Thursday, April 30, 2009
They picked a nice assortment of poems. Shel Silverstein is always a favorite; Langston Hughes was very popular; there were a couple Dickinsons and Frosts, too. Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Ruth Foreman were all represented. I was glad that many chose from our common texts; it was nice to revisit those poems through the students' eyes. Several kids used poems that they had written this year, and that made me happy, too.
Near the end of the day, one student stood to read her selection. She turned to the class and smiled. "This was one of my favorite poems this year," she started. "I picked it because I like it." Then she read a poem that I had written and shared with the class about our school. It was an odd moment for me. To be in the company of those other poets, no matter how fleeting, and to hear my words in her voice was so moving that, when she finished, I realized I'd been holding my breath. And it may have been that, but it could also have been the applause from the other students that made me feel light-headed and a little giddy.
"Thank you, Ana," I said. "For that, you can have two lollypops."
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
I truly appreciate these gestures and the others like them. I care for my students, and I'm touched when they respond in kind. In general, I feel that I have a pretty positive relationship with most of them. It hasn't always been that way, though. When I first started teaching, probably the most common advice I got was to remember that I wasn't there to be their friend. That nugget was always followed by the corollary, They don't have to like you as long as they respect you.
The truth is that when you live by those rules you're likely to have some pretty nasty interactions with the kids. (Think "An Officer and a Gentleman" "tough love" and "you'll thank me later".) In my career, I've been written about in sharpie on the bathroom wall, disparaged in the lunchroom loudly enough that an administrator would take note, and called a "fat bitch" on the first day of school, in addition to all those students who just didn't like me. In the beginning, I dismissed it as "their problem," and refused to take it personally. I didn't refuse to show my anger, however, and there were kids in every class that pushed my buttons and drove me crazy. In retrospect, I'm sure that was a lot more fun for them than learning English. Eventually, I realized that if I didn't allow them to provoke me, it was much easier to handle.
Five years ago, I was a mentor to an experienced teacher who was new to our school and new to middle school, too. Early on, I advised her not to take anything the students say about you to heart. Remember that they are children at a temperamental age, and what they think today will probably be different tomorrow. By that, I meant to let things go, never hold grudges, and try to let each day be a new day. I still think that's good advice, but I've grown to believe that we must at least listen to the complaints the students have about us, because there are two sides to every story, and if a kid doesn't like you, there's something wrong, and it will be better for everyone if you can fix it. Don't take it personally, but do take it seriously.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
And so, on a sunny morning in late May, instead of overseeing the sharpening of number two pencils and the bubbling of birth dates, middle initials, and test form numbers, I boarded a subway train bound for destiny-- Ken Jennings, look out. I confess that I was nervous; I had no idea what to expect. I found my way to the hotel, arriving ten minutes early. I joined a crowd of about 30 people milling around the lobby, silently sizing up the competition, or so it seemed to me until their tour guide called to them in German, and they left to board the bus out front. It was only then that I saw the tiny sign with white letters pressed into narrow rows of black felt and a miniature arrow pointing to a marble staircase leading down.
My palm stuck a little on the tarnished brass banister. At the foot of the steps, I saw a line of people waiting outside a plain white door. They really were checking out their opponents-- looking closely at everyone, asking probing questions. Silently, I took my place at the end of the line. As we waited, I overheard that for several people this was their second, or even third, audition. I also found out that most people had to travel a long way to get to this try out. My anxiety hopped up a level or two. Exactly at the appointed hour, the white door swung open and we were called in. I knew that Alex Trebec was in town for another gig, but when I stepped into that basement hotel meeting room, I knew he was nowhere near the place. They took Polaroid pictures of each of us, and then we sat at rows of folding tables facing a collapsible screen like the one my uncle used to show his super-8 movies on.
They gave each of us a Jeopardy logo pen and a pep talk about personality and the importance of constant clicking to be sure you ring in. We took another written test, and this time I wasn't quite as confident as I had been that night several months ago when I sat down and banged out the answers to their 50 questions in about eight minutes. They asked us to provide three personal anecdotes, and I tried to imagine Alex Trebec asking me about mine: "Someone told me that you once cooked a meal for the Queen of England? Tell me about that." There was also the live part of the audition where we competed against two others and we were rated on accuracy and telegenics. When they asked me what I might do with any money I won, I said I wanted to take my nephews to Loch Ness to find the monster, and they seemed to like that, but it was hard to tell.
It was over quickly, and they said that they would be in touch if there was a spot for us. Our names would stay on file for about a year, and if we didn't hear by then, we were welcome to try out again. Back at school the next day, I asked the kids how their test went, and most shrugged. "Who knows?" said one. I nodded, empathetically.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Today a colleague, who is also a parent and wishes to remain anonymous (they all do when it comes to lice) told me how she spent the whole weekend delousing her children. She even called the Lice Lady. For 60 bucks an hour, the Lice Lady comes to your house with her special tools and combs gently and thoroughly through each family member's hair, giving a damage assessment and dispensing expert advice on completely ridding your home of these alarming parasites.
The Lice Lady told my friend to use the natural remedy instead of the harsher more common ones-- just drench your hair and scalp with the oily lavender-based concoction, and then wrap it in plastic for three hours! She also shared her anecdotal observation that when a family is infested, very rarely does the dad ever have lice. (Draw your own conclusions about that.) Oh, and lice LOVE clean hair, so there goes that myth of only the slovenly succumbing.
Honestly? My head itches just writing about it, and I won't fool myself that I'm immune, because according to the Lice Lady, anyone can get lice, and once you have 'em, you're in for loads and loads of laundry and weeks of nit-picking, and she should know-- lice are her business, and business is good.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Every summer, we take my nephews to Maine for a week. The place we rent is an old fisherman's house right on Eastern Bay across from Mount Desert Island. It has a porch that wraps around three sides in the back. There must be eight Adirondack chairs all lined up looking out over that half-acre lawn down to the mussel beach, across the bay, and right up to Sargent Mountain, the second highest peak in Acadia National Park. I have the same view from the bed I sleep in each year, and I can't help thinking that it wouldn't be a bad place to draw your last breath, provided that the windows were open, and the morning marine mist had burnt off, and the sun, or at least the moon, was shining on the mountain across the way.
Every day when we're there we have porch time. In the beginning it was Aunt Tracey declaring forced togetherness: join me on the porch boys; you won't regret it, but if you do, please keep it to yourself. For less than an hour we would all sit on those chairs and read, or draw, or play guitar, or write, or, okay, Josh was allowed to pound wiffle balls into the yard, but that was his way of communing with himself and the place and the rest of us, which was all I wanted, and what made the whole trip worth it. It wasn't long, though, before I'd take my notebook and some coffee out there and through the screen I'd hear one of the boys ask another, "Is it porch time?" and the Adirondack chairs would fill.
Back home, I missed porch time, and last year the end of vacation coincided with my desire to re-introduce a common "circle time" at the beginning of most classes to my sixth graders. Nancie Atwell famously has a rocking chair, and I wanted something like that in my classroom, too, so when I walked into World Market and saw their Adirondack chairs on clearance, I knew what I should do.
We don't call it porch time in my class, but it's as close as I can manage inside four walls, miles from any ocean or mountain. It's a time and place to share our reading, writing, and thoughts, and I think it goes a long way toward building community with my students, and to be honest, there are times when the view from that chair is just as breath-taking or more so than the one from that porch in Maine.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
We knew from prior school-home communication that Mom talked a tough game about her expectations for her daughter, but we were concerned because there didn't seem to be a lot of follow through. In addition, I knew from a writing piece this student had done, that her mother had been a teen parent. In a poignant profile, the student had told how her mother had become pregnant, gone through the teen-parenting program, and, at fifteen, had given birth to her. Then, she had returned to high school, graduated with her class, worked full time and earned a community college degree. Now married with two younger children, this twenty-seven-year-old candidly warned her daughter against making the same mistakes that she had. She framed her advice in terms of wanting her daughter to be able to enjoy being a kid, something she herself had missed.
But what a fine line to walk as a parent-- wanting to warn the daughter you gave birth to at fifteen against messing up in school and making other bad choices, but without making her feel as if she were somehow a liability or a mistake. And from the daughter's perspective, how seriously could she take such a warning, when the woman who is giving it, the mother she loves and respects more than anyone, is strong and successful despite the choices she made? The ambiguity of this dynamic seemed to shade all of their interactions as they sat with us at the conference table.
The student cried and admitted that she wasn't doing what she should, and then she promised to be more responsible. Her mother, dry-eyed, was predictably angry and disappointed. The student said she knew what her mother expected, and that she would do her best not to let her down again. I could tell that they were both sincere, as we were, too, in the desire to help this girl be more successful in school, but as they left, I understood what a powerful role model her mother was for this student, and I wondered how her words could ever outweigh her actions.
Friday, April 24, 2009
The school bookkeeper, her husband, and four-year-old granddaughter paused a moment before I waved them on in. "We have a favor to ask," she told me, then crossed her arms, raised her eyebrows, and cut her eyes at her husband.
"Can I move in with you?" he asked. There was silence, and then they all started laughing.
"Good one!" his wife said. "I did not see that coming."
"You know we have an extra room," I laughed, too, after only the briefest of hesitations, "any time you need it."
"Naw," he said, "but what I do need is some help with this here statistics homework."
I love math. In fact, I almost think I love it too much to be any kind of a good math teacher. When I was in school, math was always the dessert of my homework, and so I agreed to try and help him, even though I never actually took statistics.
He kissed his wife and granddaughter good-bye, and we sat down at one of the tables in my room. When I first looked at the 10 page assignment he showed me, I almost sent him away. The two problems on the first page included a paragraph each of incomprehensible jargon and 40 random double-digit numbers. There were phrases like "frequency table" "data set" and "classes of five starting with ten." I guess I couldn't hide the uh oh, because he was super-apologetic and showed me his indecipherable notes on the power point outline he had. This was an open admissions college class, and he told me that they were on their third instructor before the mid-term. "When is this due?" I asked him.
"Tonight," he sighed. "I don't know what I was thinking taking a full load of classes and trying to work, too." he said. He was a carpenter, and it turned out that he would get a raise at work and a shot at a promotion once he earned a college degree, and since the family could use the extra money, he wanted to get it done as fast as he could, so he was enrolled for 12 credit hours. Monday through Thursday, his day started at 4:30 AM when he got up for work and didn't end until way after 9:30 PM when his class was over. He tried to get his homework done on the weekend and in between work and the time when his class started.
"Do you have the book?" I asked him. And so we figured it out together, I consulting the index and the examples in the text, he using his notes and telling me what he remembered from the three teachers he'd had. Side by side we sat, me and this gigantic tattooed ex-con of a guy who smelled really, really good, and whose fingers were way too big for the calculator keys. As we worked, I realized that the stuff that was easiest for me to do was the hardest to explain to him, and I filed that away under, "in your face master teacher," to be taken out and examined at another time.
We were getting close to finishing, and I had the sense that he had stopped trying to understand a while ago-- he was going to be late for class, and all he wanted were some numbers on the page. "I wish I cared about this stuff," he said, "but I just don't." Still, he kept working, and I thought about this guy the way I think about my students sometimes. There was a tangible reward for him to take this class, and so he was compliant, but I knew that he wasn't really learning the material-- it was important, but not relevant. I wondered about the objectives of his employer, of the college, of that third instructor. Why were they putting him through these paces? What did they want? And when on earth did they think that those boxes and whiskers and stems and leaves would ever be of value to him?
Thursday, April 23, 2009
I don't know what I was doing-- picking up papers the kids had left behind, shutting down the lap top that goes with the projector, returning a book to its shelf in my classroom library, something common and teacher-y enough, and her surprise took me by surprise. What does she mean by that? Do I really spend that much time at my desk? What if I do? All these questions occurred to me as I made my way back to my desk to sit down after she had gone.
I spun my comfy office chair around and looked out the window as I considered her words. In a moment or two, I swiveled back to my computer, checked my e-mail, sent a couple of quick replies, and then continued working on the student report I had started earlier. I needed to check my desk calendar, and my eyes fell on all the brightly colored post-its that make up my organizational system. I peeled a couple of them up and tossed them in the recycling bin next to me, satisfied that I had completed their charges.
I don't get a lot of desk-time when the students are there; I don't know many teachers who do. My teaching day starts at 7:40 and I teach straight through to 12:45, with 35 minutes for lunch. When my last class leaves my room for PE and electives, it's like a second job starts. There are meetings and phone calls and e-mails and paperwork and an assortment of little questions from counselors and colleagues. Then there's the grading and the planning. It's a lot to do, but I love my job, and I work hard to get it done. Personally, I think sitting at my desk helps.
The truth is, though, that there's really an infinite amount of work to be done in teaching. I could work 100 hours a week and still think of things I might do that would further benefit my students. When you can put an actual child's face to your labor, it's awfully hard to find the boundary between all-I-could and not-quite-enough.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
God Says Yes To Me
By Kaylin Haught
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
Before I planned the lesson and made the copies, I asked one of my most trusted teacher-friends what she thought about my teaching it. Even though I love the poem, I was second-guessing myself on account of any religious controversy it might stir. I really wanted to use it as an example of humorous poetry, because our April writing contest is to write a funny poem. In light of that competition, we've read several silly poems in class, but I wanted to talk about a different kind of humor with them, the kind that comes when you turn the conventional on its ear in a silly and playful way.
My friend replied that maybe it would be best if I didn't "teach" the poem so much as "use" it in my class, and by that I think she meant that it wouldn't be wise for me to agree or disagree with what the speaker in the poem says, but I could help my students construct their own meaning from it. In my opinion, this is the most authentic way to teach literature, but I confess that often I get caught up in sharing my own interpretation of whatever we're reading with my students, and it usually overshadows their own.
So today I was more cautious than usual in allowing the students to lead the class discussion on our text, and it went great. They had a lot of questions and comments, but together they figured it out. There were a couple common threads from the conversations in each class, but by far the main one was the fact that there were always four or five kids who couldn't get past the fact that God is female in this poem. "That's just wrong," one student told the group. "Everyone knows God is a guy."
"How can you be sure?" another kid asked.
"Hel-lo! He has a beard!" she answered.
In another class, a few boys argued that the poem was offensive, because it's insulting to God to call him a girl. That didn't go over well with the girls in the group. They wondered why being female would be insulting to anyone, and a spirited discussion ensued. The boys recovered, claiming that it wasn't being female that was the insult, it was being called a girl when you weren't, and then we were back to what do we really know about God, anyway?
One boy could not let it go, and he turned to me, as if I had the final word. "I hear what you're saying about the Bible," I ventured, "but it is a work of faith and not fact. Its truth lies with the believer."
His cheeks were pink from the debate. "Just wait! When you get to heaven," he told me, and silently I thanked him for assuming that I would make it there, "I am going to take you to God and say I told you so!"
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Many of the kids I bump into are cashiers, and so, long ago, I had to get over any hang-ups about having them scan and bag my personal items. I don't think knowing that I may run into students or parents changes the way I behave when I'm out; I'm a pretty demur person to begin with (in public, anyway), but I'm shy, so even after all these years, there's still a little turtle impulse that makes me want to hide or pretend I don't see them. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. When I'm the next person in line at Target, and we've already made eye-contact, there's some small talk a-comin'.
How different this interaction was from the one on Saturday: this guy called me by name right away, and I recognized him at once; his face hadn't lost its sixth grade softness. "How old are you, now?" I asked him, and he told me he was 20. He was from the same class that the other boy was from, but if I were ever to wish middle school amnesia on someone, he would have been a good candidate. He was so often in trouble for not doing his work and challenging the teachers' authority. Even so, I had to ask him, "Do you remember sixth grade?"
"Yep," he answered, "I do."
"But only the good stuff, right?" I resorted to humor.
"Well... not so much, actually," he answered honestly. "Those were some tough times."
"Yeah," I acknowledged.
"But I'm doing great now," he continued. "I've finished a couple years of college. I'm going to transfer to Georgetown." His voice was hearty, but there was something in his manner that made me doubt him. It reminded me of so many conversations we'd had. Oh yeah, my homework's done. I just don't have it with me. Still I was moved by this offering; he was trying to give me proof of his success, his redemption. I wanted to absolve him, absolve us both from that painful and unsuccessful stretch he did in middle school, but our transaction was over, and there was a line behind me.
"I'm so glad to hear it," I told him. "Take care."
"Did you find what you needed?" he said to the next customer as I pushed my cart away.
Not really, I thought.
Monday, April 20, 2009
After brainstorming and freewriting and discussing, each student had identified an issue, and the next step was to research, particularly because one of my objectives was to encourage them to understand the problem before jumping to a solution. This is an idea that I have come lately to, because I am a problem-solver from way back. If something is wrong, I want to fix it right away and move on. I don't think I'm alone in this approach. Think about it; when a friend tells you she's tired, what's your response? If you're like me, it's to offer at least a half-dozen suggestions: Maybe you should go to bed earlier? Take a nap? Get some exercise? Cut back on caffeine? See a doctor? Tell your husband to get up with the kids next time? Usually, I'm all about the end game instead of looking at the big picture.
True, any one of my ever-so-excellent suggestions might be the answer to my friend's dilemma, but should she go by trial and error hoping to find the cure? Maybe if she took a bit more time to define the problem, the chances of finding a lasting solution would be greater, and in that case, to be a good and helpful friend, perhaps I could listen more carefully and ask questions before offering my litany of fixes. That's what I'm encouraging my students to do, too.
At the end of the pre-writing stage, they had an assortment of valid concerns ranging from gum under the table to global warming, but there was one problem that I simply could not accept. There are too many dumb shows on TV. Come on, I thought, just change the channel or read a book. What's the big deal? And I made that student use her second choice, because old habits die hard. At least that's what I realized later, when I tried to understand why I was troubled by my decision (but before I resolved to fix it by letting that student pursue her TV topic).
Sunday, April 19, 2009
It's a good movie, and I saw it with two other teachers. All three of us are white, and we were properly outraged at the injustice depicted in the film. On the way home, we started talking about our African-American students, because at our schools, these kids are disproportionately represented when it comes to discipline. In the movie, the D.A. (who is ultimately unmasked as racist) is asked why, if African-Americans constitute less than half of the population of the county, they represent 85% of the drug convictions. "I guess they're just the ones using the drugs," he answers.
This is similar to what teachers say when asked about the discipline stats at our school. Those are just the kids who misbehave-- if a white kid acted like that, I'd write him up, too. I don't mean to imply intentional racism on the part of me and my colleagues, but I do think that we must be vigilant of our own biases and how they impact our students. Perhaps what we find tolerable and manageable is influenced by our culture and experience. What is considered to be youthful exuberance in one setting becomes disruptive behavior in another, and students who have little reason to trust established authority may not respond as quickly to our redirection as we would like. Because most of our teachers are white, such a dynamic might explain the inequity in discipline referrals.
As teachers, we cannot afford to be defensive; the stakes are too high. I once noticed a sign on a classroom wall that read, "An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it." That's good advice for us all.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
"No, but how do you know me? What did you teach me?" Now it was my turn to be puzzled. Hadn't he initiated this conversation with me? But I told him, and he nodded. "You seemed a lot taller when I was in sixth grade," he said.
"But otherwise, I look exactly the same, right?" I teased him.
"To tell you the truth," he said, "I barely remember you." He furrowed his brow before he went on. "I think it was your voice or your mannerisms or something that seemed familiar." My chagrin, as mild as it was, clearly registered, because he hurried to continue, "I don't remember anything about sixth grade," as if that were a little better.
He only confirmed something that a colleague and I were talking about just the other day. We pour our hearts into these kids, worry about their educational experience every day and in every class, and in the end, most of them don't even have any conscious memory of it. "Think about," I'd said to her, "What do you remember from sixth grade?" She shrugged in agreement.
I told Adam as much, too, and again his eyebrows showed that he was thinking about it. "Maybe it's like bricks in a building," he said. "You can't see all of them, but they're important. I think you definitely helped make me who I am today, even if we're not sure how."
Well, I did teach him simile.
Friday, April 17, 2009
These were the words of one of my homeroom students today as he spoke to me, his mom, and the counselor. He wasn't in school this morning, and it turned out that he had had a huge anxiety attack last night, brought on by a math quiz he felt unprepared for. When his mom e-mailed us about the incident, the counselor invited the two of them in at lunchtime to talk, and there we were.
He's definitely not a run of the mill kid. He is a straight-A student, serious (perhaps overly so) about his grades, and a superior athlete in a sport no one else in our school participates in. He came from a Montessori program, and there is only one other child from his fifth grade class at our school. His transition to middle school has been rocky, and this is the latest in a series of concerning events, and now he wants his mom to home school him.
There are other issues, too, but the stark truth of this remark is what I carried with me from the meeting. Not concerned about buddies to laugh and hang out and study with, all this kid wants is a place to sit in the lunchroom. It's not that hard to see why the other students might be reluctant to reach out to him. It's for the same reason he himself expressed when the counselor told him that sometimes it's easier to make friends when you have at least one. "Not if people think your one friend is weird," he said.
This is the part of middle school that I have the hardest time with. We tell them it's okay to be themselves even if they're different; we try to teach them to be tolerant and accepting of others, but they don't believe us, and they don't listen. Why? Because it really isn't okay to be different in middle school. The social, the emotional and the developmental all collide to compel conformity, and, most often, all we adults can do is clean up the wreckage and bind up the wounds.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
At 14, I was sent off to boarding school with the other ex-patriot children of my age. No western teens were allowed to live in the Kingdom full time, bad influence, don't ya know. My school was in Switzerland, and I cannot complain. As part of our curriculum, "in-program travel," we all signed up for short trips to all sorts of European destinations. And so, in the spring of my junior year, I went on a bike trip to the south of France.
It was gray and rainy for the first part of the trip as we made the hard ride across the mountains of Provence. The grass was brilliant green from the season, from the rain, from the light. We rode in twos and threes and made frequent stops to fuel up on an international combo of Swiss chocolate, fromaggio bel paese and baguette. As I pedaled on a rare flat stretch of road, I was literally stopped by the most wonderful fragrance. It was sweet and light and reminded me of... something. Something I knew, but couldn't place. I looked around, unable to go on until I found what it was.
There by a narrow two-story yellow house, grew a bush that spread out like a bouquet beside the road. Its branches were heavy with clusters of light purple flowers. "Lilac!" I whispered to myself. Just then, a boy on the trip caught up to me and stopped to see if I was okay. "Those flowers," I told him, "we had them in my yard when I was a kid." Without a word, he got off his bike and climbed the stone wall that separated the garden from the road and broke a branch from the top of the Lilac and gave it to me and then rode on before I could even say thank you.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
To me, teaching and learning can never be mutually exclusive. No matter what I may be doing in my classroom, if my students are not learning, I can't call my actions "teaching." You can bet I'm trying really, really, really hard to teach, but without that learning thing, I'm not quite meeting the mark. I once read an example of this concept. If I try to teach my dog to sit on command, but she doesn't do it, can I fairly say I've taught her? No.
So what is teaching then? Where's the metaphor that best describes it? Another proverb that is often posted on classroom walls is Teaching is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire. I like that one a little bit more; I like the image of igniting that passion for learning in the hope that it will continue burning after you're gone. It seems to put all the onus on the teacher, though. Where's the student in that one?
Anyway. After some serious thought, the adage that I currently favor to explain my philosophy of teaching is this one: When the student is ready, the master will appear.
I imagine my colleagues wondering what our responsibility is to students who are not ready. As public school teachers, we cannot choose our students, and neither can we change them, so I suppose in response I would say that we must do our best to be the teachers our students are ready for.
Therefore, I believe it is my responsibility to frame my instruction in terms of what my students want and need to know about their writing and reading right now, to be relevant and responsive to them, so that even if I am not personally the master they are ready for, I can help them to find the mentor they need. Who knows? Their "master" may be a book or a poem or another student-- it is whatever resource that they can use to better communicate the message they want to deliver. How can they not be ready for that?
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
There. It's out. I don't really feel any better, but let me explain. I just don't have the attention span to read books anymore. I'm not sure where it went; when I was a kid I read avidly. Now, I start lots of books, and I skim tons of books, so that I can discuss them intelligently with my students, and I certainly read all sorts of articles, both in print and on the internet, but I just don't read many books all the way through.
Of course, in my profession, I am surrounded by readers, and I have learned to dread the question, "Have you read it?" because I won't lie, but I will allow people to assume that I have read whatever it is we're discussing. My family reads, too. My mother and brother always find time in their busy lives to read a kazillion books; how, I don't know. I have a student this year who reads at least 4 or 5 books a week, and today she came in after spring break with Little Women. " I read that when I was in sixth grade!" I told her. "Did you love it? Don't read Little Men next-- you'll only be disappointed." It was a great conversation, and it reminded me that I want to read, I really do. I want to recapture that feeling I remember so well from when I was a girl, curled up in the green chair, pounding through book after book, lost in the story and the setting and the characters.
One strategy I use to up my page count (so to speak) is to listen to audiobooks. Often, they will get me hooked, and since I don't really have that much time to listen (my commute is eight minutes, if there's heavy traffic), I lose patience and go ahead and finish the book. That's what happened with both the Twilight and City of Ember series. I try to find unabridged recordings of books read by the author, which is usually an intense and magical experience, even apart from my non-reading ways. Most recently, I listened to The Kite Runner on a roadtrip to and from Atlanta over spring break. Here's what I wrote to my friend, Leah, about it:
We spent yesterday barreling through the Carolinas, listening to The Kite Runner. My eyes were on I-85, crossing the Tugaloo River and changing lanes to avoid somebody's clothes that were strewn across the road for miles (did a suitcase open in the back of a pick-up, or did someone throw them out the window, maybe in the heat of an argument, just to make their point?), but my mind was in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Kabul, the Khyber Pass, Peshawar and Islamabad, wondering how Amir would ever find redemption.
About thirty miles out of town, I called to order take-out from the Afghan restaurant. We picked it up on the way home and then sat at our dining room table eating mantu, palau, sabzi, and kadu, and listened to the last thirty minutes. For you, a thousand times over.
Wow. What a great book. But have I read it?
Monday, April 13, 2009
I recognized that it took a lot of courage to approach the wounded me: It could have been very unpleasant, but it wasn't. We passed the seven hours in polite small talk. In fact, the thing I remember most about our conversation on that trip was when she told me about a new TV show that she and her husband were hooked on. "You would really like it, Tracey. It's called Survivor." It took her a few minutes to explain the premise of the show... reality TV was in its infancy, and I had never heard of these strangers marooned, by choice, evidently, on a deserted island in the Pacific.
She was right. I did like the show-- the mixture of conniving, false alliances, physical strength, and sheer force of will was riveting. I still watch today, although I confess that there comes a point in every season where I declare my hatred for the show and its premise, and I swear I'll never watch again. It's ageist. It's sexist. It's racist. Contestants are forever getting their feelings bruised by others who excuse their hurtful behavior by insisting that it's just a game or that there are a million reasons why they've done what they have. There's no such thing as trust in Survivor. It's not fair. It never turns out the way I want it to. Still, I watch.
I think one of my strengths as a teacher is in recognizing a good lesson when I see it. Websites, books, presentations, professional development, you name it, if there's half a good idea there, I can find the value in it, adapt it, and use it to help my students learn.
Here's where this story ends: We got off the bus in the warm, golden light of an early June evening. Tired and happy, our students dispersed like seeds from a dandelion, floating across the parking lot to their waiting parents, murmurs on the breeze about the trip, the ship, the ocean, the dolphins, all the things they would never forget. A few days later, Leila cleaned out her classroom and moved her stuff to her new school.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
That was me when Leila left my room one Friday afternoon in the early spring of that year. She had applied for a job at another school. Her interview was the next week, but she was pretty confident she'd get the position. She didn't want me to hear it from anyone else. She'd been unhappy in her job for a while now, and this change seemed like what she needed.
Disappointed. Hurt. Angry. Confused.
That was me the more I thought about it. After all those years of waiting, we finally had our own team, and now she was leaving. Why? And just what sort of change was she looking for, anyway? She had applied to teach the exact same thing, but at one of the north county schools.
That was me whenever I was around Leila after that, which was as little as I could manage and still do my job. "Just give her time," I heard one of our colleagues whisper to her as I gathered my things immediately after adjourning our team meeting, and left the room, head down.
Never in my whole career had I been without Wes or Leila on my team. What was I going to do without them?
Saturday, April 11, 2009
The failings of our students were a different matter, though. Leila really struggled with the students who didn't do as they should. When kids don't do what they're "supposed" to do, there are only so many places a teacher can put the blame: Is it the students? Their parents? Or is it, somehow, you?
Once I was keeping a student from P.E because he hadn't done his work. I was frustrated, and he was furious, and he looked me dead in the eye, his own eyes bright with tears, and he shook his head and told me that it that didn't matter what I did, I couldn't make him do anything he didn't want to do, and at that moment, I understood he was right.
How different he was than I was when I was a kid: I did what I was asked because I was afraid to get in trouble. That wasn't the case with many of our students. I'll never forget the first time I called home and had a parent hang up on me, nor the first conference where I heard a parent say, "I don't know what to do; he just doesn't listen." Often we found ourselves in a losing game of escalating consequences.
Add all of that to the fact that we weren't the kind of teachers who threw candy bars at our students when they did what they should; we believed in intrinsic motivation and right for right's sake. We wanted our students and their parents to do what they should because it was the right thing to do, and when they didn't, it was maddening. We complained to each other and did our best to problem-solve, but at the end of the school day, I guess I just dismissed it as another of the challenges of the job, but Leila had a hard time letting it go.
Friday, April 10, 2009
That is an overall picture of our success, and you would think that it would be an accurate depiction of all the schools in our district, as small as we are. But in the 8.14 miles it takes to make it from the northernmost school in our county to the southernmost, the difference in ethnic, racial and socio-economic demographics is startling, and so, not surprisingly, there is a discrepancy in test scores as well.
The perception that the north-county schools are somehow better because of their superior test scores stings a little to those of us who work in the more diverse, less affluent neighborhoods. There is an underlying sense of elitism that we resent, even though teachers all over the county debate about which type of student is more challenging-- those with over-involved parents or those who would probably benefit from some more parent support. Many times, throughout my career, I've had people tell me how admirable I am to work with the population I do, and when those words come from fellow educators, they are often followed by, "I don't know how you do it... I just want to teach, y'know?" as if what I'm doing is somehow more or less than that.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
There were the usual disagreements about field trips and activities, some conflict about student schedule changes, different philosophies of discipline and consequences. Did we try to implement some consistent behavior and homework policies across the team? Maybe so; I honestly don't remember, but if we did, we were not successful. Another true thing about teaching, especially in our district, is that teachers have a lot of autonomy, especially when the door is closed, and they don't give it up easily. Once again, there were some strong personalities on the team, Leila and the math teacher often went head-to-head, but now the hands that were full with keeping the peace were mine. It turned out that I wasn't the type of leader to lay down the law and coerce my teammates to go along. I wanted consensus, and when people didn't agree with me, I was surprised to discover that I was willing to compromise.
I assume the kids that year were challenging; I know they weren't any easier than usual, but, again, nothing stands out in my mind. I do know this: One time Leila and I were discussing classroom management. She was telling me about a book she had read in which the author had described four distinct management styles. The one she was drawn to was well-defined, with rules and consequences specific and clear. Another was called "with-it-ness", or something like that, where there were minimum formal guidelines and the teacher relied on her own awareness of what was happening in the room and her subsequent judgment. "I think I'm with-it-ness," I laughed, to which Leila readily agreed, and the conversation ended there, but I wonder now if that was a clue to a big difference between us.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
That first month was filled with promise and opportunity. In one of our very first team meetings, Leila proposed changing the name of our team from the High Flyers to the Dolphins, and that seemed like a perfect inaugural gesture and the prelude to all we hoped to accomplish. For years we had gritted our teeth whenever the students had asked why we had to be the High Flyers when the other sixth grade team had a cool name like the Turbo Tigers, and we quickly grew tired of being forced to defend a lame nickname that we had had no part in choosing. "Seriously?" we'd ask each other, "What the hell is a high flyer anyway?" The other team had ferocious predators or cute images of Hobbes the tiger as their mascots, and we were stuck with random airplanes, hot-air balloons and the occasional UFO as our symbols. Plus, there was the unfortunate association of illegal intoxication when using "high" as an adjective. Unanimously, the team jumped in favor of the name change.
As far as the personnel changes that year, there were a couple of interesting ones: the Dolphins became the home to our school's Category II Special Education Class-- a self-contained program for severely cognitively impaired kids-- so their teacher was on our team, and in addition to her, the science teacher who had so abruptly left our team after my first year, the one Leila had been hired to replace, rejoined us as the math teacher. That gave us two more strong women who did not hesitate to speak their minds.
(yes, there's more on the way, but we're getting close)
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
There are many adages that try to delineate the roles and responsibilities of teacher and pupil. One that our school adopted for a time was a Chinese proverb, "Teachers open the door, but students must pass through on their own." We all had it hung on our classroom walls in an attempt to encourage our students to accept their part in their education, and even though there were many days when it felt like I was gesturing toward a deserted entryway (anyone? anyone? open door right this way...) I held on to that as a sound metaphor for what we do.
At the end of that year, our team leader took another position in the building, and the math teacher who had been her main ally in our team disputes left also, and the way was finally clear for Leila and I to pursue the changes we had talked about for so long.
(But what happened next?)
Monday, April 6, 2009
All of that was a distant second concern to what was going on in our classrooms, anyway. Once inside with the door closed, it was easy for me to forget any disagreements we may have had when the students weren't around. Teaching was my first priority, and we had some tough kids that year. What do I mean by tough? Well, over half of our students were on free or reduced lunch, and, at that time, the school was about 30-30-30% Black, Hispanic, White, and 10% Asian or other. Over 20% of our student body was special education, and at least 25% were second language learners. Even so, those kids I considered "troubled" cut across all those lines. They didn't have much in common, except that they didn't like school in general, and they didn't like my class in particular.
How many students is it acceptable to give up on? To cut your losses on, say you've done more for than can be expected (because, likely, you have), chalk up your failure to reach them to their laziness or lack of family support or a personality difference? To justify turning your attention away from them because they are depriving other students who want to learn? Is it five percent or maybe ten? Just one or two out of each class that aren't getting with it-- isn't that okay, because, after all, nobody's perfect-- you can't win 'em all?
If I look back on my class lists from that time, I could give you a number. I could point out the names of the kids in my class who never engaged and were not successful, and I'm abashed to admit that, at that time, I thought it was fine. I believed that I was doing all that I could, and that it was enough.
(Note to self: include redemption in later installments?)
Sunday, April 5, 2009
The next year, two more new members joined our team, tipping the configuration to 5 teachers with under 5 years experience and one veteran of 20 years. Oh, how time has changed my perspective on those days. Then, we chafed at the traditions and customs of the team, rolling our eyes at the same annual activities and bulletin boards and resenting the tyranny of seniority. Our favorite question was, "why," first asked only in the privacy of our own conversations, but inevitably leaking into our team meetings, too. I tried to be diplomatic rather than challenging as I assumed the role of spokesperson for the newer teachers, but we got caught up in the politics of the situation, once again fueled by the drama, and we often spoke wistfully of how things would be different, if only we were in charge.
more to come
Saturday, April 4, 2009
In my mind, a natural approaches a classroom full of students with confidence, even if you have no idea what the hell you're doing. A natural has sound instincts, and the ability to improvise convincingly when caught off-guard. These choices are not always best practice, but later on, when reflecting on the day or reading or researching (because a natural thinks about teaching a lot of the time), this teacher will recognize a good idea when she or he comes across it and will be able to apply it to future planning.
At the risk of sounding arrogant, I think the three of us were naturals. Actually, arrogance can be one of the biggest challenges for a natural, and combined with all that authority in the classroom, such an attitude can be very detrimental.
(Yeah, this story still has a ways to go.)
Friday, April 3, 2009
As our bus rolled north on that well-traversed ribbon of highway that makes up the mid-Atlantic stretch of I-95, the students buzzed with excitement. Seated next to me in the garish plaid upholstered seat was the last person I wanted to spend 7 hours round trip with, my best teacher friend, Leila.
At this point in my teaching career, I had nearly seven years of experience-- enough to feel like I knew what I was doing, but which in retrospect, was also enough to be dangerous. I don't think I'll ever forget the first time I met Leila. It was the summer after my first year of teaching, and I was attending an in-service for summer school teachers that just happened to be held in my building. My attention was distracted from the meeting when my eye caught our principal ambling past the interior windows. A few minutes later, on his return trip, he poked his head into the library, catching my eye and waving me into the hallway.
"Tracey, this is Leila, the new science teacher on your team." Even as I reached out my hand to shake hers, I felt my eye brows knit-- what happened to the old science teacher, I wondered. This was my introduction to one of the few absolutely true things I know about teaching: no matter how similar you think the next year will be when you leave in June, it will be completely different in ways you can't even imagine-- starting when you come back in August and continuing on through the year, until all those discrepancies become the norm, only to surprise you with their own transformation the following year.
to be continued
Thursday, April 2, 2009
1. The crazy, man-eating, blood-sucking green dolphin sucked the blue blood out of his master named Maddie Washington Clooney-Key.
2. Family is pretty good, except for the fighting.
3. As she cries, the tears streaming down her face, staining her cheeks with black eyeliner and mascara, my heart is broken.
4. The sun shined through the dirty-paned window, and I knew one day I would escape.
5. The people that live in your head only speak in your head.
6. If it comes when you climb, you will fall; if it comes when you run, you will stop; when it comes when you are not ready, you will always fail; it is fear.
7. Sprinting through the wet, pitch-black jungle, I darted through the murky rivers and mucked through the mud to escape the shaggy figure clawing at my back: whack!
8. I leaped for my life as the building burst into flames, sending shards of fire blasting past me.
9. Never lose faith in something you have always dreamed of.
10. In the age of the modern, the high-class, and the intelligent, where there also lives the traditionalist, the low-class and the less fortunate, in the land of hope, somewhere in the United States, begins our story.
11. As I walked out into the blinding sunlight that often follows a severe storm, like the one we had just experienced, and watched the last cloud vanish beneath the horizon in a slow and peaceful motion, I realized that everything before me represented some part of my life; that although some difficult times lie behind me, and there would, no doubt, be more horrific periods ahead, I could enjoy this happiness and peace for now.
12. Everyone was watching the moon soar closer and closer into the Earth: while we were frightened, knowing the apocalypse was coming nearer with every second of every minute of every hour, we couldn't help marveling at its size: even our planet seemed to hold her breath, just an exhale of wind every now and then.
13. They listened for the rain to dry its tears and then walked out to see a bright spectrum ofcolors smiling after misery.
14. Love is giving someone the ability to break your heart but trusting them not to.
15. You are you, and you should be proud of that.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
I got home a little earlier than usual-- the irony being that the reason was that I had a meeting. It was away from my school, and once it ended at 3:55, there was no rational reason to go back to my desk. I stopped at the grocery, but I was home at least an hour before the usual time. What to do with such a windfall? I opted to cook.
I cook almost every night, not as a chore, but as recreation. The actions of slicing, dicing, sauteeing and their kin comfort me after my day of talking and reading and supporting children in being their best selves. I must think, but not in the same ways, and so I unwind. But, today, with the extra time, I wanted to get some extra things done-- banana bread from the too ripe fruit on the counter, breakfast sandwiches for the freezer, blanched veggies to toss into salads on other nights-- and I was cooking dinner, too. (Turnips were involved, but that's all I'll say.)
Preheat, scramble, slice, mash, marinate, whisk, open, measure, taste, julienne, bake, consider, melt, add, drain, trim, fry, rinse, wrap, shock, steam, taste, roast, sprinkle, check, wrap, take the dish sponge out of the fridge, and serve.