When School Is Out Part One

 

A great friend and mentor once confided that teachers are always thinking about school:while  in line at the grocery store,while  unloading the laundry, during the seventh inning stretch at Yankee Stadium.  And, as she was about most everything else, she was right about this, too.

Yes. It’s our dirty little secret. Teachers are always in school mode, even when class is not in session.  Even when we are not correcting today’s papers. Even when we are not attending meetings, communicating with families, filing reports, running photocopies.  We are always thinking about the next great lesson.

My husband reads the morning newspaper to catch up on what happens while he’s busy living life.  Me?  I scour the op-ed pages for accessible and relevant informational texts to supplement my core readings.  Last week, I found a piece about the endangered Madagascar ecosystem to enrich the 7th grade whole class novel Once on this River by Sharon Dennis Wyeth.  I was on the treadmill–actively avoiding exercise ennui– when I caught a rerun of a clip about the Lost Boys, perfect to pair with A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.

It is like watching the  scenery on the daily commute: you never know what you are going to see. But you have to be looking.

And it is not only me.  My middle school colleagues readily confess.  Road signs are signals, symbols like greater than-less than, the periodic table or middle C on a musical staff.  Cooking directions in Spanish is a  sequential use of authentic language.

And yes, this is because we love to teach. It is part and parcel of who we are.   But it is also because we love what we teach. We see the world through the lenses of our content areas; it is how we create meaning from every interaction, every day.

 

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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.

Gravity

No, not that “Gravity.”   I like my cinema closer to home and just a little bit lighter.

No. Forget the movies.

Imagine instead a Pearson Common Core multiple choice question that might go something like this:

The gravity of the state of American education cannot be underestimated.  Which of the following answer choices best defines  gravity as it is used in this sentence?

A) weight

B) magnitude

C) the attraction of the mass of a planetary body at or near its surface

D) solemnity

Don’t misunderstand.   I don’t dislike the Common Core.  As an English teacher, I am a huge fan.  I love close reading.  I love supported, well-crafted argument.  I love that implemented appropriately, the Common Core will simultaneously challenge both high achievers and reluctant scholars.

No, the Common Core is not the problem.

Those most closely  connected to instruction –administrators, parents, teachers– agree, too:  American students must be well prepared for their post-high school lives.  This is not negotiable.  The success of a democracy rests in an educated populace; the success of a competitive economy resides here, too.   There is no contention about this shared goal.

So what’s the problem, then?

Education has become a prop in the theater of American politics.  Contenders for public office who may know little about the ingredients of successful instruction wave education about, making sweeping promises, sometimes vilifying teachers.   They glad-hand voters, swearing that more rigorous tests are the answer. More tests will promote learning.  More tests will lead to accountability.  More tests will provide the data necessary to fix what ails US schools.

But politicians who mislead the public into believing that more high stakes testing will somehow magically yield  universally stronger students over- simplify an extremely complex issue. Rigid adherence to the notion that linking teachers’ annual ratings to standardized tests will lead to improved performance fails to account for the intangibles that affect instruction, things like poverty and security.   Kids who come to school hungry will not perform well on tests.  Kids whose health care needs are not met will not perform well on tests. Kids who are anxious will not perform well on tests. Schools that are underfunded may not have the resources to support student achievement.  Time devoted to testing would likely be better spent cultivating a culture of intellectual curiosity,  nurturing the thrill of discovery, fulfilling the potential of every child in every classroom.

Gravity.  So much rests on education.  It’s not about number two lead pencils or  tabulated data.  It’s about the weight of wanting to know more tomorrow than you know today.  It’s about a solemn promise we make to all kids that if they work hard, their futures will be bright. It is about the magnitude of the responsibility we have to promote preparedness and achievement.  It’s about the pull of the moon, Mars, Venus that will draw today’s students to become tomorrow’s explorers.

 

P.S.: Again, I thank everyone for following/reading this and my other blog.

A Great Legacy, But Such a Great Loss

The world lost a great teacher yesterday.  And I lost a wonderful friend.

I was fresh out of graduate school when I first met Jane. I was brimming with the latest, greatest educational theory, but oh-so-short on instructional practice.  She voluntarily became my mentor at a time when mentors weren’t mandated.   When I was teaching English off a cart, in a different room each period,  she created a home for me in her classroom, sharing her space, sharing her experience, sharing herself.

Like the kids she taught, I loved her, at least in part, because she so clearly loved me.

She was generous and kind, cultured and smart.  If the numbers-game shows I have become a good teacher, it is largely because of what I learned from her.

She taught both the most motivated kids in our building and the most reluctant: senior honors kids and what New York State used to call “Non-Regents” kids.  She prepared them for college and she prepared them for life.  Her students became pharmacists, doctors, musicians, police officers, plumbers, mechanics, accountants, lawyers, contractors, even teachers.  Moreover, they were all forever changed for the time they spent in her classroom, learning living lessons about dignity, pride, integrity.

At the heart of all her lessons was love.  Oh, how she did love her students, all of them. She loved the boy whose hand shook because he feared the permanence of ink. She loved the girl who rewrote her college essay so many times that we both could recite it from memory.  She loved the boy who won first prize in Syracuse for performing the fastest student brake job in the vocational education competitions.  She loved them all.
She began with the premise that kids respond when they know the adults in their lives care about them.  Simple, right? Nurture them. Listen to them.  Celebrate them.  Expect them to do their best because that is what is best for them.

Other words of wisdom:

Be ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice. * The best lessons may not be in your plan book. * Read your students’ cues. * Create a safe classroom where kids will take risks. * Always laugh at yourself, but never laugh at your students.*  Do not allow the bureaucracy  of education to keep you from your real job to inspire and encourage kids.* Oh and yeah, no split infinitives, no sentences ending with prepositions and nothing is ever, ever busted; it is broken or better yet, not functional.

And it  all worked so well.  Jane didn’t need  smartboard lessons or iPads to get kids to buy into The Great Gatsby.   Sometimes she just read to them.  She made them beg John Proctor to just confess.  She made them cry for Holden Caulfield’s dead brother.   She differentiated instinctively because to her, every student was an individual with a personal history, with unique needs.  She tapped into what made each kid tick and somehow got the best of each of them because they knew she loved them.

And they loved her back.  The year that she retired,  after forty-three years of teaching, the kids asked her to be their commencement speaker.  She spoke to them as she had always talked to them: with respect and with passion.

But most of all, to my husband and to me,  Jane has been a great friend, a surrogate grandmother to our own two children.  She traveled to Ithaca and to Boston for both of their college graduations, cheering  loudest of any family member present when their names were read.    She had moved to Texas—I know, right?  What a place for the quintessential New York City gal!—and recently, we saw her when we could.  But she was happy in her new life and that was what mattered most to us.

Jane had an old school wit and could always make us laugh.  She loved Lord and Taylor and The New Yorker and Jane Austin and the New York Giants.  She liked a good chardonnay– slightly chilled– and Mamma Assunta’s  cannelloni.

She will live–and love– on in the many, many lives she has touched, but that is slight consolation for us.  There were so many things we looked forward to doing.  We just assumed that Jane would be there with us.  We are so, so sad to have lost her.

Jane had a way of finding the right words for every occasion and I know she would tell us something about this, too. I will be listening and when I hear it, I will know.

Fore!

On my first day of summer vacation, what did I do?  I played golf.  That’s right. I went from meeting 184 days’ worth of challenges  directly to the links where I would be totally humbled by a little dimpled ball.

No doubt golf is frustrating.  You tee up, take a few practice swings and feel pretty good about your chances of making your new driver do what the salesman in Golfsmith promised it would do.  Address the ball. Run through all those little known secrets you saw on the Golf for Dummies DVD. Yeah, I got this. Then somewhere between the takeaway and the follow-through something happens;  you miss the sweet spot and all you can do is watch helplessly as your ball soars/hooks/slices toward A) the water trap   B) the bunker   C) the next fairway   D) the tick-ridden, snake laden overgrowth.

It doesn’t help that my game is wildly erratic and that on any given try, I could get a good roll even on a pop-up or end up in the rough on a really great shot.  It doesn’t help that when I took golf at the local community college, the instructor said of my swing, “It’s the swing of a softball player. It ain’t pretty, but it seems to be working for you.”  It doesn’t help that too much of the time, I am all about the heave and brawn of the driver at the expense of the finesse and precision of the irons.

So, yeah, why would I actually choose to do this on my first day of summer vacation?

Well, I guess this sounds wimpy, but on the course, I can accept my weaknesses. I know I will never be a threat to Anika and I don’t really care. I am a pretty consistent novice and I see those infinitesimal increments of improvement in my game. As long as I have a couple of decent  tee shots, I am really OK with my golf inadequacies .

In the classroom, though, it’s a different story. I want to be the best I can be. Some people would call me a classic Type A. Every single day in school,  I am  all about doing one better than the day before.   Simply making par–effective– isn’t good enough.  I am looking, everyday, to at least birdie every shot. I actually want that ace every time I put the key into the lock and turn on the lights in my classroom. I don’t care if it’s a blind shot or a bad lie, I am going to do everything in my power to come in under par. Though statewide, from Montauk to Utica, the powers that be have told NY teachers, “Highly effective is only a place we visit,” I am not buying it.  I’m not content to be an instructional tourist. I want full club membership and all the privileges that comes with that. I don’t want any gimmies, either.

Here’s the thing. If you believe that you can only be effective, you can end up teaching the way I play golf.  You go into the game thinking that a few good shots will keep you coming back.  When the people in charge in Albany and Washington tell you that effective is good enough, they are not encouraging excellence.  They are saying good enough is good enough.

Not one of my colleagues is just good enough; not one of my colleagues would say they are content with good enough.  I work among  seasoned pros who, every day, choose the right club for the task and who every  day make it their missions to meet the challenges of the classroom with energy and skill in order to do what’s best for the kids they teach. I would play best ball with anyone in my corridor any day of the week. They make the cut every quarter and I am proud to be on The Tour with them.  I would be proud to caddy for any/all of them!

Some call golf a good walk spoiled.  But hey, I love the accessories: cute skirts, new shoes, white gloves. And every once in a while, maybe something close to a highly effective shot.001

Enjoy the Journey

Enjoy the journey.

That was what I promised back in August, while vacationing on the Rhode Island shore.  It seemed so simple, so clear then. Everyone who knows me knows I truly love the work I do; I was determined then not to allow disruptive forces to capsize my professional kayak.  I was resolute: I would protect my passion from pirates, piranhas, and politicians.

Enjoy the journey.

Then it was September. No sooner had the school year begun that stress exerted increasing pressure, rocking my little instructional boat, interfering with what used to be the joy of teaching.  I was paddling faster and harder than ever, but the current just kept pushing me backwards.  This was not the annual back-to-school angst or re-entry.  For the first time  since I was a novice,  I felt unanchored. It was simultaneously  frightening and frustrating. The safety straps of my professional life jacket were giving way under the constant strain, and from early September till now, I have been navigating uncharted waters, fearing that I might be swept away by roiling tides beyond my control, afraid that this was preventing me from doing what was best for kids.  It was all I could do to keep my craft afloat.  I found myself sailing in circles, desperate for nonexistent channel markers to show me the way.

Enjoy the journey.

But I am an optimist, a the-glass-is-half-full kind of girl.  So I continued to take great joy in the moments of smooth sailing on this traumatic voyage. At the heart of each day were the kids, kids who had never read The Pearl or met Ponyboy and the greasers, kids who were rightfully outraged by the hatred and shamed by the inhumanity of the Holocaust, kids who discovered their inner poets and essayists, kids who spun their own narratives and met their future selves.  I used every tool of the trade to keep us all buoyant in an alphabet soup of distractions and disruptions–MAPs, ELAs, APPR, RTTT, AYP. The seventh grade and I took an expedition to the Harlem Renaissance and we documented our visit to Langston Hughes in a DVD.  The adventure was fraught with unexpected obstacles–technology almost sank our raft–but in the end, we made it safely to our next port of call, stronger and smarter for the excursion. With the eighth grade, we traveled to the scariest of all destinations: ourselves, using the experiences of those more accomplished than we were to fuel our mojos. From Colin Powell’s Thirteen Rules, we derived our own guidelines for safe sailing; Sandra Cisneros dared us to do the impossible; Sonya Sotomayor’s abuelita showed us the power of unconditional love.

Enjoy the journey

What truly save me from death by water, though, were the people in my own corridor. I have been continually inspired and humbled by the strength and smarts of my colleagues who have been busy maintaining their own vessels under pressure equal to or greater than the waves that have threatened my ship.  I am amazed by their stamina and their courage.  Every day the people I am privileged to work with labor endlessly for the common good of the kids they are responsible for. Their lessons are creative and challenging and I could never, ever have survived this perilous journey–much less enjoyed it–without them.  I have learned so much from their skillful maneuvers and from their grace under pressure. Being among such seasoned souls has made me more able to conquer the choppiest of waters.  Being among such very fine people has allowed me not to lose faith in humanity.

Enjoy the journey.

After a year of hurricanes and squalls, sand bars and rip currents, we will soon dock.  My little craft will show the wear.  There will be places where rocks have ripped the hull and where sea water  has washed over the gunwales. It is my fervent hope–there’s that optimist again–that by August, I will be healed and will once again be able to make that new school year’s resolution to enjoy the journey.       

525,600 Minutes

One year.  4 seasons.  12 months.  52 weeks.

When my son first helped me create this blog, I secretly hoped I could do for teaching what Julie Powell did for cooking.  Instead of replicating 524 recipes in a year, I would dutifully record 365 tidbits about life in a public school classroom.

It was a mighty undertaking.  But if Julie could master the art of French cooking, I would try to recreate the complexities of American education.

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And I really did intend to blog every single night.

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Blogging possibilities truly are infinite. On any given day, the average teacher works around three technological catastrophes, averts four BFF squabbles, solves for X, sums up the causes of World War II, reads three dozen critical lens essays, sends two kids to the nurse’s office and dispenses eighteen minutes of life skills advice.

Yes, I would blog every night.
If there were eight million stories in the naked city, I knew there had to be at least a few hundred in my middle school English class.

And there were.  The trouble was that living in those minutes left me with little time to write about them.

But over this year, I have found time to publish posts and pages that have been “hit”  23,483  times.

What I have found is that everything can be related to teaching.  Everything.  Kitchen gadgets, golf, car maintenance, kayaking, the New York Yankees.

It isn’t that these things are really like teaching.  It is just that when you are a teacher, you see instruction in everything around you.  You see school in summer traffic jams.  You see a lesson in the nightly news.  You envision the journey of a school year as you paddle for the shore on an August afternoon or enjoy a delicious dinner in a new neighborhood restaurant.

So to all you who have taken the time to read what I have written, I send a huge thank you.  I hope to keep up the pace I set in this first year, though as we near the finish line of another academic term, writing time becomes more and more precious.

But if Julie could whip up Julia’s boeuf bourguignon, then I should be able to keep up with my own instructional recipes!