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New classroom setup and projects

Still living the privilege of working with fine professionals who are also amiable and fun, and serving students particularly willing to learn and unusually respectful to us and one another. Still wondering if it’s a long term calling, or a place on the road toward working more with at risk youth. Still working hard to teach five different subjects and thankful for ample planning time. I have my new classroom painted (covered the institutional pasty yellow with sky blue to counter the lack of windows), chairs, projector, and whiteboards set up. It’s so much easier to teach in one room all day, no more carrying laptop, text, and paperwork back and forth.

Students are really getting the hang of things, incidences of failure to hand in assignments are falling, people are doing corrections to bombed quizzes or homework they didn’t understand. They are grasping the connection between practice, participation, perseverance, and success (mostly reflected by grades, in the math classes). If I have the same students for a second math next year, they should be able to roll with my system pretty well, as I will have  tweaked it to align with what they need to accomplish and what is practical in the time given. I hope that all the quieter students who need help will realize I’m eager to give it, and that extra tutoring is worth the time spent.

In environmental science, we’re getting into an experimental design on decomposition. In the process of learning how to properly design a controlled experiment, I plan to cover the cycling of matter, the chemistry and biology of decomposition, municipal solid waste management, and the effects of solid waste on the environment. Also connecting soon with a study of current waste production at school and home, and problem solving around that. I started too late last year to do much at the other school, but even the “reluctant learners” there were pretty enthusiastic about cutting down on waste, and all but two took turns at weighing bags of garbage. I’m thinking it would be interesting to post the daily and weekly amount of the different types of waste we generate to raise awareness first. I’m sure the students will have good ideas.

In biology, I decided that we were getting seriously bogged down in the chapter about the nature of Homo sapiens, so I skipped forward to look at the essential characteristics of all living things. I gave a project borrowed from last year’s colleagues and adapted it. After choosing a species of organism (from an assigned category) and researching it, the students are to create posters illustrating and explaining how their species show evidence of each essential characteristic. They can use any reasonable list of characteristics, and since the list in the text specifically names evolution in terms of common ancestry and species evolving into other species, I gave the option of focusing on shorter term evolution within populations as they adapt to changing environmental conditions. Nods all around.

I think the common ancestry idea is pushed a little too heavily, anyway, without even offering a definition of “species,” so Bible believers just assume it’s the same as the biblical “kinds’ (Hebrew min), which they are taught were created distinct by God and don’t morph into one another. Sure would be interesting to go into a discussion of that with the Hebrew text and commentaries and all, but, oh, no, not in public school! I really think the teaching of evolution should start with the evidence right in front of us not the overarching theory that took years to emerge once Darwin and Wallace got to thinking about their findings. Darwin was certainly bothered by it all, and I’m sure had a real conflict between his desire for intellectual honesty and his traditional biblical teachings. As it was for Darwin, evolutionary theory is a great candidate for inquiry based learning, but in the text, which is usually so oriented that way, the end findings are stated up front before fossils, or Darwin, or comparative embryology, or DNA, are even mentioned.

I’m looking forward to seeing the visuals some of these artistically talented/practices students will create. Now that we have lots of wall space of our very own, they’ll be a nice addition to the decor. When I saw the other teachers punching staples through the expensive vinyl wallpaper, I knew it would be okay to cover the place with posters and bulletin boards. I even put up the evolutionary tree of life poster, reminding myself that I need not, should not, feel apologetic about it. And hoping that if anyone does object, they will come directly to me and have a conversation. The principal has alluded to the fact that he would always advise that if parents have issues, and that he has my back as to teaching public school biology.

To tell the truth, from our school website, you’d never know it is a public and not a Christian school. I wondered if I should mention the presence of two very obvious Christian signage items on the front page of our website, but being new, I don’t want to be the one who tries to scratch the Christian image–I would probably get surprised stares from all but maybe one of the staff, and rumors might get about to the parents that I was anti-Christian. Still, I do think we should make it known that the school is a public school and welcomes all homeschooling families. The name even sounds private school-ish. I wonder how the non-religious students are feeling (if, indeed there are any decidedly non-religious, or even less theologically conservative).

 

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2016 in Education

 

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Faith and Science

I had to decompress today with a few colleagues, after the two strange biology classes I had. Same students, attentive and courteous, but we approached, a little too close for comfort, the idea that humans and chimps could be related. The question was (how could I be so naive?), What do you think humans and chimpanzees share so many similarities? They were to talk in groups and all they came up with was variations on because God made them that way. Either God made them that way, period, or God gave them some of the same characteristics because they were good adaptations for a similar lifestyle. One boy did offer the possibility that they might have a common ancestor, so I added that to their ideas. No one thought of genetics, but when I mentioned that genetically the two species are very similar, there was a pause, and “that doesn’t prove anything, though.”

I feel like these are just ordinary, evidence-based ideas, and that I don’t need, in fact should not–in the name of providing a science education–avoid them or couch them in creationist terms. Plus there’s so much that could be discussed about the reasons for the religious reservations there are to seeing connections between species, and especially to seemingly undermine the special status of humans in creation in any way. But I don’t think I’m really supposed to bring up what I know about biblical teaching on creation or how there need not be such a sense of threat at all. I wish I could talk with the parents away from the school, tell them I believe in God, have great respect for the Hebrew Bible, and can read it pretty well in the original. We have an entire library of commentaries (in storage), and are not godless pagans. The reason I thought God was so awesome as a kid was because of the wonderful things made by the Creator, and how much great design I recognize in both the big picture and fine detail. The theologians call this “general revelation,” which is available to all (as opposed to “special revelation,” available only to those to whom it revealed throughout history).

Instead, I fell I am coming across as anti-religion. I want to counter that, subtly but somehow, but it might not be possible. Can I direct those who are interested to sources from within the Christian community that have a more evidence-based view of biology, and a more literary, this-is-not-a-science-text view of the Bible? Maybe the best approach is, if it seems like there are barriers to learning growing, or that it seems to families that I am not respecting their majority culture, to ask questions. I could even offer the option that they research any biology and science-related passages in the Bible, and see how it relates to scientific evidence. Which passages of Genesis, for example, run parallel to science’s view on the origins of the planet and its life, and which seem to run contrary? How have theologians tried to work this out?

But time is short, and they still have to learn about cellular processes, ecology, homeostasis, inheritance, and physiology. But first we have to get through the evolution chapter with some semblance of integrity and harmony.

Here’s the piece I wrote to try to address parents on the issue:

In several of our discussions in biology class, it has come up that a majority of students in the classes consider faith in God, belief in the soul, and the special status of the humans species as very important. This was in the context of a discussion about how humans are unique, and the characteristics they share with other primates, based on their observations. The way I addressed this is to say that there are different ways of knowing, some accessible and testable by science, and others not, but known or believed very deeply in other ways.

Sometimes the scientific evidence presented in class may conflict with religious views of students and/or parents, and I am very aware of the need to be mindful of my role as public school teacher delegated by this community. Off and on I’ve had good conversations about this with parents, staff, and others as I work out the best way to proceed. I have really appreciated the opportunity to better understand views of both students and parents here in the area. I have also appreciated the openness of both to learn and converse in a respectful and thoughtful way.

Okay, so I’m in ——-, and I knew what I was getting into when I took on this job. I homeschooled my own four children for many of the same reasons our ——– families do, and have had reservations about the way a public school must by law provide a religion-free education, and so, by default, appear to communicate a low value for faith perspectives, while trying to respect all citizens’ religious, or non-religious, views.

In science classes, I must refrain from engaging in teaching even about religion, although it is permissible by law in social studies or history classes. The ACLU’s interpretation of the law is that “[I] may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology). Schools may not refuse to teach evolutionary theory in order to avoid giving offense to religion nor may they circumvent these rules by labeling as science an article of religious faith. Public schools must not teach as scientific fact or theory any religious doctrine, including “creationism,” although any genuinely scientific evidence for or against any explanation of life may be taught. Just as they may neither advance nor inhibit any religious doctrine, teachers should not ridicule, for example, a student’s religious explanation for life on earth.”

This respect for the law about my duty as a public school teacher has made me reluctant to directly address any of the faith-based views I have encountered in class. On the other hand, discussing the apparent conflict between religious and scientific views is very interesting to me personally. I also wish I could provide resources that could help families to understand the ways in which scientific scholars of the Judeo-Christian faith have tackled these areas of conflict. But once again, I hesitate due to the constraints of the law. I also realize that other than asking questions to help students develop their own thinking as related to biology, it’s not my role to address about religious views about science.

I will be teaching evolutionary theory in the next month or so. This will include presenting the scientific evidence that has accumulated from many sources for the theory of common ancestry, as well as teaching about the biochemical drivers of evolution on short, medium, and long time scales. I will do my best to continue to nurture a respectful forum for discussion and individual interpretive work (in writing and projects), where that can lead to a greater understanding of high school level biology. I appreciate parents’ and students’ patience as we go through this sometimes uncomfortable process.

I also want to communicate here some of the things I have said in class about the value and limits of science. I have said that science is a great tool and way of knowing, but that there are other ways of knowing and being sure of things. Science attempts to be objective and relies on evidence–lots of it, to develop theories. I point out that although a theory, as the term is used in science, is well supported by evidence, all theories are subject to testing, revision, and falsification if there is enough contradictory evidence. No theory ought to be spoken of as “true” or “proven” in science. Science is also not useful for verifying or disproving any type of knowledge for which observable or measurable evidence cannot be gathered, and so can never be used to disprove, for example, ideas about God, or whether there is a divine force behind both evolution and the day-to-day life of molecules and cells.

The only area I see a direct conflict between faith and science is in the view that the Bible, Hebrew or Greek testaments, are sources of reliable, sufficient empirical evidence to counter scientific views about the age and history of the Earth. I cannot present the young Earth view as a viable alternative theory, simply because there isn’t enough evidence for it. That said, there are many alternative faith-based ways to view biblical teaching relating to creation, and there are good books, lectures, and websites that offer guidance for those who want to inquire. I hope that students in conflict will seek these out rather than either simply refusing to consider scientific evidence on the one hand, or, on the other hand, doubting their faith because they believe it is incompatible with scientific evidence. Mostly, I hope that they will gain an appreciation of how amazing, intricate, and interesting the world of living things is, and as much knowledge about how it works as possible.

 

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2016 in Religion & Spirituality

 

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Notes on the new teaching job at the end of the first month

It’s past my bedtime, but I dare say tomorrow I’ll get up past my waking time. I’m tired, looking forward to extra rest, but in general I’ve been getting recharged by teaching. Moving a little more away from that edge where one can barely plan one day at a time except on long weekends and holidays. Last year’s work on biology and environmental science have provided a bank of materials I like to go with major topics in bio. In the case of environmental science, which I patched together into a hodgepodge of a course last year, I can see the long view and how things ought to fit together. Plus the three different math classes seem to be going pretty well and the students like the pace (though apparently the science homework has been too heavy). I guess I like teaching math after all.

Really like the people I work with. I share my desk room (teach in a different one) with a fellow who was a lawyer before this and has a small farm, He plays electric guitar and brings his acoustic to play after school with anyone who wants to, including a few students who drop by to learn a few things. The other teacher down the hall was in a band, maybe more than one, in Australia, and brings his “axe”(just learned that term from my office mate) down for a jam. I’ve only participated once so far, but now I keep my acoustic on site and once I feel a little less behind after school, will pick up some tunes again. We all know a bunch of the same folk and rock, and lawyer farmer is going to bring in some bluegrass & roots, while I hope to learn the science and history songs the Aussie has written over the years a a teacher.

The other high school teacher is super supportive and positive, and is the lead teacher and a principal in training. Then there’s the crazy middle school teacher everyone loves best of all, because he yells at them, acts all gruff, does track and field, and doesn’t always follow protocol. They see through him pretty quick. He said teaching was life-changing for him. Started with coaching football, then when he applied to work in the school district he grew up in, a complete rascal all the way, they said they’d hire him on condition he never pulled any of those kind of stunts again. The other teacher said he went back and apologized to all his former middle school teachers after he started working. The other day I overheard him shout, “I’m going to make you write ’till your fingers bleed! Mwahaha!!!” Incredibly high energy too, says he’s always been kind of ADHD.

The principal is just very kind and supportive, humble as he climbs his own huge learning curve, and and also effective at what he does, so has earned the staff’s respect.

Parent volunteers have been great, too—one who has this huge nurturing gift, who I can tell is energized by reaching out in genuine ways to inquire about and bolster the state of our souls. Another was the one from Nova Scotia I met early on, though I haven’t seen her much. The three office staff are very hard working and efficient, though kind of in a different circle.

Getting to know the students has been slow but steady–twice a week and packed with content, have to figure out a better rhythm for the science classes. I’m realizing that the students know very little about the environmental systems of the Earth–didn’t know what the atmosphere was, for example, and I’m pretty sure an in depth look at climate change has been outside the purview of their homeschool education. So I’m looking forward to opening that and many other doors.

Speaking of doors, I’ve already opened the door into learning about evolution, and have had several conversations with one parent of two of my students about how I plan to teach on it, starting before classes even got started. Others are quietly buzzing around the periphery, so I much prefer her direct approach. There seemed to be a feeling that such parents are overly involved, but it sure beats the sudden and unexplained exit of a family over unknown concerns, which I’m told happens a few times every year. I invited this mom to come listen to the classes where I teach on Darwin’s ideas, though I said evolution is a thread throughout the whole year.

I’m excited to bring what I have to the table, or whiteboard, but I had to remind myself to take it slow–both for my own need to do only so many new or big or in depth things at a time in my first year her, and to keep from shaking anything up before I’ve established myself as a person who has a solid understanding of science, math, and high school students, as well as an appreciation of and respect for parents’ role as their kids’ primary educators. Like I told one mom when we were speaking about her son, who has communication problems yet to be filly diagnosed, she is the boss, and if teachers don’t get him or lay on too much work without enough support, she should protect him from that and let him learn from a space of peace, not stress and unreasonable expectations. As a high achiever herself, she seemed to need that reminder that school work was the servant, not the master.

Homeschool parents talk to each other a lot. I hope to send the word and have it spread that they can bring up concerns and issues and I will not be offended or feel interfered with, that I see myself as their delegated stand-in teacher of certain subjects. Also that I regard my role as a public school teacher as one from which I teach science from a scientific standpoint and do not plan to avoid any important aspect of well established scientific theory or practice, whether or not it seems to conflict with conservative religious views. Finally, that my main agenda as a teacher is the same as that of anyone of the Judeo-Christian tradition and many another tradition, to be a blessing to the people I serve.

 

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Education

 

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End of summer regrets and anticipations

I’m going to try to get at the root of my feelings here. I’ll have to part the complicated net of stress about various things–starting a new teaching job, not having done enough planning for the time I have left before classes start, wondering whether I will make some new friends there, if the commute will bother me much. Put aside my sense of regret at not having the time I wanted for concentrating on my two youngest children’s journey and growth, or my own projects. A sense of loss at having had to say goodbye to the school I so enjoyed working at last year.

I’ll have to brush away the awareness of my diminished energy as I age, the early signals of impending menopause. Have to put aside the sense of sadness about saying goodbye to my two oldest children as they head off to college, and the sad changes in my extended family that have begun to occur more frequently. The awareness of a need to process with my mate some of the conflicts and negative patterns that we have developed so that we can head into this new phase in the right spirit.

And now, just as I have come to place where I should start the paragraph about why I am motivated to teach after all, restoring my sense of purpose and vision, I have succeeded in disheartening myself. I have created a picture in which I am turning my back on the duties, delights and calling of my own abode to serve other families’ children in the “greater society.” And so ultimately I reveal my bias that deep down I feel that charity begins at home. But apparently I also believe if that charity is hard to muster or is not received in the way I am able to offer it, or if one has to lay up a bigger nest egg or refine marketable skills, then it’s time to go out and get a job. It’s good for a home maker to get out there and broaden her horizons, to see what she can do, to be recognized, paid for once, for her skills and service. To meet new people, try new things. And, they say, it’s good for the kids to see that you’re not just a mother, wife, home maker, domestic engineer. That you “have a life” outside raising them.

Yesterday afternoon my husband helped me put together the new cider press I bought. It sits in the living room, a handsome classic in wood and cast iron, ready to grind and juice the harvest of apples I have grown or got permission to glean.

On the floor in the kitchen sits my canning pot and two boxes of jars and lids, ready to hold sauce made from two large bowls of fresh tomatoes on the counter. Outside the basil is ready to pick and dry, the savory and onion seedlings ready to plant.

In the garage I have stored the parts of a chair I refinished and the pillows I recovered, needing a few day of labor to finish up repairs and reassemble. Also there is a laundry plunger, which I had planned to use to set up a non-electric laundry system that would get our things much cleaner than the half-hearted tumbling actions of our handsome new front loader from the big box store. My sewing and craft supplies are stored there, too, not used except in cases of necessity.

I have ideas for a writing project, a yard redo, a bicycle storage shed, an organic permaculture expansion. Somewhere I stored away my daughter’s partially finished quilt, and fabric for projects I was going to do with the kids to teach them to sew.

Out of my office window (I have to vacate in a few weeks) I see a father and small son heading past the dock on a standup paddle board. I bought one of those, too this spring, and have not yet found the time to use it. Since my foot and knee started complaining, I have been hoping to transition to more water based exercise and cycling. Last week my husband was urging me to shop for bicycles now that they are on sale, knowing mine is shot and that I’d wanted to ditch the car for a good commuter bike when I had the chance. I had to tell him it’s still not practical, since we have no bike storage, and now my job is twenty miles away up a busy route.

Outside in the boat repair yard I spy a woman sitting on her dry docked sail boat taking a break. She drove here to be by herself and decided it’s better to sit on a boat in a parking lot than wait months for the time and money to repair it and get it on the water. It’s a Sunday, and I think she expected to have privacy, to be able to feel the sea breeze, hear the lines snapping and gulls cry while she collected her thoughts, or let them go.

Let them go. Let it be. See the positive. The medicine for my soul’s illness I can find within. God is in control, and in all things he works for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Look on the bright side. Stop it, in other words.

I can do that. I have this sad ability to switch off certain emotions if I decide that they are processing badly. Not sure where they go, but I can suddenly stow them away and apparently move on. It’s been good to get them out there, and maybe that’s part of the coming to terms.

On to what I hope to accomplish this year, so as to begin with the end in mind.

The teaching of math part really doesn’t grab me, I’ll have to admit. So in my math classes, other than to help the students get the grounding and practice they need, I just want to help them get along and to know that they are valuable and important, part of a community, responsible for their own success. My job is to stay a few steps ahead, come up with various ways to teach to various students, and have a management system in place that helps them pace themselves as they get the work done at school and at home.

Preparing to teach biology (two classes) and environmental science (one) are absorbing much more of my time and energy. This is where I’d like to make a long term impact. I hope to instill/nurture a sense of wonder and curiosity about life, a good understanding of how living systems work and how science works, what questions we should pursue and how, and how useful science can be to help humans make decisions about how we live personally and organize our economic, social and industrial activities on this planet. I want them to understand that technology has no merit in itself, that it is how we adapt, whether poorly or well, to the realities as we understand. I want them to see the big picture, to get a sense of the possible philosophies that can drive scientific inquiry and technological innovation. I want them to choose quality, equity, justice, love, whether they go into agriculture, nursing, journalism, or management.

And so, writing this out was helpful after all, and has sort of a happy ending, all things considered, some more than others.

 

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In which the teacher wonders whether she will be able to fit in at her new school

More on the job search; new development: I got a full time position. Nice to know a month before starting–lots of time to plan, but maybe too much time to brood. Now there’s just a week, and I’m still feeling unsure.

I had hoped to be called by my district–the one I live in and which gave me the job I finished in June–about a middle school science or high school biology job. I thought I had a pretty good shot at it, with experience, good references, a few connections. But the weeks went by after my application was in, and no calls, no emails, and then “position filled” on the jobs website, same as last year. Also hoped to be able to bike to work, was poised to buy the bike, set up the storage rack inside the garage, now to be vacated by college age child. But no response to the applications I put in.

Six nearby districts had no relevant postings at all. The seventh had a maybe–a posting for high school math and science at an alternative school I’d never heard of, serving homeschooled students. I read the requirements, and I was a one hundred percent match, and more. So I applied, and got a call the next week, had my interview set up for that Friday. I should have been pumped– full time, alternative, fully qualified. The forty minute commute was regrettable, but we had been looking around for properties, and could easily settle closer if things worked out in that district.

But it was in that very religiously conservative town that I’ve written of before, the one I’ve never been interested in living in, never felt I fit in culturally. Even when I was more religious I was never conservative enough in the right ways, felt too edgy, likely to offend or be judged. On paper I looked like a good fit, but deep down I wondered if I would fit in. The school served homeschool families exclusively in a parent partnership model, which meant I needed to bridge those worlds and be super flexible about the different ways families approached education, which working within the public education professional paradigm.

I didn’t prepare much–just refreshed my mind with notes I’d taken for previous interviews, and wrote down my questions for them. My goal was to find out if this job would keep me on track for working with some of the “tougher” kids in the system, preferably back in the city, and maybe even in the school I worked in last year, after it had its new, larger building and needed more science teachers. I interviewed with the principal, who also teaches part time, and a teacher leader who was serving as a kind of assistant principal.

The school uses part of a building shared by a church and several other Christian ministries, including health services (free pregnancy tests) and a clothing distribution center. The principal and teacher were sharing a joke when I walked in the outer door, warmly asked me to wait a few minutes, then I was invited into the office. They asked me to tell about myself, nodded with appreciation at the places in my narrative that indicated a fit to the position. Asked me what was the worst lesson I ever taught. I said I couldn’t think of a specific one, but in general I mostly regretted times when I talked too much and listened too little, or where I was not relaxed enough to be myself and teach in my natural way. The teacher asked me whether I had used a particular curriculum as a homeschooler. I was prepared for this, having resolved not to let on that I had raised my children in Christianity, feeling that this information had no legitimate place in a public school teacher interview. I said I had used various things, and a literature rich approach. She pressed, which approach was that? I confessed that I had used Sonlight Curriculum. Ah, they both sighed in satisfaction–that was a good one. So the cat was partially out of the bag.

I asked them what they felt were the strengths of their school, and the challenges. Strengths were the tight knit team and close community of the student body, challenges included dealing with strong willed parents. Tied to that, I asked them if in the course of teaching some aspects of biology to children of conservative Christians, there sometimes arose conflicts over certain scientific ideas such as evolution. Because although I was brought up a believer, I only became familiar with creationism later, I said. I was interested in others’ viewpoints, indeed had sought out creationist books at a homeschool book fair to see what the most educated creationists had to say. Yes, sometimes, the principal said, there were sometimes parents who objected, but he would be there to help deal with that, and besides, he said, you don’t have to teach everything. This got my attention, as it implied that it might be best to sidestep such conflicts by cutting out science content. For example, he continued, once he worked at a school where the librarian wanted to have Harry Potter books in the library, and he had said to her that he had nothing against having books like that, but why did she have to have them?

By this I understood that, at the very least, this was a principal of the Golden Retriever personality type, a peacemaker who doesn’t stand up for principles where that brings interpersonal conflict. That’s a red flag for me, as I enjoy bringing up and discussing controversial issues in order to learn and teach, and do try to adhere to principles of truth even when that brings on some heat. Not that peace making isn’t an important principle also, and it could be a great thing to work with an administrator who prioritizes mutual good feeling. It all makes me wonder about the balance between teaching from who I am, which includes teaching about evolution, sex ed, whatever, because these are important science, and the need to respect local community values and parental authority over children’s education. That last was big for me as a homeschooling parent–I didn’t appreciate a paternalistic attitude in school personnel, as I viewed them as having only delegated authority and only over a certain aspects of children’s lives. But I do have values to inculcate as a teacher, too, and that includes a respect for reason, logic, and empirical evidence.

I got a call from the principal as I was pulling into the fabric store on the way home. He offered me the job, said he had already spoken to my references, and would be please to hear my answer that Monday, if that worked for me. I thanked him and said I would give it careful thought. I accepted the job on Monday, not having been able to give the final word to my red flags, glad to have a full time opportunity, and knowing I would benefit from the need to learn the curricula for all six courses I would be teaching. Six is a lot, but only Mondays and Wednesdays and heavily supported by home assignments supervised by parents.

My other source of discontent is that I don’t really feel that homeschool kids need the kind of support I want to give. The have supportive families, are economically stable enough to be homeschooled, and are mostly independent, self- motivated learners. I really wanted to get back into serving the tough kids, the kids who didn’t fit, the kids who had something that needed to be discovered and busted out in a special supportive setting, who were the ones mostly driving the best efforts of education leaders and making schools a more authentic place of learning and growth. I missed my school from last year.

There is one way in which I could see these homeschool students, the ones from the religiously conservative families, needing, at least in my mind, what I had to give. I could maybe get some of them them hooked on biology/ecology, more knowledgeable about the natural/created world, help them understand the value of rational scientific thinking about it and see it as a powerful aid to growth and developing purpose rather than a tool of the enemy. I grew up on the hymn “This is My Father’s World,” my earthly father reinforced the Bible’s teaching on stewardship, and I enjoyed and still enjoy reading the Psalms for the way they celebrate the beauty and power of the creation. Later my conservative Christian teachers emphasized, in reaction to New Age religion, that we are to worship the Creator rather than creation, which I had though was a no-brainer, but whatever. The only people with whom I shared the values of living lightly, recycling, cutting down on energy use and preserving biodiversity, besides my father, one Regent College professor, and several friends who I was able to influence, were decidedly non-religious. Inter-Varsity Press, NavPress and Multnomah Press books on how to live the Christian life, think critically and biblically about the issues, were light on stewardship. I was aware that liberal Christians were more into environmental conservation, but they were not very helpful in the struggle with personal morality and purity of thought life.

I’m planning my biology and environmental science classes now, and intend to do what I can to support critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and the development of an environmental ethic rooted in a value for sustainability. In other words, let’s understand natural systems, lets’ understand how humans depend on and affect them, and let’s not promote the destruction of human society. Valuing all other life forms will have to stem from long term self interest with a primal drive rooted in our selfish genes. There is no conservative without conservation, no religion without human society, no traditional values without sustainable traditions. There is no intelligent design of humans in God’s image if those humans don’t know how to design intelligently.

 

 

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Since the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate, I shall believe in myself.

I’ve been back to school a week, and am getting ready for my second, heading already into a kind of home stretch for the quarter, at which time each student must get their grade. So I’m trying to structure everything so that it fits together, includes review but variety, has a smattering of labs and maybe an outing, and is gradable. Our school operates in quarters (sixths, really) so the students have a better chance of getting at least that much credit, if they crash and burn, or come in half way through a semester.

I was so ready for winter break, needed a rest, to let the strain and stress, go, images of faces conveying less than good humor and eagerness to fade from my mind. The last three weeks, feeling so much less than adequate, not having found that balance between giving lots of second chances–too many, so the rules were being pushed too much by some and others weer getting irritated–and being tough on crime. Always a stronger backlash about that when it comes around, I find, but still I never learn. Maybe it’s what it has to be, since until I know students better, I can’t err on the side of law and order lest I do some harm to a fragile student whose circumstances and struggles don’t know. So the upshot is that they all know I am a kind person and like having them in my classes, that I have a lot of patience. And some of these students really like that, and let me know in various ways.

After Christmas and a few more enforced days of planning abstinence, I went into my quiet, sunny classroom and graded all the notebook assignments for December and started planning the rest of the quarter. Feeling bad that I still haven’t worked in another hands on or lab activity for my environmental science class–all teacher, notes, book work, and handouts. Hearing that invitation from the principal to dream up some cool stuff, but only getting that established in my two biology classes so far. Still, on that other angle I was encouraged to work, I really am learning to slow down, provide more scaffolding, refer to the text more (gives a sense of security to many students), and put off the next concept until the previous one is reasonably mastered by those willing to try. Still, I was eeling dread, and guilt, and the voices that want to pipe in with. “You can’t do this.” Just wanted to get going and not have that dreadful anticipation.

I kept thinking about those wild dogs who, when they lose a few fights, are way more likely to lose further ones and zoom down the hierarchy beyond what would be expected given their real fitness. A lot of it really is about what you believe. Humans, I hope, being at an advantage in not necessarily accepting the past as a precursor for the future, and able to visualize success, create success from the inside of the head and heart out. All things being more or less equal. Of course, that’s why for these students a big part of what we do has to be envisioning their own success, and the path there.

So I tell myself, you knew this would be difficult. You’re doing okay, and getting better every day. You’re learning. They are responding. Everyone makes mistakes and has bad days. You’ll get it–just think how much better you’ll be able to teach once you get through this, with all you’ll know. Having the lesson plans and technical knowledge alone…Start fresh, set a new tone, be clear about the rule on phone use, get them into an entry task each time they come in, make it doable for you, as well as them. Don’t take on too much at a time.

I was planning to launch right into a lab growing peas under different lighting conditions–just enough time to wrap it up before quarter end. Found the handout, adapted it for my students, thought how nice it would be to see things popping out of the soil in January. The students had really liked the box of wheat grass I grew under the lights before Christmas–sent it around for a therapeutic brush with the hands and nose-in sniff. Powerful summer smell, as if crushing new summer grass at a picnic in the park. One girl did that freshly back from a teary-eyed phone conversation, and I saw some of the tension so out of her face. Another, a very introverted student with Asperger’s, who’s also going through the health failure of her Dad, who has dementia, actually leaned forward for a second brush.

So those faces were coming forward after I got enough rest, time with my family, son home from college, and beautiful. frosty mornings. I was, I guess, ready to go back in a few days. Then I got sick. The Thursday before the Monday start, I felt the tickle in my throat, and by the next day I was down with a temperature and chills. Resolved to do just a day of that, with the help of lots of watered-down orange juice and some herbal pills. Did that, and was up and about again Saturday, but only to go into the next stage, it turned out so I had to call in a sub, and make a whole new plan that was more user friendly.

Two days at home, and I did get the second sub to at least plant the peas–all wrong, though, despite the written directions. First day back was a relief–much better than the imagined disaster. I replanted the peas in their proper depth and figured out what was what, and I guess finished out the week okay–lights set up, more work on photosynthesis, looking at water plants under the microscope. And by Thursday some conflicts, as expected, and now I have to chat with the principal about “my side of the story of what I sent referrals for six students. Thought I was finally being tough enough, but really I failed to identify the real culprits, both of whom (of course) were good at making me feel I was singling them out, so I sent down paperwork the whole batch–two in one class and three in another.

I don’t like meetings with principals. Takes a lot of effort to remember, as one staff member puts it, to “put on my big girl panties” and take a chill, professional attitude rather than feeling now I’m in trouble–I tried, I tried! He’s a good guy, I’m sure will hear me out, help me figure out a more balanced approach. No. it’s just as well, and I know not everyone in my position could say this, but his attitude is about support, to students and to staff, so I can admit what I feel I did that was not the best.

Thursday (after the referrals) I made new seating plans. I do this with trepidation at this school, wondering who will come to me, alarmed and say they have issues with people passing behind, or can’t get along with so and so, or just that they refuse to change spots. I ran it by the special ed teacher for tips for the class she works with me, tweaked a few things, and went ahead. There were difficulties (I gave candy to those in their proper new seats, encouraged, cajoles, and made minor modifications for others (vision issues, etc.), and in the end only a few had not moved, with the promise of most of them being ready next week. The way I framed it was that I needed to have some students move up so I could support them better, others because they were distracting each other, and the rest got shuffled because of that, can’t be helped. They took that well. I have yet to see how one of the classroom tornadoes, who missed the day of the new seating plan–will take it. She’s smart, talks non-stop, and has no sense of when is a good time to ask what she needs to do to catch up missed work.

I was hoping I’d feel all better from the cold, but my nose is still running (taking a pill helps) and I cough a lot. All data for the new rhinovirus investigation I have planned.

Sorry–I’m just going on and on, can’t see much in what I’m writing, am surprised at the word count, as I didn’t know if I’d have anything to say at all, and maybe I don’t. But trying to show up and write, so thanks for reading.

 

 

 

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Wondering whether…

I admit I’m avoiding things, trying not to think too much, hoping I’ll magically feel better and get my edge back, such as it was, by a blast of sunlit sky, or the sight of chickadees at the feeder, or the rhythm of my footfalls on gravel when I get out on the trail. Hormone rebalance, caffeine rebalance, and how about a good laugh–haven’t had enough of those lately. Sure, I could put on my gloves and clogs and plant a few winter cover crop seeds–gardening always cheers me up. But I just got my hair dry from the shower, and am finally warm. And there’s so much to do. Presents to figure out, would be good to put together a newsletter, and there are paperwork deadlines looming.

Oldest son home from college for three weeks–that’s a real treat. We’ve missed his calm and balanced presence, haven’t been able to connect in the best way by phone–he comes across as taciturn there, though email is a little better, as he likes to pay with words, especially when he can take his time. During his break he’s been balancing time with friends with seeking out family members for a game, a chat, his attention so appreciated by each of us. I putter about, glad and a little relieved to see those relationships intact and nurtured. No complaints from him about having to sleep in a different bed in a room full of girl stuff. But the political fallout of said girl being asked to stay in her sister’s room for the duration has been heavy. Added to other resentments and inner turmoil she’s feeling, has been feeling for months, and there’s a sense of dread each morning as I hear her stir and emerge to seek her breakfast. Everyone feels her discontent, her disapproval, and at least twice a day, her wrath. What will set her off this time? I know she’s got her own struggles–the self image thing is in her face every day, an she’s using diet tea, trying to cover a little timely acne, feel like a successful, on-point teen with all the appropriate aspects of her online identity, balanced with that ever elusive sense of truth and honesty and courage. She has her good moments, thank heaven, when she comes around, apologizes, explains why she’s been feeling stressed. Still, I’m pretty frayed around the edges by my teaching job, and haven’t the margin of emotional stability or as thick a skin to face up fully to that side of parenting. Finding myself pulling into the driveway after errands wishing I had a plan B, somewhere else I could go to have a little quiet, a place to recover from the fatigue of shopping and the last altercation at home.

The maple tree I bought for my birthday last summer reaches its startlingly red, bare branches up to the gray sky, clouds have thickened again and there should be more rain. The soggy ground still pushing up green blades, some leaves hanging onto the rose and blackberry canes. The husky dog is reading the air currents with her long nose, waiting for the master to show and play, or offer a treat. By my feet the cat sleeps, emitting a rhythmic cooing sound that passes for a snore. I hear myself heave a another sigh. Is it extra oxygen I need–did I forget to breathe, a kind of waking apnea?

At the teacher training on trauma-informed education, we watched the film “Paper Tigers.” About a school like ours, alternative, in Walla Walla, WA. Each troubled student, each one on drugs, the extremely introverted and anxious, the abused and fostered and parenting teens, the ones who flew off the handle at the slightest confrontation, reminded someone of students they’d had at our school. It was about a turnaround from an out-of-control campus to one where students actually learned and felt safe and accepted, as the staff sought training in how trauma had affected these kids and how to really help them. Then they turned around and trained the kids themselves in the science of it and in practical psychology (a term I just read in Huxley’s Island which seems to fit here), as well as curriculum content that could get them into college. Messy, grueling, draining, rewarding, but also heartbreaking. In the discussion afterward, every time one of our staff touched on the need to process the trauma we experience vicariously, everyone nodded. Afterward I went to my empty classroom thinking I could get a bit of work done, but just sat there more tired than I’d been yet after a regular teaching day. Felt the heaviness of it all, and of those feelings of inadequacy.

This is on top of a growing sense that the feeling of support I get from my principal, counselor, and others, is all part of their real attempt to help me survive this, find my footing, and start doing a better job than I’ve been able to so far. Looking back, and digesting feedback from the kids and others, I see I really am not teaching the material well at all. I’m flying by the seat of my pants, trying to pull together labs that are new to me, find ways to address all those different students’ needs without a real understanding of how to do this. Yeah, I go in there with a plan, do my power stance, and act like I have it all together, but it’s mostly an act. I had a few good days, a few good moments, and I have the beginnings of a style that can be molded into something workable. In some ways I’m starting where I left off after my very first and only year of teaching full-time, despite the other life experience I’m had since then.

The temptation is to spend my whole break planning, but I know that will just exhaust me. I’ll go in and work a few days before the new school week starts is all. Make some modest plans for labs that are doable, get some comprehensive review and practice integrated into each unit. Reminding myself that these kids have had very little science at all, and need to know even how to think about this stuff, be helped to catch a bit of the sense of wonder that’s possible. Along with acceptance, care, and support as they deal with all the stuff thats’ more important to them right now than doing the day’s work.

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2015 in Education, Personal Growth

 

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