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