Sunday, March 28, 2010

Taylor Mali is a joke

I don't disagree with Seth Godin often. I think he gets most things bang on, but words can't express how disapointed I was when I saw Taylor Mali make Seth's Blog.

Let's take a look at Taylor Mali's little poem:

"I can make kids work harder" - Kids don't work, they learn. Making education metaphorical with business is precisely what has gotten us in the mess we are in today. Policy makers that are pedagogically further removed from the classroom than they are geographically are responsible for too much of what is wrong with school today.

"I can make a C- feel like a congressional medal of honor, and I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face." Of course you can, Taylor. This is true because grades can only ever be experienced by children as a reward or punishment. Do you really want to take credit for that? Extrinsically manipulating children to coerce them to learn with carrots and sticks is hardly something to brag about. You're a bully.

"How dare you waste my time!" That sounds awfully conditional, Taylor. You realize that kids don't need their teacher to be a judge-in-waiting that they must learn to keep their distance from, right? You realize that what they really need is a teacher who will unconditionally accept them for who they are, right? Right?

"I make kids sit through study hall for 40 minutes in absolute silence." Learning is a social exercise - it isn't often that we learn best in isolation - and in the real world collaboration is not cheating. Beyond that, what are they studying for? The state-mandated, high-stakes standardized test? Taylor, are you really proud of wasting 40 minutes of study time when your students could have been doing real learning?

"No you may not work in groups?" Why not, Taylor? How will children learn to collaborate if you arbitrarily decide they can't. And then when you do provide them with the privilege of working together, and they screw it up, you'll blame them because they don't know how to work together. Be honest, Taylor, the quiet classroom is more for you than it is for them. Cui bono?.

"No you may not ask me a question." Again, why not, Taylor? Are you their teacher who is there to guide them and coach them to better learning or are you just a supervisor? The more I listen to you, the more I believe it is the latter.

"No you may not go to the bathroom." Taylor, as an adult, when was the last time you had to even ask to go the bathroom? And as an adult, when was the last time you were told that you couldn't go? And, as an adult, if you were told 'no', what would be your reaction?

"You're bored and you don't really have to go to the bathroom." Taylor, I'll give you 3 guesses why they are bored. I'll give you a hint. It has something to do with that 40 minutes of solitary confinement you love so much.

"I make parents tremble in fear when I call home." I have no idea how this could possibly be a good thing. EVER. Shameful.

"To the biggest bully in the class, he said..." Was this boy speaking to you, Taylor?

"I make kids wonder." No Taylor, at best you make them want to wander. As in wander out of your classroom because you can't make someone do anything and make them like it.

"I make them apologize." Yes, you made them say the word 'sorry', but 'sorry' isn't a word. It's a feeling. I doubt you were ever able to make someone feel sorry... in a good way.

"I make the write, write, write. I make them read." If they could spot a comma splice or a Shakespeare quote from a block away, but they swear to God they'll never pick up a pen or book again, what have you accomplished? Where there's interest, achievement follows. Where there's disinterest, boredom and misbehavior sets in. Montaigne once wrote if students lack "appetite and affection" for learning, they become little more than "asses loaded with books."

"I make them spell..." Sounds like you make your kids sit down for a spell. It also sounds like the real choice you give kids is that we either let them use invented spelling or we don't let them write at all. Wow, how honorable of you.

We can't test our way to a better education, nor can we bully kids to better learning, while our fixation on quantity and control continue to do a massive disservice for our children.

I hope you see Taylor Mali as the joke he really is. And Seth, I hope you can see it too.


  1. I have wondered so many times why this video clip appears so often on teachers' lists. I don't like it at all! But I do love what you have done with it :)Well done!!

  2. Taylor is an expert teacher at schooling kids... I sent this to my staff to get a reaction. We shall see how many people like it and are critical of it... may separate the schoolers from the educators.

  3. C. that's an a very sneaky way of diagnosing an educator!

    Scary thing is, even though I would no fit under the educator category, I would have been a schooler for the first 4 years of my career.

    Don't give up on the schoolers. Reform them. Teach them and they too can become educators.

  4. Hi there. I've just stumbled across your blog as this post appeared on my Facebook stream. Glad to have found it.

    I have had similar thoughts about Seth Godin. For someone who is pretty revolutionary about the way he approaches business ideas and entrepreneurship, he doesn't seem to be that rational or critical about how people learn (or don't learn) in a traditional, school type environment. Of course, the two are so directly related it's difficult to see why not.

    Did you ever see this post?

    I was never sure what to make of it, really.

  5. Taking a poets words literally...hmmm.

    He is mocking and making fun of the system and applauding those that overcome it's foolish policies to actually make a difference despite having to work in the confines of it.

    Please feel free to edit out the following...
    By the way, right now you blog is set-up to exclude folks from commenting unless they have google/word press accounts.

  6. THANK YOU, Joe! Every time I see this guy quoted by teachers, I can't help but cringe. He's bragging that he abuses dictatorial power in his classroom and we're supposed to be impressed? These are not accomplishments I would be proud of!

    I'd be interested in hearing more about how you made the switch from schooler to educator.

  7. As a writer and a teacher, I used to worry that my words would live beyond my learning, and that one day, I would be criticized out of context. I was right to worry--happens all of the time---especially online! : )

    One of my favorite writers once shared her reflections on similar problem. She mentioned that her readers often assume that she thinks and feels and lives the same way that she did decades ago...when she first crafted the piece of text that they read.

    This really resonated with me. I know that I wrote and taught and advocated for things long ago (and even recently) that I feel much differently about right now. Sure, there are things about this clip that make me cringe...but there are also things that make me smile. Truth be told, I always viewed this clip as a sort of homage to teachers in general...not to himself. Perhaps I'm wrong, though.

    At any rate, I hope we're all a work in progress. And I hope we can honor that in one another and engage in respectful criticism, regardless of how passionately we feel about something. Without that capacity, I'm thinking all is lost...especially now...when those who are loud and fast are those who are heard best and most often.

  8. Angela, I get what you are saying. The Internet makes what we say more today something that can be used against us tomorrow.

    We all change our mind. We all change.

    What Taylor Mali said then was assinine. I felt compelled to say something because teachers still pass around his poem and applaud. They applaud him for his passion and his message.

    I have no problem with his passion. I'm passionate about my beliefs, too. But Benito Mussolini was passionate too. Passion isn't enough. The content of our words can make our character. Taylor Mali's words then are a reflection of his character then.

    Has he changed? I don't know. I will look into it.

    In my first four years of teaching, I said and did some very stupid things. I openly admit that I was a bully then. Thankfully, I've changed my ways and improved my teaching craft. I can admit that. I wonder if Taylor Mali can?

  9. Hi Joe and thanks for this post.
    I was directed to Taylor Mali's website by another teacher in Greece about five years ago and I admit I was curious why she was raving so much about him (it was the smae teacher who told me she didn't really like kids and was in teaching for the holidays. Connections?).
    The disgust I felt as a person who teaches and especially because of his attitude towards students made me wonder: do the people who like him really not like their job, teaching? Because in my opinion, that is what it shows. Mali clearly despises teaching and thinks he is doing us a favor or entertaining us by mocking our profession and above all, the kids. I must say I was very happy when you said you would write a post about him.
    For those who do like him, okay, it is your opinion, but if you do not like teaching or kids, you better find something else to do. Teaching does not need you and neither do the kids.
    Thanks again Joe and continue the great work! I always enjoy your posts and find them so interesting!
    Kindest regards,

  10. Hi Joe, I was directed here by a comment on my page. I enjoyed your piece very much. I have seen Taylor Mali's poem a long time ago, but it was recently brought to my attention again and for some reason evoked very strong feelings. In fact, all week long I seem to be directed toward more and more news about school in general.

    In any case... I really enjoyed this as we seem to feel the very same way about this poem. Here's a link to my post.

  11. This was the first time I've heard this poem. I enjoyed reading your response. Sometimes students succeed despite the methods used to teach them. I agree that 40 minutes of silence in a classroom adds up to a lot of wasted instructional time. The comments also gave me, an aspiring educator, much to think about.

  12. Taylor Mali has not evolved. He repeated the same seemingly passionate incantation at the Bammy Awards ceremony on 9/15/12. It is not metaphor, it is not symbolism,it is not allusion or illusion: he celebrates the worst in teaching and somehow this makes many teachers feel good. IT is not. I've heard this rant of his several times before so while I was in the audience this weekend I wrote a blog post on my phone (and I hate typing on my phone) while he prattled on.

  13. We keynoted the same conference a few years ago and I could not believe how mean-spirited his most famous poem is. Others are likely to be authoritarian as well.

    Sadly, I suspect that is part of his appeal

  14. Hmm, thanks for MAKING me think about this poem more carefully than I have before. Hearing it again through your ears, I do pick up on a tone of authoritarianism that I missed before. So I revisited my initial take on it...

    Having seen Taylor do this at the Bowery Poetry Club in the context of slam poetry, I always interpreted that stanza about silent study halls, bathroom, etc. as genre-specific bravado, a nod to hip-hop swagger that points out the very real challenges of managing large groups of kids, not as necessarily an endorsement of silent study halls or authoritarianism - more of just, "hey, I can do this if I have to... could you even TRY?" For better or worse, these things are a reality of the job for many teachers.

    As for the parts about "I make them write, I make them apologize, etc." that you interpreted as forcing them to write/apologize/etc. and thereby killing their motivation, I heard it as a poetic use of parallelism, a play on the word "make," not a literal "making" of kids to do things. I have no idea what Mali's classroom culture is like - he might be forcing kids against their will, or he might be creating an environment where kids have choice and choose to read and write beyond their own initial expectations of themselves thanks to the way he's set up his classroom. He didn't put all that detail into a poem, instead using the word "make" repeatedly as a contrast to the initial question about "what do you make?"

    FWIW, in another poem (Miracle Workers) of his about teaching, which also includes passages that sound very authoritarian, he writes,

    And when they say, “What we meant to say
    was, ‘Will we be tested on this?’”
    I say, Every single day of your lives!

    I'm glad someone MADE me read and interpret poetry in high school! ;-)

  15. I typically agree with Joe. In fact, I quote this blog in my book, Role Reversal (ASCD February 2013). In my book, I propose a student-centered, Results Only Learning Environment, built on autonomy, collaboration and feedback.

    Having said this, have we teachers really become this cynical? I love Mali's poem. I laugh each time I see it. Do I want to deny kids collaboration or make them sit in silence? Of course not. Do some kids ask to go to the bathroom just to roam the school? Absolutely -- even in a class that is filled with interactivity and digital learning. Some kids need lots of coaching and the best class on the planet doesn't automatically engage them.

    I think Taylor Mali wants to make something out of kids. Isn't this what all good teachers want to do?

    Lighten up folks and laugh a bit. We all need it.

  16. Sorry Joe but you've got completely the wrong end of the stick. Mali's poem is not a recipe for effective education, it's not written as a guide to best practice in school. It's written to burst the bubble of the people who think the only guide to your worth as a person is how much money you earn, and it's written to inspire people as to the value that a good teacher has.

    Mali is utterly passionate about good education and good teaching, and I cannot conceive that hr would seriously believe in and advocate a return to Dickensian teaching methods of sitting in silence. It's called poetic licence, it's called hyperbole, it's about highlighting the difference between someone whose purpose is just to make money, and someone whose purpose is to make a better future.

  17. I also saw this poem performed and have read other things Mali has written. I am also a teacher. I believe the poem was written in response to someone making fun of the role of teachers. That seems like an important point to remember. I highly doubt that this guy runs (or ran) his classroom in some overly authoritarian way. I think he was commenting on how key the teacher can be, how powerful in the life of a kid. For better or worse, that is very true. Don't you think?

  18. hahaha I agree Taylor Mali sounded like a complete asshole during that rant. He tries to glorify teachers using by raising his voice and using bullshit fallacies but his pathetic attempt to glorify teaching does not change the fact that at the end of the day the education system sucks and most teachers are too fucking terrible at their jobs to be worth their meager salary. Before you read this and get pissed just remember that the shittyness of the education system is often to blame for the shityness of the teachers.

  19. This is literally the dumbest thing I've ever read. You break down everything into a literal sense, present everything in some ridiculously reductive sense, and then act like YOU know better. God, what a stooge.

  20. I've never been a fan of Mali. I don't understand why teachers revere his work, and you hit the nail on the head. I also hate is his white-dude superiority, speech-policing "Like Whatever," which Melissa Lozado-Olivia so awesomely responded to with her own "Like Totally Whatever."


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