Archives for category: To teach

How do we prepare for the year?

I would like one day to ask a thousand teachers what is their ritual for beginning a new school year.  A stop at Staples?  A list of goals?  Mani and pedi?  A freezer full of portioned casseroles?

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It’s a nervous time for us as we push ourselves into the starting gate.  Lots of stamping and snorting.  The odd nightmare.

I keep a folder in my desk at school with notes for Next Year.  Then I go and just walk around my classroom, thinking my thoughts, imagining the kids coming in on the first day.

This year’s big change is going to be cigar box cell phone garages.  I have my desks arranged in groups of 4.  Each group will have its own cigar box with a stout rubber band.  Part of the opening ritual will be for kids to take out their cell phones, silence them, and place them in the cigar box with the rubber band holding the lid down.  I can easily check to see they’re all there, out of reach.  Inaccessible.  Ha!  Take that, distraction!

We’ll see how it works.  I’ll let you know.  Today I will ask my AP Lit kids to read the article in The Atlantic about cellphones destroying a generation as an introduction to the cell phone garages.  What would be great is not just compliance but buy-in.  (Who am I kidding?  Even compliance would be great.  But if they could see for themselves that they have to find a way to put some limits on their social media and electronic connectivity, I would have improved their lives).

But the point is that for teachers, hope springs eternal.  THIS will be the year we get it all figured out!  This is the year that we break away, out in front, with the wind in our manes, kicking up the divots and feeling our power.

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And we’re off!  May it be the best year ever.

Or, how do you prepare?

This has always been a mystery to me.  How do you prepare to teach a bunch of kids you haven’t met yet?  You can’t know how to speak to them or connect to them until you know a little bit about them.  .  .  But you have to do something on the first few days while you size them up and they do the same with you.

What I have done in the past is to ask them to read V.S. Naipaul’s beautiful short story “B. Wordsworth” and then a letter I’ve written and photocopied about the story, and on the back of that they write a letter to me talking about the story, about my letter, and about themselves.  I wish I could say that took up most of the 90 minutes I typically see them, but it’s only about a half an hour.  “B. Wordsworth” says a lot about paying attention, about mindfulness, and about teaching.  It’s great.  But they can’t really take in anything on day 1 and maybe that’s better saved for later.

I’ve been told that you should do your most pizzazzy lesson on the first day so they go home all agog and tell their mums and dads.  That’s poor advice in my opinion.  Why would you want to set yourself up so the entire rest of your course is a let-down?  And anyway, they won’t remember it.  Day 1 is a blur.

I’ve also been told that you shouldn’t smile til Christmas.  This reminds me of a saying my father used to cite:  “A woman, a horse, and a walnut tree: the more you beat ’em, the better they be.”  I can’t speak for walnut trees, but I bet even the horses reject that piece of cruelty.

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(Don’t let them hurt you, kiddo!)

No, the thing to do on day 1 is something that comes out of your own heart, expresses your values, respects the kids and yourself, and recognizes that we all need time and space to decide our feelings on anything so important as our new teacher.

I myself am not a fan of icebreakers, so I don’t do one.  If you like them when they’re offered to you, great.  Go for it.  For me, that would be phony.  This year I might give them an article (The Atlantic has one now about smartphones ruining a generation) and ask them to read and discuss in small groups and then open it up to discuss all together.  Or go over procedures, introduce myself, and give them the article to take home to read and begin Wednesday with a discussion.

I don’t know.  So the true answer to what am I doing this weekend is that I am sleeping as much as I can, buying plastic containers to pack lunches, visiting with my family, re-stringing my guitars, going for walks, having dinner with friends, and altogether living my life– invoking the muses to grace my creativity and imagination with lesson ideas that will inspire my students big time.

In other words, I’ll figure it out.  Ideally before the first kids arrive on Tuesday.

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(Can’t wait to meet those scary, wonderful kids).

We’ve had our last day of “professional development” for the nonce and that’s  good thing.  You can only take so much.  It took a little while and some kind companionship (a.k.a. complaining with colleagues) to correct  course.

What happens sometimes is that we are given an article to read that touts some new method for engaging students and fostering learning.  New methods are great and engaged students who learn is what it’s all about, so you’d think that would be helpful.  The problem is that the method is overhyped.  Always.  It’s not just an answer, it’s the answer, the be-all, end-all, slam-dunk, fool-proof, can’t-miss solution to every problem any teacher ever had.  A classroom library of wonderful books will mean that literally Not One Student will fail to learn to love reading!  Postcards of fine art (Matisse, Kahlo, Klimt) will mean that every single, solitary, disengaged, angry kid will suddenly fall in love with creative expression and analyze poetry like Ph.D!  And I mean all of them:  Jose, Marisol, Eduardo, Spike, Dylan, Natasha, Olivia, and Sven.  The postcards will transform your classroom into a thrumming hive of learning and never again will you know the doldrums.  Your students will all win Pulitzers and thank you.

It stems from a fervent wish that teaching were a science rather than an art.  A lot of bad thinking about education stems from this wish.  Standards imply that if teachers just knew what to teach, they could succeed with every kid.  Merit pay rests on the assumption that if teachers were more motivated (by money) they would succeed with every kid.  There has to be some foolproof, can’t-miss, slam-dunk way that we could make all those interchangeable non-entities called teachers do stuff that would guarantee success with every kid.

But teaching is not a science.  Parenting isn’t either, and every attempt (Dr. Spock, are you listening?) to treat it as a science ignored the essential role of loving, creative, good-humored parents.  Parents are unique.  Kids are unique.  Families are unique.  Parenting comes out of the deepest values of the mum and dad as they love their ever-changing and one-of-a-kind kid.  Sometimes that works out great.  Sometimes kids don’t get what they need or parents can’t figure out how to help their kid.  But standardizing it is the opposite of the answer.  You wouldn’t get better parenting if you offered parents bonuses for meeting some criteria or other.

By now I hope we know that if someone says to a parent with a kid with a problem, “Oh, that’s easy.  All you do is.  .  . ” they should walk away.  When someone talks like that, all it means is that their kid didn’t have the problem your kid does.  Lucky them.  Or they found a solution that worked, for a while, with that particular kid.  Again, lucky them.  You can try their idea, but you go into it with wisdom, prepared to abandon the method of it antagonizes your kid.  There are very few universals.

And so it is with teaching.  I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve, lots of methods I can trot out when they seem promising, but any lesson might work with some of the kids but never all.  Or might work, mostly, with one class and fail totally with another.  What remains is my love, my excitement about learning, my faith in them as smart people who can get excited about learning, too.  Just as you only ever learn to be a parent to the kids you actually have, so you only ever learn to teach the students you’ve actually had.  Each class poses new challenges and while some of what you’ve learned may work, you’re also probably going to have to figure out all new ways to reach them.

Teachers aren’t cogs or widgets (nor are students).  Our passion, ingenuity, and love are what make the thing work.  The methods don’t mean any more than whether a family likes to read Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter to their kids.  It depends.

Sorry, Powers That Be.  You’re never going to help teachers do a better job until you recognize our individuality, our own creativity, our passionate motivation, and our un-bribe-able love as the heart of it all.

But yeah, it is nice to show them some Matisse.

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The house we used to live in had a skylight in the living room, and outside that room there grew a number of mature trees.  One day, my grandson, who was then about 3 years old, said to me, “Mimi, circles are here.”  I had never noticed that the sun, when filtered through leaves (as if they were a pinhole camera), projects itself in circles of light.  Here is the best photo I can find to show you what I mean if you haven’t noticed this before:

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That dappling, if you could see it without the texture of the ground, is made up of circles.  I had lived in that house for years and never noticed it.  It took the fresh attention of a little child to see it.

We used to lie on our backs and watch them shift around when the breeze stirred the leaves.  It was Zen T.V.  Very beautiful.  One day a cloud came and covered the sun and the circles vanished, and then, as the cloud blew across the sky, they came back.  My grandson said to me, “Do it again!”  As if I had the power to move the clouds.

It was very strange to me that I had never seen them, that I needed his help to see what was happening in my own house so frequently– and I have never stopped loving those circles, whenever they appear.

Yet another miracle of the eclipse is this:

Circles are cescents

The circles became crescents.

I couldn’t tell you why this is so lovely to me.  Partly it has to do with having been taught to see them by my beloved little boy, partly it has to do with beauty and mystery hiding right before our eyes, as much as to suggest that the world is far more exquisite than we have power to imagine or perceive.

But one thing is for sure: teaching involves making these overlooked marvels visible to our kids whose lives, we hope, will forever contain a little more of the numinous than they did when they arrived.

It’s all about the noticing.  Thank you, A., for teaching me to notice the circles.

Sometimes you see something and you know you’ll be talking about it in class one day.  This one struck me as highly useful.

Picture a beautiful summer day and I’m walking on a sidewalk on a quiet, not heavily traveled street, on my way back from walking the labyrinth.  Outside the Michener Museum, a car stops.  The driver, a woman on a cell phone, makes no effort to pull over and make room for another car, but there’s nobody behind her.  She is dropping off her daughter, as I supposed, who is in the passenger seat, texting or handling some kind of business.  Someone comes up behind them.  The two women don’t see that car.  The car waits a little bit, and then gives a little toot on the horn as it pulls around them.  The woman looks up from her phone and puts her hand out the window to give them the finger.  I hear both her and the daughter say something angry, but I didn’t catch the specifics.  The daughter gets out of the car and crosses the street to go to maybe a job at the Michener and the mother roars off in the car, angry and nettled.

If the woman had pulled over, or even into the adjacent parking lot, she and her daughter could have had some quiet to handle their business and not trouble anyone.  So why not do that?  She set herself up for an unpleasant interaction.  She did everything she reasonably could to guarantee a rotten start to her day.  The car behind her wasn’t behaving aggressively.  They just wanted to get where they wanted to go, along a public street.

That seemed to me a perfect example of how placing yourself at the center of the universe will teach you that everyone is a jerk and out to get you.  But if you see the world as full of reasonable people who all have stuff to do, you pull over and they go around you and you’re happy for them and they for you.

Consideration is its own reward.  Selfishness is its own punishment.  I plan to use this story with my students.  Feel free to adopt it if it’s a parable for your classroom, too.

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(It happened right about here.)

Hi, readers.  Are there 2 or 3 of you now?  Yay!

Today I returned from the eclipse, which I saw near Benton, TN– more on that later.  But I did want to let you know that I have you much in mind as we think about bidding summer farewell and undertaking our vocation and life’s work, for which, I hope, we’re a little more energized than we were in June.

This is just to let you know that I hope to write to you again this year, and maybe not go dark in November as I did last year.  I can’t promise anything.  Who knows what will happen?  Not me.  But as long as I don’t fall off the cliff of meaning into the chasm of dread, fear, and despair, I hope to write to you all the things I wish I had known when I was a newish teacher and all the things I’m still learning as an oldish one.

Interesting focus fact: my husband and I calculate that, if all goes according to plan, I have 9 more years of teaching.  I plan to retire 6/26.  For many teachers, the retirement date is a fetishistic countdown.  Not me.  While I am listing the travels I’d like to make in the off season (Hawaii, Venice, Yosemite) and the things I’d like to learn or ply or bathe in (guitar, weaving, more guitar), I’m also looking at these last 9 years as nearly a third of my career.  What will they be about?  What’s their special job?

And I know the answer!  (naturally):  trying to prepare newish teachers to bring their whole selves to the classroom and create a body of work, to make the world a better place through their cataract of love and knowledge.  My career goal has been to be able to know when I announce my retirement, colleagues, administrators, parents, and students will consider it a loss to my school.  And now I undertake to add to that career goal that I wrote to and for newish teachers in ways that helped them meet the same career goal.

So here we go, into the school year and for me, into the last third.  May we undertake it all with wisdom, courage, honesty, and enthusiasm.  But above all, with love.

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(Image courtesy of the internet– “One Year Bible Blog”)

One of my new-teacher friends asked me to post something about the recent election and it’s taken me a couple of days to think through what I could say.

There isn’t much to say.

But:

What we saw was the revelation of something we might already have known.  We are a divided nation.  Racism and othering of all kinds are real.  People are afraid.  They want easy answers.  They perceive rage and impulsiveness as strength, consideration and thoughtfulness as weakness.  It’s easier to label and withdraw our compassion than to open, inquire, and embrace.

If the election had gone the other way, this state of affairs would differ only in the types of battles we would be fighting.  The protests would be ugly and violent and Congress would set its face implacably against the president.  Any gains would come in the teeth of fierce resistance and shoved down the throats of the angry half of the nation.  We’d be just as divided as we are now, only raging rather than gloating/mourning.

Is it possible that four years of what they think they want will be the best argument for another way?  Is it possible that people will grow tired of fearing one another and want to go to amicable, peaceable co-existence?  That’s the hope to which I cling.

We never needed teachers more than we do now, especially those who teach English and Social Studies.  The compassion that literature imparts and the lessons history holds for us are now vital to our kids’ lives.

Yesterday I put 3 take-aways on the board.

  1.  We must stop being hateful and rotten to one another.  Rude, cruel speech is an attack, an attempt to invalidate another person.  If you slap a label on someone, you’ve put them in a basket, deplorable or otherwise, that means you don’t have to listen to them anymore.  That’s the problem, not the solution.  We must stop, and teach our kids to stop, annihilating with words those with whom they disagree.  And the same for us.  Our new president is a person, not any of the names it might feel good to call him, and so is each one of his supporters.  The only way to heal the rift is to listen and respond with respect.
  2. Truth matters.  Good decisions come not from fear, nor actually from unfounded hope, but from careful understanding of reality.
  3. Kids need to run for public office.  Start by going to your borough hall or township building and finding out what committees you are free to join.  Get involved.  How cool would it be if our  former students ran for school board?  For mayor?  For state representative?

There have always been bad ideas scurrying round underfoot, in every age.  The only way to defeat a bad idea is with a better, truer one– and that has happened.  Women got the vote.  Slavery ended.  Kids didn’t have to work in sweatshops.  Products had to be accurately labeled.  Everybody got to go to school.  Rather than wishing we  could ram our good ideas into place, we have learned that we must do the painstaking work of demonstrating their merit.

So that’s what we teachers are going to do.  We will foster respectful, truthful debate and compassion for all humans and encourage our kids to express their views thoughtfully and clearly.  Our new president has four years to do what he can; then, the people will decide on how he did.  He will be judged.

We teachers have the lifetimes of all our combined students to leave a legacy of love and wisdom.

 

Some time ago, but well after age 50, I determined to learn to play the guitar. I can’t say why I did, but all of a sudden it mattered to me. Since I last learned anything really hard, I’ve developed quite a lot of discipline and stamina—surprise!—and I worked hard at it. Then I lost my teacher and found a new teacher and to my sorrow, discovered that I’d learned some bad habits that were going to hold me back if I didn’t reform my ways. This felt like going back to the beginning. Discouraging. Very.

Yesterday at my lesson, my new teacher, Dan C., cautioned me against overthinking and trying to get too far too fast. He said if he were going to try to learn gymnastics, he wouldn’t start on the parallel bars. First he’d have to lose some weight and get stronger—before he even approached any of the equipment. He said just as you don’t start teaching babies the Latin name for fruit trees before they’ve learnt “apple,” so you can’t get ahead of yourself in any other enterprise.

But I don’t want to be where I am! I want to be farther ahead. Now.

And that driving, striving attitude will defeat the most disciplined learner. You can’t be where you aren’t. You have to be where you are, fully, deeply, without judgment. You have to live rich and open in the place you are. Only in that way can you move forward.

It’s a little like walking along with a stack of books piled high on your arms.

 

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This guy is content to be where he is.

As you learn, the books go inside you and your arms are freed up for more. This takes time. The only way is bit by bit. You can’t just pile more books on top and run ahead, grabbing more books. It just won’t work.

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This guy is trying to get where he isn’t.

 

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This guy is going to have to put some of those books down.

To learn stuff best, whether it’s guitar or how to teach or what were the causes of the Civil War, you have to be where you are with it, possessed of curiosity, tolerance, patience, courage, and faith. Trying to motivate yourself (or others) with chiding and yelling merely communicates that where you are is no good. How can it be no good? It’s where you are! You have to start there.

guitar-lesson-capestang

It helps a lot if love and respect flow freely between teacher and student.

It turns out that the fastest way to go anywhere is to be fully where you are. You have to pay attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what is happening now.

So mindfulness and learning, it turns out, go hand in hand.

 

 

As I read the newspapers and hear the noise, this is what I’m learning:

  • Good teachers are crucially important in kids’ lives.
  • There aren’t enough good teachers. Too many aren’t worth what we’re paying them.
  • Those who are no good are disproportionately congregating in the schools of low income kids. That’s why those kids are not succeeding.
  • Therefore, we need ways to measure teachers against one another, to make sure we have more good ones.
  • Thus we have to make teaching as miserable, standardized, and soulless as possible, bleed the creativity right out, so we can have better teachers.

I totally agree with the first one! Yes, good teachers are truly important to kids. I should know, for I had many superb teachers and I don’t live a day when I don’t owe them my thanks.

The people I’m trying to speak to in this blog are teachers, teachers-in-training, and those who care about them (which should be everybody, if we care about our future, but oh well). So how, under current circumstances, do you become a great teacher? Given that just about everything you read is about judgment, antagonism, ignorant assumptions, and punitive measurement, how do you let your light shine?

I think the first step is a vow: I will treat my students with respect.

We should all say this aloud, ten or fifty times a day. Everybody needs a reminder. For the fact is that kids can be exasperating. They don’t turn in their work, they talk in class and ignore you, they put on their makeup or reorganize their book bag or ask to go the bathroom precisely when you’re baring your heart and the soul of a poem, and when you ask for their attention, they can pull a face and sass at you and give you names of all the other people who are so much worse than they are right at that very moment so it really can’t be their fault atall. You want to leave them out in the rain.

But this will not help them learn. Indeed, if you start to hate them, even a little, they will either suck up to you so they’re on your good side, or they’ll make it their business to thwart you as far as they can. Teachers, of all professions, know what it feels like when you’re doing your utmost and all you get is grief—hardly encouraging of that extra measure of effort.

And our students have the added excuse of being kids. This is where (I blush to disclose) I have a distinct advantage over many other teachers, for I was a smart-mouthed know-it-all when I was in school. I do not forget that as annoying as my students can be—and yesterday I had to take a moment in a colleague’s room to hold back the tears of frustration and furor—I was pretty bad myself. I sometimes imagine some of my former teachers smiling contentedly down from heaven on my red face and brimming eyes. So I understand the rebellious spirit.

After all, if the kids came to us rarin’ to learn and laser-focused, they could teach themselves and we’d be out of a job. It’s precisely because they are annoying, chatty, distracted, ignorant, entitled, callow intellects-in-bud that we’re worth our paychecks.

It’s very tempting to go into high dudgeon and decry “kids these days,” refuse late work, teach by packet, sneer and snipe, create picky quizzes and tests that reasonable readers can’t pass, and make the whole thing into a power struggle, but it’s a bad idea. For that isn’t teaching but withholding, ranking, scrabbling for status.

And the fact that our secretary of education, “reformers,” and sometimes even our administrators take that tone with us is no excuse.

So I propose that no matter what else we do, we respect our students, individually, as human beings of unknowable potential. Only in that way can we realize our own potential as teachers, which every kid needs more good ones of.

Doctors have their oath.  We need one, too.

Doctors have their oath. We need one, too.

Someone I know is going to have a baby. She said to me, “I just wish I could be doing something about it. It’s so hard just to wait!” Yes, I said, it’s hard to wait, but if it depended on mothers doing stuff somebody would be sure to mess it up. This is strictly a growing kind of thing. You cannot grow taller by trying and you can’t make a better baby by trying, even if you could decide what a better baby would look like.

But other things take a fantastical amount of doing, yet they can’t be hastened, either. This is what discovering our ability as a teacher feels like. I keep going back to John Steinbeck in my mind. He had to discourage the thoughts of the past and success he had already met, which was worse than useless on the project of Grapes of Wrath, and he had to fend off thinking about the future, with all its attendant worries about whether the book would be good enough, or an abject failure. What mattered was the work each day.

Not built in a day.

Not built in a day.

And so it is for new teachers. What matters is the work each day. In fact, this is equally true for our students. Measuring ourselves just isn’t very helpful. Projecting to the future is irrelevant and fears from the past are actively harmful. It’s as if we are pregnant with our future selves and we have to allow that gestation to develop in its own way and time, yet with this pregnancy there is nothing but doing the work with a will.

This slow, laborious process is made all the worse by others around us offering well meant advice about taking it easy. You ought to have more fun! Come on, live a little! But we can’t. We’re laboring.

Or, if it makes more sense to you, rather than being pregnant with your future self, the first few years of teaching are like having at least twins, or possibly, depending on how many students, how many preps, how well you know the content, and other circumstances, triplets, quadruplets, or quintuplets. You would not say to a new mother of multiples that she ought to live a little. You would congratulate her on survival. Is she getting any sleep at all? Is she getting to the end of the day with a shred of sanity? That’s success.

Now the fun can begin.

Now the fun can begin.

New teachers: I congratulate you on your survival! Those infants will grow up and one day they’ll go to school. They will still be lots of work and your major concern, but it will get progressively more doable. Yes, you have to give up many pleasures and joys for now. Your life can’t be the same. You walk around in a daze and with a wet spot of drool on your shoulder and you can’t go out with your friends but ever so rarely. But it’s so, so worth it.

One day, you’ll be born as a teacher, and you’ll know it. As Aeneas said on the beach to his desperate men, fled from Troy, “One day perhaps we will remember even these our present hardships with joy.” (Except you won’t. Nobody likes to remember the first year or so. I just said that to cheer you up.)

Aeneus and Achates meet Venus. Illustration by Warwick Goble, posted at mydelineatedlife.blogspot.com

Aeneus and Achates meet Venus. Illustration by Warwick Goble, posted at mydelineatedlife.blogspot.com

Somehow all of us must find a way to balance what needs to be done with what we can do, remembering that sometimes, for new mothers, Steinbeck, Aeneas, the builders of Rome, and teachers, it’s going to mean a lot of work here and now.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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