RSS

What will it be–teach from the heart, or teach to the standards?

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

 
1 Comment

Posted by on April 3, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Poem #3

Grampy Robbie was a journalist,
With an Underwood typewriter on a roll-top oak desk
And a beige reel-to-reel in the back parlor.

When he interviewed there,
I could hear manly voices through the door
From my perch on the stairs.

Sitting on his lap, facing out
I could rap my knuckles against the wood above the knee.
He said it had been shot off by a cannon.

“Give us a smooch,” he’d say
and lay a grizzled kiss on my cheek.
Ever after, for me a smooch implies scratchy warmth.

He smelled of apple juice
Which Grammy told me to bring him
that if I did, he’d give me all his money when he died.

Then one time when I visited,
He was laid out in a coffin in the back parlor
Not far from Grammy’s unbelievably fancy satin pillows
in rose and black.

Do you wonder whether I expected to inherit?
No, that was just Grammy’s way of saying
She didn’t believe in true love.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 3, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Poem #2

If I cooked like you, I’d start with a box of recipe cards
Heritage, very precious, perhaps worth some money, published
stored under six other heavier boxes of old textbooks
in a locked storage unit across town.
I’d have key, somewhere
Where was it, again?
It will turn up eventually, for sure.

In that box would be a card
with a recipe for divinity
which had never actually set properly
any of the times your mother made it,
but if only the temperature and humidity were just right,
it really would be to die for.
I would remember her making it,
and would put it on the menu for our anniversary–all for the
special memories, sweet smells,
and a burnt pot that had to be thrown out.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 2, 2017 in Arts, Poetry and Music

 

Tags: ,

Poem #1

When I went big
Pop!
Something opened
in the wall behind which
I typed, unknown.
Voila! They all marveled
and wanted what I had

Contemporary fame is arbitrary
a viral meme
picked up by chance.
Yet why not pretend
it was meant to be–
me being, after all
a genius.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 1, 2017 in Arts, Poetry and Music

 

Tags: ,

Age of fear

Your lips are tight, old man

Have you no power to ask for what you need?

No one here knows you, and your time is running out,

Why not leap into that terrifying empty space,

while you have the will?

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 21, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Inspire

I described a teacher to those middle-schoolers, and they saw what I saw, and what a beautiful sight, the kind that doesn’t quite toe the line, who knows he or she might not be pleasing the powers, but that truth and love and a clear conscience must come first, and the gift, the one they carry burning in a holy bowl within, must be passed on to whomever would receive it, the vertically- and especially the horizontally-aligned standards be damned! Young people must be nurtured, and sparked, discovered, led forth, reminded of their freedom and their power, introduced to the very thing that could be so explosive, the opposite of “classroom management,” each other.

I went on about that “each other,” each one being unique and themselves, but also in flux, looking around and asking, “That person, do I want to be sort of like that? Ew, that one, could I, oh, oh, am I sort of like that?” So that each person is in effect formed by the presence of others, and how we choose to be shaped by that. And we have the power to shape, and form, and even normalize, and dull sharp edges, but that we all ought to be careful of one another’s souls, not to damage them in the process of trying to make others be a certain way in order to make our own lives more pleasant.

As I described this teacher, their eyes glowed with understanding. The one I guess I was sort of speaking especially to, though not having planned that in advance, nodded and said, “like Mr. N——,” (who teaches a few doors down) and another, “like The Dead Poet’s Society.”

 
2 Comments

Posted by on March 20, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

What I like most, besides actually teaching young people important things, is the variety.

I can’t decide which part of this job I like best, but I know for sure that without Tuesdays and Thursdays, weekends, and the occasional break or professional day, I’d be burnt out exhausted by now. As it is, planning for five different courses (one  being Algebra II, which I am relearning after many years), supposedly standard in essential content but all instruction packed into into two days a week is a real challenge, but mostly I think I’m doing okay. My quieter Tuesdays and Thursdays are broken up by teaching a third grade math/science class on each, and then I tutor a mix of students, mostly in math, for an hour or so.

For a “break,” I get to plan five other classes I teach to middle schoolers on Fridays. Those ones are what is usually called “passion-driven,” with no homework and each, if I want, stand-alone within the topics. Those are hectic but leave me pumped at the end of the day, in an exhausted kind of way, daydreaming of what I could do for the next round of Friday classes. Then I drag myself home for dinner and a hot soak followed by a book or another episode of “Sherlock.”

I actually sort of dread every single class I have to teach. Maybe not dread, but feel the importance of the task and my lack of sufficient preparation, a sense of how much higher I could have aimed. Just beforehand I get psyched, feel pretty useful and engaged in the middle of everything, though rushed, with barely fifty minutes per class. Afterward think, that was okay, with a few really worthwhile moments, and I can’t believe I get paid to do this. Then I plunge back into my stack of grading and try to get a firmer hold on my long term planning, data collection and analysis, and find ways to adapt lessons for various students who need that. Every now and then I realize monthly reports are coming due, or I have an imminent meeting I haven’t glanced at the agenda for, or am supposed to be solving or finding someone to solve technical problems of various kinds, since I agreed to be the school’s tech person. Never a dull moment.

That doesn’t leave much time for a home life, though, but I guess for now it’s okay. My family has been very understanding, and no one is particularly needy right now. A walk around the neighborhood with my husband and our two dogs, a quick date in town for stuffed mushrooms, a fireside chat with my sixteen-year-old daughter or thirteen-year-old son now and then–I guess we’re holding together okay. There’s toilet paper, dishwasher soap and basic groceries in stock, and we all help keep the laundry machines going and help out on garbage day. My husband has stepped in with gusto and professionalism as far as keeping the house clean in my absence and preoccupation, and is taking over some of the banking, school/kid and doctor appointment arrangements, and is building our new fence to boot.

I think Friday classes are my favorite. They remind me of what learning should be, sort of–a teacher hanging out a shingle of what she cares about and can do, and people sign up out of interest (and a bit of wanting to get out of the house and in among peers). Some kids listen and forget and a few couldn’t care less, but most of them are really curious and enjoy finding out and learning to do useful things. A few even take notes without being told to. That feeling of choice and freedom is too rare in schooling situations.

Today, just a half day due to a workshop, the journalism students let me share some quotes from writers and a few interesting youth journalism websites, then finished off their articles and sent them to their editors, one for a publication on The Storm of ’17, one on Donald Trump, One on alien sightings, and one student, an outside-the-box thinking eighth grade girl, single-handedly created a cooly odd little paper oozing with off-the-wall ideas. I had some students review and edit for peers, others do layout, and tried to keep them driving on to the finish and not get caught up in gimmicks and web searches, sort of like a real journalist’s deadline.

Second period we looked at earthquake hazards around the building and how to secure tall furniture. Third period was a nice small group of about eight who worked on hand sewing and embroidery.

After the parent workshop, I worked a few hours more in the quiet classroom tying up a few of the many loose ends educators live with, and got a few more of my files set up. A big drawer each for biology and environmental science, one for all three maths, all ready for next year. The word is, though, that the only courses I’ll teach again will be two of the maths, and I’ll have to take on high school physics, to all ages, since it will only be rotated in every four years. Just so I don’t get too comfortable. I haven’t taken physics since 1983.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on March 17, 2017 in Uncategorized