviewed. Crazy is Normal is Mr. Lofthouse’s account of one particular year of teaching freshman English and being the journalism advisor for the class that published the high school newspaper. The high school was Nogales High School in La Puente, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. During this book of Mr. Lofthouse’s account of teaching these courses, readers get a sample of a teacher’s perspective and learn of the variety of issues that a teacher faces daily. These issues include unmotivated and ill-behaved students, unsupportive administrators, and uninvolved parents, not to mention the number of students who just show up because it is the law. Although published recently, the year focused on was approximately 20 years ago, so one can imagine what today’s teachers face.
Mr. Lofthouse includes many links to and facts about students, poverty rates, Census Bureau information, and other pertinent information that can be explored or not. I enjoyed the stories of the students and how some improved through the academic year (and how some didn’t) and I also enjoyed reading about what they were studying. Reading Crazy is Normal was nostalgic in some respects, but evoked appreciation and awe at what public school teachers deal with daily. Also, after reading about his role as journalism advisor for the school newspaper, I regret not having had the student newspaper experience in high school or college.
Following is an exerpt from Crazy is Normal:
The last half of each English class on Friday was silent sustained reading (SSR) with the books students had selected to read for the first book report.
I had reminded them on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to have the book in class today. There was also a reminder written on the board since last week. In addition, each day, I had asked one student at random—right after I reminded the class—what they had chosen for SSR on Friday.
Less than half of my students brought an SSR book to class. For those who did, I walked around the room to approve the books and write the title in my grade book.
When students didn’t bring a book and read for SSR each Friday, I wrote a failing grade in the grade book. The SSR grade wasn’t worth as much as a written assignment, but it was still a grade.
I’d learned years ago that if I didn’t write the title down, students would change books weekly, just to have a book in class for SSR to avoid failing, and most of them never finished reading a book or bothered to do the book report.
In every class, I told my students how SSR worked. “No one talks, and everyone reads,” I said. “If you talk during SSR, you go to BIC and earn a one-hour detention to be served after school.”
But the talking didn’t stop. The loudest person went to BIC first, and that was usually enough to settle the rest down.
In third period, the loudest voice belonged to Alonzo. When I called him to my desk, he protested. “Everyone else is talking, too.”
“You were the loudest voice.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. If you say one more word, you will earn another one-hour detention.”
“I’m not going to any of those detentions,” he said.
“You now have two hours,” I said.
Many of the students were laughing. “You’re stupid, Alonzo,” one boy said. “Just shut up and go.”
If I could have written several referrals at the same time, I would have, but it took time to fill out one.
After Alonzo was gone, I said, “Who’s next? No one has to raise a hand to volunteer. When I say you read silently at your desk and you ignore me, you’re volunteering to go to BIC and earn a detention, and I have hundreds of blank referrals.” I waved a four-inch-thick stack in the air.
The desired SSR silence finally arrived, and the kids who had books started to read.
This scene repeated itself in every English class. However, in fourth period, only five kids brought books to read, and, to stop the talking, I sent five to BIC to make my point. If I let the kids have their way, there would be no SSR.
To achieve my goal for SSR, I knew that I had to be persistent and enforce the rules with no exceptions, but even then some kids never cooperated. Every Friday, someone in each class ended up in BIC. It was obvious and sad that many of these kids did not read anything at home—ever. Any kid who had developed a habit of reading at least a half hour a day at home would have had no problems doing the same thing in class.
I wasn’t alone in writing referrals to remove kids from my classroom so I could teach. According to Mr. D—the teacher in BIC—an average of twenty thousand referrals were written for Nogales students annually.
I had no idea how many I wrote each year. But if I wrote, on average, three a day for one hundred eighty days, my share would’ve been five hundred forty, or two point seven percent. I think my share was actually a little higher—maybe four percent.
Rough drafts started to trickle in from the new journalism students, and I spent most of my time in sixth period counseling cub reporters as I edited their work.
For example, Megan was a gifted sophomore, loaded with honors classes, and when she saw all the red ink and highlighted words drenching her rough draft, the look on her face was numb, stunned shock. The rough draft she had written had too many high-level vocabulary words that only someone who read at a college level would understand.
“I’ve highlighted all the words that are unacceptable for a high school newspaper with a student audience that mostly reads way below grade level,” I said. “Megan, newspapers have to write at the level of the audience that reads them. Before you earn a grade for this, I want you to rewrite and use simpler words to make your point.”
Megan’s eyes glistened with tears, and I could see defeat and surrender in her body language.
“Are you thinking of giving up and dropping this class?” I asked.
“How did you know?”
“I could tell by the look on your face.”
“I can’t stand it when someone knows what I’m thinking.” She sounded angry and frustrated.
“I’m not going to let you drop this class until you understand that there’s nothing wrong with what you wrote, except that the vocabulary level isn’t appropriate for our high school audience. There are almost three thousand students on this campus, and the day Scroll is distributed, every one of those students will read what you wrote. You have to write to the level of your audience.”
“Writing has always come easy for me,” Megan said. “I thought this would be an easy class.”
“Learning how to write for a diverse audience of this size is challenging,” I said, as tears slipped from her eyes and down her face.
“I always earn A’s on my essays,” she said. “What kind of grade am I going to earn for this?” It was obvious she wasn’t hearing what I was saying.
“You don’t earn a grade until you rewrite it, Megan. That means you can still earn an A. Writing for the school paper isn’t the same as writing an essay in Honors English. This time, you’re writing for an audience in the thousands, not for one teacher. Editing and revising rough drafts are expected, and the grade for this piece is earned from the final draft. All the other grades for this assignment are from the deadlines, and you turned this rough draft in early.”
My conversation with Megan stretched through sixth period and long after school was out. As we talked, her sense of defeat and depression seemed to evaporate.
“Rewrite this piece over the weekend, Megan. On Monday, I’ll edit it again. Get rid of all those polysyllabic words that I’ve highlighted and use only one-or two-syllable words to replace them. Writing for a newspaper isn’t studying for the SAT. Save the fancy language for your English essays and for college.”
“Mr. Lofthouse, I thought I knew everything there was about writing. I’ve always earned A’s on what I write. In the Philippines, I started a school paper in the private school I attended, and I wrote most of the articles myself. I loved doing that. I didn’t know that when I joined Scroll, I would have more to learn.”
“Megan, you may wake up one day and realize that every day offers new lessons to learn from life. If you’re open to this, you’ll never stop learning.”
After my struggles in English that day, getting the kids to quiet down and read, this conversation with Megan was worth its weight in gold and diamonds. If all the kids in America were like her, people would be competing with each other to teach.
Megan left, and I packed up the work I’d take home and correct over the weekend. I thought that I’d won her over and she wouldn’t drop the class. She had talent, but it had to be developed. The challenge was to point that talent in the right direction.
Before I left, I called the parents of every student I’d written a referral for that day to tell them about SSR and the book report—and I reached most of the parents on the list! That was unusual. For every phone call, I filled out a required contact slip as evidence that I was doing my job properly as the district expected.
I believe Crazy is Normal accurately reflects the state of our education system today, which is disturbing. Don’t even get me started on how the public education system is being privatized in a slow and methodical process to the detriment of the nation. Mr. Lofthouse addresses these issues on his blogs and his Facebook account.
Reading about an entire school year in weekly sections started to wear me down. Can you imagine what it is like for a teacher? I will say that I would have enjoyed knowing what happened personally to some of the characters and how their lives have progressed. Maybe an epilogue should have been included. Regardless, I highly recommend Crazy is Normal.
Following is an interview with Mr. Lofthouse by Christina Francis. This clip shows Mr. Lofthouse’s passion for his earlier profession.