Middle School Ninja Warrior

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I love middle school.

My high school teacher friends think I am slightly crazy and my elementary colleagues don’t understand. But it is true.

Middle school rocks.

As I take my place in that hormonal primordial stew seasoned with Axe and bravado, I know I am home. And there is no place like home. It isn’t always smooth sailing and there is typically more than one person  ready to tell you what you do not know. But home is where the heart is and as devoted middle school teachers will tell you, there is no shortage of heart among their students.

Middle school kids still laugh at the obvious. They may have one foot in childhood and the other in the grown-up world, but they are still young at heart. Their  unbounded energy is contagious. They are exploring their interests and their capacity for empathy. They are beginning to make the essential link between work and success. They are old enough to be responsible and simultaneously young enough to care.

Yes, they are a volatile potion of combustible elements. Yes, they are a fragile package of contradictions. But there is also unmatched enthusiasm, life and curiosity resulting in passion, animation, and discovery.

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Success in middle school isn’t necessarily quantifiable. The data doesn’t always reside on a spread sheet. Success in middle school is measured in moments, those tangible experiences when kids find their voices, discover their talents.  Facilitating the journey into adolescence is as rewarding as it is exhausting. It is a lot like mastering the obstacles on American Ninja Warrior. You need to be smart, flexible and strong. You must effectively manage your allotted time. Above all else, you need to be committed to being the best you can be every day.  Middle school, like the warp wall, is not for the weak.  It can be all consuming.

It’s a work out. But then you hit the buzzer. And suddenly, it is all worth it.

 

 

 

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5 Lessons Education Can Learn from Sports

1. There are no short cuts.

Success is about hard work.  In every sport, the best players embrace the sweat.  Someone way smarter than I am once said, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

 2. Experience counts…a lot.

Rookie errors are costly. Veterans anticipate the unexpected and react with skill.

3. Resist the urge to showboat.

Humility is always classier than self aggrandizement. Individuals make plays, but teams win games.

4. Trust the coach.

Respect leadership.

 5. Stay hungry.

Today is yesterday’s tomorrow.

What We Do Is Important

     Let me open with this disclaimer:  I am not happy with what is happening to education, but I still really, really like my job.

We spent the morning with friends whose uber-successful careers have been in the corporate world and guess what?  They feel under-appreciated, disrespected, disheartened, distrusted.

Who ever would have thought that an MST and an MBA would have so much in common?  Angst? Stress? Panic?  Yup. We got that, too.

I always expected–well, more recently fervently hoped–that education was immune to the dirty goings-on we tend to accept in the private sector where success is determined solely by putting up winning numbers at any cost.  It felt safe–sometimes  a bit righteous, too– to believe that teaching would always be centered on  what’s best for kids and on discovery and progress, entities that defy a business model quantification.

Current obsession with scores and metrics as applied to instruction, however, proves that wrong. As our friends in the business world have always known,  numbers talk.  If you have been listening, you can hear the arithmetical conversation.     Teachers’  professional reputations are soon to be numerically calculated and, like the kids we teach, we are about to become known by our composite scores.  Kids aren’t numbers; kids are individuals, each with his or her own unique qualities, each with a promise for tomorrow.  I hope I never become a number to them.

The difference between the boardroom and the classroom?  I honestly  like what I do.  I still believe that what I do each day is important. I still see each child in my classroom as an individual whose potential for success is not computed by his numerical score. I come to work excited about what each day bring.  My friends working on Madison Avenue and Wall Street no longer say this.

It’s true.  I like my job.

It is unpredictable. It is exhausting.  It can be frustrating. I always take work home.  Always.

But I  still like my job.

Hostile political powers continue to disrupt and destabilize the workplace.  By the end of the week, I feel embattled and sometimes under-appreciated. My book bag is crammed with papers to grade and clerical tasks to complete.

But I really like my job.

Sounds like what Dr. Phil might call the classic definition of insanity.

But as an educator, I can still go into my classroom and look forward to the day’s work, what used to be called “teaching.”   I am excited to share a new novel with seventh graders: observing them as we read, hearing them gasp at an unexpected twist, seeing them smile, grimace, pout about the content.  It’s not about standardized tests or unreasonable bureaucratic decrees from Albany.  Though it has become over-accessorized,  at the heart of the day, teaching is what teaching has always been: about sharing a love for learning with kids.

I know that what we do is important. I don’t know how it will look on a spreadsheet or how my numbers will run.  But I know what we do in our classrooms does indeed touch the future.

What Would Socrates (or Annie Sullivan or Albert Shanker) Say?

Socrates.  John Dewey.  Maria Montessori. Jaime Escalante. Christa McAuliffe. Annie Sullivan.  Even by the most stringent application of the Danielson rubric, these folks are examples of highly effective teachers.  What would they say to high stakes standardized testing, APPR, Race to the Top?

Fade in on the scene: A stark corridor outside the closed door of the governor’s office. Fine mahogany door frame, frosted glass on the door, the governor’s name spelled out in three inch gold letters.    The characters are seated on uncomfortable institutional folding chairs waiting to speak with the governor regarding his educational policy.

John Dewey:  Everyone knows that children will excel when school is experiential.  Great Caesars’ Ghost, man, people  are assessing kids with a number 2 lead pencil?  To what end?

Albert Shanker (excitedly, spitting a bit as he speaks): To tear the heart out of the teachers, that’s what end!   It’s all about breaking the bonds of union solidarity.  I tell you, once teachers are assigned numerical scores, brotherhood will jump right out the third floor window of Roosevelt High School.  Defenestration. When that happens, people, it’s all over.

Jaime Escalante (sporting a a backward facing beret):  It gets worse, Jack-O.  When demographics “prove” that minority kids are destined to fail, some number two lead pencil pushing jerk in the state house or white house will say they cheated because everyone knows minority kids can’t learn calculus.

Dewey:  Surely you jest!

Socrates (adjusting his toga, standing): Say what you want, but teachers are used to being whipping boys for what ails society. When things go bad, it’s always the instructor’s fault.   Look what the Greeks did to me!  But if I may, how will students learn to think if all they are doing is coloring in spherical dots arranged in groups of four?  Moreover, how will teachers know what they have learned?  Likewise, won’t this tempt teachers to tailor instruction simply to meet the demands of the test?

Shanker: Hey, you with all the questions, Socrates, listen for a minute, will ya? None of this is about learning.  Not really.

Dewey: Not about learning?  Nonsense.  Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

Socrates: The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.  Just sayin’. (He sits.)

Shanker: You are all missing the point here, people.  This about vilifying teachers.  It’s about punishing teachers for making a living wage. It’s about proving we are doing what everyone now believes he can do better than we can. It is about destroying one of the only powerful unions left in this country!  There is nothing in any of this about learning or kids for that matter.

James Carville (peeking around the corner for an instant): It’s about the economy, stupid! (He disappears.)

Annie Sullivan (adjusting spectacles):  But I have questions, too. What about the interpersonal nature of the student teacher relationship? Would anyone deny that the relationship I worked to develop with Helen Keller was an organic element of our instructional success?   Is there any way to give teachers credit for this?

Maria Montessori (with a trace of an Italian accent): Please,  someone, tell me how this system of assessing children and evaluating teachers will improve education, especially the education of the most fragile children with disabilities. I would like to know more, such as how choice and freedom of movement  and self discipline will be part of this instruction. I have always believed that the ultimate goal of education is independence and I would so like to see how this progressive means of  student assessment and teacher evaluation will achieve that end.

Annie Sullivan: Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction.

Shanker: Those days are gone, Annie.  Now it’s every man for himself.

Jaime (bitterly):  Yes, dream on, sweet lady. Leave no children behind, unless they are minority kids.

Annie Sullivan (sadly):  Or deaf and blind kids.

Montessori: Or disabled kids.

Christa McAuliffe: To think I used to really believe that we touch the future because we teach.   People used to like us.  Teachers were respected.

Socrates: You think so, huh?

(The door opens and there is a collective sigh of relief among the waiting educators. The governor appears, nattily dressed in an Italian suit. He conspicuously adjusts his silk tie and clears his throat. He stands waiting as if there should be some type of acknowledgment of his presence. When no such gesture is forthcoming he addresses the group.)

Governor: Sorry that you all have been waiting so long, but I am afraid I am off to a press conference now followed by a fund raiser.

Dewey: But what about the children?

Shanker: What about the teachers?

Governor: No time for them right now.  I have a state to run and people to pander to.  See ya!

Fade out.

Creating home

“Sometimes it is hard to believe we raised two kids in this space,” my husband has said more than once.

He’s right.  By modern Westchester standards, our house is tiny. Before we carved out a bedroom in downstairs space that was once a garage, our kids shared one of the two main floor bedrooms and one bathroom, share being the operative word.  The “yard” is a mini lawn, too small for real sports, but big enough for a sprinkler and a sandbox, though not at the same time.  With some sidewalk chalk, however, the driveway–the steepest bane of our winter existence–became a pastel canvas, a new gallery with every rainfall.  We nurtured a family botanical garden that, over the years,  yielded roses, tomatoes, sunflowers,  marigolds and spices.

What our house lacked in square footage, we more than made up for in warmth.  Our kids agree that as children, they never felt deprived. Our house was truly a home where family and friends–theirs and ours– felt welcomed.  The dining room table was the hub of activity: dinners, homework, snacks, holidays meals, games. Yes, everyone adapted to share the space–a lesson not always easily learned–but generally, we were–and still are– happy.

OK, fine.  But what does this have to do with teaching?

Only everything.

Like a house, a classroom doesn’t have to be decked out with the latest and greatest gadgets to be a home for kids. The best educational toys–at home or at school– mean nothing if all we do is throw them at kids, expecting results.  An effective classroom, like a comfortable home, does have to be a safe environment where it is OK to make a few mistakes and take some risks.  There should be structure and routine and there should be humor and kindness, none of which are available in stores or on line.

Learning communities are built around the human elements in the room, not the space, not the accessories.  Instructional bells and whistles are like 4th of July fireworks: loud but ephemeral. Smartboard  lessons and technology can be engaging, but it will always be  teachers who nurture curiosity and confidence–with or without iPads — who create classrooms where kids will see learning as a life long adventure.  Scholarship is embedded in the culture of these classrooms.  So are self-esteem and pride and dignity.

Families–in homes, in classrooms–evolve out of people.  When kids feel loved and safe, the sky’s the limit.

School Heroes

 

My first heroes were my parents. My mother and father loved me unconditionally and in addition to providing me with the staples of survival, taught me the tenets of morality and humanity that have guided me through life for some fifty years.

When I was old enough to go to school, I discovered another class of heroes: teachers. I n red brick public schools , in the care of those heroes,   I learned to read and to write.  I learned long division and later calculus. I learned about democracy and Buddhism and the Congress of Vienna.  I saw Dick and Jane and Spot run and I embraced the genius of Shakespeare and Fitzgerald.    But perhaps more important than academic data acquired in those schools, were the daily challenges to live the ethical ideals my parents expected me to apply even when out of their sight and earshot.  It was in these experiences that my school heroes helped me most.

They were always there: in the front of the room, looking over my shoulder, at the head of the line, appearing whenever, where ever they were needed.   Some marched in impossibly high heels, a comforting cadence on linoleum corridor floors.  Others glided effortlessly among our desks in colorful, flowing garments of the counter culture.  So many years later, I remember their names, their faces, their expectations.  These men and women demanded that I never settle for less than my best.  Though I tried repeatedly to evade them, they accepted no excuses for late work or unkind actions.  “What do you mean you don’t have a pen,” Miss German asked in front of the rest of the sixth grade.   That day, I also learned the meaning of a rhetorical question.   The consequences varied from classroom to classroom, but there remained the explicit understanding that what I did—or more often, did not do—was my own doing—or undoing, as it might be.  My school heroes taught me early on to man-up, that a lesson learned would never be  an error wasted.

And it didn’t occur to me to complain to my home heroes about a scolding or a detention, either.  I just knew that my parents wouldn’t be any more pleased about transgressions than my teachers had been.  When Mr. Danzig sat me out of kickball for unsportsmanlike behavior, I didn’t mention it at home, praying the rotary wall phone wouldn’t ring with the news.  The same held true for talking incessantly in Mrs. Horan’s global studies class or neglecting Mr. Kanze’s sixth grade arithmetic assignments.   The heroes on the home front were united with the heroes at school.  It was a brilliant alliance, one that gave me the priceless chance to live up to my potential every day, in every subject.

For this—and so much more– I thank my parents and my teachers. Together, my home heroes and my school heroes made me accountable.  With one voice, they reminded me to be my best.  I am ever grateful.  Their continued collaboration on my behalf helped me discover my talents, confirmed the rewards of hard work, propelled me toward personal and professional success.  When people expect you to do your best, more often than not, you do.

Remember Why We Entered This Profession

Everyone has heard those jokes about the allure of teaching: summer vacation, holidays,  short work days.   To the uninitiated, these apparent “perks”  have come to define our profession.  Those of us who teach, however, know better.

I found my way to teaching via the scenic route, by way of a BA in English, a brief stint in the world of print journalism, and the lifetime committment to motherhood.  With the support of my husband and with two small children at home, I enrolled in graduate school and earned an MS in Teaching, finishing with a 4.0 GPA.   Back then, teaching secondary English represented a chance to combine what I already knew I loved– kids, school, reading, writing–into a career.  And almost as soon as I addressed my first class of eleventh graders, I knew two things. One,  I really might enjoy teaching.  Two, teaching well was going to be so much more challenging than I ever imagined.

The first year or two were simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating.  Some days, my high school classes were a series of wild fires that I was barely able to contain, much less extinguish. I forgot to assign/collect/correct homework.  Classes were interrupted by (pick one or more): assemblies, fire drills, band lessons, play practice, class trips,  the occasional  lovers’ quarrel or fist fight.   Planning lessons and correcting an endless supply of essays instantly became a second full time job.  But then, something about Jay Gatsby’s love for Daisy or Atticus Finch’s courage in the face of blatant racism would evoke a sigh or a cheer and then, the class and I collectively soared.

Eventually, I mastered the planning, managed the pacing and became more optimistic about my chances of being a five year survivor, the point at which my more experienced colleagues said they had become somewhat better at this very demanding and very complex job.

In the years since, I have taught AP Literature and now share my love for language with seventh and eighth graders whose energy and angst keep me on my instructional game.

Though the rules of the game have changed, it helps me each day to remember that I love what I do.  I still belive what I believed on my first day on the job: next to parenting, teaching is perhaps the most important job on earth and just like parenting, the only way to get good at it is to do it.