Monday, December 31, 2007

May Your New Year Bring New Beginnings

Here's a quote I stumbled on a while back, in the blog of a young Swedish graphic designer:

"Everything's changing, it is unseemly to stand still."

- Radoslaw Siechowicz

I don't discredit the value of stillness - it is a time to gather thoughts and develop new ideas. But standing still when things are changing...that I think we must not do, but rather be certain we (as teachers) have voices in the change, after well-spent moments of consideration for what we will say.

All my best to you and yours in the new year.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Pressing Our Fingers In Clay

It's been my habit for many years, over the various blogs I've had, to post this essay around the close of the year and to follow it up with a sort of manifesto on the morning of the new year. This has been the most difficult year of my teaching career, the one they talk about that breaks a teacher and sends them off to other employment, which is why I've been so much absent from this blog. But it was never, NEVER the students that made me consider quitting. It was they who kept me going, and their faces, upon remembrance, that will get me back there come January.

Each year, I dedicate this to one student. This year I dedicate it to A, a Katrina victim who had been ill-served in her school, as we've discovered of so many of those kids coming out of New Orleans were.

So, this is for A, whom I've had two years now, and who stood up in class one day during a lengthy discussion and, in a very quiet but powerful voice, announced she was, for the rest of her life, going to fight stereotypes having to do with women, with large women, with African-American women, with large African-American women, and with the idea that "Your look means anything about who you are."


God, how we get our fingers in each other's clay. That's friendship, each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of the other.
--Ray Bradbury*

I did not start out with the intention to be a teacher. I was going to be an actress. Maybe an author (I had some small success in that arena, actually). Possibly a veterinarian, and a sculptor in my spare time. But the matriarchs of my family were all teachers. My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. When my father retired from the military he became a teacher too.

In hindsight it is possible I didn't have any real choice, but not because I wasn't given any. At a certain point in life I made a desultory jab at the business world with no success. Remembering summers spent pretending to be a teacher in my grandmother's classroom - the marvel of colored chalk, the smell of a new pack of construction paper - I felt that odd, tingling tug I suppose many people must feel when the unexpected purpose comes to swing around on the rusty hinges of the soul.

Teachers are never fully prepared for what they will encounter in the classroom. There are not enough student-teaching hours in a lifetime to ready one for the constant daily exposure to a clientele so reluctant and resistant as a student. The daunting arrival of new initiatives for education, poorly supported by equal financial enthusiasm, make public school teaching in this day and age a strange, almost apocalyptic landscape, the survivors of which are those who learn how to dumpster dive for useful left-overs, convince students to keep the caps on markers so they don't dry out, and turn a sheet of black poster paper into a working chalkboard.

Yet for all that, I was bestowed with a gift by those teachers that came before me, which makes me uniquely suited to benefit from teaching. Both parents and grandparents were immensely interested in me as a child and teenager, as an evolving human being. They listened to me. They indulged and encouraged several interests that have since fallen by the way-side. When I think back on my childhood and teen-hood, I am clearly able to see how very intrigued they were in watching me figure out the world, and getting a weekly, if not daily report. They bred this down into my blood, this amazing delight in the evolution of the young mind. Without this, there would be no purpose to teaching.

Media accounts of teen activity seldom paint a flattering portrait of American teens. Neither, quite honestly, do they themselves at times. Uncertain, frightened, fragile, brash, they can be cruel, retort defensively, and are driven by social maneuverings and politics that put the Borgias to shame. They are aware of this. Symbolic genocide of their kind in teen slasher flicks have made them callus to violence. They know this. Their schools are under-funded, and they lack substantial access to technology, which they recognize as their key to the future. They are able to speak about all the issues affecting them in their own elegant vernacular, all too often ignored by the very adults who claim to be representing their best interests. They know this too, and they shut down with a weary, frustrated slump to wait out the internment of forced silence and negative appraisal. All too often the spark of self-confidence dims in favor of the hunger for validation. Luckily, they seem to have boundless reserves of fire within them, not so easily extinguished. It is in those moments of rekindling that I find my certain sanctity.

There is a particularly cosmetic satisfaction to being a teacher that is widely recognized. Studying learning processes, composing a lesson plan that succeeds, seeing students make connections in their writing and their classroom responses, the well-oiled machinations of a successful classroom in which students are self-starting and engaged all contribute to the sense of well-being, of things well done.

What are more rarely spoken of in concrete terms are the rewards that emerge above and beyond that. Perhaps it is because we find ourselves at a loss, words run out, when we are suddenly, unexpectedly humbled by the trust that is placed in us when we have earned our students' respect; astonished by the power of a quiet voice to silence a noisy room; amazed by the first event of a single hand held up which draws all eyes forward. They listen for me. They watch for me. I didn't know this before now. There is great magic in these things, bestowed upon us only by the good graces of those we teach.

These are moments of significant purpose, exquisite clarity of self and the self's impact on others. Moments when we are able to put into play those abstract lessons learned from teachers of the past and find that small, sometimes invisible path to each student's heart, cling to it for a moment, and insert one whisper of validation in those world-weary ears. You matter. I know it in my bones. I don't say what isn't true.

We don't impact them all. We certainly aren't driven to teaching for the money or acclaim. But it is rumored, in whispered conferences among peers, we impact more than we know, or will ever know. Someday, we say, they will remember what happened here, and they will tell others.

And so we go looking for the switch, the button, the thread; the connection between ourselves and our subjects and their minds. The lack of resources easily falls away - why despise what we do not have? - and in its place lies what was most true all along. The greatest secret to teaching is simply the desire to watch students learn. We must want to see it occur as much as we may want material things, as much as we may want air. We could do this with sticks in mud if we had to, scratch it out on papyrus. As long as each day finds us another opportunity to tell them again what our best teachers told us in their own way: I see you. Your voice has shape. You do amazing things. The world got better when you came into it.

In the quietest, most perfect moments of teaching I realize this is true, not merely something to be said to placate a fragile adolescent ego. They do amazing things. Unfettered by any adult sense of caution or pretended humility they create words and art and music full of limitless passion: joy and despair and loathing and adoration. Their humor is boundless, their wit clever as any satirist. Their voices are the shape of the future. They see beyond what is to what might be, and pursue it with the fierce intent to make it true.

Watching them, I can see the future begin to take on form and purpose. Hearing them, I hear the echoes of my past self when I was enormous with meaning and ideas, perhaps some I've forgotten, or that have fallen by the wayside. I am reminded that there were no golden days of yore, that each day is now, that each moment is right now, that there is no better time to find an excuse to laugh, to ponder, to wonder how it all works and why, to tell the world what I think of it, to put my name, my mark, on the things that will be remembered.

I have learned this much about being a teacher: it is the secret promise of education that the teacher, in the end, will benefit more than the students. It is in the rarest moments of teaching that the teacher transcends their own limitations, lets go of their past, and evolves bit by bit into a being of worth. And so I carry on, pressing my fingers into what substance I am given, seeing what shapes will emerge, indelibly molded by the willing hands of those I encounter - knowing that someday the chalk will be so deep in the creases of my flesh I will seem made of clean, smooth clay.


*Bradbury, Ray. Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bantam Books, New York. 1962.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Student Turns Back On The Hand That Feeds Him: Or, It Ceases To Surprise Me Any More

Student: [at 8:40 this morning] I failed my semester final, and the semester. Is there any extra credit work I can do to pass?

Me: You do realize today is the last day of finals and the semester?

Student: Yes.

Me: I don't show you ever came for morning tutoring with me, is that correct?

Student: Yes.

Me: I don't show you ever signed up for side-by-side conferencing with me during class for any assignment, is that correct?

Student: Yes.

Me: Did you go to afternoon tutoring, evening tutoring in the library, Saturday tutoring? Did you ask for help in class from Ms. S? [inclusion support instructor]

Student: No.

Me: Did you write the rough draft of the essay we wrote in class over the last five days that you could then use on your final?

Student: No.

Me: Did you study the exam review I gave?

Student: I didn't get one.

Me: Yes, you did. I handed you one when you came in the door.

Student: I lost it.

Me: I told all my classes that there were extras available.

Student: [shrug]

Me: So let me get this straight. You would like me to create, on the last day of the semester, some sort of extra credit which will make up for the three failing 6 weeks' grades you've had since August? Right now, when I'm about to give my last 2 finals, and have to grade 161 essays by the time grades are due tomorrow at noon? What is it you think I can put together by the time the bell rings at 9 to make up for all the work you haven't done since school started? And also...wait a minute. Do you even have a backpack with you?

Student: No.

Me: Did you bring any paper?

Student: No.

Me: Did you bring something to write with?

Student: No.

Me: came to me on the last day of the semester, wanting me to take on the added work of creating for you some sort of extra credit meaningful enough to raise your ENTIRE semester grade to passing...and you didn't bring paper, or anything to write with?

Student: [to his credit, looking really dejected now] Yes.

Me: So your intent was that I should also have to provide you with the supplies to complete the work? Are you aware that I buy the extra supplies for this classroom?

Student: [squirms a bit]

Me: Your accommodations allow for you to retake the semester exam for a maximum of a 70. Do you have a last period exam today?

Student: No. I just have baseball this morning. I can study then.

Me: Did you bring money with you today?

Student: Yes.

Me: Good. Take your money, and this rubric, and the sample essay we've been deconstructing, studying, and mirroring for this entire assignment. Make a copy of it in the library and bring it back. Then, I suggest you spend the time during baseball writing your rough draft for the essay, since it is 60% of your final exam. [Dictated by the district.]

Student: Um. Can I still fail this semester and then get my grade up enough to pass for the year next semester?

Me: [eyes probably popping out of head] Are you trying to tell me that after all this, you don't want to make the effort to even retake the semester exam? After you came here asking ME for extra credit?

Student: [squirms] Well...noooo...I'll take it. [Takes rubric and sample essay, returns within 10 minutes.]

Me: Okay, I'll see you next period.

Student...did not show up to retake final.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Student Drinks Chocolate Cheese

I usually try to spend my second period conference in a social skills class with some of our Autistic/Asperger students. The privilege of being welcomed into this (mostly private) class by them helps me when they are in my classroom, and helps me gain new perspectives in general.

Today, during "table time" in which we gather around the table and discuss concerns or objectives, one of the kids kept pulling random items out of his backpack. Finally, he pulled out a carton of chocolate milk and began drinking it. Someone asked him where all this stuff was coming from. He looked at the milk and said, completely deadpan, "I've had this in my backpack for two weeks."

We all gave the appropriate "ewww!" responses, which made him grin.

One student commented, "By now, it's pretty much just chocolate cheese."

Another student said, "What's the expiration date on it?"

And a third student said, without missing a beat, "1927."

At that point, we pretty much lost it.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Student Too Cute For Words

I have a student who tries very hard, but often gets lost in his work easily. He's also very shy and won't ever ask for help, so I usually try to make sure I'm anticipating some of his needs.

Today's activity kept me pretty busy going from group to group, and I noticed throughout that he kept trying to catch my eye. As I passed by each time, I tried to glance down at his work to see where he was stuck, but when I did he would flip to another page in his binder (already completed) and tap his pencil on it. Finally, on my third swing by, I slowed down enough to look at the page he was flipping to.

Across the top he'd written I NEED HELP, and he was tapping his pencil on it so I would notice. Can I get an "awwwwww" from the audience? It was too cute.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Good Old Fashioned Cheating

Cheating has become so high tech these days it's almost ridiculous to expect that I'm going to catch all of it. With phones getting smaller and teens' fingers getting faster, they can get five answers off the phone, have it off and returned to their pocket before I've even finished raising my eyebrow a la Mr. Spock and begun to cross the room.

With six identical classes, it's often not easy to come up with six different versions of the same assessment either. I can usually manage 3 different versions, and I stay mobile throughout the testing to keep them nervous. Still, it happens.

Last week, because we were in the library all period, I had a very quick quiz for them to take, and I'd gotten the versions scrambled up with everything else we were doing. (A computer reading test, checking out books, etc.) So I ended up using just one version of the test, the one I had the most copies of. Students got wind of it, of course.

I saw a girl repeatedly glancing down into her lap. Because we were in the library, I was behind her, and she didn't notice her table-mates had suddenly begun shifting nervously and clearing their throats to announce my approach (so subtle, these kids!). So I came up behind her and held out my hand, expecting to get a phone in return.

She handed me a tiny piece of paper with the answers hand-written on it. I swear, I haven't seen one of these since maybe my first year of teaching in middle school. I'm thinking of framing it, so I can show it to students some day when we're all jacked into the mainframe and paper is extinct. See kids, we used to cheat with paper! And had to brush our teeth by hand!

We then had to have the inevitable talk, where I inform her that she will receive a zero, she cries, then begs to retake the test, which I do not allow (there will be two more of these quizzes, so she can make up for the zero). I then asked her (as I always do), what she was afraid of, because I know cheating is a fear response though it may not be recognized as such by the student. She told me she hadn't studied. She then asked me if I was going to make her tell me who she'd gotten the answers from, and I said no. It sounded more like she wanted to confess, but I wasn't letting her off the hook that easily. It's one thing to choose to give out answers, it's another thing to choose to use them. In the end, it's all about you and the choices you make, I told her. Then she started crying again.

Gah. Why are some lessons so painful?