Teaching through the inexplicable

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If you had told me that the 20-21 school year would be full of surprises, I would have believed you. If you had told me I’d be teaching online halfway through the spring semester, I might have laughed. And yet, here we are. A global pandemic (yes, I know it is redundant), a cultural panic, a paradigm shift, and suddenly, I have transitioned to online learning.

As long as the technology holds out, I am confident I can make the shift. I am not so sure about my students who not only have to move from face-to-face classes once a week with me, but also have to transition their own classrooms to digital, without the training and resources they need.

I view my job this week as being support for my students and a place where they can express their frustration and fears without worrying about the consequences. The content will eventually take care of itself, but for the new and prospective teachers who sit in my classroom, confidence is shaken. Do I really need to talk about writers’ workshops? Not really. There’s plenty for them to read and experience with later, when this COVID 19 crisis is over. And it will be over.

One bright spot in all this is the suspension of high-stakes testing by many districts. We who are educators know how pointless and stressful these assessments are for everyone, and I can only hope that they will not return once this is over. I am so impressed by the education community and how so many teachers have been able to turn on a dime to keep their students learning. Maybe this will be the beginning of new respect for the teaching profession, and just maybe, teachers will be given their autonomy back so that they can do what they’re trained to do, what they love to do, and what they know how to do better than any corporation or publisher.

I can dream

Groundhog Day

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Groundhog Day
Deja Vu

I giggled at this commercial during the Superbowl, and since I was working I decided to watch the OG version after the game. One of the perks to being on Pacific time.

As I was watching I got to thinking, what would I do if I repeated the same day for 12,383 days and was able to retain all the information from each one, what would I do? I mean, Phil mastered ice carving, piano, and French. He also discovered at least seven ways not to die. And he spent quality time with pretty much everyone one town. (Interestingly, no one aged, but no one seemed to be reliving the day day, either.)

Back to my mindless wanderings. 12,383 days without the actual passage of time. I can retain anything I learn from day to day, so I can build on that. I can form relationships with people who remember me for marvelous acts of service. Basically, I can do anything without losing anything I already have. The only real limitation seems to be I can’t leave where I am on the day the cycle begins; Phil never leaves Punxsutawney. So, here are my top priorities:

  1. Learn Spanish. I told a student last semester that I was tired of being monolingual. She laughed, but seriously, I would love to be able to switch between languages effortlessly. I’d need about 600 days to do it; I’m a slow learner. I’d need people around to practice with. That’s my primary hiccup now; I learn some through a website or a class or a study abroad, but I lose it because no one around me wants to speak it with me.
  2. Learn piano. I read music. I know the keys. I need practice and instruction and discipline. And right now, a piano.
  3. Get a degree in Theology. I know, I’m a nerd. But I can’t help that I love learning. The PhD taught me how to research and study and write. I’d like to expand my expertise beyond English Education, and there are so many things to learn in Theology. Maybe I’d focus on social justice and Christianity, or how Christians can support each other instead of judging. To have any sort of actual credibility, I think an earned degree is necessary.
  4. Eat whatever I want! Phil never gains an ounce in the movie.

That’s a good start. What would you do?

Thanks to Simon Gallagher for doing the math.

#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

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#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

This is the slide show from a round table presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention (NCTE) that I didn’t get to do. I had a conflict with a panel presentation at the same time. I know, I’m that cool. I’m putting it here now as a reminder that I need to flesh it out and submit a manuscript for it.

Why writing? an addendum

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Last October I wrote about why I write for National Writing Day:

I write to think. I write to process information. I write to learn. I write to explore. I write to understand. I write to encourage. I write to teach. I write to implore. I write to celebrate.

I write because I am a writer.

However, as a writer, writing is my nature. An astute student in class last night wanted to know what to tell her students who DON’T write why they should. What is the purpose of writing for non-writers in the real world?

A really good question.

Sepia toned image of an open journal, a pen a lamp base and flowers.
writing to reflect

I think writing is essential for communication. The type of writing may vary, but writing clearly ensures that your ideas, needs, plans, and instructions are understood, whether you are a mechanic, scholar, or game designer. I can’t tell you how many IKEA builds have gone wrong without actual written instructions. Writing reviews for annual evaluations are a necessary trial in most professional jobs; writing well may determine the raise you get. Testimony is more powerful in writing. My car was rear-ended and I wrote a detailed explanation of what happened before I could forget the details. I didn’t need it (the other party paid for repairs), but if I had needed to work through insurance and police reports, I had a well-crafted, detailed, and timely written explanation.

Writing is a practical way to ensure that your words are not misconstrued and it leaves a trail of conversation that can be useful. The reason I use e-mail for all my student (and parent) exchanges outside of class is so that I have the documentation of any conversation– just in case. Texting offer the same thing, as do any of the video-chat apps that let you keep the recordings. (I love Marco Polo for that.)

Mostly, though, I think we all need to write in order to fully tell our stories and be heard. We learn better when we are uninterrupted in our listening. We can be more explicit in our descriptions of our world views and how we came to develop them. Through our writing we can express what it means to be human in ways no other medium can. Writing matters.

Catching up

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Well, that went fast! It was just October, wasn’t it?

So, here’s a recap:

In a nutshell? Half-marathon training in two states, family time, NCTE, more family, food, holidays, art, and exploration.

You are officially caught up– on to 2020 and more thoughts of education. Mixed, of course, with family, food, and fun.

#why I write – a post for the National Day on Writing

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I find it interesting that the National Day on Writing is a Sunday. It seems to me a school day would be more appropriate so more people might participate. But I digress.

I write to think. I write to process information. I write to learn. I write to explore. I write to understand. I write to encourage. I write to teach. I write to implore. I write to celebrate.

I write because I can, because I must, and because I am compelled to do so.

I write because I am a writer.

Of content, standards, and humans beings

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I was born to teach. When I am in the classroom with students, I feel fully alive. If teaching itself it a high calling, which I believe it is, teaching teachers is even more so. In my four classes, I have about 60 teachers, some traditional pre-service, a couple of veterans, but mostly teachers completing alternative routes to certification, including Teach for America.

I’m grateful this last group is part of my experience as a new professor. Having gone through a traditional program myself, I have learned from them just how stressful an alternative route can be. These teachers are generally placed in high needs schools with just a few weeks of training. They teach based on their experiences as students, and often miss the theory and research behind WHY certain strategies work. This semester I have tried to give them the back story of English Language Arts education as well as encourage them to start teaching their students rather than focus on the standards. It’s a tricky balance. They are often constrained by a requirement to elucidate a number of specific Common Core State Standards they intend to cover even before they begin to compose their unit and lesson plans.

The Standards themselves are flexible and allow for a degree of teacher autonomy and individuality, but too often administrators require teachers to identify the number of the standard they plan to teach. In my opinion, this is backward. As L’Engle (1974) wrote, “You are basically not teaching a subject, you are teaching children.” L’Engle went on to say that machines could probably teach subjects better than humans, but the result would be the creation of little machine. Nearly 50 years later, we know that machines (computers) are useful tools to instruction in subject matter, but children still learn better from and with humans. Indeed, learning is a social action (Dewey 1916/2001).

The teachers who participate in my classes are so focused on the standards that it’s hard for them to think about anything else. I have constructed class activities to purposefully avoid the official standards, knowing that good teaching will ultimately connect to them. It has been a challenge convincing some of the teachers that they can address the standards LAST instead of first. Some are beginning to see that they don’t have to be rigid, and that they can deviate from a scripted curriculum to better meet the needs of their students. Some are relieved, feeling validated by knowing that they’re on a positive, if unorthodox, track. Still, habits die hard. These teachers learned to write five-paragraph essays, so that’s what they think they have to teach. Never mind that no one ever writes in five-paragraph essay form after high school or early college. Even most of the standardized assessments have dropped that requirement.

I understand the purpose of Teach for America and other Alternative Routes to certification, especially for people choosing to teach as a second career. These non-traditional teachers often bring a wealth of real world experience to the classroom that makes it a rich environment for learning. I do wish the alternative routes included a crash course in theory and research before placing new teachers into classrooms. The focus on assessment, rubric, and classroom management that most students experience dulls them to the human part of teaching. And it’s in humanity that the most effective teachers find their passion. The content of a course is the vehicle for helping teens find their identities, learn how to be in community, and consider the importance of others. Do students need to know how to speak and write in conventional English? Of course. But their thoughts and ideas are where the real learning comes in. CCSS, standardized tests, packaged curricula– these may be easily managed and measured, but they only tell a fragment of the stories in student learning.

My goal for this year is to assuage the apprehension new teachers feel when they try to do creative and innovative projects in their classrooms. I want teachers to feel confident that speaking to student lives in conjunction with literature makes for a meaningful experience that ultimately still leads to the test scores so many school administrators are after. But the students, as humans with individual stories, histories, knowledge, and experiences, have to come first. If the goal of education is to prepare people for global competitiveness (Department of Education), then it seems to me that the most important element is to focus on the people. People cannot be measured solely by a checklist of standards. And teachers must be afforded the agency to direct their classrooms in accordance with their students’ needs, interests, and stories first.

References

Dewey, J. (2001). Democracy and education. Hazelton, PA: Penn State Electronic Classics. Original published in 1916.

L’Engle, M. (1974). A circle of quiet. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

The Doctor is in.

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Office sign with name, title, and job description
The sign by my office door made everything real.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I took this picture. Moving across the country (temporarily), doing all the new faculty events, composing syllabi for four classes, and the first week of teaching kept me busy. After next week, I think I’ll begin to find a new routine for this exciting time of my life.

One thing I already know for sure. This is the kind of job I was born to do. I love surprising students with the unorthodox kinds of classes I like to teach.

I opened each class with a song from Queen (Don’t Stop Me Now) or The Who (Who are you). I borrowed and tweaked a couple of ideas from Aaron Levy. I read aloud from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I used slideshows heavy with images and light on text (the way slideshows are supposed to be used). I asked questions. I left the syllabus off the agenda until the closing moments of the first class–with a quiz to make sure everyone at least opened it. Having a quiz meant I could hold them accountable to the material in it without having to take class time for it. These are teachers; they should know how to find and read a syllabus.

I borrowed another element from Dr. Levy’s class: the feather circle. I changed it up and made it the red pen circle. Full disclosure: a red pen was the only prop at my disposal, but I made it work by talking about how red pens were associated with poor work, disappointment, and a restriction of personal voice. I gave writers the power back by giving the holder of the red pen the uninterrupted power of the floor until it was passed to the next person. I’ll expand the whole concept in another post, but it was a great first day exercise.

I also introduced don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements to two classes and asked them to collaborate on posters for their classrooms that represented each one. Again, not the usual way to begin a semester, but I think everyone enjoyed something a little unorthodox.

By the end of the week I was absolutely spent. And absolutely content. It’s going to be a fantastic year.