Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Just as we have those occasional days or weeks filled with bad news, frustrating experiences, lessons-gone-wrong, we have those days or weeks where the next experience outshines the last. And sometimes, those light-bearing moments are on the not-so-ragged edge of our professional lives; sometimes, that's where  they can be the best experiences ever. I've had such a week so far, and it's only Wednesday!!

Monday evening was World Book Night. When I got wind of this project many months ago, I immediately applied to be a book-giver. The excitement I felt in the winter when chosen to give away 20 copies of Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle increased tenfold when I picked up my books at my local library a few weeks ago. And then, Monday afternoon, it increased one-hundred-fold. It was an overcast afternoon with a cold, brisk wind, but I felt all warm inside (no joke) as my daughter and I distributed the books to people around town. Gratitude - for the shared love of reading, for the getting and the giving of a gift, for the reaching out - can do that, make me feel warm and mushy. Who knew it would continue, with such a force, into Tuesday?

Tuesday afternoon I walked into a 14-person workgroup meeting to find myself sitting down to a chat about teacher evaluation with none other than Charlotte Danielson. Didn't I just mention her a couple days ago in a blog post? I DID!! I think that hour may become one of the seminal moments of the rest of my teaching life. Danielson is intelligent, provocative, self-effacing, insightful, honest, and thoroughly engaging. She "taught" us in just the way she encourages us to teach, which is an incredibly refreshing concept for those of us who have sat through too-many-to-mention workshops-gone-wrong. I found myself scribbling copious notes and scribing complete quotes; she was that brilliant.

I left that meeting and headed to the theatre for the Tuesday night installment of Great Week Gets Greater. I'd been looking forward to seeing Bully since I'd heard about it months ago and followed the print media's coverage of the controversy surrounding its MPAA rating (it's now rated PG-13). This film must be seen. By everyone. Parents. Kids. Teachers. Administrators. Board members. Lawyers. Store clerks. Waitstaff. Truck drivers. CPAs. PAs. The Oakland As. You get it - everyone. It will make you weep, it will make you squirm, and I hope most of all that it makes you take action.

Today hasn't been a letdown, interestingly. I started a Twitter project with a class and had great initial success. Student engagement was high and I'm looking forward to refining what we learned from this first entree into using social media in the classroom.

I'm also looking forward to what Thursday, and Friday, and next week, and next month bring. Maybe I'm on a roll; it sure feels that way and that sure feels good. Might as well go for the super-perfecta!!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What I Want to Be

I want to be a better teacher.

Charlotte Danielson just may be the closest thing to an educational god. She's a brand, too, I admit. But she's a brand with which I am comfortable because I believe in her product, her framework for teaching. I do not say this lightly; it takes an awful lot for me to sign on to any standardized anything. Danielson's framework, though, doesn't point its finger at me and say, "Do this. Or this." It's not about methodology and rules as much as it is about what good professional practice looks like; it's not about the process of teaching as much as it is about opportunities for engagement and improvement. I like that. 

Our district work around Domain 3, Instruction, and specifically, questioning and discussion techniques, has been a catalyst for more post-PD conversation than I've ever experienced. Colleagues are talking to each other about what we already do, what we could do, what we might try, and, interestingly, how to meet the distinguished levels of performance in this domain. I'm fascinated that we are verbalizing with each other what we each individually know - that we want to be better. We all know it, we all think about it, but now, we are all talking about it. 

Last night at a dinner party, a colleague said, "Don't you think getting students to engage other students in discussion is virtually impossible?" This idea, that students become responsible to each other for ensuring that all (and Danielson means all) voices are heard within the context of rich conversation around a topic, is indeed hard to imagine. But I don't think it's impossible. And I want to prove it. 

I'd like to think I'm already proficient in this component of instruction. I'm really good at using wait time. I vary my questioning techniques so that many voices are heard. I encourage my students to think deeply and to take risks in discussions. I check for understanding, not just for completion of task. Next year, I am going to add a component for classroom discussion to my course expectations. I may create a professional goal around my questioning and discussion techniques. And I've already starting thinking about how to better foster the kind of engagement that Danielson is talking about: less me, more students. After all, I want to be a better teacher. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Taking a Stand

"Pig" was an offensive word, a swear, when I was a child. My sister, brother, and I weren't allowed to use it, and if we did, as in "You pig!" we were swiftly punished. We also weren't allowed to say, "I hate you," and the first time I heard another kid say this to her mother, while preparing breakfast on a Girl Scout camping weekend, I felt like retching. In fact, I retreated to my tent, wept uncontrollably, and still felt weird even after my mother explained to me that it was said as a joke, and that it was okay in that family. Of course, I turned into a curser-extraordinaire as an adult (but I never use the word "pig"). And I allowed my own children, even in their most vehement moments, to tell me that they hated me, which I never believed they meant.

But I also disallowed certain words as I raised my children (and still in my classroom), words that are used today rather loosely and that I find highly, highly offensive when not used in proper context (as they so rarely are, or, for some, if there even is a proper context). "Retarded" and "gay" come to mind. But there's also "nigger," "slut," "Nazi," "wifebeater," and "bitch," and now, more and more, "rape." Friends "rape" friends' Facebook walls. The Spurs "rape" the Lakers. A classmate who stands too close in the lunch line is admonished, "Don't rape me."

Today, as I was catching up on my teacher-related online reading, I came across this post on Motherlode, and then this subsequent re-visit. The quandary that a parent faces over if/when/how to address inappropriate remarks is one that teachers experience, these days nearly every day. Parents may question whether they should confront their own or other children or other children's parents (it's a no-brainer for me, though: of course), but teachers shouldn't. Teachers have the prerogative, the permission, and most of all, the responsibility to halt the inappropriate use of these words and their implications, all within the context of teachable moments.

I had one myself, just yesterday. I'd witnessed a student sort of subtly laugh in mockery and point his finger at another who, while portraying a character, asked his teacher if the character was gay. My colleague handled the question (and his answer) with finesse and aplomb. Later, I caught up with the student whose inappropriate behavior I'd witnessed. I explained to him what I saw, how it made me feel (offended, uncomfortable, disappointed), and the difference between intent and impact. The student was open to the conversation and appreciative of my insight.

Will that conversation, or any conversations we teachers have with our students about language, make a difference? It might; I can only hope. All I know is that if I hadn't had it, there would be no difference to be made.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

National Poetry Month

Last night, I sat at a restaurant that is an English teacher's dream. One long wall includes a wide magnetic strip upon which are hundreds of Magnetic Poetry word bits. On my left, a family laughed between bites of frites as their children messed around with language and structure. On my right, a bilingual couple spoke in French and created short poems in English from the words on the wall.

April is National Poetry Month. We've all been touched by poetry, many of us teach poetry, and certainly, our lives themselves are poetry. To honor the poetry within us and around us, I give you two of my favorite teacher-y poems.

First, a gem from my favorite accessible poet, Billy Collins. If you don't yet know "Introduction to Poetry," I think you will enjoy it.

And then, the classic "Did I Miss Anything?" from Tom Wayman. It's a great riff on that bothersome student-to-teacher question.

What's your favorite poem? I encourage you, in this month of poetry, to find it, re-read it (or recite it), and let it please you once again.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite

The French had it right when they decided that "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" should be the goals of their Republic. I believe that teachers, also, benefit when we interpret these ideals for ourselves.

I often lament the thing that most frustrates me about my particular job, and that is the inordinate amount of correcting I must do. Before I settled down today to grade quizzes, reader responses, active viewing charts, and unit projects, I weighed my teacher bag. 17.2 pounds. The equivalent of a 6-month-old baby. I should have bulging biceps by now (I don't). But that baby is mine, mine, mine. I chose to have that baby. So I really shouldn't complain too much, right? I really shouldn't so vociferously discourage those in teacher prep programs to avoid my discipline, right? I really should buckle down and just do it, right? Right. Same goes for complaining about my pay (we should get paid what others with our equivalent degrees get paid), or my too-early wake-up time (it's inhuman to rise at 4:45 a.m.), or having to dress professionally (I'd wear jeans and a t-shirt every day if I could). Sometimes it feels good to complain, and sometimes the complaining is necessary. But I also need to remind myself often that I. Chose. This.

Something that's always bothered me about this profession is the odd division between us - between elementary and secondary teachers, between disciplines, or between classroom teachers and specialized personnel. Somehow, we get to thinking that our jobs are the toughest, or someone else's is the the easiest. We assume that PE teachers have an "easy gig," English teachers claim they have the most correcting, elementary teachers "get to play all day," high school teachers "have so much prep time," specials teachers' classes don't count, and the list of (misguided) comparisons goes on. But I know that we all have requirements and standards and burdens and struggles that not only do we all not fully grasp, but that make each of our jobs difficult in different ways (and let's not forget that the rest of us didn't choose those other areas for a reason - most likely because we couldn't hack it there).

Most importantly, though, we are a union, some of us by formal definition and membership, but all of us by the labels of "teacher" and "educator." We are a  fraternity (you'll pardon the gender-specific word choice, I hope). Whether we teach private or public, young or old, struggling or gifted, core or specials, humanities or sciences, rural or urban, our common denominators are our passion, our devotion, our concern, our commitment, and our love for this work. We want to preserve our rights, fulfill our obligations, and do what is right and good for our students, always. There's no argument there. We can debate about reform, we can respectfully disagree about methodology and pedagogy, we can discuss the merits of merit pay. But when we do, we must remember that we are first brothers and sisters in this work.

And so, to all (other than high school English) teachers, I can say only this: I don't know exactly what it is you do, or even how you do it, but I know I could not do it. I do not have the desire, energy, talents, or skill set that is required of your work. I appreciate your dedication and your drive, and I am grateful to labor beside you and amongst you and call you my colleagues.