Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A dare

"We must dare in the full sense of the word, to speak of love without the fear of being called ridiculous, mawkish, or unscientific, if not antiscientific. We must dare in order to say scientifically, and not as mere blah-blah-blah, that we study, we learn, we teach, we know with our entire body. We do all of these things with feeling, with emotion, with wishes, with fear, with doubts, with passion, and also with critical reasoning. ...

"We must dare so that we can continue to teach for a long time under conditions that we know well: low salaries, lack of respect, and the ever-present risk of becoming prey to cynicism. We must dare to learn how to dare in order to say no to the bureaucratization of the mind to which we are exposed everyday. We must dare so that we can continue to do so even when it is so much more materially advantageous to stop daring."

- Paulo Freire

Tomorrow - Thursday, September 6, 2012 - it begins.

I will be teaching U.S. history at Boston English High School, the oldest public high school in the United States of America. This is the birthplace of the great experiment of education: whether all children, no matter where they come from or to whom they are born, where they live or where their lives appear to be going, deserve a rich education.

It is sad to say that this experiment has yet to prove that it can be realized. Or, rather - as I believe wholeheartedly in the worth of this experiment - this country has yet to prove that it believes that all children can and should have full access to education and its many opportunities.

But for those of us who believe in the dream, this night is like Christmas Eve. We're waiting for something new, something fragile, to be born. We don't even know exactly what that something is, but we know that inside its fragility is the power to save the world and each of us.

Here's to the new beginnings.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Relentlessly, aggressively, exhaustedly hopeful

NOTE: This blog is cross-posted at Boston Teacher Residency. Maybe you noticed that I haven't been blogging there - or here, for that matter - for a while. If so, this post will probably help explain why. I intend to write more actively now that BTR is over, I've officially finished graduate school, and I only have to focus on teaching (hahaha, "only"). I also intend to write more actively as I will have news soon about my job starting this fall. More on that shortly.

“So, what was BTR like?” my parents asked me. It was only a few hours after graduation. After the speeches and the official handing out of certificates, after we streamed out of Faneuil Hall and stood around taking pictures in the heat of a late July Boston evening.

It had been a whirlwind day. It had been a whirlwind 13 months. I was at a loss for an answer.

It’s two and a half weeks later as I write this. Supposedly, the passing of time brings perspective and calm. What’s BTR like? Still, all I can muster is the same answer as before:


Don’t get me wrong – it’s exhausting in good ways, and for good reasons. Learning to teach should be tough, because teaching is tough. Teaching is physically, intellectually, emotionally intense. Learning to teach demands all that intensity, plus constantly questioning what you’re doing – and why you’re doing it – and doubting that you are even able come up with the right answers.

But even when you think you have a right answer, something invariably happens to push you back. Maybe it’s a student having a bad day. Maybe it’s another teacher questioning your choices or motives. Maybe it’s an administrator asking you to revisit your priorities. Maybe your “right” answer was just wrong.

Maybe it’s all those things. But that doesn’t change the fact that, tomorrow, you have to get up at 5 a.m. and be ready to do it all over again. Day after day, that’s exhausting.

The exhaustion wears you down. The exhaustion makes you sluggish. The exhaustion leads to biting humor, frustration, maybe even cynicism. Lesson plans that you have been waiting for weeks to try out crash and burn. Students roll their eyes at the things you say. You start rolling your eyes back. The words and ideas that resonated, thrilled, and inspired when Dewey, Freire, or Delpit wrote them start bearing little relationship to the reality within the four walls of your classroom. Sometimes even your heroes and allies begin to disappoint you. You ask yourself: Is this system ever going to change? You answer yourself: Maybe not.

But if these have been the most sleep-deprived 13 months of my life, then they have also been some of the most invigorating. Sincere hope and honest-to-God ideals are hard to come by. They are even harder to sustain. But when you find them – and when you can maintain them – it’s something remarkable. For many of us, the opportunity to work with kids full of brilliant promise, stubborn hope, and ideals that refuse to be snuffed out is what has brought us and held us together over these past 13 months.

I believe that’s why, when we crossed the stage at graduation, never mind the exhaustion, each of our names earned rousing cheers from our cohort. And when our colleagues Jerry Halfhide and Alice McCabe took to the Faneuil Hall stage to speak on our behalf that night, they were met with especially hearty applause. In the two weeks since then, as I’ve caught up on sleep and gone through the final steps of the job search, the wisdom of Alice’s words still resonates with me:
“We can be derailed by the challenges of ’the system,’ or we can go back to the reason we are all here in the first place. All of the challenges we face now and will face as teachers are secondary to our place in the classroom with our students. [It is] a ‘bold act’ to ‘share love, respect, and trust with students.’ I’m asking you to act boldly, to reclaim your hope and assert it.  
“As I look out at each and every one of you, I want to tell you that there is no other group of people that I trust more to perform in this most humane and humanizing profession. Do not get waylaid by obstacles and ‘the system.’ Trust yourselves and each other and make the decision to be relentlessly, actively and even aggressively hopeful.”
With that, Alice received a loud standing ovation from her exhausted, hopeful colleagues.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

"The best education for the best is the best education for us all."

"While education policy has leaned in recent decades toward giving students work skills, Mr. Shorris’s idea was to teach what he considered the ultimate skills: reflection and critical thinking, as taught by the humanities. 'If the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking — reflection,' he wrote in 1997. 'And that is a beginning.' The study of the humanities, he said, is 'in itself a redistribution of wealth.' "

Earl Shorris has died. In a weird way, I think he may have had one of the most lasting impacts on my life - even though I never met him and, until I read his obituary today, only knew one thing about him: that he was the kind of teacher I wanted to be.

In high school, I had to give a speech for an extracurricular activity (no judging!). I didn't have any ideas what to write my speech about. In general, I wasn't good at writing or giving speeches. None of us were, really. We were good at trivia. But in this particular extracurricular activity, trivia only got us so far (7/10 of the way, to be exact). And, because we wanted to do well - because this was the only thing a lot of us were good at - we had to give speeches: good speeches. Of course, the kind of things you want to talk about when you're 18 aren't usually the kind of things that adults want to listen to you talk about. (Ask my students.) So I didn't know how I was going to knock out a good speech.

Then our teacher, Mrs. Liepa, gave me this article. "Maybe you could give a speech about this," she said. I did - but the speech isn't what I remember anymore. What I do remember are details like the class field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the two students (including one from Uzbekistan - who says foreshadowing is only a literary device?) arguing on the street about logic tables; the inspiring final sentence. And I remembered Shorris's speech to his prospective students: "You've been cheated. Rich people learn the humanities; you didn't," it begins.

Those words resonated at an age when I began to see how the culture of wealth creates social, economic, and political opportunities for the children of wealth - how even many of the world's intellectual riches are reserved for the few, for those deemed the "best" and the "most deserving." Those words resonated years later when I saw that - despite how hard my classmates and I busted our humps in high school - we weren't the ones going to elite universities and colleges. They resonated each time I met another brilliant, dedicated, earnest, creative child in an Uzbek classroom, wrapped in a coat because of the windows that didn't close, and bent over a dog-eared book shared between two students.

They resonated earlier this year, when I was writing a paper on my philosophy of education, what I value in learning and teaching, why I want to teach. And now, as I plan the last lesson of my residency year, Earl Shorris's words and example continue to resonate.

My mother had a mentor who gave her advice for her career: "All we can do is plant the seed." Based on the risks that he took by investing in an education you can't easily test or measure, in a training most would scoff at as impractical, I believe Earl Shorris believed in planting the seed. I'm grateful to him for believing in that. And I'm grateful to Mrs. Liepa, who died six years ago, for planting the seed in me.

I'm not yet the kind of teacher I want to be. But Earl Shorris, his students, and my own teacher helped me better understand who that is.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

With it

My wise friend H-bomb has another excellent post up at Some Girls Prefer Carnations. Chances are, if you're reading this, you either already know and read H-bomb or you are, in fact, H-bomb. If you're not, though, you should read her post.

What struck me in this anecdote was how certain details of the man stood out - certain details that maybe Heather wouldn't normally notice or know how to make sense of, or maybe that she might otherwise interpret in a different way. She mentions how her new lens, though, had given her "a series of disparate opinions" on this situation - a series that seemed to unfold rather quickly, in "a fleeting minute" or a few fleeting minutes, but clearly that has stayed with her since then. "Now I saw more complex possibilities...visiting with people in the various waiting rooms [is] a good chance to know another being for a fleeting minute, a minute that could impart lessons for a lifetime."

This is something that I think I've become more aware of this year. I had 3 years of teaching professionally under my belt before I started my program, and I'd been volunteering for longer than that, so I thought that what I'd be getting out of this program would be a higher level of theory, more targeted training specifically for work in urban schools, and cutting-edge methods and technological approaches to teaching.

I think what I've gotten the most so far, though, is practice in paying attention, being aware of myself and others, and reflecting on what might be happening in a given moment.

The kind of interaction Heather describes in the waiting room called to mind the interactions I have all day: with individual students, with a class as a whole, with other teachers and administrators, and - most trickily - with groups of students who are having those same complicated interactions with each other. There's a lot going on, and it's hard to know first of all what to pay attention to, let alone how to interpret it and then how to react (if a reaction from the teacher is even necessary).

There's one theorist whose big idea about what makes an effective teacher is (wait for it) "with-it-ness." Just being with it. Just having your head in the game. It seems simple, but it's not. It requires you to not just see something and jump on it, or assume you know what's happening and react, but to know your students and be able to understand the context of your own classroom well enough that you can respond appropriately. And, as you know if you've been following the back-and-forth about what makes "good teaching," there are a lot of complicated factors that a teacher needs to keep in mind. It's a lot.

The good news is, though, that that kind of reflective with-it-ness it's a skill we can practice outside of the classroom. Now, chances are, if you're reading this, you probably think I'm an impatient person and not really the "calm reflective observer"-type. Well, I'm not. But I am trying to get more with-it in general, not just as a teacher. (I'm also told it gets easier with more experience. Which does me, or my students, no good right now.)

But the other good news that I have found already is, often times, the students are the ones who are showing us what our best options are at any given moment. Two quick examples - we have a student who has been hesitant to speak, to interact with peers, to even respond to us when we talked to him. Nothing we tried to encourage him was working. In our minds, he had opted out of learning and we had little choice but to allow him to do it. Until, randomly, one day we told the students to just split up into groups however they wanted (as opposed to numbering off, or working with people next to/near them, or working in pre-assigned groups). It was mostly something that was done just for the sake of time and ease. What I noticed was this student had quietly paired off with another student and was working avidly with her - even, believe it or not, smiling. So maybe he hadn't opted out. Maybe he just needed us to give him the space so that he could find his own best way and show it to us.

The other example is a student who's struggled a lot this year, and it's been a lot of work for us to try things that would work for her. But no matter how hard she worked, or we worked, it seemed that our class just wasn't making sense for her and was, more than anything, frustrating and confusing her. One day, though, I happened to read some poetry she'd written, and found out she also writes short stories and other creative pieces. The next day, instead of asking her to read the Korematsu v. United States decision and use it to argue whether civil liberties are the same in wartime as in peactime, I gave her another option: to imagine that she is a young woman in 1941 California whose best friend and neighbor has been taken to an internment camp for people of Japanese background. The short story that came back was amazing - detailed, moving, insightful.

So all this is to say that I'm grateful for new experiences that shake me loose a little and make me see things in a different way - and I'm also grateful for my students, for teaching me how to take the next steps. They can indeed become "lessons for a lifetime."

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Now I've done it

Things I learned this weekend:

1. Most maladaptive behaviors function toward achieving one of four goals: attention; power; revenge; or masking inadequacy. (This was learned in theory and later observed in practice.)

2. The only languages that use the "th" sound are English, Greek, Icelandic, Welsh, and Albanian. Also, "th" is a digraph - the most common digraph in English. That and $1.79 will get you a coffee, and maybe - just maybe - a passing score on the Foundations of Reading licensing exam.

3. Cheese graters were invented for a reason. Don't be too lazy to get the grater out and instead think you can "hand grate" cheese using a knife. You only end up damaging the cheese, and your thumb.

The French Chef by y10566

Wish me luck, blog-folks: my first independently planned, independently taught unit starts on Wednesday. World War II, here we come...

Friday, January 20, 2012

Buried alive in the blues

I got an email and a text message today from two people mentioning blogging. I also was reminded earlier this week by the BTR office that I have been a bit delinquent in posting my teacher-ly reflections over on that site, as well. So I take that as a sign that I need to get back into the swing of things a bit.

Here's what's on my mind now:

"And here we are, in heaven..."

The Times obituary has a few gems, including this picture:

and this quote:

Ms. James said she wanted her music to transcend unhappiness rather than reflect it.“A lot of people think the blues is depressing,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992, “but that’s not the blues I’m singing. When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life. People that can’t stand to listen to the blues, they’ve got to be phonies.”

It's strange that this happened today - earlier today, in our class on classroom management Creating Effective Learning Communities,  we were talking about "entering" routines - basically, how do students and the teacher get class started. One idea I have had is to have music - low-key, preferably instrumental, ideally somehow related to the day's lesson - playing as the class begins. The song would be timed so that it would finish when the time was up for the (I hate this phrase, but it's what they call it) "do-now," which is a brief activity/assignment that all the students have to do as soon as they enter the room. Once the song would be over, it'd be a sign to wrap up the do-now and kick off the action.

I was thinking about what kind of songs with lyrics would be OK and not too distracting - and "Etta James" came to mind first. How her voice gets your attention and soothes you (well, depending on the song, but I wouldn't be playing anything explicit or suggestive for these kids) and holds your interest. And in a lot of cases, the songs would have some cultural relevance to US history. Maybe this is a sign that the idea has legs? Or maybe it's just a coincidence. At any rate, the point is, I think there are ways I can use music (something I love) in making my classroom a unique, supportive-for-learning place for my students. It's stuff like this that often rubs off on students from teachers. It was a high-school teacher I had, for example, who taught me how to appreciate opera. And "Bolero," but that's another story...

But to go back to Etta's quote. She talks about transcending unhappiness by "singing life." Apart from being such a core sentiment to so much of American art and culture, it's a powerful idea for all of us. For me - well, I'm not sure whether you've heard or not, but teaching can be frustrating, if not demoralizing, sometimes. Our students have a lot that they struggle with, too; one of our jobs as teachers is to keep them going through the struggle - as an academic lesson (since so much of inquiry and critical thinking comes from struggling through big questions or complex, challenging tasks), and as a life lesson in general.

My "philosophy of education" is due at midnight on Sunday. I start my first independently planned and largely independently taught unit on February 1 and teach it until February 17. On that same day, I have to submit a paper outlining the rules, procedures, and practices I intend to put into place next year in my own classroom. Lots to think about, plan for, do, reflect on. How can I do it all in a way that "sings life," through the good and the bad? Because if I could do anything with half as much feeling and skill Etta put into her songs, that would be a gift.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The quadrennial brush with semi-greatness

Happy 2012 to my five readers! I spent my holiday back in the Midwest, home to family and friends and - this year, at least - famous people. Yep, it's caucus time again. Four years ago, I had the privilege of witnessing history and the ignominious shame of supporting, um, someone else who eventually finished second and then was exposed as one of the biggest sleazebags in American political history.

But we won't talk about that! We will talk about how every four years, the nerdy spectacle of national politics descends on Iowa, and how that means that we Iowegians get the chance to bask in the presence of Oprah or hear John Legend perform for free or sit next to Joe Biden at church or shake hands with Chuck Norris or hang out with Joe Wilson (aka Mr. Valerie Plame). Of course, that was all during the much-more-exciting 2008 caucuses, when both political parties were running. The game is cut in half this year with only the Republican contest up for grabs, but that doesn't mean there wasn't any fun to be had.

This time around I was a bit more removed from all the goings-on, but I still had some almost-famous moments. Most of them stemmed from a New Year's Eve gathering at the new home of my old job that I attended. It was the "Raucous Before the Caucus," a party for the out-of-state media and campaign officials, and it was a pretty good show. The building is fantastic, the butterscotch bacon cupcakes were plentiful, they had free Manhattans with Templeton, and Maureen Dowd was there (scroll down...I'm the bearded, orange-tied guy in the background of the picture of the melting ice sculpture). The celeb-spotting continued on the next morning, when my sister hobnobbed with Chris Matthews after Mass.

We go back to school on January 4. I'm planning a caucus-themed lesson, complete with simulation, for the government students. I loaded up on Gingrich, Paul, Perry, and Romney paraphernalia when I was home, to give our class a more accurate caucus feel. Those were the four candidates that we had students volunteer to "precinct captain" for in our mini-caucus...I somewhat jokingly, before the break, asked if anyone wanted to captain for Rick Santorum. I have a feeling that, wherever Senator Santorum finishes tomorrow night, I will need to explain that particular phenomenon to my Boston students.