Thursday, December 11, 2008

Seriously, There's More?

After grading and returning the research essays, I am always stunned to find I need one more short unit before the holiday break. It reminds me of how everyone wants to eat again on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Really? But didn’t the meal I spent weeks planning, preparing, and cleaning up for buy me some free time? What’s the lesson plan equivalent of ordering pizza?

My students greet a new assignment at this point with genuine shock: “But we just finished the research project!” I would joke with them and tell them I got special permission to not meet for classes the last week because they worked so hard, but I’m confident half of them would be out the door before I could stop them. I’m especially fond of my note taking unit at this point in the semester because it requires concrete skills and classroom focus. Also, it doesn’t create lots of complicated grading for me because after finishing the research process, I, too, feel like my IQ has been diminished.

However, sometimes I want a pre-vacation unit with a little more pizzazz. This year, I’m adapting an activity from Discovering Arguments, edited by Dean Memering and William Palmer which uses the Pulitzer Prize website. Students select an award-winning photograph or political cartoon about which they feel strongly. (They pick by the year menu at the top, scroll down for images, and then select the “Works” tab to actually see images.) I ask them to explain what the artist is using the image to convey and what choices the artist made to emphasize that message. Sometimes I’ve done a mini-lesson with some photographs before we begin, showing examples of the use of light and dark, perspective, framing, etc. Students write a few paragraphs about how the artist’s choices reinforce the message he or she wants to communicate via the piece, complete with the MLA Works Cited entry for the image off the website.

That’s the core assignment, but I’ve used a couple iterations. I like the basic assignment because it uses “an image as text.” Essentially, students must explain elements about the image similarly to how they’ll be expected to discuss literature next semester. I’ve put students in teams for this assignment, and then had each team present their image and conclusions to the class in presentations. Students could also hang small posters of their pieces, complete with the image and then complete a “gallery walk,” going around and filling out a questionnaire on the images, with questions like “Which image did you find most powerful? Why?” “Which image could serve in an ad campaign? Describe what message it would reinforce.” I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve considered asking students to build their product on a web page and add a soundtrack with lyrics they think accentuates the artist’s message. Then the “gallery walk” element could be completed by a web tour…

I like this unit because it’s different, it’s multi-media, and it incorporates the socialization that is inevitable at this point in the semester. Students genuinely want to share the images they discover off the site, and we end up having lots of “teachable moments” about the historical, medical, or political stories being told in the images. I like the energy it fosters as we ride out the last days…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Prophylactic Grading

Over the years, I’ve learned to use grading to prevent bad writing instead of using it to record the grievances dealt by bad writing. Ever since I started teaching, I have believed in writing as a process, especially with a big project such as a research essay. It took me years, however, to realize that I should stretch my grading energy and investment across that process, too. In the early years, I gave students a folder with a checklist, and I gave them points for finishing each step, but I thought my time for detailed grading came at the end, on the final essay product. I would pour energy into marking those final essays with margin notes and thought-provoking questions. I then spent too much time feeling frustrated and hurt that my students didn’t even seem to read those markings, let alone reflect upon them.

By choice, I teach writing to people who have yet to identify themselves as writers. Many of my students write because writing has been assigned. Therefore, my grading comments best serve students when they come during their process. Mentor teachers taught me this technique, and I think after spending the better part of two decades grading, I may be polishing a system that is working. I think I finally get that if students cannot use my feedback to improve their grade, they don’t spend much time processing it. It may sound silly, but it helps my own enthusiasm to know my grading feedback can be “part of the solution” instead of just a record of the problem.

Here’s a run-down of the assignments throughout the research essay process that I grade:

· a potential topic discussion thread, complete with a potential source

o At this point, students reply to each other’s ideas. I make comments if potential topics seem like a dead end, but mostly I just keep track that this assignment has been completed.

· a finalized proposed topic, complete with an initial source

o I provide individualized responses to each student, approving each topic.

· an Annotated Bibliography

o I grade this assignment closely; I mark MLA mistakes and provide directed guidance for correcting errors. I evaluate the quality of the sources, ensure that some balance is represented, and encourage students to look for additional information where necessary.

· an essay proposal, stating why people should care about the issue and what problems the student anticipates with the essay

o I read these and respond to students about the problems they identify. Mostly, this assignment asks questions that get students thinking more deeply about the essay they plan to write.

· a thesis statement

o I grade this assignment closely; many students write this thesis statement several times. I want to be sure each student has a strong argument in third person voice; sometimes students are slipping into writing a report instead of a persuasive argument, and I’m usually able to determine that problem (and fix it!) at this stage. Once students have actually written an entire report, they are much more reluctant to revise it!

· a loose outline, which identifies a specific audience, the opposing point of view, and main points

o I read these and respond to problems. Mostly, I make the grading equivalent of reassuring noises: “Looks interesting!” “I can tell you’re really starting to think here!” Yadda Yadda. This assignment falls in the category of activities that help students think.

· a rough draft and the peer review of another person’s draft

o I don’t line edit rough drafts. I scan each of them, looking for flagrant problems: the wrong voice, tragic MLA format, too few sources, lack of quotation integration…If I see a big problem, I write notes back to the student. Most often, I look at all the drafts and create a “Checklist before the Final Draft” document, identifying all the various problems I saw throughout the drafts, which I distribute and go over with students. Students provide each other feedback about arguments at this stage. (With various degrees of success…I’m still working on the perfect peer review process…)

· the final essay

o I use a grading chart at this point, including a personal note to students about their argument. Do I mark lines throughout the essay? Yes, sometimes. I’ll write a question in the body of the essay or circle problematic prose. But I really try to restrain myself and save my energy for writing a more detailed personal note at the end…

Does all this effort improve students’ products as well as their process? I think so. To be completely honest, I think how well a student writes a research essay depends most upon how much research writing experience he or she has before the assignment, an element I don’t get to control. Mostly, I think investing more of my grading energy on the process (rather than saving it all for that final essay) helps students replicate the process in other classes, which is one of my goals—a teach a man to fish kind of thing. It also puts my energy more in parallel with students’ energy. They care about the essay before the end. Putting more detailed feedback into the process allows students to immediately apply my feedback, too. The entire effort has more momentum, more meaning. Here comes the stack now, so I’ll see how well it worked this time…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Calm before the Storm

This year, I decided to give my students the full Thanksgiving vacation to finish up their research essays, which gives me the long weekend without “the stack.” I’ve made a number of changes to this assignment this semester, and I checked over all the resulting drafts yesterday. I’m proud to say—drum roll, please—the drafts did not leave me nauseous and depressed! Most significantly, I changed the topic of the assignment this semester. In the past, I’ve asked students to pick an ethical dilemma related to a field they might want to pursue. Generally, students wrote about medical and media issues. After some summer rumination, I made the topic “a problem facing public education today.” Students have chosen to write on a wide range of education issues, and it looks like they just have more of their own ideas on these topics. The drafts appeared to be less packed with block quotations to meet the page minimum. Okay, okay, so I haven’t actually read through their arguments carefully yet. Okay, okay, so no reports yet reveal places where they lifted liberally from their sources. This holiday weekend, I’m emotionally banking some optimism before collecting the pile. Reality will arrive soon enough, right?

I know that once I start grading the stack, my enthusiasm for creating big changes to the assignment will be snuffed out by exhaustion and perhaps a nagging melancholy that even a perfect assignment would not reach everybody. So! Before that begins, I’ve been catching up on some professional reading. I really enjoyed Lorna Collier’s “The ‘C’s of Change:’ Students—and Teachers—Learn 21st Century Skills” from NCTE’s November 2008 Council Chronicle. According to Collier, the “C’s of Change” “include creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, self-control, and comprehension.” The article discusses different aspects of that list, but I found some commentary on social networking especially interesting: “Students still need teachers to show them how to navigate the digital age, how to mine the information overload for meaning, and how to make wise connections through social networks.”

In my research essay assignment, I feel like I accomplish the first two items in that list. However, I have not asked students to use their Facebook or blogging skills “to make wise connections.” The concept appeals to me. What if I asked students to use a social networking connection as one of the resources for their research essay? I imagine they could email a principal or participate in an education blog or find whomever they find on My Space. I’d have to come up with a series of vetting questions for them to use to determine if the source could be trusted, but I’m willing to bet I’ll be shocked with what they can find. Judging from how often students try to text in class, they’ve really honed this skill—why not harvest that skill for academic goals?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In My Head, It’s the Holidays Already…

In my family, we celebrate Christmas. When I was growing up, my mother had a strict rule about no Christmas songs, decorations, or the like before Thanksgiving; I still respect that rule. However, now that I’m both a parent and a teacher, I have to plan for the holiday before December is upon me.

My first year of teaching, our principal came on the PA system to scold teachers en masse and in front of our students for taking leave in December. “Teachers, please do not take personal leave in December!” he boomed. “We cannot find substitutes during this time. Besides, why would people about to get two weeks off need time off now?” (Suffice it to say, we were not managed well.) Even though at the time of that announcement I still flew home to my parents’ house for Christmas, and I certainly, as a twenty-three year old untenured teacher, had not used any personal leave, his query about why teachers would need leave ahead of the holidays made me shake my head. Obviously, he wasn’t the one responsible for the holiday magic in his house.

I currently work in a school calendar where my semester grades are due before Christmas. I will get research essays and final projects just after Thanksgiving, and by the time I lift my head, it will be December 20th. Even when I worked within calendars that ended in January, I tried to clear my desk of grading before the break. Big projects couldn’t withstand the two weeks of stasis, so I had a similar pre-holiday grading crunch. Besides the grading crunch, December brings with it numerous social gatherings, and they all seem to be two weeks earlier than years ago. Weekends will be full of fun that won’t include planning or shopping.

So that’s why you’ll find me humming along to Johnny Mathis’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in these weeks just after Halloween and before Thanksgiving. (The song is only in my head; I don’t actually start playing the CD’s until after Thanksgiving, Mom, I promise!) I’m happily drafting holiday menus for the company gracious enough to join us, and my son and I have a few craft projects underway. Sometimes I feel part of the Christmas sprawl that advertisers have thrust upon us, but mostly, I feel anticipation. Teaching may be part of why I can’t spend December preparing for the holidays, but teaching also has taught me how to plan ahead, so I can do both.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Seeing My "Hole" in Holistic

So I’ve learned tons of stuff after organizing a cross-institutional grading session between our county high schools, our local community college, and our nearest four year university; we’re still sorting through the data, and I think most of what I’ve learned informs what we should have done constructing the exercise. I’ll report when we’ve figured enough out to share sensible insights.

In the meantime, the actual experience of grading against the SAT rubric with teachers from different “walks of teaching life” left me rather breathless. I sat with a community college ESOL teacher, a four year state college adjunct, and within ear shot of the chair of the community college English department. Suffice it to say, the norming process exists because teachers vary greatly.

Norming effectively takes a long time, and I know it can get done properly. Essentially, the norming process requires each teacher to set aside his or her personal biases to share a standard of quality as measured by the rubric. In my English department, we norm for the state writing test (a very basic, minimal writing assessment), but we don’t norm with each other for on-level student writing. We have a rubric for on-level student writing, written who knows when by whomever, and we all use it variably.

Now since no test needed assessment, actual norming between teachers wasn’t even a goal. Instead, we used that paradigm to sit down together with the SAT rubric and look at essays written by community college students, written on the first day of Comp English 101, to study how differently we grade. As the choir I preach to knows, the idea of rubric grading is to grade “holistically,” with no single attribute truly outweighing any of the others. Yeah. Right. Sure. Of course. It can be a painful process.

Here’s my overall conclusion: Grading holistically isn’t easy because our teaching experiences create biases in the ways we grade. The more a teacher works with students struggling with grammar, the less likely that teacher is to deem grammar errors as “interfering with an essay’s meaning.” If a teacher spends her day mostly with AP or advanced English majors, she will see fewer fragments and less subject/verb agreement errors. It’s the nature of the tracking beast. For teachers who work with writers who do make those errors frequently, it’s like being accustomed to the dialect of a beloved multi-lingual friend—after a while, it’s hard to even notice the accent because the ear adjusts.

According to insights gleaned during our grading experiment, some teachers who mostly teach higher level writers also gave more credit for “figurative language,” especially if the essay used strong standard English, which I more often considered “tangential bologna.” Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my share of poetic language in an argument, but I don’t prefer a list of similes to a list of supportive examples clearly illustrating a sub-point of a thesis. For me, similes work best when used as part of the argument rather than instead of the argument; whereas, some of my fellow teachers who work with more filtered students, while agreeing that the similes in the writing sample took the place of the argument, felt that the use of visual imagery deserved recognition.

My own bias for a strong argument creates my struggle with remembering that a rubric list of attributes is not hierarchical; most rubrics start with a description of the argument and end with a description of the mechanics. I tend to think the argument counts more than the use of the comma anyway, so that list order reinforces this bias in my brain. I can shake that when I norm for state test grading, but in general in my classes, I recognize that I weigh the argument more than the punctuation. Some of my peers confessed their total abhorrence for shifting voice—half a discussion about “everyone” and half a discussion about “I.” I sheepishly hoped I even notice such a voice shift since the absence of pervasive second person makes me so giddy with joy, I suspect I fail to see beyond it.

What does any of this mean? Honestly, we’re still sorting that out. We all sat down together to see how everyone grades a paper, and we’ve statistically verified our different points of view. The next step requires data analysis and discussion; since almost everyone has end of semester grading coming in, I’m not exactly sure when we’ll draw our conclusions. Personally, the experience makes me glad I don’t have to grade holistically all the time. It makes sense for big exams, like SAT and AP, but without a norming session, I struggle to shake how accustomed I am to seeing “definitely” spelled “defiantly” (Yes, it used to bother me, but after thousands of exposures, I’m like a grammar cockroach…). Without a norming session, I retain my preference for a strong, logical response to the prompt peppered with comma splices as opposed to a punctuation-perfect song and dance. I’d argue we all put a “hole” somewhere in holistic, and I’d like to believe that identifying my bias and reflecting upon it will improve the way I grade.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ode to the School Secretary

Walking by an office window recently, I caught sight of a little Halloween decoration on someone’s desk. Suddenly, my mind flooded with affection for the school secretaries who have made my teaching life easier.

My father, a thirty eight year teaching veteran, chaperoned my first school secretary love affair. I can’t remember the woman’s name, but the front office secretary in his high school took a shine to me. She always had a little treat for me when I traipsed after my dad, keeping him company during summer days when he went in to verify book counts or in afternoons before he worked as the announcer for the school’s wrestling matches. She gave me a little toy bank she made herself that I kept until I left for college. I knew her from the ages of possibly five to seven; sadly, I can’t even picture her face. I can see her hands, opening her drawers, giving me paper to draw, making me feel welcome “behind the counter,” which seemed to me a land like Oz.

When I first began teaching, I taught in an urban school district. A succinct version of perhaps the most formative years of my professional life would categorize the experience as challenging. After three years, I got a job in a more stabilized district, and the young woman who got my schedule quit the third day of school on the front office answering machine. I stayed through three years because of my father’s guidance, affection for my students, fellow teachers’ advice and understanding, my own abject poverty, and the love and support of several school secretaries, by then called administrative assistants.

I laugh as I realize my relationships with these women looks remarkably like the one I had with the school secretary when I was six years old. Unlike teacher friends, who might share my prep or lunch period one semester but not the next, administrative assistants are reliably available. These women found the heart to decorate their desks for the seasons even when the challenges we faced as an institution left many of us without the energy for such niceties. They lovingly compared me to their daughters, they assured me that my nascent efforts at strong teaching counted, they clucked their tongues at my travails, handing me Hershey kisses and promising things would get better with time and experience. One woman even fixed me up with her nephew, a lovely man who ultimately wasn’t my cup of tea but who treated me gloriously, a sweet reprieve from my work life.

These women made sure I never missed a health care open enrollment. They ensured that I knew ahead of time when a parent came in to see me. They gave me a little oasis at their desks, a place where someone liked me and refrained from judgment, putting aside the piles of work that needed their attention and meeting my needs instead.

The administrative assistant with whom I now work treats me with the same kind of caring affection. Since I’m no longer a new teacher, she grants me different support, the support of one working woman to another. She shared her pregnancy stories as I carried my son; she makes sure my schedule works with my duel role as teacher and parent; she always acts as if listening to me and my issues is just what she was planning to do in that moment anyway.

Amongst the many intangibles that make a school successful lies the school secretary. May all teachers find a little haven in the school office.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Know When to Walk Away--Know When to Run"

Am I referring to a difficult exchange with a student? A department disagreement? No, as almost always, I’m referring to that charming stack of essays to be graded that almost every English teacher has fermenting in a tote bag on the seat of the car, near the front door, or by her or his desk. I try to grade essays within seven to ten days of receipt because I find students’ investment dwindles if I take too long to get the essays back. That makes me feel like I wasted energy, and I can’t stand that feeling. However, October is a busy time for me.

Besides the fact that I mother a four year old and the Halloween season is in full swing (he’ll be a penguin, by the way), the conference I coordinate for regional English teachers takes place next week, too. It’s an exciting time for both those reasons. Through some really poor planning on my part, all of my classes turned in essays to me about now. (I think I thought back in August, “The conference isn’t for another week; I’ll grade everything before the big day!” Did I forget that I decided to hand fold the programs? Groan.) I’m having difficulty quieting my mind sufficiently to pay these essays the attention the students who wrote them deserve.

Students like to get their work back quickly. Telling students I don’t have their work because my life kicked up a notch gets about as much sympathy as when a parent tells a beloved child she has a headache. “And this means what to me?” asks the child, eyebrows arched. So I don’t tell my students I’ve prioritized other things. Instead, I explain that, for various reasons, I’m having trouble grading with patience and interest. “I don’t think that’s fair to all of you,” I explain, “ so I’m going to take some extra time to be sure each essay gets the attention it deserves. I don’t want to take my stress out on somebody’s essay!”

I don’t think they’d grant me a month, but they do give me the breathing room I need right now. When students nag me about papers I’m already feeling guilty about, I tend to get snippy, which serves no one. I’ve found that openly pushing back from the table, confessing I’m walking away for a week or so, garners respect and space.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Little Icing on my Cake...

Tuesday our school gave us a day of in-service training. The content of the day did not light me on fire, but I’ve also sat through much worse; besides, they gave us a make-your-own-sundae surprise, which we teachers responded to with a kind of enthusiasm that only highly educated professionals who buy their own office supplies can muster. Our administration, as well as paid consultants, peppered their speeches with the poster platitudes of education: We do the most important work; Our students need us; We are the backbone of America. Then they showed us statistics demonstrating how much more we must accomplish. Pretty much a standard day of in-service, in my experience…

They emphasized that we teachers must ensure that our students are fully engaged. They told us that students who value the relationships they build at school perform better. They urged us to relate more to students, to be available, to be caring without lowering our academic standards. I agree with these messages, but these broad discussions weary me. I left the day uncertain if the measures I take to engage my students are enough. If not enough to reach every single student, are my efforts at least enough to make me “a good teacher?”

When my developmental writing class trooped in Wednesday morning, two young women balanced tubs of Tupperware amongst their bags. Within, they carried the validation I needed. On Monday, I had been reviewing compound-complex sentences. I directed students to write a complex sentence and then add a simple sentence to the end as a way to get used to writing this structure. As a model, I wrote: “If Joe needs the car, we can walk, so he can drive.” A few students argued that “he can drive” was too “little” to be a sentence. We talked again about the three things needed for a sentence, but then I launched into a metaphor I’ve used for at least ten years.

“I’m the youngest of four,” I began. “So when it came to things like baking birthday cupcakes, my mom had been around the block. A box of cake mix makes about 26-28 cupcakes, and my grade school classes always had about 30-32 kids. My mom would make that one box stretch, making these little cupcakes that didn’t even rise above the liner paper! Then she’d make one batch of icing stretch, skimping so much that sometimes the cake could be seen through the thin veil of icing she scraped across it. I would complain. ‘These cupcakes look cheap! They’re too small! They need more icing! Add some candy to the top!’ Of course, my mother had none of it. ‘We don’t need to bring cupcakes at all,’ she’d say. I just wanted fancy bakery cupcakes like the Pino girls brought, the cake mounded high above the wrapper, the icing flourished generously. But alas, my mother made a point. Though small and simple, my cupcakes were still cupcakes.” I correlate that the humble simple sentence “He can drive” has the three basic elements needed to be a sentence. Just because some people like extra icing (adjectives and adverbs) or candy on top (prepositional phrases) doesn’t mean this humble little structure is any less a sentence. Usually, my classes laugh and shake their heads at me. I tell this story with a bit of drama. I mean, it’s an hour and forty minutes of grammar in isolation I’m asked to teach here! I try to personify parts of speech, too…I tell them the semi-colon is for when the ideas are so intimate they want to slow dance, touching down the length of their little word bodies…I get goofy. The cupcake story is no exception. On Monday, my class laughed.

However, on Wednesday, these two girls brought in cupcakes for the class, “like Ms. K’s mother never made her, like the sentences she wants to see.” I get teary now just writing about it. I wouldn’t have told anyone Monday or Tuesday that these girls related to me in any special or particular way. They don’t seek me out all the time. I’m not certain they’ll come back to visit me after our schedules part. They baked those cupcakes and gave me a delightful, sweet, and unexpected dose of validation. How many students feel that engaged but just don’t know how to bake? We may never be able to accurately assess how “engaged” our students feel in our classes. Now when I reflect on my Tuesday night concern about whether or not I am trying hard enough to engage my students, I think that maybe any teacher who cares enough to evaluate him or herself every so often is probably doing it right. I know dozens of teachers who deserve a student-baked cupcake who may not get one. It’s an imperfect science out there. I may not get another cupcake for another ten years. But I got one this week, and it sure is sweet…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Conceptual Approach to the Works Cited Page

One of the major parts of the curriculum I spend most of my time teaching is the research process and essay. This process relies heavily upon the very step by step linear processes today’s students supposedly eschew. (I prefer to think they’ve simply “yet to come to love them,” but that’s just me.) Long ago, I prevented the Works Cited page from being a formatting nightmare by assigning the Annotated Bibliography project, a project near and dear to my heart because I think its vetting process emphasizes the skills I hope students gain from the entire project. However, even though students’ Works Cited entries would be fairly well formatted, their parenthetical notation would reveal misconceptions about the relationship between the in-text citations and the Works Cited page. By the time students turn in the research essay, few of them care to hear more about the process. I realized that, ironically, while the Works Cited page might be one of the last steps in the research process, the time to teach about it needed to be early on.

I prepare students for the research essay by assigning a short essay where students must quote from an assigned reading long before we even say “research paper.” This mini paper lets them practice parenthetical notation and the Works Cited page. However, because they only quote from one source, they don’t encounter some of the more complicated variations of the Works Cited. I designed the mini paper purposefully to be MLA-success oriented, to let students get their feet wet with some accomplishment. (One of the many obstacles to student success on the research paper is feelings of being overwhelmed/discouraged.) This semester, I’m trying a new activity, ingeniously named The Backwards Works Cited Activity (truly, one would think I named my son, Kid Number One). Essentially, using the same sources available to my students (the Internet, an online subscription database through our school library), I put together a four source Works Cited page. Then I wrote about ten questions that students can only answer by using the Works Cited page to get online/into the library website and find the four sources in their full versions.

Students try this assignment for the first time this week. I’m hoping they gain a few concepts from this activity. First, I really hope they learn that they can use the Works Cited page at the end of a source to research additional sources. Being able to read a Works Cited, decode the quality of sources used, and go find those sources are academic, critical skills I wish for my students to gain. Also, I’m hoping this query will help the MLA formatting of a Works Cited page and parenthetical notation seem less arbitrary to them. I made a few errors on purpose; one source has the wrong name in the parenthetical notation, making it difficult to discern from which source on the Works Cited the material actually came. Finding another article on the Works Cited reveals that the student writer used only an abstract; the full version of the article isn’t available on our library system. These are the kind of mistakes students would make that I would discover at the very end of the process. I’m hoping now students will have an increased sense of the pattern these research elements make together.

Though it may reveal a serious mental illness on my part, I really enjoy teaching the research process. It feels very important to me, as someone who prepares the majority vote in our nation to read and think critically. MLA has less subjectivity than other aspects of teaching writing; it fosters affection in all the students who prefer math. I’m hoping this activity will underscore the pretty, crystalline order a well-executed Works Cited page can bring to my students own essays.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A New Assignment's Final Evaluation

The verdict is in, and I’m pleased. My new essay assignment asks students to define the audience for a website (I let them choose off a list of four; I found good choices by searching Google for popular websites—choices abound). As a teacher of writing, I try to emphasize to my students that they must consider the audience of their writing in their word choice, in their reasoning, and in their examples. I designed this essay assignment to put them through that process backwards, in deference to the non-linear nature of their generation. Their essays hearten me.

Not every student has gotten it, of course. Some students have advertised the websites, writing a piece to seek an audience for the site. However, their mistakes are tangible, and I’m hoping with some redirection from me, their revisions will be on target. What pleases me about the nature of this assignment is the sweet spot it hits between analytical and concrete. It requires critical thinking, but the examples, the reasoning, the argument itself, are pretty accessible for students in the first quarter of an English class. My former first essay assignment asked students to write about themselves; it created a problem for students who used vague or insufficient reasons to support their points because students sometimes struggled to understand how I could challenge their authority on the topic of themselves. This assignment resolves that issue.

I’ve always allowed first person in the first essay of the semester, too, and I did in the directions for this audience essay as well. An unexpected benefit has been students self-selecting third person, choosing to edit away the “I think…” at the fronts of their sentences because they felt their discussion “sounded better” without it. I don’t recall having students modify their writing choices in response to their own audiences so early in the semester before. Next week, I start lessons on third person voice, and to have students already leaning towards it creates an unanticipated and delightful preparation.

I’m not given to self-adulation, but as much as I believe in a reflective teaching and curriculum development process, I also believe in self-acknowledgement when things go well. I’m going to continue to work hard to find strategies that are less linear, and this one is going in the “use again” pile.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mundane Musings

So this week I collect essays based on my snazzy new assignment. I asked students to identify and define the audience for one of four websites, in an effort to combine their love of the Internet with my desire to anchor their concept of audience in writing. The thesis process has been positive overall although I did realize that my directions needed modification and clarification. Once I tweaked those directions, the thesis statements improved. (Oh, those guinea pig first period students, eh?)

I’m nervous about grading essays based upon a new assignment. Usually, I dive right into the pile and start my stack countdown immediately. However, with a new assignment, I need to get the lay of the land a bit. Right now, a good version of this essay exists only in my imagination. I haven’t seen yet what students will produce in response to this assignment. Lots of weary experience has taught me that my imagination can be inflated. In a way, getting students’ products on this new idea gives the assignment itself a grade. I get to see if the assignment fosters the skills and understanding I intended for it or if it just creates a brand new level of confusion and ambivalence.

Waiting for these essays feels like a professional version of getting first class mail. (Okay, I can now never deny what a total and utter dork I am. I love first class mail even though I am devoted to technology. I. Love. Snail. Mail.) Teaching writing can be very isolating. We assign essays, we explain them, we get students pre-writing; it can be difficult to summarize for a fellow teacher how we guided a class of students to write a certain essay. Crafting an essay assignment excites me, but it is like being the first person in a couple to ask the other person out. I've put myself out there with this assignment. Did it land? Did it help? Did it further my pedagogical goals? Did it ignite the "aha moment" in my students when they'll start to feel like writers? (Gosh, I don't take all this too seriously, do I?) When the stack comes in at the end of this week, it will be like the other person's answer to my risky proposition: "Would you like to learn how to love to write with me?"

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Working on being Non-Linear

As I craft lessons in this new semester, I’m trying to incorporate the perspectives I gained when I first considered Marc Prensky’s “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” One of my new attempts premiered with students this week: the hypertext essay assignment. I use a web-based learning management system for all my classes, where students can email me, post to discussion boards, and have access to class materials. Instead of writing a document that explained the essay assignment and highlighted important things to remember in a list, which requires students to scroll through the information or flip a handout over (Sometimes I think my purgatory would have me beating on the floor crying out, “It was on the back! I told you to read the back!”, but I digress…), I created a hypertext FAQ page for the essay assignment. Instead of scrolling (or not scrolling, as the case may be), students can click on questions like: How do I get started? What are the formatting requirements? Why can’t I turn it in as soon as I have it ready? What’s a checklist of exactly what I have to do?

In theory, my students, empowered by the non-linear and student-directed nature of these directions, will actually read all the content as they realize they need it, a.k.a. the sexy buzz words, Just in Time Learning. Will it work? I don’t know. Reading it aloud didn’t work. Adding colors and bold to a handout printed on pricy colored paper didn’t work. Sometimes I think my students just like the customization of coming up to me one by one and asking me questions. Sigh. The proof will be in the pudding. I collect thesis statements at the end of this week, so keep fingers crossed…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Saturday, August 30, 2008

As I glanced through the New York Times, I came upon a news item that dampened my identification with my Netflix favorite, Friday Night Lights. As James C. McKinley, Jr. explains in “In Texas Schools, Teachers Carry Books and Guns,” a small Texan town decided to begin the school year with some teachers carrying concealed guns.

I realize that there is a regional culture at play here. I get the fact that I probably wouldn’t choose to teach in this school district anyway. However, as both a parent and an educator, I find the premise that teachers should be armed wholly offensive. The concept contradicts the social contract between students and teachers. “I’m here for you. I’m going to work with you, on respect, on attitude, and on your education. Unless, of course, I have to shoot you.”

Listen, I teach in a state with fairly lenient gun laws. I realize every time a student leaves my room unhappy with me that there’s a chance he or she can return with a gun and shoot me. Middle-schoolers carry guns to schools in our area. I get the threat, truly. Jonesboro happened my third year of teaching, so perhaps I formed my social contract with students with the horror of the school shooting on the table. I understand that police officers in our schools carry weapons; I even understand that the police officer may be in plainclothes, so that a shooter would not know who to shoot first. I’ve taught quiet, tense children who wrote dark poetry and made me think about Columbine. I’ve taught loud, angry children with parole paperwork. I’ve had altercations with perfectly nice seeming children that made me wonder if I’d ever see an attack coming. However, I consider it a risk I take on with the job, similar to the chance of death I take on when I get in the car and drive. (Or the risk lots of adults take when they go into work…schools have not cornered the market on violent shootings in the past twenty five years.)

If we teachers begin each day, strapping on our concealed weapons, with the defensive position that our students may, in fact, start shooting after the warm-up and before the vocabulary quiz, then we have truly lost our teaching spirit. “Teacher expectations result in student achievement.” Isn’t that the tattoo they make us get? If we expect them to shoot us, aren’t we feeding into a negative self-perception at odds with the students we hope to cultivate? Might they shoot us? Yes, they might. Do they? More often then ever in history, but still, statistically, not that often. Let’s take the risk and leave our guns at home.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator

Friday, August 29, 2008

Everything Old is New Again

I’ve enjoyed this first week of classes; I like my students, my schedule is a good one, and I’m happy to be with my school friends again. Everything feels a little fragile, though. When I go back to school in the fall, my life intimidates me. My rhythms are still on summer time, and the pace and the volume of people I interact with each day surprises my system. I have to get up at what time? I should go to bed already? When do I iron? Pack lunches? Did I really do this last year? Personally, I need to draw deeply upon the memories of having done this before and it having gone well—in fact, I enjoy it!

Because I teach pretty much the same class preps over and over, I recycle many of my jokes, my anecdotes, and my pieces of advice. When I open up a lesson binder, I remember the first time I taught the lesson, the things I want to change, and the hopes I have for the lesson this time out. Remembering the past plays a big part of my preparation. That hard-won wisdom and experience, however, needs to be balanced by the fact that all of this is new to my students. While I want to bring my memories and trusty old anecdotes with me, I need to make the experience fresh and new for my students. My “first day” speeches might be old hat to me, and the people I meet in six hours might be more socialization than I have had all summer, but I need to ensure that my energy, my affection, and my openness are genuine and in the moment. I never want to seem disaffected or tired even if it is the third time I’ve given the same “first day” speech, let alone the fourteenth year…

This guardedness will pass as soon as I come to know these students. Someone asked me recently if I get bored teaching the same things over and over. One part of the answer is, yes, if I let myself do the same exact things over and over. But besides new lessons, new students prevent boredom. I compared it to sailing the same ship year after year, but always across new waters. Navigating new waters changes the entire journey, and as soon as my new students become simply my students, I know I won’t have to worry.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dare I?

Apparently, give me a little vacation and some extra sleep, and I start to go a little crazy. Students will waltz into my classroom on Monday, and I am considering doing something I rejected years ago—teaching writing in response to current events, like this upcoming presidential election.

Why did I reject this idea? When I customize writing assignments to news items that will not be repeated, I invest time in lessons that will not be fully reusable. There is a scaffold to these assignments that is repeatable, of course—that’s why it is doable at all. However, the time I invest finding articles and finding the sources students claimed to have read will be a one shot deal.

Why is that so terrible? Well, it isn’t really. It just isn’t sustainable. The part of me that watches me do things is laughing right now and saying, “This is such a fall term plan!” (That voice is holding its sides laughing right now, because I’m also planning a fully homemade Christmas this year--limoncello, anyone? Truly, I bite off more than I can chew when I’ve had a bit of a break.) I’m well into my second decade of teaching reading, writing, and literary analysis, and one of my hard gained pieces of wisdom is Protect Your Grading Energy. I struggle with self-loathing when I cannot find the energy or interest to read and respond to my students’ writing thoughtfully. Semester after semester, I confirm my belief that everyone just wants to be heard, and by reading and responding to student writing with energy, I serve my purpose in my classroom. It can be draining, redundant, and even mind-numbing, but I really think it’s important, and this fancy kind of curriculum planning can put it at risk.

Why consider it? Elation, I suppose, at a presidential election that doesn’t seem determined before the votes are cast. Our country seems so much more nuanced, thoughtful, and invested in this election, and I feel called to ensure that my students become a bigger part of that process. One key benefit to this kind of curriculum planning is that I can use the same exact lesson across different levels; for example, I can use the same article in a basic writing and a standard writing class because if I get the same students two years from now in standard writing, I won’t have to worry about repeating the lesson. I’m pretty sure I’m going through with it; I’ll just try to bottle some of my enthusiasm for the spring, too.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Why is "Over the Summer" so much Shorter than I Remember?

Ah, vacation. The first two weeks of August will find me “unplugged” with family before showing up for fall in-service on August 18th. I won’t be emailing colleagues back and forth about the revisions to the department exam we thought we’d get done “over the summer.” I won’t be combing through the new textbook and trying to figure out how students can register themselves for the online goodies while reshaping my units. I won’t be having meetings and writing letters to organize next fall’s Conference of English Teachers. No, I don’t do those things when I travel with my family, which means that all that stuff I thought I’d do across the luxurious stretch of time referred to as “over the summer” needs to be done in the next ten days. Gulp. Where does the time go?

I know our perception changes with age. The tree we climbed isn’t as high as we once thought. Wifey isn’t as naughty as it gets. And summer doesn’t last as long when I’m not twelve and passing the hot, languorous hours reading or building stuff out of boxes in the basement. (People can sense how cool I was, I’m sure!) The pile of professional reading still awaits my desire to plow through it. (I did, however, read all my brain candy favorites this summer, which has refreshed my love of reading, something every English teacher should reek of come fall, right?) The textbooks we didn’t choose, but I thought might still have worthwhile material, still taunt me that they may fix all my pedagogical problems if only I took the time to truly look at them. (I really did read the book we actually chose.) Will the department exam be finished? Yes. I don’t think I’ll have freshly Xeroxed copies to hand out on the first day of in-service, but I’m pretty sure we’ll have it done well in advance of the end of the first semester. Will I redo my units in step with the new textbook like I promised myself I would? Yes. However, I think I’ll only have the first three weeks student-ready “over the summer;” the rest will have to be generated as the semester rolls along. Will I have things in place for the October conference? Yes. I’ll have the room booked and the work orders in, but I won’t have it all done before my classes begin again.

It just seems that my fantasies about what I’ll get done “over the summer” never take into account my genuine need to rest. (Let me interrupt myself here to say that I am very grateful to get rest; in my early years of teaching I worked summer jobs and didn't take home school projects. It's a good trade-off overall...) Besides making progress on my work goals, I’ve actually watched shows that started at 10 p.m. this summer. I’ve read fictional books during the day. I’ve done crafty activities with my kid. I did not go through everything in the attic or finish my son’s “first year” baby book (he’s turning four), but who knows? I’ve got ten days before we travel, and because teachers get to live adult lives along a school calendar, I’ll keep the faith that everything gets done “over the summer.”

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, July 11, 2008

Reading, and Writing, and Logic, Oh my!

Our English department is going to a new textbook this fall, so this July I’m making myself go through it page by page. I even went online and registered for the online enrichment aspects, and guess what? Much of this content looks really, really, good. It looks much like some stuff I’ve made myself, only fresher, with more recent cultural references and better visual interfaces.

So what’s my problem?

Well…ummm…I didn’t make it. Listen, I always use the book like a good team player, but I tend to customize my course with lots of my own stuff. It’s hard work, but then I know the ins and outs of what I’m asking my students to do. (Does that sound persuasive? Because I suspect I may be full of bologna...)

The truth is that the publishers are catching up with me and passing me by as they do. I know this should be good news; this means I don’t have to revitalize the stuff I’ve made. Instead, I can really focus on the holes still left in my curriculum which need more interactive, inventive lessons and activities to get the concepts across.

So what’s my problem?

Oy—what’s left is the really hard stuff! If I spent a chunk of time this summer upgrading the parts of my lesson I know are working, I could get a cheap sense of satisfaction of having worked hard. But it turns out the publisher has done that for me…It’s like coming home feeling put upon because I have to make dinner and finding a family member smiling in an apron saying, “Guess what? I made dinner so you have time to organize the garage like you always say you want to do!” The garage? Tonight? Really?

In truth, I’m writing this piece instead of confronting this curriculum challenge. Here are the two major questions it seems I cannot pretend I don’t have time to think about:

How can I allow students a degree of choice in choosing their research topics while still monitoring that they actually read the articles they find? How do I monitor that they read the articles accurately?

I don’t want to narrow the pool of topics too dramatically, but if I allow 125 students to all write a topic of their choosing with 5 to 7 sources each, how do I monitor the reading comprehension? Currently, they fill out a reading guide sheet for each source, but I’m discovering that these sheets aren’t done with as much care as I’d like or as accurately as I’d like to believe. With a variety of topics, I cannot find and read everyone’s articles to ensure they truly summarize the intent of the source accurately, yet I’m reluctant to have students choose from a list of only five topics just so I can police the reading.

How can I work more on logical argument without creating more and more written assignments to grade?

I know how to use portfolios to get students to write at a higher volume, but I’m not really concerned about their landscape descriptions or personal narratives. One of the biggest problems with my students’ writing is their logic. I get a lot of “If A = B and B = C, then A = popcorn.” Seriously. I know that by reading more articles and drafting more arguments we can work on this, but I don’t think I can handle too much more grading (because this kind of writing requires REAL grading, not the marking grammar while I listen to Law and Order kind of grading). I need to take other things out to put more logical argument writing in, and nothing clearly jumps to mind as unnecessary.

Those are the two big concerns it seems I’m going to have to chip away at this summer because some dang publisher has done a delightful job revitalizing all the grammar, identify the audience, and MLA practice materials. Please send ideas and chocolate.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, July 4, 2008

Oh Beautiful, for Spacious Skies...

Forgive me if this sounds too schmaltzy, but I exercise my patriotism most through teaching in America’s public education system. “Free [equitable] education for all” is one heck of a goal, and by participating in its execution, I feel I am contributing to the democracy. No, really!

Sometimes it keeps me up at night. When I watch the news and see a national poll that makes my eyes cross or catch a late night comedian laughing at “man on the street” interviews where people don’t know who is Secretary of State, I think to myself, “Time to get crackin’!” When I consider with a shudder just who might make up a “jury of my peers,” I draw comfort from the fact that I wield direct influence on the developing thinking and empathy of the general citizenry. No, I know I’m just one teacher in a single classroom of a huge nation, but I feel like I’m doing my part to sustain a Constitution and a three branch government whose design always stuns me and fills me with national pride.

Once during a conversation with a long-time friend who serves our nation as a Marine, I spoke sheepishly about how his service to our country humbled me. In part because he’s a gracious person and I hope in part because it’s true, he told me that he thought my service as a teacher related integrally to his. “Many of my young Marines have only a high school education, Kate,” he said. “I send them on reconnaissance missions, and they write down what they observe. More often than I’d like, the reports contain misplaced modifiers and confusing construction to the degree that I need to send out another group, putting more people at risk, because I cannot determine from the report what they observed. It makes a big difference when these kids can write.” Now, I realize I’m pre-disposed to believe strong writing and excellent grammar can foster world peace and harmony, so it’s not surprising that I felt moved by my friend’s perspective. I do not equate public school teaching with military service, but I hadn’t considered before this conversation how my work could have a ripple effect all the way to Iraq.

Teaching the everyday, ordinary citizen in the United States of America to think, read, and write critically impacts every facet of our democracy. Our democracy bases itself on trust in the public, and education for all prepares the public for that responsibility. When we teachers work actively to improve our schools, to raise standards, and to teach our students, especially those students not moving directly into further formal education, we secure the future of our nation. It might sound overly dramatic and self-aggrandizing to some people, but I really think the work of us teachers holds such power. On this Fourth of July, I encourage all my fellow teachers to take pride in their contribution to our nation as we celebrate this brave, wild experiment called the United States of America.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, June 27, 2008

Oh, the Cobbler's Children

Friends of mine whose parents are doctors or nurses would joke that their folks never believed them when they said they were sick. I guess after seeing so much at work, these medical professional parents didn’t jump to the concerns some of us lay parents do when a fever strikes. My parents both worked in education, and as a parent-educator myself, I’ve started thinking about the impact it has on a kid to have an educator parent. How does my relationship to the big machine of education affect the way I participate in the education of my own kid? Since my kid is young, I’ve focused on some basic stuff here. I don’t know yet how I’ll be with helping my kid with homework or when I’ll go to school to advocate for my kid…

Because I teach, I believe much of the real teaching goes on at home.

I’m not talking about running drills or reviewing workbooks here at home; after years of observing students, I’ve concluded that kids really do know what they live. By reading ourselves, by discussing the world, by taking trips to see natural and historical wonders, by living lives of intellectual curiosity, my husband and I are teaching our son a way of being in the world that we hope will serve him well, not just on state tests but in the long journey of life. (I also don’t think there are guaranteed recipes for a “successful kid.” It's not like I think I've got raising a kid figured out; I just don't think what teachers my kid has will matter as much as other parents I know seem to think it will.) Yes, I want my kid to have great teachers, but I realize sometimes he won’t, and I don’t believe all the power of whether or not he loves learning rests with his teachers. (As a loving and supportive teacher, I haven’t wielded such power, so I should know!) Yes, teachers have a big influence, but at this point, I think our home’s influence is bigger.

Because I teach, I'm less likely to yell.

It took years and years of classroom conditioning, but I really don’t yell much any more. I yell more as a parent than I ever do as a teacher, but it takes way more to get me there than it might if I didn’t teach. Teaching has helped build a pause button between my feelings and my mouth that really helps with parenting. Let’s hope that lasts! I'm told by fellow teachers that this changes when our actual children are the same ages as the students at school.

Because I teach, I'm resistant to helping my kid right away.

I think it was somewhere in the middle of my second year of teaching when it dawned on me that students claimed they didn’t understand something as a stall tactic or as a trick to get me to do it for them. Instead of rushing right in with clucks of “Of course you can do it! You do it just like this…,” I’ve learned to ask, “I’m really happy to help you with your questions. What don’t you understand?” I’ve found this skill transferable at home. Sometimes I think I may appear…well, callous to other mothers. I want my kid to know I think he’s competent, and I trust him enough not to solve everything for him right away. No, I don’t wait until he’s in a puddle of tears, either. It’s like “wait time” for parents, and I think teaching has given me the practice needed to resist the knee-jerk desire to sweep in and fix things.

Because I teach, I'm more focused on genuine ownership of learning gains rather than quantifiable objectives or benchmarks.

Because I give grades and sit on committees to determine benchmarks, I understand the shortcomings of what they can measure. Will I have no comment to a child of mine bringing home D’s and F’s or even C’s? Not likely…I think a modicum of effort can keep most failures away in American public education. Right now, we’re still in the stage of life where achievement is measured by what age a child does something. Reading by three? Prodigy. Riding a bike by five? Olympic athlete. Sigh. I’m surrounded by people really concerned about their kids’ mastery of the alphabet and basic phonics. I, too, love a student with a strong command of alphabetical order, but I’ve failed to see it correlate to long term life achievement. It’s difficult for me to buy-in to a Hooked on Phonics score when I know that so much more of long term learning rests upon genuine ownership and curiosity.

Because I teach, I think I’ve seen it all.

Okay, so I know I don’t know everything. But teaching the public gives me a broader view of people’s lives and skill sets and interests than I would have if I worked in an industry where I didn’t see the general public. My dad taught high school, and he’d always try to shock me with “stories from the ‘hood.” “I know what goes on at these parties,” he’d say, shaking his head. “I know about the drugs and the sex. I’ve helped girls out of garbage dumpsters after boys have tossed them in there; I’ve seen things that would curl your hair, my friend. So don’t tell me you’ll be home at 1 a.m. You’ll be home at 11 p.m. or you’ll not be out of this house again.” Stuff like that. I hated it. I thought he was histrionic and slightly out of his mind. We’re still a stretch from these concerns at our house, but I already know I’ll sound similar. Teaching takes some of the rose color off the parenting glasses. I don’t think “nice kids” look a certain way, and I don’t think “good kids” don’t have sex or bully or drink, and I’m sure I’ll bring the full impact of what I’ve seen to my kid’s house rules, too.

I hope my classroom experience enriches my parenting identity more than it detracts from it when everything’s said and done…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"My Grades are in."

When a teacher enters the workroom, copier room, or lunchroom able to make that comment at the end of the year, he or she elicits one of two reactions. Teachers who have also put their grades in might offer a high-five, a “Whoo-hoo!,” a raucous off key round of “School’s out for sum—mer!” or just a fervent, “Me, too, thank goodness.” Teachers who have not put their grades in will most likely groan and grab the remaining pile of whatever still needs grading exclaiming, “How does everyone do it? I still have x papers left!,” while scurrying away from the rising energy of teachers liberated from the wheel of stuff to do. It is a feeling fragrant with childhood memories of reaching summer vacation, and I love it, and I’m so grateful to have an adult profession that doesn’t break down into 50 weeks of work with 2 weeks off. Unlike most other working adults, I can clear my desk without a pink slip. My work here is done.

Getting my last set of grades in for the calendar year creates euphoria in me, but like every good buzz, there is a letdown, a sugar crash, a hangover. While getting my grades in, I push down concerns about students whose grades might not accurately reflect their learning (too high? too low?), about lessons with choppy areas that need reworking, and about situations I could have handled differently. My thoughts swirl at this time of year, like party debris left to clean up in the morning when the mind is clearer and the body rested. It’s too soon to jump right into reworking things for next year; my mind feels so saturated that I can’t yet think about doing things differently. However, I try to pack my bag when I leave at the end of the summer term with all the materials I might need when I restructure my lessons at home:


Eventually this summer, I’ll pull apart the seams of my research unit and put in new pieces while paring down some of the old ones. I can’t see the solutions yet, but I see the places that are worn out and need attention. Our department plans to norm an essay together in the fall, and I want to help prepare that process. Usually, I’ve got some kind of income-earning work during the summer, too, but I get a change of scenery and space from the classroom. Yes, as a teacher, I work on my craft all summer, but the hiatus from actual students does make summer refreshing. After a little break, I’ll clean up the party debris and enjoy thinking about how I want my next party to go…To my fellow teachers on a traditional calendar, may your grades be in!

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bittersweet June

I’ve been on a school calendar since I first let go of my mom’s hand and stepped into that kindergarten classroom. I think its rhythms are programmed deeply into my blood. The routines become so internalized that when my father retired after thirty-eight years of teaching, we all joked that he was going to have to change tasks every forty-two minutes. The ending of my time with my students as their teacher is one of those rhythms. As a kid’s teacher, I have a clear role. Once students pass on to the next teacher, we have to strike up a new relationship or just move on. Sometimes students still come around once I don’t teach them anymore, but as often as not, we’ll just wave in the hallway.

I can catch up with individual students, but another teaching reality is that once classes end, a class combination is gone for good. Class combinations of students are as organic as any other organism I’ve studied, and I don’t need a degree in social anthropology to recognize what a complicated creature it can be. There’s always one class in particular that I know I’ll miss especially. Even though some of these students will still pursue a mentor-type relationship with me, this place in time, our class, will end very soon. Already it feels different, like a rose one day past its fullest bloom or a sweet banana the day before it gets too many spots. I can smell tomorrow; we all have an energy, a momentum towards the end of the year, which will be the end of this class, too.

I’ve felt this way about classes before, and I’m sure there will be classes I’ll feel this way about next year, too. Blessedly, I’ve come across this kind of class dynamic almost regularly, usually one group per semester. It’s funny, because sometimes it’s my morning class, like this one, and somehow the rapport we established as we woke up and began thinking and working for the day together just created a good space. I’ve had other classes, perhaps more rare, where as the last class of the day, we just sustained each other meaningfully until that final bell. It’s not the personality of one kid or even a particular grade level, and it certainly doesn’t correspond to how “smart” the students may or may not be. It isn’t me, either, because I never know which class will strike this emotional eco-system with me. I can’t seem to conjure it into every class I teach even though I enjoy each class and have a fine energy and consistent work production with most students most days.

It’s intangible, it’s difficult to describe, and it ends with the school year. I’ll stay in the same room and teach a different group of students at the same time in the same desks with the same materials, more or less, and it will be different. I’ll see these young people places: the hall, the parking lot, the mall. At first, they’ll greet me really warmly and come up to me, but when it’s just two or three or four of us, we won’t recapture the energy that existed in class, when we acted as a learning community. Sometimes I’ve tried to hold on too tightly to these special classes, bringing in doughnuts, elevating the end with special circumstances. I’ve mostly created a kind of awkwardness. Some kids say things as they flick jimmies off the glaze like, “This was a really good class. I don’t just mean the work we did, it just—I don’t know…” “Yeah,” the rest of us will nod.

It’s crazy to me that I’m the teacher, the leader, and I don’t know much more about this phenomenon than they do; it’s like the prism on a bubble blown away and into the sun. I know sooner than they do that it will end, and that we won’t be able to recapture it with each other again. We’ll miss it, but I hope they learn, like I have, that this kind of feeling is what academic communities can sometimes yield; we’ve been lucky to enjoy it, and as learners, they’ll experience it again with new people. I like having a job that ends, that refreshes itself, and I trust that I’ll have many more special classes in my future. I’ll just miss this particular class for a while…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher