Sunday, June 28, 2009

Classroom Antics

I had this parent once who was quick to criticize. And I was all too quick to give reason after reason in reply to his concerns. I should have known... nothing I could say would be enough or the right answer. It made for a very stressful few months in which I worried more about what he thought than about being myself in front of the classroom... which seems to be a relatively successful approach (here is where I should link: See His State Assessment Scores).

Trying to explain what a teacher does in his classroom is close to impossible. There are too many variables at play. I only teach basic algebra, otherwise I might be able to come close to explaining the concept mathematically -- probably requires elements of calculus too... of which the mere mention brings beads of nervous sweat to my forehead.

When I tell, or is it unload, the day's classroom antics to my wife she sometimes shares that she doesn't know whether she would want to be a 5th grader in my classroom. I think it's a nice way of saying that she does know -- she wants no part of having to sit in my class as a student.

Not being the one in charge for over 180 days allows for someone else to quite easily do quite a bit of armchair judging. I readily admit to doing it when I watch other teachers' behavior... again, unfair. Why is it that parents are so quick to criticize (note that I didn't say question which I am most open to) when I'm more than certain they wouldn't do the same with their dentist, optometrist, lawyer?

So here's a couple of ideas that might prove useful in the classroom. Whether they prove to remind current teachers about what they already know or help a starting teacher find footing, or give a glimpse into what teachers do... I hope you'll think they're at the very least... thought provoking.

  • Be real. Students have been sitting in front of teachers for some time. Perhaps in kindergarten the students love you because you're their kindergarten teacher but titles don't work for very much longer. Students know when you're being legitimate. As a colleague shares with his students: "Here's how to be a great teacher... care about your students... and don't fake it because it doesn't work."

  • Understand that the ol' adage holds true -- you have to choose what "battles to fight." The German side of me wants to be in control of every aspect. I have learned that it is much more effective, and healthy for sanity, to take a more surgical approach.

  • I utilize the Dr. Pappas Affect. I share this story at the beginning of every year. Dr. Pappas was a Political Science professor of mine at my alma mater. He was an institution whose class was suggested by many. So I registered and remember sitting in his classroom wondering what would happen next. Whether by design (my choice) or because "that's just the way he was" his classroom was a space where unpredictability occurred. He whistled upon his entrance, consistently reassured us all that there was no attendance policy and wondered out loud why students kept at it, sang ridiculous songs that seemed to have some type of relevance to course content but quite honestly was over my head, and would consistently take a break from discussing the likes of Machiavelli with more odd behavior. His classroom was always full even though role was never called. Lesson learned: predictability breeds discontent. Be a little unusual and so many other classroom problems dissipate.

  • Be honest. Say you don't know when you don't. If the student's question will result in an answer they many not like... ask the student again if they are prepared for brutal honesty. This requires a relationship with the student to have been formed so the sting that might be felt will be offset by their knowing you care enough to be honest with them. If I can't be honest with students who I expect to be honest with me, then I need to be in another profession. Granted, I take into consideration that they are 5th graders. My honesty is always intended, and worded, to be helpful.

  • Celebrate success. I have a Success Board where all A papers are stapled. Initially I think my students aren't sure that they'll ever get an A. They try to get me to put up their B's which I refuse -- B's are great... but shouldn't we strive for the best possible, OR let me say it a different way -- what inside a child dictates that they aren't capable? I'm a believer in their ability to accomplish whatever they set their mind towards doing. After a few weeks, my bulletin board has papers stapled upon previous weeks' papers. If classroom conversation ventures into the "I don't think I can do it" I point to the board from across the room. A classroom full of examples in which they CAN do it.... HAVE done it.

  • Use technology. They love seeing a picture of themselves on the morning PowerPoint presentation, love the odd reference to your own childhood (I share my 5th grade class picture and ask them to guess which one is me). Kids love technology, it's their world. I think if you can make it function towards meeting your learning objectives... they'll squirm in their seats wanting to see what you'll do next.
  • I allow fresh starts. Some teachers will read students' files to get a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses before the first day's school bells ever ring. Instead I publicly announce to my students on the first day that I do no such thing unless warranted. I also don't seek prior teachers' thoughts on my incoming class. Allow me to explain why -- I want students to have a fresh start within my classroom's walls. If they had fantastic years in the past... I tell them I hope that will continue, and if they've had a poor showing, it is now their opportunity to make a change. Does this work? I've had some great successes in which students have a banner year within my classroom yet can also recall students in which there was no change from previous year's antics. Regardless, I stick to the premise that everyone is due an opportunity without preconceived notions.

  • Be open to criticism. No, I'm not referring to one's supervisor but to one's students. I have the "parking lot" bulletin board in my room divided into four parts: positives / things you liked, things you would change, notes to me, and questions. So of course they like to share notes (it's amazing what they will tell you about what occurs in the bathroom or in the cafeteria) and things they would like to change. I hear all about what I did that they didn't like. It's an opportunity to teach the importance of sharing positives -- complimenting, doing something nice just because.
  • If a student thinks I am being unfair, I am open to hearing their complaint if done respectfully. Early on we discuss how to respectfully comment when we feel like we've been treated unfairly. It's yet another skill worthy of developing in young people.
  • Know what button to push -- this isn't intended negatively nor does the knowledge come the first day as I mention above. Sometimes a student needs a figurative push, sometimes they need their space. Sometimes they need to answer a difficult question, sometimes an easy one. Sometimes a quiet one-on-one conversation is best, other times a public word of encouragement or refocus is more effective. As I write this, I immediately recall my classroom management class many years ago. I don't know if my professor would like my approaches, but I will respond by sharing this. They don't teach you in "teacher school" how to motivate students -- whether toward academic success or excellent behavior. It's yet another skill that teachers have to develop. Taking into account their style and personality a teacher has to figure out what works for them. I should also mention this: the button to push changes from student to student, from day to day, from subject to subject, and sometimes... from hour to hour.
  • Use "the look" or "the tone" sparingly because these tools don't work if you've worn them out.

  • Raise the bar. Convince students that they can achieve success in the classroom. At the beginning of the year I ask students whether they want a fair & tough teacher or unfair & easy. They always choose the fair option although it comes with difficulty. After a few weeks I share with my students a "secret" -- my tests are tougher than the state assessment. This tough standard might not look as good on the report card initially but the thought processes involved equate to success in so many other ways.

  • Stress Character. If students understand that your decisions regarding what you'll accept in the classroom are based on a core set of values, they will understand (whether they want to or not) where you'll draw the line in the sand.

  • Others that come to mind: Whisper when you want to be heard -- students will wonder why you're whispering, repeat something only once -- I have difficulty with this one, allow for no hands to be raised while speaking -- it interrupts the speaker's thought process and there will be time for questions, allow a student to be the teacher -- students' word selection and the unusual nature of them being at the front of the room might just convey what you couldn't.

Lastly, the longer I teach the more I realize how much I've been affected by my first year as a teacher. Depending on whether you were supported and had excellent mentors, or not, that year sets a precedence for your success and student expectations. I was very fortunate to have a team committed to helping me survive my first year... and want to return to do it all over again.

I wish all teachers had the same experience I did but worry that many didn't... perhaps this will be good material for the next blog.

But for the moment, would someone please point out the person that thinks all we do in elementary school is crafts. Or better yet, does the general public understand that academics is far from being a teacher's sole objective?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What ARE we teaching?

They arrive at 9 a.m. and leave six and a half hours later. Instruction, conversation, art, worksheets, questions, quizzes, homework, assignment pads, tests... what did we accomplish?

Sometimes we teachers drive home at night thinking... "great day! Yes."

Then there are those other days. Every new teacher is certainly told about those every experienced teacher has had. There are days when it seems no matter what was attempted, the end of the day brought frustration. All the planning and forethought... all the ingenuity we hoped they'd experienced... all effort -- to no avail. Those are the days we go "well that didn't work... now what?"

But I, a career switcher, know from first hand experience that other professions have their ups and downs too. No matter what the workplace may look like, sometimes one's drive home is happy... sometimes depressing. I think it's fair to say that the difficult days make teachers say... "why do this?"

So I had a student teacher a few months ago. She did a great job. Finished up her undergraduate experience in my class. What an ending it was for her. Watching from my desk and sitting on my hands, as they say, trying not to interrupt... I realized all over again -- teaching is tough. We are expected to do so many things well.

We plan outside of work hours. We grade then too. Teachers are asked to become experts in areas that they teach. In elementary school that's defined as language arts, science, social studies, and mathematics. If every student doesn't understand the concept, we're asked to remediate until they do -- regardless if the student even wants to understand. We need to both understand and identify learning disabilities. We are asked to differentiate instruction depending on an individual's strengths. And of course we need to be sure that everything that occurs in class ties to district goals. And there's lots more... but there's one important lesson worth noting more than others.

You know... they don't teach you how to motivate in teacher preparation courses.

They do mention that how your students do on the state assessments is how you're evaluated... where teacher programs fail is that those assessments don't have a check off box for the child to check off: "I didn't give it my all" or "I really don't like math so I don't care about my score" or "there are so many crazy things going on at home, I really couldn't concentrate on school". More on this one again.

Yes I know. Construction is tough. Accounting is tough. Firefighting is tough. Nursing is probably tough too. I suppose everyone will argue that they've decided on a difficult profession.

But I'm molding human beings here. I'm not selling widgets so determining success can't always be quantitative. Saving lives as a doctor or rescue worker certainly is important work -- rewarding too I'm sure. But for close to a year I not only meet the expectations set forth by the state, I try to also meet those of my parents, colleagues, administrators and... my students. It can be quite the tricky balancing act.

And there is no better feeling than when students return after continuing on to the next grade and they tell you how the zany things you did in class... actually made a difference. How my origami lesson that frustrated them so really showed them importance of details and perseverance. Or how a difficult subject was made easier because of something I said or did. Those are moments for another post.

In ending, I don't think a state assessment score really equates that I've been a successful teacher. Sure, seeing those pass advanced scores in print feels good. But after five years of this... I think that's just the beginning. What about the rest of the student?

Have I successfully encouraged them to go beyond what they thought possible?

Teaching is like overseeing 24 little nations (the current number in my class). Sometimes they get along, sometimes they argue and want nothing to do with one another. Sometimes they just want to be acknowledged. And each day is different.

I hope that when students leave my class after a year. They will remember me as someone who cared enough to be honest. Who was able to challenge them and they in turn met the challenge. Most of all, I hope I taught them that success is not determined by the degree of genius within... it is in fact determined by persistence and a desire to accomplish what they desire.

I call it a life lesson. Something that I think we definitely ought to be teaching. Can we please assess that too? Now how do they put that on a multiple choice form?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Is Being a Food Snob A Bad Thing?

I enjoy a good meal.

I think there should be craft invested in my consumption. I think there's value in understanding cheeses which I still don't. I think culinary school are important. I think an innovative chef ought to be rewarded financially. I think about what the White House chefs must have to create for midnight presidential hunger pains. I'm impressed by our newly opened Fresh Market grocery store and the way their bakery selections have an obscene variety of goodies.

I can even appreciate a deep fryer, however I think both doctors and gastric connoisseurs would agree that it should be used carefully. Of course I tend to think more about the food experts advice than the medical one.

But the timer beeping at the local hamburger joint does not make my mouth water and its attendant rushing to raise the fries from the fat does instill my love for what's dripping with fat.

Perhaps it's because of my father's genes which possess him to think of the evening meal upon waking in the morning. Apparently he stares at the ceiling thinking not of work or difficult world issues unresolved, but of what combination of meats, vegetables and starches would be perfect to end that day's events. This skill admittedly, I am far from perfecting.

Or maybe because my mother cooks without a measuring cup. She bakes without one as well. I've seen the infamous Paula Deene give fellow cooking experts hell about not using measuring spoons and cups. My mother does not follow Paula's advice. Instead I have seen her apply seemingly random dashes, pours and combinations to create consistent yummy dishes. I am not so gifted. I do however tell her that this lack of skill is entirely her fault as childhood memories do not include much, actually any, cooking as a youngster.

Despite my lack of hands on training, I've managed to move on with occasional success.

I am happy to report that I have made many a chocolate chip pancake for both college roommates and my children. Both my roommates gained weight while I worked that pistachio enameled stove. And I am happy that they gained weight... forgive me but it still sounds like success.

Speaking of college, a favorite memory is hosting a party at my apartment that did not, solely, center on debauchery... but on creating a jambalaya so spicy that the first few seconds of consumption pleased my guests until the fire within the dish surfaced a full 5 seconds later. I still smile remembering their rush to extinguish the flames in their mouths. I am still proud of that multiple pepper combination I created like an experiment in a separate bowl. I will add that I underestimated how quickly that keg of beer was consumed. I also remember that everyone in the townhouse seemed happy. First "dinner party" - success.

I've known people unfamiliar with foods not labeled on an overhead menu. Those golden arches pass my by without a moment's hesitation. I don't appreciate the fast in food.

I do appreciate the effort spent on each item on my plate however I am not referring to the way a hamburger is expertly wrapped in milliseconds by a teenager in the food prep and wrap station. while I wait in line like a cow in the milking barn. I dislike those lines. Now I understand the necessity of waiting and the virtue of patience. I question the worth of patience in this situation.

I prefer instead to wait in line at the butcher's shop in a sleepy little German town. From my occasional trips to the home of my ancestor's I appreciate the banter between the housewife and the butcher. Now is the conversation the wife's attempt at getting a better cut of beef and the butcher's opportunity to flirt I know not... but I appreciate it enough to eavesdrop from the corner. In my desire to take in the atmosphere I often forget to make the vital decision about cold cuts or cuts of pork... I try to return to looking at the selection under glass. Hmmm... maybe a smoked sausage link that I can nibble on while I continue to the next merchant.

All this brings me to wondering whether appreciating a good, dare I say small portioned, meal outweighs one in which endless amounts are available at the local buffet. I completely understand that good is defined subjectively thereby the issue.

For some it is defined by the most available for the least purchase price. For others it isn't so much the smallest portion for the highest price but appreciating each bite consumed. Is this the food snob I have become?

I know the latter sounds healthier and I might even pull out the healthy card in my defense.

But there's this meal I'm thinking of now. A mere two hours after I've risen from bed while I sit here typing with a steaming cup of coffee beside me.

I've introduced to my household a dish referred lovingly as Moco Loco -- another college memory. Macaroni served alongside sticky rice which is covered by a beef patty hidden under a fried egg submerged under brown gravy. Oh, and perhaps a large slice of New York cheesecake.

Now wouldn't you also like a "healthy" portion?