Archives for the month of: November, 2014

Yesterday one of my tenth graders said that if she ever gets a little female dog, she’s going to name it Daisy.

Gatsby, why?

Gatsby, she wasn’t worth the trouble.

I came across this passage in Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat Zinn:

 

Attention and Awareness Are Trainable Skills

Probably what teachers want most is to have their students’ sustained attention.

But this itself is hard to get unless the teacher is able to make the subject matter of the moment, whatever it is, come alive, to make it compelling and relevant within a classroom atmosphere of safety, inclusion, and belonging, along with a sense of learning as an adventure. It doesn’t help to yell at a class to pay attention when the children are being unruly. But it can help a lot—in fact, it can be a precious gift—to teach students the how of paying attention themselves and turning the process itself into something of an adventure.

Paying attention is a trainable skill, capable of ongoing refinement. As no less a luminary than William James, the father of American psychology, well knew, attention and the awareness that arises from it are the doorway to true education and learning—life-long gifts that keep deepening with use. It may very well be that the capacity to rest in awareness without distraction, in addition to simply balancing the power of thought and bringing a wiser perspective to it, may give rise to an entirely different kind of thinking.

It may be that future research will show that mindfulness training actually enhances creativity, freeing the mind to produce less routinized kinds of thoughts and freer and more imaginative associations.

 

This is an interesting passage on several levels. First, check out that description of what teachers must do to win their students’ attention. Safety, inclusion, belonging, spirit of adventure—just what I’ve been saying. And completely contrary to the “no excuses” testy culture.

But also the bit about teaching the skills of attention. I wonder if there is a place for that in schools. If mindfulness went by a different name and if it were aimed at students’ attentional skills, would that help parents and administrators see it as relevant and useful?

Perhaps the emotional benefits of mindfulness are more threatening and less apparently relevant to schools than its academic and intellectual benefits—as counterintuitive as that feels.

Just as medicine has come to acknowledge and embrace the mind/body connection, I believe that education is going to have to acknowledge and embrace the brain/heart connection. When we do, I predict we’ll see a big improvement in what kids can learn and do.

Jon Kabat Zinn has an awful lot of good ideas.

Jon Kabat Zinn has an awful lot of good ideas.

 

 

 

Blech. It’s that time again. Kids must be sorted and stamped. Not my favorite thing. Cue the rending of garments.

 

I had an email from a student yesterday (hi, H.M!), lamenting graaaades in college. How is it that in the courses you’re learning the most, you’re getting the worst graaaades? Is that a good idea? It certainly isn’t motivating. Is it fair, helpful, or useful in some way? Is there some non-arbitrary and non-stupid level on which that’s a good thing?

 

I’m not seeing it, although I grant freely that my vision is not unclouded on such matters.

 

Some kids don’t care about their graaaades.  Some of those are just disengaged and lost, disorganized, unmotivated, and all the rest.  Others are defiant and refuse any external motivation out of principle.  (I secretly suspect that those kids, the defiant ones, will come out ahead in this world, but that’s mainly because my heart thrills to them.  I love a proud heart.)

 

Other kids care a lot about their graaaades.  Some care exclusively about them, and haggle and obsess and wrangle with their teachers to grub a few more points.  They are point misers.  They don’t care about learning, just the graaaades.

 

Some kids care in moderation.  For them, the graaaaades are motivators to improve their achievement.  These are the only ones for whom graaaaades do much good– and only then when the graaaaades are fair and well-judged, which isn’t so easy, either.

 

Graaaaades are like the rewards at the end of a potty-training or pick-up-your-toys chart.

Write the paper, get a star.  Take the quiz, get a star.  Enough stars equals an A.

Write the paper, get a star. Take the quiz, get a star. Enough stars equals an A.

Some kids can’t pick up their toys and feel defeated at the outset.

Others refuse to play the game.

Others just want to figure out where mom hides the stars so they can get them without picking up the toys.

Others use the chart as intended and, in time, internalize the behavior and pick up their toys on their own.

 

Now imagine if, as not infrequently happens, you can’t control when you get a star or not.  You pick up all your toys (learn the material), but that’s not the day mom checks (it didn’t happen to be on the test).  Mom only checked under your bed and you hadn’t gotten there yet.  At some point, a smart kid is going to rebel.

 

I don’t know how to fix it.  How to motivate the unmotivated, give feedback on progress, and create a gaming-proof system?  Could someone a lot smarter than I am please solve this problem?

Today we had a tree tutorial in first period. On my way in to school, I picked up a maple leaf, a sweet gum leaf, an oak leaf of some sort or other (I never have learned all the oaks), and a couple of ginkgo leaves. I also had the leaf of what I thought I had heard called a willow oak, which I just looked up now and yes, that’s right. They recognized some of them and I told them about sweet gum trees with their prickle balls and their leaves the shape of stars. We chatted about gingkos, male and female, with their vile fruits, planted all over Philadelphia, about live oaks, about how oaks have acorns and that’s what make them oaks, about the Angel Oak, and so on—just a nice conversation, the gist of which is that if you are bored, you aren’t paying attention. There is so much to see, so much to learn.

 

I can’t wait for the Matisse oak leaves to start falling. I’ll take pictures when they do.

Like red oaks, I think.

Like red oaks, I think.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
   This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

I had a conversation with a good friend yesterday, who said what he would like to do is work with teachers to help them do their best work.  What a concept!  In an age where the only ways anyone can think to encourage teachers are pink slips, giant mallets, or merit pay, someone might actually like to listen to us, coach us, encourage us.

 

It’s fascinating that everyone can agree that the single most important factor outside the home in a kid’s education is the teacher, but nobody wants to listen to us or help us.  They just want to fire as many of us as they can, judge us as harshly as possible, write about us with toxic scorn, blame us, ridicule us, and on and on.  Like that’s going to help?

 

We have arrived at a model of education where it is well understood that teachers are singularly important, and the best our influential types can think to do with that fact is to browbeat us and excoriate us.  Screaming at someone to do better isn’t known as an efficacious strategy.  You can tell they’re not good teachers who say this:  they’d have found that out by now.

 

But today we have a new governor, a person who campaigned as a friend to education.  We’ll see if that helps us.  Perhaps, for a novelty, on a lark, he might even listen to some teachers.

 

Are you listening, Mr. Gov?  Please talk to teachers.

Are you listening, Mr. Gov? Please talk to teachers.

As I came home in the twilight yesterday, the moon was rising, all three quarters of it, looking handsome and proud against the shedding, raggedy branches.  Quite fetching.

 

What with all the poetry I’ve been reading lately, that old friend has appeared in all sorts of similes and metaphors.  The first one I remember learning was from “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes and my father explained it to me:  “the moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas.”

This is a galleon.

This is a galleon.

And here is the moon looking like a ghostly galleon.

And here is the moon looking like a ghostly galleon.

Or how about “the new moon with the old moon in her arms” from Coleridge?

Yes.

Yes.

Or the moon like a worn shell?  This one gave some trouble to one of my students.  Perhaps he was picturing a conch or a scallop, but if you’ve walked along the beach and seen the broken pieces of shell, delicately arched, thick, smooth, and cool between your fingertips, on their way to becoming sand, you know what he means.

And also connected with the beach through the tides and the reflection of the moon on the water.

And also connected with the beach through the tides and its reflection in the water.

I come away with two thoughts:

1.  What stunning imaginations our poets have, to link these unlike objects, forming an unforgettable connection, bringing the moon somehow closer.

2.  If you’d like to read poetry to your very roots, you need to go outside and open up to what is there.  Go walking at night.  Walk down by the water’s edge.  Look up.  Look down.  Poetry is the intersection of pages with life.

 

It’s the end of the marking period and everything just keeps going. I have learned that my AP’s struggle with the following when reading poetry:

  • They don’t want to put the poem on a Procrustean bed and make it mean something it wasn’t meant to mean, but they feel driven to come up with something profound to say.
  • They know they have to get the literal level first, but they have lots of anxiety about going to the figurative level. See Procrustean bed, above.
  • They don’t know many Bible stories or myths, so their recognition of allusions is problematic.
  • They don’t know as many words as they thought they did and some of the words mean something different from what they had believed.
  • They struggle with archaic language: thou, dost, anon, wast. . . tres difficile.

 

Largely they just don’t have much experience with poems. When we read Poe, we know what we’re in for. When we go to a movie and things start blowing up, we know what we’re in for. They don’t know what they’re in for!

 

(true story: We used to watch the absurd Blake Edwards movie The Great Race with our kids when they were small, a family favorite. My son once showed it to a friend as an adult. At one point, the friend turned to him and remarked, “All this movie needs now is a pie-fight.” If you’ve not seen it, you should know that the pie fight in that film, occurring mere minutes from when the guy made the comment, is epic, putting all subsequent pie fights to shame. I believe they’re retired the concept from movie-making. He knew what he was in for)

 

If they keep reading poetry, or indeed anything literary and challenging, these problems will resolve themselves. But waiting is hard.

 

(is it annoying if I keep pointing out how testing will screw everything up if we let it? These impediments to understanding are a function of their youth and inexperience. We don’t need to and shouldn’t force these kids to be ahead of where they are. It will only make them into anxious message-hunters. Let them explore poetry for the love of it, and soon all these problems will go away)

 

You can't force the flowers to bloom, but given the right conditions, you can't stop them, either.

You can’t force the flowers to bloom, but given the right conditions, you can’t stop them, either.

I am mentoring a beloved former student as she takes her place in our school and in our profession. There are many hoops through which she must jump, benchmarks and requirements and looked-for behaviors, some of which are goodish sorts of things to ask of a new teacher, but others are just somebody’s pet thing foisted upon those whom they can (temporarily) boss around. It’s hard to watch. Technology! Teacher website! Essential questions! Objectives posted on the board! Standards!!

 

It’s not the case that all teachers employ these means.  Some of our best teachers post agendas every day. Others don’t. Some have big, rich, helpful websites; others don’t. Some pose essential questions and/or objectives, others not so much. None to my knowledge posts the “standards,” whatever anybody thinks those are.

 

Here are the things I think every good English teacher tries to teach:

  1. The world is a fascinating place of unimaginable complexity. It can be daunting, but keep your courage up.
  2. Learning about it is fun and goes on for your whole life.
  3. Books are immensely complex and interesting and there are many skills good readers employ to get the most out of them.
  4. Writing a beautiful, clear, concise sentence is cruelly hard and well worth the discipline—it’s a moral good.
  5. Open your heart to someone other than yourself.

 

Or, put another way:

1. Curiosity

2. Courage

3.  Reading

4.  Writing.

5.  Empathy.

 

And that’s it. Everything we do points toward one of those Big Five.

 

(but don’t try to tell that to the many, many non-teachers or failed teachers whose job as they perceive it is to tell us how to do our job, which they never have and we do all day every day.  In fact, don’t try to tell them anything, because they aren’t listening).

 

All thanks to Kate M. and A.B.

All thanks to Kate M. and A.B.

I wanted to be Snape, but the coat with the cloth-covered buttons was out of reach. I wanted to be The Joker, but nobody had a purple suit in my size. I wanted to be Cruella DeVille, but the thrift store was out of long white furry coats. So my sweet mentee came up with this idea, which meant a lot of makeup and a wig. I met a student at school at 6:30 and she went to town most expertly, and here I am, largely unrecognizable. It was itchy and weird all day, but the kids loved it. “Whoa, Mrs. S., is that you?!” Double-takes all day.

 

Colleagues also loved it. One dear friend remarked that she hates this holiday, doesn’t want to spend the money or go through the fuss. I kind of agree, until I see the reaction.

 

High school kids are still kids, like toddlers inside grown-up suits. Perhaps we all are.

 

Last year was fantastic.  Thank you, Laura K.!

Last year was fantastic. Thank you, Laura K.!

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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