Comic books and the fixes that shape our lives 

Hi. My name is Jim, and I’m a comic book nerd.

My childhood was an odd blend of library books, Matchbox cars, and comic books. It was the colorful battles of good versus evil in the pages of comic books that most captured my attention and imagination. 

Every nerd had a dealer, a place with colorful circular racks of comics that revealed new adventures with every squeaky turn.

My dealer of choice was aptly named County Drugs, an old-time corner pharmacy in Gateway Plaza in Jeffersonville that specialized in convenience and service. They knew me. I knew them. They had my titles. I could always get my monthly fix. 

It helped that County Drugs was in the same shopping center as another Lang family fix, Mario’s Pizza. My sister and I knew that a trip to Mario’s meant more than just pizza and sandwiches.  

For Suzanne, Mario’s provided the magical gift of jukebox music, a chance to dance freely around the restaurant to the tunes of Billy Joel and, I kid you not, Anne Murray, while awaiting our food. 

For me, though, Mario’s provided the perfect opportunity to sneak down to County Drugs to snatch up the latest Batman or Uncanny X-Men.

These are the moments that provide hints of who we will be. My sister’s future as an actress, theatre arts teacher, and arts lover began with her childhood dance recitals at Mario’s.

And my lifelong fascination with great storytelling began with Batman’s battles with the Joker, and the X-Men’s struggles with humanity. My monthly comic book fix shaped my love for reading and writing and led me to a high school journalism classroom, where my students’ reporting and storytelling about real people and events shape lives, too.

And now, while I still devour the heroic adventures of Batman and the X-Men like the true comic book nerd that I am, I’m just as hooked by the stories my student journalists report, write, and publish. In a world where truth often seems as incredible as a comic book story, the stories of teen journalists are as essential — as heroic — as the wildest superhero exploits. 

Too often we view our childhood “fixes” merely as distant memories, glimpses of our past selves long forgotten. In truth, though, these fixes – our habits, routines, and simple moments – impact who we are in unthinkable, unpredictable ways. They shape our lives.

They shape our stories. 

They help us shape others’ stories, too. 

Teacher Appreciation Week 2014: The Places I Loved and the Lessons I Learned in High School

by Jim Lang

The next four years Jeffersonville High School took me into the world of high school journalism, and thanks to Tony Willis, I never really left. To this day no educational experience has so thoroughly shaped me as a person and as a teacher as being a member of The Hyphen newspaper staff. I loved every minute of it.

I learned to write and report in Tony Willis’s classroom. I learned how to lead and listen, to rely on and value others. I learned how to work with my peers as a team and how to problem solve. And along the way I gained valuable friendships and experienced a love for scholastic journalism that guides virtually every decision I make in my own classroom today.

Mr. Willis’s newspaper room (it was always more than just a classroom) was my home for four years of high school. I carry the lessons I learned from him and my fellow Hyphen journalists to my own student journalists every day. He influenced me in a way that no other teacher ever has.

That’s what I remember the most about Jeffersonville High School – the incredible number of exceptional teachers who contributed so much to who I am today.

French teacher Jenni Herfel initiated my love for travel during a 20-day, 5-nation European class trip in 1985 that remains one of my favorite high school experiences. Traveling with Mrs. Herfel was just like learning in her classroom – it was a fun adventure.

Social studies teacher Margaret Shea taught me to love history and to think deeply, critically, and logically; to this day, I still love solving logic problems because of her European history class.

Government teacher Bill Wilson introduced me to my love for politics and government. English teachers Rita Blois and Judie Wortham continued to introduce me to authors and books that I loved. Reading was fun in their classes. Their colleague, Carolyn Carter, pushed me as a writer more than any English teacher ever has, and in doing so, sharpened my writing skills for college and beyond. Chemistry teacher Jim Kennedy was the strictest teacher I’ve ever had – I had to work every day to earn a “B” in his class. More than any teacher, Mr. Kennedy taught me how to study and to push beyond barriers to learn.

And then there was Jill O’Daniel. I spent three consecutive years in her French classes. Every day was fun. I confess I don’t remember a lot of high school French – Bonjour! Je m’appelle Jim! Aujourd’hui! Um, and oddly enough, Ferme la bouche! But French was just like journalism – project-based, interactive, and challenging. We used to create elaborate projects and posters using French terms. We all had French names – I was Jacques for three years. And perhaps most of all, I remember really enjoying learning with my fellow students. Ms. O’Daniel had this oddly sneaky way of always being prepared yet always placing the responsibility for our learning in our hands. She made me a better student, and in doing so, ultimately has made me a better teacher, too.

My high school years prepared me perfectly for life. Jeffersonville High School was a school full of special, dedicated teachers who worked every day to make a lasting impact in the lives of their students.

And here’s the thing. Don’t let the false rhetoric of education “reform” and misguided emphasis we now place on standardized tests and school-wide grades fool you – Jeffersonville High School is still filled with dedicated, incredibly talented educators. The names have changed. The challenges are different. But the dedication to the success of each child remains.

Thursday: A Special Place Defined by Two Special College Teachers

T-shirts, tornadoes, and other lessons we can learn from the Class of 2004

by Jim Lang

One of the fun parts of teaching high school is taking the occasional trip down memory lane to reminisce and laugh about the good ol’ days. It’s what we teachers do when we want to avoid grading the stacks of papers that clutter our desks or ignore the streams of data we’ve collected to demonstrate our highly effective status.

So, it was in the spirit of needing a few laughs that an English Department colleague and I spent a few minutes this week remembering – and laughing about – the Floyd Central Class of 2004.

Those who graduated from FC ten years ago will remember some of the reasons why that class remains etched so clearly in our memories. This was a class of students who could ace their tests while wearing the infamous “Real Men Are Measured In Yards” t-shirts. These kids were dedicated to service and helping others, yet still found the time to construct a wooden bell tower in the front of the school as a prank. This was the class that endured their six-hour graduation ceremony in the middle of a tornado by recording the entire event as a “news report” that included interviews and fake weather reports.

Yes, even in the face of impending doom the Class of 2004 was laughing. They were smart, generous, moral, creative, and yes, a little sneaky. They weren’t perfect – no class is — but more often than not, they managed to make a difference while still having fun. They were serious about their learning and commitments without taking themselves – or school – too seriously.

And perhaps that is why I remember that class so fondly. Because aside from the specific students in that class, that time – 2004 – represents a time when Hoosier educators also worked hard but refused to take school too seriously.

2004 was a time when we tested, but not too much. It was a time when we valued “competence” over “competition.” We collaborated and shared ideas without the need for prescribed professional development sessions. We trusted that a teacher was qualified, competent, and trained enough to make instructional and curricular decisions in his or her classroom without having to collect and record data or lesson plans into a template. We understood that academic growth and learning could – and should – be measured by means other than through test scores and data because too many of these “objective” numbers are easily manipulated and rarely tell a complete story.

And by the way, that is true of much of the data that seemingly demonstrates that our schools are more effective today than ten years ago.

Because here’s the truth from a veteran Hoosier educator – while much has changed since the Class of 2004 grabbed their diplomas in the midst of a tornado, many of our schools, while still special, rigorous, and incredibly effective, are not any more effective than they were ten years ago.

Today is a different time, and education in Indiana has drastically changed, largely due to the myriad of legislative changes that have forced schools to move in a different direction. We measure success differently now. We track scores. We worship numbers. We test more than ever.  We seemingly have an AP or IB class for every subject under the sun (except, apparently, for journalism and media, perhaps because we’ve been emphasizing those higher level critical thinking skills all along). We stress over lost time due to snow days because our students will not be sufficiently prepared for their ISTEP, AP, or IB tests. And this stress occurs partially because we now tie teacher and school effectiveness to student test scores, and partially because we test far too much.

We have been conned into believing the lie that improving standardized test scores and voluminous rows of steadily increasing numbers demonstrate academic rigor and success. We have been conned into equating “competition” with “success.” We have been conned into taking “school” more seriously than any true critical thinking or learning by our students. And my fear is that our students and their parents take “school” — this combination of test scores, class rankings, weighted grades, and grade-point averages — too seriously as well.

Of course, we educators have also bought into the con. We spend an astounding amount of time and energy simply documenting our “success” to remain “accountable” to our administrators, while those same administrators spend an astounding amount of time and energy documenting our schools’ “successes” to remain “accountable” to an intrusive state government that is too incompetent to even choose a set of academic standards for Indiana. Yes, we have become highly effective at jumping through hoops.

So, as I laughed about the Class of 2004 this week, I was laughing about more than just their ability to embrace the absolute fun of high school. I was also remembering a time when it was easier for me to do so, too.

There are those who would argue that education has improved so dramatically since 2004, that our schools perform better and that our students are more prepared and “college and career ready” than ever before. They’ll whip out their data spreadsheets or dramatically point to lists of improved test scores and arbitrary letter grades assigned by the state as proof of our success, as demonstrations of our rigor and accountability.

Highly effective hoop jumping at its best.

I’m not really a “numbers guy” – I never have been. When I measure my own success as a teacher, I think about who kids are when they enter my journalism or English classroom and who they are when they leave. If I have done anything to help them become the people they are destined to be, then I have been a successful teacher. And if they have impacted me or have somehow shaped my classroom or their school for the better, well, that’s real education – that’s real rigor. It really is that simple. And I can tell you that my students were as prepared ten years ago as they are today, and that I was as “effective” then as I am now. This is true of most educators. The only real “change” has been how we choose to define and measure success.

It’s important to measure success – and it’s important to be accountable – but not at the expense of also enjoying learning. So while some claim we’re better or more effective now, I reflect back to 2004 and argue that our schools are not better – they’re just remarkably different. And while others may point to arbitrary sets of numbers to prove their point, I’ll point to the Class of 2004 to prove mine.

The Class of 2004 was as “college and career ready” as the Class of 2014 soon will be. Their successes in furthering their educations, finding careers, starting families, and shaping their communities as much as they did Floyd Central speak for themselves. And while I am certain that the Class of 2014 will be just as successful and just as special, I also know they will not be more so.

So, while we continue to debate how to improve our schools, we could learn a valuable lesson from the Class of 2004 – that it is as important to enjoy and laugh about the high school experience as it is to learn, and that the value of real learning cannot ever truly be measured.

Because at the end of the day, if you can laugh your way through a tornado, you can conquer any other challenge that high school is supposed to prepare you for.