Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dreaming and Scheming

I've been lucky this summer. The month of July seemed to pass, if not slowly, at least not quickly. The good news is that I feel as though I used every day well, and on a good chunk of those days, I spent time refueling, mostly. The "bad" news (but really, how dare I say "bad" when we have this much time away from the classroom) is that now, sufficiently refueled, it is time to put it in overdrive as August speeds by. And it will. This I know. The month is booked already.

I spent yesterday and today organizing. Listing. Emailing. Prioritizing. Phone-calling. Calendar-ing. Anyone who knows me can confirm that the color-coding of calendars and the listing of to-dos and tasks are some of my favorite things. Give me some lined paper and fine-tipped Crayola markers and my multiple calendars (Google, Outlook, wall, and planner) and I am an organizing machine. But I also quite enjoy the more abstract parts of preparing for the school year: dreaming and scheming.

So this is what I'm thinking about and these are the questions I'm asking as August looms, as the school year beckons, as I shift into high gear:

A new advisement component for new teachers in the union
Engaging 14-year-old boys in reading literature
My role as a leader within the parent group at my younger daughter's college
Using Twitter as a resource for students and parents
My professional goal(s) for the year
How do we build capacity within our local Association?
Changes to my classroom expectations and grading policies
Student interventions
Building relationships in Advisory
Parent involvement in the classroom and beyond
Goals and topics for this blog
Collegial outreach
What is exciting about English?
Collaborative work in my gradel level for the first time in 3 years
How can I bring more of the union membership together for service or social events?
Piloting the new state evaluation document
How will our curriculum revisions work?
What do I do well?
What do I need to work on?
What should I stop doing?

These are not simple ideas or easily-answered questions; there's no check-off box for this list. But I hope to address each and every one of these items as I spend August preparing for another school year.

First, though, I think I'll go to the parent-teacher store. I feel a new lesson plan book, bulletin board borders, and desk calendar in my future. Bring on the markers!!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Of Sense and Sensibility

Intuition is a teacher's sixth sense. From the ridiculous to the sublime, we intuit a bazillion things a bazillion times a day, and since intuition is essentially based on history and knowledge, it makes complete sense that we become really, really good at it. There are only so many types or combinations of requests, responses, behaviors, and attitudes that we can experience or witness, and it's highly possible that some of us have seen them all!!

By "seen," I mean with the eyes in the backs of our heads, of course. At the basic level of intuition, we can sense what's happening "behind" us with pretty precise accuracy. We know when a student is reaching into a backpack to get a chip out of a lunchbag, and we needn't hear the backpack unzip or the bag crinkle to know; we can feel the student lean ever-so-unnaturally from his chair, and heck, we might even read his mind before he lowers his torso toward the floor. We know when two students will turn and begin to chat: just as we turn our focus to another task, or answer the classroom telephone, or spend a moment with another student across the room. We know exactly when the quirky couple in the hallway, to whom we've just spoken about PDA, will resume their awkward lip-lock; that's why we turn around and look at them sternly, hopefully before it occurs (saving all of those around them from embarrassment).

And we know, sometimes before he or she even realizes it, when a student is losing focus in the lab or mentally slipping away from our class read-aloud. We can sense a student's lack of sleep from too much gaming or a late night at work when she enters the room. We feel the tension and fall-out from an argument on the playground or in the cafeteria, we recognize what the request to go see the nurse really is, we intuit the response to the handed-back work before it's even handed back.

What our students often don't realize, though, is that we've been there, done that. Many of us are in this because we remember so vividly our own classroom experiences (and either want to duplicate them or improve upon them for our students). We asked the same questions, had the same anxieties, tried the same tactics when we were students. And all it takes is a year or two (sometimes fewer, even) to have run the gamut of experiences in our own classrooms; it's the rare instance when we get a student whose approach is novel, whose reactions we didn't expect, whose requests we couldn't predict.

So while we don't see dead people, we sure do have a sixth sense. We use it to create and maintain classroom peace, to foster learning, and to build relationships. We rely on it to head off trouble before it arrives. And we depend on it to further our understanding of our students. But I bet you already knew that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Nurturing Warrior

A teacher's job is incredibly multi-faceted. And each year, those myriad facets increase, exponentially it seems, and nearly miraculously - after all, how many sides can one gem have?

We are: guides, dictionaries, accountants, therapists, editors, chemists, encouragers, soothers, challengers, architects, dietitians, collectors, creators, soldiers, encyclopedias, writers, problem-solvers, artists, nurses, advocates, advisors, psychics, cooks, explorers, collaborators, and even at times, parents. 

But no matter what our discipline or grade level, no matter what hats we don on what particular days, we all share one role from which we should never stray. We are, all of us, nurturing warriors

When I began thinking about the distillation of our jobs and the phraseology I wanted to use to convey the pure essence of what we do, I came naturally to that somewhat oxymoronic pairing of words, into whose definitions and interpretations I will delve momentarily. Little did I know (or remember?) that this same phrase was used to describe Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton by the New York Times in 2007, albeit in a rather tongue-in-check, practically insulting way. 

I specifically chose the phrase "nurturing warrior" not only because it encapsulates exactly what it is we do every day, all day, but also because it includes two words that, alone, are associated with specific genders: the nurturing female versus the male warrior. I chose words with these stereotypical gender assignments so that I could then strip away gender from the phrase in toto and apply both words to teachers without any sense of gender roles or identities. The best teachers, regardless of gender, display the traits of both the nurturer and the warrior.

The nurturer is caring, compassionate, comforting, accepting, and loving. This is the caregiver element in the teacher, the part that wants everything to be okay, oftentimes tries to make everything okay, and laments when things are not okay. The nurturer knows what he can and cannot accomplish, knows his strengths and limitations, and uses this knowledge to be supportive, protective, and always hopeful. 

The warrior, too, is hopeful, but with an eternal confidence and strength of spirit that is unbending. The warrior is aggressive when she needs to be, girded for whatever pitfalls lie ahead and for whatever battles she might have to fight, and uncompromising in her advocacy. The warrior element is one we most often put aside, for we fear that in our strength we will appear inflexible, antagonistic, or even cocky. 

The nurturing warrior uses both these elements not in isolation, nurturing here, being a warrior there, but rather, as a whole. Only when applied in tandem, and in equal parts (over time), can both elements be truly effective. Sure, there are times when one element or the other are dominant, but one without the other is not only dangerous, but wholly ineffective. To access one element requires the recognition of the other; the two are interdependent, valid and valuable.

In all that we do, at the very core of our professional beings (and perhaps at the core of our selves, too), this is what we are: caring and bold, supportive and strong. We are, at the core, nurturing warriors. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

What Lies Beneath

A sure sign of summer is the ubiquitous tip jar, especially the one at the local burger place or ice cream stand - the one that's marked up in joyous colors and boldly claims its mission: Tips for Tuition or Help Pay My Way to College. No guesswork required at these places; they're staffed by college kids who need money for school. Very few of us would balk at putting an extra dollar in this jar since we've sent our own kids, or we know families who are robbing Peter to send Paul to university, or we've, at the very least, followed the recent news about student debt.

But what about tipping elsewhere? What about the jars at sandwich shops where just plain adults work? What about the hair stylist? The cabbie? The moving company wrappers and packers? The tour bus driver or leader?

If it's customary to give tips, or if there's a tip jar somewhere, I tip. Usually, I overtip. And I overtip with intention and purpose. My reasons are threefold. First, I like the idea of someone counting out his tip(s) and thinking, "Wow, my customers are generous." I just think that in some karmic way, great tipping begets great service. On a somewhat less superficial level, I overtip because clearly, the recipient's base salary isn't all that huge, and she depends on tips to make up for it. Most importantly, though, I overtip because I have no idea what's going on in this service worker's life and for all I know, he is dealing with issues - financial or otherwise - that are unfathomable or unconquerable. At this level, it's more about the generosity of spirit that's conveyed through overtipping than it is about the generosity of the wallet.

When we apply this last approach to our students, it becomes far less taxing to accept them as they are: kids with all sorts of stuff happening to them and/or around them. Sometimes that stuff is what we'd deem light and fluffy (but it's still stuff); sometimes it's heavy and burdensome and we cannot imagine how the child is managing. Sometimes we'll be aware in some extra-sensory way (we teachers are extra-special-good at this), sometimes we will find out at a grade level, counselor, or parent meeting, sometimes we will just never know.

When we apply this approach to our students' parents (and our colleagues, and even our administrators), we can access our sympathy, and consequently our acceptance and understanding, much more readily. Lost or difficult jobs, loss of parents or siblings, illness, child-rearing woes, any internal or external struggles - these are all problems with which we can identify, or at the very least, understand. And we needn't know to understand. All we need to remember is that for everyone, always, there's always something, there's always stuff.

My pal calls this generosity of spirit "BOTD": giving someone (read: everyone) the benefit of the doubt. While we'll never know just what another is conflicted by, struggling with, or up against, it's highly likely that there's something there. By nature, teachers work in a world of BOTD; it's a by-product of being extra-special-good at sensing our students' stuff. The transfer from the classroom to beyond is easy, then: tip generously, whether in coins and bills or in peace, love and understanding - or, better yet, in all of the above.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Working on Discipline

Molly on her way to the island

On this morning's walk, we were joined by Molly the dog, who is generally well-behaved, tons of fun, and just a sweet love. Walking on a leash, however, is not one of her strengths. She's a sniffer, a puller, a wanderer, and my pal worked diligently for four miles to teach her to heel, to follow his command of "No pull, Molly."

I couldn't help but draw some parallels to the foundational work we do with students. But first, I thought of my own children, now adults, and the same instructional practices that I used with them, over and over. And over. And over. 

I've always asserted that the most difficult part of parenting, but the absolutely most important part (aside from abundant love, of course), is being consistent. Consistency isn't easy because as they grow, kids challenge us, test us, keep check on us (maybe even more than we keep check on them). They watch us like hawks to see if we'll change course, allow this or that, ignore something this time, or switch an approach or response. I like to believe that my daughters were never surprised by me and that I met their expectations, maybe not their desires, but their expectations of me each and every time I asked something of them or they asked something of me. 

Our students, too, need consistency. While I'll probably never be the easiest teacher, or the nicest (that descriptor goes to my colleague, CCC), or the funniest, I strive to be the fairest, the most straightforward, the most consistent. I work diligently, like my pal did with Molly, all day, every day to both model consistency and expect it from my students. And therein lies the rub, for my students oftentimes are like Molly: wanderers and pullers (and pushers, too). And that's precisely why I must be assiduous in my work, never faltering, always steady. 

And lest my reader worry that I sound as boring as all get-out, let me clarify this way: I am talking solely about classroom expectations, which I believe are the foundation for all good work to happen around content. Without knowing that I do not tolerate disrespect, students cannot take risks and make guesses about what they think and what they read. Without knowing that I will be honest about what I do and don't know, students are less likely to be honest  about what they do and don't know. And without knowing how they will be assessed, with clear rubrics to follow, students cannot do their very best work on essays, projects, and tests.

Working on discipline, for Molly, for our children, for our students, and even for ourselves (think food choices, work habits, exercise and movement), requires much consistency. To practice consistency is to create consistency, and consistency then breeds discipline. Cyclical, certainly, but a cycle worth the practice. No pull!!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Best Ofs

I'm not particularly the formally competitive type (though I like to be the "winner" in nearly every aspect of my personal and professional lives - more on that later), but I do love a good competition. And summer is always chock-a-block full of the contests, races, rankings, and ratings that I both marvel at and appreciate. From magazine "Best Of" listings to the Olympics, competition seems to be the name of the summer game.

So bring on summer. So far this season, I've had the pleasure of trying Maine's "Best Veggie Burger," the pride of crossing fingers for a former student at the USA swimming and diving trials in Omaha, the wonder of following the two runners who actually tied for third in an Olympic-qualifying race, and Dana Torres, and Oscar Pistorius, the too-infrequent contentment of watching the 2012 Euro Cup, and the sheer joy of placing bets for dinner over the length of time it would take to travel in a loaded moving truck from one state to another with a tire low on air (thanks, Northeast derecho).

Of course, it's these healthy competitions that we want to celebrate. Competition drives us to strive diligently, to create with abandon, to think broadly, and to assess our own capacities in the striving, creating, and thinking arenas. And this last element of competition is the one that I find most important, the one that I believe we must instill in our students and children: the knowing of oneself, the competition within.

When I pass back the first graded work of the school year to my students, inevitably someone will turn to someone else and ask, "What did you get?" It happens in nearly every class, and it's a most teachable moment. I get that we are inclined to measure ourselves against each other, but it's that inclination that I want to eradicate, and the earlier the better. For simply put, the work within a classroom is not developed and delivered so that students are in competition with each other, but rather so that students internalize their successes (or failures) and determine their own courses to improve upon their own performances. So I often cut that question off (or hopefully, address it before it even gets asked), and share with the entire class my stand on the purpose of asking it and the purpose of graded work.

First, I contend, one only asks another what he received for a grade in order to share with him what one's own grade is. It's the rare student who receives a low grade and asks around to see what everyone else earned; typically, the high scorers are quicker to the question. So this, then, becomes an unhealthy competition: tell me what you got, so I can better your grade with my own. That's simply egocentrism, and while this approach is completely appropriate for 14-year-olds, it's a less narcissistic self-focus that I want to encourage. I say, "Compete with yourself, strive for yourself, do well for yourself."

And second, I believe that the whole point of grades is to mark an individual student's progress in relation to her prior performance. In this day of interventions, modifications, adaptations, and accommodations, students should be measured against themselves, not against each other. That is the true purpose of benchmarks, really, despite the relatively contradictory implication of their use. Yes, they establish a point of reference against which we can measure all students, but isn't individual progress way more important?

I'll remind myself of these beliefs as I venture through the summer, too. No hot dog eating contests for me, unless I just want to eat a lot of hot dogs for my own pleasure (highly doubtful). Less complaining about Maine's supposed best lobster roll, which is not at Red's Eats, by the way, but here. And of course, tuning in to the Olympics, where competitors surely race and swim and compete against each other, but only because they've focused on themselves for so very long and with such very successful results.

Cheers to competition!!