AU* dropped in this morning, and we got to talking, as he looked around at my science posters and paraphernalia, about how wonderful it is to learn, along with the students, what’s being discovered in genetics, subatomic physics, archaeology, history, and all. How amazing, and cool, and ever changing in a way. Love this guy–I hear him wondering and thinking fresh thoughts every time we chat, hear him singing along with his first graders songs he’s written about historical figures and events, see him suffering through health problems that cause him a lot of pain regularly. Thankful I am to have no problems but a sore bunion and some unmentionable minor battles.
For my part, I’m thrown back into “my field,” biology, but there’s so much to it that I’m always learning something new (and recalling stuff I hadn’t thought about for decades, like the amazing work of nephrons, and the evolution of parasites to symbionts–take those and add them to your MS Word dictionary). Feels like I still only know the basics, but the students know even less, so what I get to teach them is very fresh and interesting to all of us. For example, the 9th and 10 graders started out being completely mystified (and making various guesses) about how we get energy from in food into our cells to do work. I pretended I was a smart 5th grader and asked them all kinds of questions to see what they could work out, and in the end, they saw (with some major hints), that chemical bonds store energy in them, and it can be got at by cells’ mitochondria. So many things happening inside ourselves that we don’t understand, let alone out there in the rest of life, time, and space. I told them–you think this is cool, imagine what more there is to know that biology majors get to study!
Not everyone is on fire to learn it, though, whether archaeology or biology, or even business math. Later LM stopped by to let me know that one of our students had left the school to go back to his old one–no warning or anything. He drifted in on the advice of a friend that this was a “better school” than the regular high school he’d started at, and was getting a lot of our attention due to not doing a stick of work or showing and ability to learn or understand or respond to questions, except in a way that deferred the issue. And for spending lost of time with that friend, who had been caught cheating on several tests, and also did almost no work. I thought we were ready to actually help this second one, having seen through his apparent unwillingness, to a serious need for academic support, and, poof, he was gone. I’m sure that won’t go any better–he’ll slip through the cracks, probably. LM wasn’t sorry to see him go, nor are any of us, I guess. Doesn’t make the school look good, for sure. Still, what now for him? And why am I again wanting to edge back into that other kind of teaching job where feeling like a “good teacher” couldn’t be one of your goals at all, that it was all about pouring out the best love you had in you, a soft heart under a thick skin, and every student coming in with heavy baggage of uncertain content and origin?
I heard some of my colleagues talking and laughing a few doors away, and went over–it was a Friday with no students, no meetings, early release, and a coming spring break, a good time to connect. Everyone was tired, especially SF, the SpEd teacher, who had a load of paperwork still to do, and AU, 1st/7th teacher, who was fighting a bacterial infection. But there was a delight shared among us to be doing what we do. The 5th grade teacher CML passed on something that had lodged in his as he was reading, that it was important to let every student take center stage when it was their turn to speak, show 100% attention, make them feel listened to fully, and teachers needed to model that to students so they’d to do that for each other. He and LM talked about the applause battle that had started up between their two classes, 4th and 5th, LM having everyone applaud after each student presentation, which got louder, and of course CML had to add foot stomping and shouting, and the next thing he knew the pastor was at the door looking really annoyed, to remind him that his office was downstairs and he was trying to work. The pastor who had said that our being there (renting the space) was an answer to prayer had got more than he bargained for. Which, by the way he described it, was pretty much the story of CML’s life–the one who, as I said in a previous post, went back and apologized to all his teachers after he got involved in coaching and teaching. So he understands that need to be attended to, and feel important for the right reasons. “CML” stands for “changed my life.”–what teaching did for him.
As we talked about this and that, it came out that we were all feeling pushed and hurried an our teaching, with no time to go deep, or help the students pull together a cool project for the Share Fair in a few weeks. Always pressure to cover all the things someone has decided are most important, in less time than usual, since we only see the students twice a week. Now in our district, it’s shifting to a focus on “skills,” more than content knowledge, and to identify the “ten most important things,” or even five.. In a way I agree, if the word “skill,” can be replaced with “understanding.” “Skill” smacks of being marketable, which to my liberal-arts-loving (though mine was a science degree) mind means everyone being a cog in the machine and leaving the complex understandings to…what or who–the market?
CML noted that there would always be some tension on that between teachers and administrators (“creative tension,” I added, despite feeling that from my side it’s a force of evil to be creatively resisted and subverted; but as I biology teacher I know full well that it truly does take all kinds to make an ecosystem, and so, a society). I said it seems to me it’s better to go deep through 60% of what’s on the test, but at a meaningful level (which can’t be tested,) than to gloss over 100% for a pass on the test and then forget it all. In this I think we were in agreement.
Recently the principal told me that the administration of the regular high school wished it had someone who could teach AP Environmental Science. He perked up his ears at that, since they were discussing ways the two schools could work together, and here I was, a new environmental science teacher. He wondered if I might be interested. Puts me in a dilemma, because environmental science is my top pick course in terms of importance today, and I’m eager to teach it every year here, in this conservative farming community. Yet as I had told the principal before, AP style is not my idea of a good way to teach ES, because it was so difficult to go deep when you were teaching to that test, that projects and community expertise and field trips and student-organized forums had to take a back seat to taking notes from the text and getting through all the units at breakneck speed. But I told him I was open, very interested in teaching environmental science for sure. Besides (I thought), I could be wrong. AP classes do tend to attract high achievers, and so maybe the energy usually devoted to keeping motivation up really could be channeled into teaching for depth of understanding. At least I’d learn some new things, and I hope the students would, too.
There are a standardized tests in the spring, for which I am expected to prepare my students. I think I’ll just assume they were made by smart people about important concepts, and I’ll teach what I think is important, and the two will necessarily line up. A little help with managing the format and buttons and pitfalls of the data collection machines, some reassurance that tests aren’t worth stressing over, and that’s the limit of my “teaching to the test.” But don’t tell anyone this–no sense stressing out the principal either. He really means well, after all.
*made-up initials to represent my colleagues