Friday, September 26, 2014

Really seeing our students

When I initially applied and enrolled in the ASTL graduate program at Rhode Island College I felt annoyed that this was something I was being forced into. The state of Massachusetts requires that teachers obtain a masters degree within the first five years of teaching. So I begrudgingly signed on to the program, thinking of it as something to "get through." However, over the last year or so I have come to really enjoy the program. One of my absolute favorite parts of being in a graduate cohort are the positive people I have the opportunity to be surrounded by, my fellow classmates. I believe that being in a positive, supportive environment has had a tremendous impact on my experience. 

Although I am naturally cynical, my classmates push and challenge me to think and behave more optimistically. Conversely, my coworkers often have the opposite impact (either intentionally or unintentionally). I'm still working on having the self discipline and self control to not feed into negative attitudes.When I'm with classmates I feel that a more positive and hopeful side of my identity is drawn out. When I'm with coworkers I feel like I want to shut down and shut people out.

I share this experience because in many ways I feel connected to the story of Janine, one of the case studies shared in Author Michael Nikkula's text, Understanding Youth.  Janine, a high school student, seeks to take risks in order to develop and shape her own identity. Much of her freshmen year in high school is spent with fellow risk takers partying and looking for ways to figure out who they "really are."It's not until Janine works with a teacher she calls "Ms. P" that she starts to see a different path for her life, a different identity. In Ms.P's class, Janine is highly successful. Ms. P sees a lot of potential in Janine and she chooses to draw out that potential. Ms. P brings out the best in Janine. She has a way of really looking into and looking after her student, and knows how to help guide her. If Ms. P had not encouraged and invested in Janine, Janine's path may have looked tremendously different. By the end of the school year Janine's "thinking and writing were displayed for an audience she valued, which allowed her to value herself more fully as well" (pg.60).

As human beings we are greatly impacted and influenced by our surroundings. Each experience, every day, adds or takes away from our own life story. When we are around people whom we feel valued by, this will have a substantial impact on our lives. When surrounded by those who challenge us, we will grow. My experience with this has come through my graduate program. Janine's experience with this came when she felt like someone could really see into her world, like someone could see the real her. Out of this experience, she may make some major life changes. Reading about Janine's story was incredibly validating for me as a teacher and as a living, breathing human being. I want to be a teacher who makes kids feel valued. I don't always know how to do this, how to really see them or get into their heads, hearts and souls. This requires a lot of creativity and authenticity. It's not about creating a wildly entertaining classroom experience. My goal is to host more of an open forum where kids feel comfortable participating, to build in the "scaffolds" that Nakkula talks about. One of my favorite quotes from chapter three of Understanding Youth can be found on page 53, "The call to make education enticing to students should not be confused with an approach to making it fun through superficial entertainment." How do we move beyond the superficial classroom? How do we connect with our students? These are questions that I suppose I will never stop asking. My hope is that I get better at finding the answers.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Authoring One's Life

At the beginning of the school year I run through all of the regular first day motions that most teachers go through. We play an ice breaker name game, take attendance, and go over the rules and class procedures together. As we go through the rules and procedures together, one of the most important points I bring up is the matter of teacher-student respect and student-student respect. We talk about what the  term "respect" really looks like and what it really means on a daily basis. As we discuss concrete examples of respect, I like to tell students that you never really know what other people are going through.  I remind them that when/if they behave disrespectfully towards each other (in the form of teasing, mockery, sarcasm, etc.) that they could really be hurting someone who is already in a tremendous amount of emotional pain. The atmosphere in the classroom typically changes when we discuss this reality. It's as though everyone becomes very aware of their own humanity and it brings a feeling of humility to the class. I think this point really resonates with students as they are at a very sensitive and vulnerable stage in their lives. From this first moment together as a class I want students to know that I do not intend to treat them disrespectfully and I ask that they behave similarly. I want students to know that we all hold some power in the classroom, this is not a dictatorship.

I share this story because one of my priorities as a teacher is to make kids feel empowered, to make them take ownership of their own actions and the consequences that follow. I also feel that it is incredibly important for me to let students know that I'm not there to criticize them or break them apart. I have many memories of feeling powerless and out of control as a child and as an adolescent. I remember many teachers who sought to control me, to dis-empower me. As they shouted or mocked or blatantly ignored me, I learned that they didn't really see me. They didn't see what I had to offer. Without my teachers having to say that I was not worthwhile or valuable, I still learned this lesson. I often flew under the radar. I remember one of the only projects that I ever put any effort into involved creating a soundtrack for the novel Wuthering Heights. I really couldn't tell you anything about the book, but what I do remember is the feeling of validation that came with verbal praise and recognition from the teacher after she graded the project. She made it a point to recognize me, to treat me with genuine respect and kindness. It is for this reason that I choose to look for the good in each student on a daily basis. I want to draw this goodness out of each of my students.

I believe that my Wuthering Heights experience is the exact type of experience that author Michael J. Nakkula is talking about in his book, Understanding Youth. Nakkula argues that we learn exponentially more from our experiences and interactions with teachers and classmates than we will ever learn from a set of notes taken in class. Teachers and schools are incredibly concerned with content and curriculum, and rightfully so-standards are important. However, there are other very important lessons that students continue to learn when they attend school. Each interaction is a page in the novel of a student's life. Through their teachers, students learn whether or not they have value. Teachers have an impact on students' lives whether or not they realize it. Teachers are "co-authors" in the stories of their students lives, according to Nakkula. Every action is a choice with serious implications. 

Nakkula includes a variety of very important points in writing about this subject matter. He emphasizes the importance of relationships with students, but also asks-"how do we go about doing this?" Additionally he adds that the traditional school structure inhibits the ability of students to feel empowered. These are two important points to consider-how do we form real relationships with more than one hundred students at a time? And how do we do this in 45 minute increments in a controlled environment? These circumstances are not conducive to deep relationship building. In order to break down the barriers between teachers and students, Nakkula encourages teacher transparency and honesty. He adds that this can be the difference between really getting to see student progress versus a student completely shutting down or becoming disruptive.

The resounding message here is that all teachers are students and all students are teachers. We are all constantly learning from our day to day interactions, whether we realize it or not. If all teachers and all students truly understood the depth and significance of this reality, we could have a profound and lasting impact in schools. So the question I'm left with is: How can I become a better student of my students?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Thoughts on Vulnerability and Knowing Everything

Vulnerability Just Ahead 

Here's a question: How comfortable are you with the term "vulnerability"? Does this word make you cringe? Does it excite you? I am beginning to realize that I absolutely despise feeling vulnerable. I want to know the most, to be the best, to have it all together. I have worked hard to make sure that I am never in a situation where I feel that I don't have some sense of control. I tell my husband how to drive.  I bag my own groceries at the grocery store, because I know how I want them arranged. Everything in my house (and in my classroom) has a spot. I write lists of things to get done. I enjoy crossing items off those lists. I don't like people telling me what to do, or how to do it. I am in control.

And I wonder where this has all come from....

When I was a kid, I was incredibly disorganized and scatterbrained. I didn't do well in school. I didn't feel that I had any control over my own circumstances. I often stayed quiet in order to avoid seeming like an idiot. I never felt like I had everything together. I always looked forward to the day when I could do things my way. I looked forward to being an adult. As an adult, I will tell you that I enjoy my day to day life infinitely more than I enjoyed life as an adolescent (which is probably the case for 99.9% of adults). I am finally able to do things my way, to feel like I have things together

Upon entry into the teacher education program at RIC, I told myself that I needed to make sure to do whatever was necessary so that I'd "have it together," because, after all...teachers have it all together, right? When it comes to teaching, my desire to eliminate any sense of vulnerability has been a driving force.I stay up late trying to find ways to make lessons more interesting, and making sure that I know as much about the following day's topic of study as possible. Additionally, I stay up late attempting to micromanage each moment of class time for the following day. I always have a plan for those five minutes of down time. Again, I am in control. 

I will say that my desire to avoid vulnerability has been beneficial in some ways. It feels good to have a well run, orderly classroom. It feels good to know that students respect me. I've had a number of old students from last school year stopping by my classroom to say hello. We say hello in the hallways. I have not made myself so robotic that I am completely impersonal. However, I feel that I do run the risk of becoming more impersonal with students as the years continue. I think I'm at a point where I need to take a step back and be OK with some vulnerability in teaching and in life in general. 

The reason I chose to write about this topic this week is because I feel that Ayers' overall message is about becoming vulnerable. On pg. 115 he says "...if we already know everything, we are terrible students and bad teachers." My goal should not be to make sure I know everything, I need to be reminded of this again and again. My goal should be to reach students, to connect with them, to be on their level, to be vulnerable with them.

I once heard an older teacher say "the day that I say I know everything is the day I should retire." This is a good reminder, a good mantra as the school year begins. The one question I'm left with is how I go about doing this? How can I become more vulnerable? 


Sunday, September 7, 2014

To Teach: The Journey, in Comics

William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner have created an interesting and thought provoking graphic novel, To Teach: The Journey in Comics. I found the first half of this book to be an easy, quick read. This isn't to say that the content was easy, or able to quickly be put into practice though. Although the book was light and airy (probably due to the fact that it's a graphic novel), it also poses some great questions and challenges to the classroom teacher. I found that several quotes and phrases within the text really resonated with me and for the purposes of organization and order, I  am going to break this blog post into sections according to those quotes and phrases.

Here are some of my favorites:

"In fact, it is often the myths themselves the young teacher must fight against"... (pg.3)

I find that over and over again, each year of teaching is truly a fight against the "myths that bind us," as Linda Christensen would say. Where I teach, there is a large divide amongst teachers as far as what makes for "good" teaching. To some people, good teaching looks like a classroom that is tightly controlled and intimidated to the point that no one dares to step out of line. The teacher is all knowing, their purpose is to deposit content knowledge into the blank brains of the children sitting in front of them. To some, good teaching comes in the form of questions, and well organized groupings where students are asked to be responsible for their own learning. These classes tend to work in more room for movement and activity and flexibility. Although the second scenario sounds like it is more conducive to learning, there is more room for disruption and off-task behavior.

As a (relatively) new teacher, I see myself caught in the middle. I want students to be on task, rather than socializing. I know that socialization is a large component of education, its one of the most important things kids learn in school, but I feel that it can take over the classroom and distract students from learning anything relevant to the content. As much as I have tried to hand over control in the past, I feel like it's not something I'm willing to give over completely. I want to create a learning environment that is conducive to all learners, to encourage curiosity and questioning. I want my classroom to feel alive and active, but think that I still have a lot of work to do in learning to be the teacher that I  am meant to be.

"Focusing on what I can't do diminishes hope"... (pg.20) 

I liked this quote because one goal I have for this year is to try to remain positive and optimistic, to see opportunity where others see a road block. I want students to know that there is hope for them, hope for their future. I want to go into the classroom each day and build kids up, to make them feel like they can be successful. I don't want to choose the easy road that is paved with complaints and bitterness. This is why I like the two following phrases, I feel that they perfectly describe what I want to do more of and what I want to do less of...

"Calm clarity"... (pg.23) 

I have a bad habit of getting really wrapped up in getting things done. I want each class to go smoothly,  to end in a perfect spot. I like structure. I like routine. I like having a plan and sticking with it. These are all practices that have made me a successful, fully functioning adult. However, ALL of these things are nearly impossible to accomplish when you are really trying to get kids to learn. Teaching is sloppy. It's inconsistent and different every day. Although I'm never usually at the point where I'm externally upset or out of control in front of students, I often experience an internal feeling of chaos. As the school year starts off, I want to practice calm clarity. I want to meditate on the fact that things don't always go as planned, and that's OK. 

"Sloppy thinking"... (pg. 27)

I loved this phrase because I think this is something we all practice too frequently. We let our thoughts run wild, without trying to intentionally control or self monitor them. Buddhists refer to the opposite of this as a "well disciplined mind." I think that the difference between stagnation and progress is a well disciplined mind. It is human nature to want to categorize and compartmentalize, but when we do this as teachers we really limit ourselves. The brain automatically files our experiences away, but it is up to us to really neaten up our thoughts, to reflect and re-organize. I do a lot of sloppy thinking because I'm busy and trying to get as much done as possible at once. I am only just starting to realize that for such a long time I have limited myself and my own thinking by operating off of initial impressions and judgements.

"It was fun, wasn't it? And educational!"...(pg.66)  

Although there were many other quotes that stood out to me, this is the last one I will discuss. This quote actually annoys me. I really, really want my students to love learning and to love the "fun" activities we do in class. However, there are times when learning isn't fun. I firmly believe that students must have a foundation of knowledge and some basic skill sets, before being able to participate in more in-depth and engaging activities. Does it make sense to organize a debate or write a skit or a play about a topic before doing a little pre-learning? I've always struggled with this. I don't believe that everything in school needs to be fun. Maybe it's just the word fun that annoys me. I think students need to be engaged and active. I think that students need to feel accepted and feel that they are a part of something. I just don't think that our goal as educators should be to constantly make things fun.