#35: transition words

I’m lost.  I have days when I completely doubt my ability to teach self-contained.  I allowed students to struggle through a very hard two-step equation and watched the breakthroughs and yet I also know that a group of students began to believe that maybe math just wasn’t their thing.  I stumbled through the chaos of planning science, recognizing that the individual lessons were good, but they failed to form a coherent whole.

Not horrible.  Not sinking.  Just out of step.

So, I go to edit articles students are writing and I start with the lowest language level.  An ELL student has written a five paragraph article that reads “Basetball Is Besst.”  As I look into it, I notice that he has used a thesaurus and followed our paragraph outline format.

Every transition is written in red font.  Each one makes sense, too.

At the bottom, he writes, “thanks you for make me a better righter.”  In the blog comments, I writes, “I never written a intrdocuction before.   It even has an attention getter.”   It’s a small gift, but one that propels me forward.  I’m reminded that even though I might have moments when I yell or lessons that tank, this student has learned something tangible that will forever change how he writes.  He might not pass the test and his data might not be pretty, but to me it’s a success story that I will celebrate.

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#34: Show and Tell

A fellow blogger who teaches high school suggested that Show and Tell can work for people of any age.  I scoffed at first glance and then thought about what I would bring.  I thought about the Homer Simpson toy my son got from Burger King.  It had been a late Parent Teacher conference night and Joel hugged me one-handedly.  When I asked what he was hiding, he pulled out a plastic-wrapped Homer Simpson toy and smiled.  It was unexpected, unprompted and thoughtful.

When the students begin, most of them hide their items.  It’s the opposite of kindergarten, with students refusing to speak up in front of their peer group.  Finally, an outgoing student jumps out of his seat and flips out a football.  “It’s the first one I ever caught in a real game.”

Slowly, they begin to open up.  “When my mom was sick, she couldn’t get a babysitter to watch us.  So, I watched them while she stayed at the hospital.  She said the blessed Virgen de Guadalupe would watch over us.  I’m not sure where superstition meets religion, but she handed me a sacred or lucky or whatever necklace.”

Another girl says, “Our tribe has been conquered, but the jewelry and the stories are our inheritance.”  She then begins telling the story of how her family makes the necklaces and earings and what it means to be adorned by the earth.

“This is a key from my hometown in Mexico.  My parents knew they were risking it to cross the border and cross back.  But they wanted me to see that the place I come from is beautiful.  People think Mexico is all ugly, but this place is real pretty.”

The essays accompanying the items are thought-provoking and personal, but it is the convergence of the public and the personal that helps us understand community in a way that we never had before.

#33: letting go of summer dreams

I want my students to do inquiry and find answers to their own questions. I want them to use multiple intelligences to demonstrate their knowledge in creative ways. I want my students to use multimedia platforms as they engage in service learning. I want them to bring in guest speakers and do a project where they collaborate with students in another location. I also want them to read classic literature, have a chance for art inclusion, take the time to go in-depth in their editing process, read independently, participate in literature circles, work on their own science fair projects, engage in meaningful labs and simulations, practice and learn the basics of math while also engaging in deeper exploratory math projects. I want them to write a play together and go through the whole theater process together. I want them to do longer, thematic podcasts and to write an e-book together.

My problem is not that I need professional development. It’s not that I need more nifty strategies to lead me on the way toward becoming a better teacher. I don’t need another conference or seminar or workshop or TEN TOP WAYS TO USE TWITTER in my classroom. I don’t need more hyperbole. I need more simplicity. I don’t need more, I need to learn to do less. I don’t need another binder. I need an anti-binder crusader who will help remind me of the essential questions that really are essential – someone to nudge me back toward the question, “Does this help us to live well?”

The problem is that I get about 320 minutes a day. After “intervention” it drops down to about 275 minutes (I know, it sounds like a term for drug users admitting their problems, but it’s really just a chance to help kids learn to divide fractions and sound out multisyllable words).

My issue right now isn’t that I have a hard time planning, it’s that I am having a hard time figuring out what to cut from my plans, what to postpone for another quarter and what to do for the entire year and really perfect together as a class. I have all these ideas I want to run with, but I feel stuck with the fact that I have to pull back. In the physical realm I am as minimalist as it gets – no watch, no jewelry, no alarm clock, no cell phone. I have journals I wrote that I’d like to throw out, but Christy convinces me that keeping some tangible objects is still valuable.

On an intellectual level, I wonder if I hold on too tightly to ideas. Like the vacationer who grabs shards of glass and bottle caps and napkins from Hawaii, I wonder if I’ve collected too much mental junk over the summer and now it’s time to let go. I wonder if I create an emotional attachment to, say, mock trials, because they worked in the past or to journaling, since I loved it as a kid or to documentaries, since we did those in the past. I wonder if I am so attached to the ideas that I am not allowing my students in on the process of project planning.

Have I become an educational hoarder? Have I become too crowded in my imaginary tool box? Is it time for me to scrap this list of what I want to accomplish and simply focus on the current projects at hand?

Perhaps it’s time for an intervention.

So, I go back to my summer plans that are written with nicely bulleted points and I start dropping them.  I consider which ones I will bring to the class for discussion and vote and how I can encourage them to develop their own project ideas that I hadn’t listed.

I forget what it’s like each year when students come in a little slower from the summer and how long it can take for them to adjust to critical thinking questions and I forget that I had planned all summer with end-of-the-year eighth-graders and now I have students a year behind, because it’s the b eginning of the cycle.  I start thinking about the growth that happens and how long we have and it becomes easier to lose some of the ideas, because somewhere in this year we’ll go back to the lost and found and use a few of the summer ideas that I am now abandoning.

One of the best parts of teaching is the realism of it.  It’s the daily reality of a finite amount of time to accomplish a task.  It’s the notion of context that prevents me from getting too idealistic and thus too crushed by the world.

#32: Remember?

A former student visits after a rough afternoon.  He’s here to pick up his younger sister from our community service club. I’m struck by how strange it is to know students in the context of families.

“You remember when we read Farenheit 451? I’m re-reading it again.  I love it.”

“That’s really cool,” I respond.

“Do you remember what you said about falling in love with reading?  Remember how you said a character can become like a friend, not a real friend, not a best friend, but a friend who you would cry for when they died?”

“Yeah, I guess I remember saying that.”

“I experienced that this year.”

“What book?”

“It was a short story from Salinger.  It was ‘A Perfect Day for Banana Fish.’ I know it was bizarre, because it wasn’t even very long, but I felt like I knew him and then he was just gone and it made me think about life and I just cried.”

His sister laughs.

“No really, I cried.  Some day you’ll see what I’m talking about too.  It’s not crazy.  It’s what happens when you love reading.”

#31: I’m Sorry

I had a rough day.  I yelled at my class.  Not screaming.  Not red-faced, embaressment, pull-out-the-shrapnel-from-the-wounds yelling, but yelling nonetheless.  I aplogized and then yelled minutes later.  I can blame the heat.  I can blame the failure of a site to load the information properly.  If I was really cynical, I could blame my class. It’s the fault of those hormonal teenagers for acting like hormonal teenagers and forcing me to act like a hot-headed, arrogant thirty year old on a power trip.

So, I stop and I breath and I breath again.  It takes more effort than it should.

“I need your attention,” I say in a voice barely audible among the humming fans of the netbooks and the white noise of the aged air conditioner trying to do his job.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t want to yell.  I don’t want to be a teacher who yells or a father who yells.  Truth be known, I’m sure some of you are scared.  Some of you have had men in your lives who yelled and it scared you.  And if it doesn’t scare you, that might be just as tragic.  I’m sorry for yelling.”

A few students speak up and accept the apology.  A few more speak up and apologize for their own behavior.

It’s awkwardly beautiful and profound for its brokenness.  One of the greatest gifts of teaching is the chance to offer and accept an honest apology.  Not going to find that all too often in a cubical.

#30 – no resolution

I never liked “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  Not in junior high or in high school and not even in college, when it turned social and we discussed the concept of The Perfect Crime and the role of religion in society.  It’s not the texture of the language that bothers me so much as it is the story itself.  It doesn’t resolve.  It’s all conflict and build-up and a flat climax with no resolution.  Nothing is solved.  Nothing is finished.  It’s sex without cuddling afterward.

My students took the lack of resolution as a gift.  A few of them debated whether or not the character was justified in killing the old man and if maybe the evil eye represented power and oppression, not from the person himself but for what he represented.  Could have been Big Brother or Joe Arpaio.  Others debated whether or not it was really his conscience that got him so much as it was his own narcissism.  They didn’t use the term itself.  I think they chose “pride” instead.

Others focussed on the question of freedom and violence and whether or not it was okay to kill a person if it meant personal freedom.  They got into arguments about war and revolution and whether or not our nation was founded on the blood of the innocent.

I step back and listen to the groups discuss the information.  ELL, gifted, mainstream – the labels become meaningless in this moment as they move from generating questions to actually arguing their points with the text itself.  Some of them yearn for resolution, realizing that I can’t answer their questions and desperately search Wikipedia for a decent answer.

There’s a beauty in the meandering dialog.  It’s a rhizome, interconnected without ever stopping, strong and messy and confusing.  I think it’s what Poe would have wanted.

When I pick up the papers from the turn-in bin, I see an anonymous poem. I don’t know whether to cringe at the sloppy grammar and poor imitation of hip hop or smile at the use of two of our vocabulary words (emancipation and interpretation) and a clear understanding of the story.  Excuse the language if you’re easily offended, but it made me laugh. We read “The Tell-tale Heart” yesterday and I found this little anonymous gem in the turn-in bin:

“I’m Edgar Allen Poe, bitch”

Yo my name is Edgar Allen Poe
My story’s gonna creep you out fo sho
With a plot that will fuck with yo mind
A clear theme you ain’t never gonna find
Gonna warn you before you ever start
There’s no answer to the Tell-tale Heart
It’s all left up to your interpretation
Well just call it a mind’s emancipation

And that’s why we read “The Tell-tale Heart.”  Emancipation.  Songs of Freedom.

#29: upper case

A student turns in a brilliant poem.  She’s not ready to publish it on Social Voice.  It’s still too raw and too personal and she’s too scared of peers and of the spotlight and perhaps even her own voice, because you’re not used to seeing power in your own words when you’ve spent a good part of your life filling in the blanks.

“I want you to change one thing,” I tell her.

“What’s that?”

“Make it upper case.  I know some poets choose lower case, but I think it’s a big mistake.”

“I don’t get it,” she answers.

“What you say is important.  It demands an upper case letter, because you are a proper noun.  You are not an object or a thing like a table or a chair.  You matter.  And because of that, I want you to write your name with a capital letter.”

She starts turning in her writing with capital letters, this time big and bold and perhaps even angry or ironic.  She’s shouting her name now, but at least she’s using upper case.  I’ll take a student who will shout poetry from a hilltop over a student who hushes herself with lower-case letters.