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

Monday, June 2, 2008

Ruminations on Favorite Lessons

At this time of year, I reflect over lessons and think about what to keep, what to improve, and what to replace as I reorganize and prepare to pack up my stuff for the summer. Often, my colleagues and I show up at lunch clutching some beloved handouts as we put away files for the year; “Do you think you could use this?” “I found this worked well…” “What do you think I need to add to this one?” During these informal share sessions, I’ve gotten the seeds for some of my favorite and most useful lessons, so I thought I’d start an online version for us virtual colleagues. Every time I put away my research essay unit binder, my hand lingers affectionately over assignments for the Annotated Bibliography. I started using it in my research essay unit about five years ago, and each year, I think it serves students more and more.

When I was a girl, long, long ago in the eighties, we found our research sources via the card catalog and the Readers’ Guide to Periodicals. I only found as many articles as I was willing to fill out little slips of paper and ask to be retrieved from the shelves for me. Today, with the click of the mouse, my students find thousands of sources. As they select the HTML or PDF full text files, all the sources show up and print out in near identical appearance to each other. Back in my day, I looked at the hard copy article within its original publication. The ads on opposing pages, the pictures and font all gave me information about the source’s quality even if I didn’t actively realize it at first. I knew a medical journal must be more academic than a magazine just from its boring goldenrod cover and Times Roman typeset. For my students, all that peripheral information has been stripped away. The Annotated Bibliography process helps put it back.

I adapted directions I found on Cornell’s website. Students use the process to vet about ten sources before they sit down to begin organizing the essay itself. Initially, students think the process will be easy. In fact, it is easy, but it is also time consuming because it requires critical thinking. As students complete the steps, they need to ask themselves, who wrote this source? Per instruction, students “Google” authors’ names to find information they can use to establish credibility. We practice all these steps together, and then students repeat the process on new sources independently. I ask them to complete the annotations on ten sources, and let them reject some of those sources as inadequate, trying to communicate that not everything is of equal quality just because it all looks the same when found through a library database.

This process takes a couple of weeks. As students work on the project for homework, I do classroom lessons on reading and taking notes, paraphrasing, and how to write Works Cited entries. The work can be rote, but students tend to find the process empowering, too. This process provides clear, distinct steps for determining the “good” stuff from the “not so good” stuff, and my students are glad for the tool. Because the Annotated Bibliography repeats the process for each source, it lends itself to differentiation, too. Students can learn the steps and then re-apply them, working at their own paces. I can direct students to sources appropriate for their reading level, too. Not everyone gets it right the first time through; I let students revise the document until all the annotations are high quality. Sometimes students thrill me during this revision process and say things like, “Actually, I’m not going to use that source at all. I couldn’t really establish the author’s credibility, so I think I’m going to find something else.”

Writing a good research essay takes experience, but an Annotated Bibliography can really be mastered the first time out once students understand the process. I like including this assignment in our research process, not only for the enhanced research skills and critical thinking it provides, but for the sense of accomplishment it gives students during what can often be a long and wearying process. I’m always on the look out for processes that improve the research essay unit!

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