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The sympathy of not really belonging

I am part of a small team within our small staff, just three people, working on getting to know the Common Core math standards, focusing on 6th grade and up. We call it our Math PLC, Professional Learning Community, and meet most weeks, with a few gaps for other things that come up and general staff meetings. I am sort of leader, being the high school math teacher, so I bring guiding documents and suggest options for how we proceed, but we really all work together and I respect and depend on each person for their perspective, experience, and skills. For example, I am ideas and vision oriented but also wanting to analyze a lot of information before making decisions, another member is relationship oriented, super encouraging and also hilarious, and a third member is action oriented and good at laying out the pieces visually so we can organize the parts and move forward.

So far we’ve chosen what we’re calling Priority Standards, being the ones we guarantee to teach and assess with an aim to get all student to meet these standards. These are about a third of the ones laid out in the big CCSS documentation, but it’s recognized that it’s impossible thoroughly teach and track progress in every standard every year. Also and since the standards are broad and overlap from year to year and even across each other, as long as we align the strands up through the different level and catch the stages where certain ones are emphasized, in the big picture we try to cover them all. It’s also true that only certain things can be captured in standards language or be assessed in any standardized way; this does not mean they are the most important or can comprise a full curriculum.

This last meeting was completely different. We didn’t really do anything about math standards, but we made a deeper connection that felt pretty profound. We just talked. About one eprson’s relationship with her grandpa, about spirituality and religion, and about feeling, all three of us in different ways appreciative of but also disconnected and critical of the culture of our local community. I was like, one person said, My two team members had always lived here, but said the place sometimes drove them nuts and they’d never really feel they fit in. Yet at the same time, they knew it was imporant to stick around and be a part of the community, especially as teachers.

I’ve written before about how I don’t feel I fit into the community, doubt sometimes even whether I can even make an impact because I’m so at odds with the dominant culture, even though on the surface I seem like I have a lot of similar background. From a rural dairy area, raised in the Church, large family, homeschooled my kids. But that’s where the similarity ends. I feel like they both said they do so often, like I’m always having to bite my tongue.

There are two sides (at least) to this tongue biting–one being the effort to avoid unnecessary argument, alienation, or openness to misinterpretation when views are worlds apart, or at least toning it down so as to have a chance to slowly influence as well as show respect. The other is the restraint of criticism of the community and culture, and certainly individuals, to those on the fringes or outside, and avoiding a holier-than-them attitude.

None of us put out any specifics about what that culture was that grated, but we all knew. And about the rich and valuable parts too. No need to say, but it was special to feel more connected to one another in that moment, and it was an important team building session.

Personality-wise, the three of us are very different–it’s kind of magical that we can still feel so in sympathy as a team that has come together, as well as individuals who in some way are outsiders. Brings home in a greater way what community means.

 

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How can we say what’s real, with so much going on under the surface?

I have about 38 posts partially written, stuck somewhere in every one, either because they were too ambitious and require much more deep thinking and hard wordsmithing than I can manage lately, or because they are very out of date. I have not been showing up daily, as wanted, to put words together t o craft at least some kind of post. Discipline is important, yes, but I regularly find I purposely rebel against routine, including this one. It is a regular thing, these purposeful bouts of neglect of a practice I find so enriching for me and for which I can see some possible usefulness out there in the world, if I can improve my craft and develop a sense of a proper focus for my writing voice.

My idea is to double-rebel; that is, when I feel like breaking with the regularity of writing, I’ll recognize that as a habit bred from the same thoughtless laziness that makes me as eat the same breakfast every day or drive the same route to work, frequent the same coffee shop or avoid social situations. Thus I will feel that by maintaining a habit I am being a disruptor, which is more exciting, and out of my comfort zone.

Yes, that’s all really dumb and immature, but at least now I’m writing a little instead of watching two or three episodes of The Crown like I did last night. I was utterly exhausted, wanting to go to bed at 8 pm, exhausted for unknown reasons. I just lay on my quilt, partially propped up with unadjusted pillow, unable to move even to pull over and turn on my laptop and be passively entertained. I wondered if it was just my lack of leafy greens, excessive coffee, and failure to work out for the past two weeks. That habit was getting established, felt mighty fine, and I let that falter too, staying in my classroom a few hours after I should have to get through more paperwork.

As I felt the heavy inertness of my body, I also wondered if it was carrying the burden of some grief stage anniversary. Or if I was feeling May teaching burnt out, frustration from coming home to a mess in the kitchen I did not make, or just fighting a virus.

I did drag myself to the gym today after work, mindlessly warmed up on the treadmill, made the circuit of machines and did a few free weights, and it started to feel very good. It doesn’t feel so awkward going on my own now that I know what to expect–the machines, the low key 4 pm clientele, but the pool was full of kids and a water exercise group so I didn’t get the swim I’d hoped to end with. I was planning to suspend my membership for the next three months, but it turns out I can’t on my deal, and I’m kind of glad that this might make me get here more often, even if I do have more work in the yard to keep me fit.

I don’t want to have a countdown attitude about May and June. I want to fill the hours with well planning lessons and even up my game to work for a higher level of student engagement and success even while the weather calls us all outside and the three fans in my windowless room can’t keep it from heating to uncomfortable levels by the afternoon. I’m trying out a new Chemistry resource and a new online math curriculum we’ll be piloting this year, and collaborating with two colleagues to pin down priority standards for math which we’ll work on aligning K through 12th grade. I’m getting to new levels of understanding of best practices in teaching science (though still a long ways to go on the quality of my instruction), moving toward more student ownership of learning, getting to lead on my team more, all kinds of exciting things going on.

Plus, there was this student I was starting not to like, and really, to get pissed off at, most days. Well, actually two, and sometimes three. That’s never a good direction, and I needed to talk it out with colleagues, and even my daughter, to work on improving my attitude. I think I’m making progress. As I told my daughter yesterday, if I can convey that I actually like, in some genuine way, a student who is passively or actively resisting my leadership and/or their own better instincts, I think there is a lot of hope for something good to happen. Even if that hope is deferred for years. I want the most “difficult” students, when they realize down the road what they want to do with their lives and start to be more mature and responsible, to remember being liked. I want to provide a balance of sort of a parental style to pushing, requiring, disciplinary consequences, with a releasing into their own unique life, a recognition of their free agency to make their own choices, and an acknowledgement that the school machine is just a thing, and you can’t let it get you down. It’s a thing, and it has its uses, but it’s not the real thing, baby.

 

 

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Welcome to my high school class speech, as if it would be useful for anyone but me

Once I worked in a classroom where there was trust, and not very many rules imposed. When I say imposed, I mean the kind of rules posted or announced by the authority figure, as in, “Here are the rules, and here are the consequences.” Where I was, the rules were more like the Golden Rule, which, if we are sensible enough, we obey because it’s a good one for all of us, and open to interpretation and personalization in different circumstances.

For example, if you understand that a test is something used to determine how much you can recall, comprehend and apply without assistance, so that you can work on your weaknesses and build on that knowledge, then you will not cheat on that test. If you know that getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of instruction will cause you to miss something important, you’ll wait until a better time, not needing to ask. And so on.

It’s about knowing yourself also, as in what you can and can’t handle, what your vision and goals are, and what you need to do to achieve them according to your code of ethics.

I give you rules, because some of you are not yet at the stage of life where you realize the necessity of making your own.

A small minority of you have set for yourself rules, or live according to impulses, which directly conflict with the goals of this community of learning, including its general and reasonable rules for you–that you become more prepared for success in  society and the economy, and do society good and not harm. Disciplinary consequences, similarly, exist because some of you don’t have self discipline.

You’ll all get a chance here. No matter how you feel right now, about school, about yourself, about the people around you, about life and your future, here you’ll get a chance to be a part of a community of learning. My goal for myself is to meet your where you are and help you grow–in the special area of knowledge I teach, as well as in general skills, positive values and attitudes.

We each get a charge out of different things in life, are energized by different kinds of work and environments. You know, the kind of energy that, when you go home after a full day of doing that thing, you feel enlivened, encouraged, and useful. You anticipate more than than dread another day of challenging work. Days off are welcome as a refreshment, but not the highlight of the week or year.

I’m not under the delusion that everyone in this class is fired up about this subject. But I hope that even if you aren’t, and don’t go into a field that relies on this kind of knowledge, you’ll value it some and be a better informed person in general. I would argue that a general knowledge at least of any of the subjects provided in an average high school  will make you better equipped to make informed decisions in your own life and influence our leaders to do the same, rather than being manipulated by popular media and majority opinion.

You’ll often hear me mention the value of understanding and downplay the importance of grades. We all know that in this big world, in the marketplace of masses of young people applying for jobs, colleges, and internships, and generally hoping to stand out, grades can be crude sorting mechanism. I also hope you know that your grades do not necessarily reflect your intelligence or level of readiness for what you want to do in life, or even your level of self discipline.

In any case, I believe you will never regret in the long run putting your main value on understanding. That means putting aside an attitude that generates such questions as “Does this count?”, “Do I have to do this?”, or “Will this be on the test?” I ask you to trust me, and keep me accountable, to provide assessments of your knowledge that truly reflect your level of understanding, so that the grades you earn in this class are meaningful. I also commit, and invite you to keep me accountable, to providing opportunities for to gain that understanding, using best educational practices I can, and providing or helping you find the support you need to do your part. I am growing in this as well.

In addition, I encourage you to challenge some of the assignments I give, by asking, “If I demonstrate my understanding in a different way, can I skip this?” Or, “Can I do a different project instead, something more along my lines of interest?” It’s not one size fits all here–some of you will need to do all the questions or problems to “get” a concept. Some of you have the background experience or knowledge that makes certain types of assignments redundant. The goal is to work at the cutting edge of your learning, spiraling back to review as needed, but not spinning your wheels. This may mean, at times, that different students in one course are working in different ways, so we’ll have to work at staying organized. The management challenges added to my plate are worth it, for the gains in individual learning.

I used the term “community of learning.” This does not simply mean a bunch of individuals learning. One of the things I will help you along with to the best of my ability is to help one another learn. There will be mutual benefit as partners and small groups mentor and guide each other using what you know, and contribute to the academic discourse and problems solving processes we’ll engage in as we go through the course. This is not to be a situation where the more able students do more, and the less able less, of the work. No one gets to ride on anyone’s coat tails. Nor is  it an occasion, I dearly hope, for anyone to feel superior or inferior to their peers, except on a way that challenges you to grow. The smartest person, you will hear me say, is the one who quickly acknowledges their deficit and works to address it.

If you’ve “always been an A student,” and have the attitude that you should continue to be so with a minimum of effort, please drop that idea. This is more challenging work that you’ve had before–expect top work at it. And although fair grading is important to me, my idea of fair is probably different from yours. The sooner you stop labeling yourself as an A-student, a C-student, a smart person, a dumb person, whatever, the more likely you are to be focused on learning, and actually doing so. You will set goals, work toward them, recognize milestones achieved and be proud of yourself, and sometimes you will fall short and redouble your efforts, as well as reach out for help. At times you will need to adjust your goals to suit where you are in life as a whole. So much can impact the amount of time and energy you have for school, and this course in particular, and I get that. I only ask that you think it through, set goals, be active, and stay in dialogue about this. Don’t let yourself get dragged along by life and get discouraged and overwhelmed for long. We, your teachers and support people, can work with you about this.

If all of this philosophical stuff confuses and frustrates you, just file it in the back of your mind, and refer to the syllabus. I have listed what you should bring to class, the concepts we will cover, my grading scheme, and the routines and rules you are expected to follow. All very straightforward. The seating chart is posted. Everything I’ve just said in 1270 words in one big speech, I’ll say to your again as the need arises, in context as needed. Welcome to my class.

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2019 in Education, Ideas

 

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Polydactyly: why not let it be?

I was going on about something in to my Algebra 1 students, and mentioned that the gene for six fingers is dominant, and isn’t that something, because it means that if either parent has the gene, then there’s a good chance that children will have six fingers too, and it will turn up again and again. Darned if I can remember the context of that bit of information–there must have been one. I also can’t remember exactly what else I said, but now I wish I did, because I hope it was right, considering what occurred later. I know what it would have been, approximately: that the fact that the gene still existed in humans meant that there was no real disadvantage (except for finding footwear and gloves), and probably advantages in certain circumstances. That when parents have a child with “extra” digits, they often have them removed surgically. “Why?” one student asked. “That’s an interesting question. I wonder why.” I replied. “There’s no real problem wit having extra fingers or toes. But I guess that’s not really an algebra-type conversation.” And so we got back to work.

As often happens, a student came up to me later, I assumed to ask a question or hand me his work. He was holding his binder with the edge of one hand facing me. I saw that there was a curled scar, and he was gesturing quietly to it, but I stupidly did not make the connection. “Are you showing me?” I asked. He paused, and replied, “I had them removed.” Suddenly I realized, and  smiled back at him, told him how cool that was, thanked him, and as he went on his way, I called, “I wrote a poem about that!” I felt, and feel, tender toward this young fellow, sweet and somewhat socially awkward, being a year younger than the rest of the class, and humbled that he felt comfortable to share this with me.

I’m not sure if I should share the poem with him, but I’, thinking it would be all right. It’s here.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2019 in Interviews and Conversations

 

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Uppin’ my game

Ups and downs the last few days, possibly because of certain cycles that have been allowed to express themselves naturally again–I’m not used to it! Currently just tired, glad I will sleep even better than usual tonight, even without a soak. I am very grateful for a good sleep life, love the feeling of sinking away into that dark comfort, even as I sleepily marvel at how it just happens without effort. There are some things that self awareness, intelligence, and conscious mental effort just cannot do for our well-being, and so the more ancient circuitry is allowed, must be allowed, to take over each night.

I was feeling somewhat incompetent at the end of Wednesday, having felt I fumbled my way through my Chemistry and Geometry classes, unable to organize my thoughts well or provide activities sufficiently engaging. These students are very patient, however, and did not attempt to kick me while I was down. Then today some others said some very nice things to me, unsolicited, and I felt supported from several other quarters as well, at school and at home. As for the fumbling, I resolved to spend a season working the extra hours it takes to get a better handle on my Chemistry plans, to integrate some more simple labs, and on the Geometry curriculum–we’re getting bogged down in multiple-step coordinate proofs that I think in the big scheme are not so crucial; maybe just the grappling and exposure, and general approach is the thing for now and I should keep the ball rolling into the next unit. I have a handful of students who came in weeks or months after the year started and are somewhat in the swing of things, and now three more who came with learning under their belt from a different school, but in a different order. So I’m trying to address gaps and general struggles with the material, and inspire students who are not putting in much effort to use the resources they have on their non-campus days (or not, as long as they accept the results).

I also want to take some time to integrate some of the great trainings and shared resources I’ve received to enhance my professional practice, such as project based learning, collaboration protocols, and student empowerment and ownership in the learning process. For example, I have a 3D periodic table project mostly planned, and have been implementing a new process in Algebra 1 where students receive brief group instruction, practice at their “learning edge” (partly self-paced) and use answer keys to check their work, and are encouraged to teach and learn from each other, earning 100% on any skills they both demonstrate on paper and teach to someone through a tip sheet, video, or peer tutoring session. Each student has a “to do” list in their table team folder which they check daily for individualized tasks, including skills quizzes which they complete and return to the folders for grading. They are also learning to write me notes there, such as “Ms __, I really don’t get this yet and will come for help at tutoring.” I then go through each one before the next lesson and see what was accomplished, grade quizzes, write notes about any problem areas, and add new tasks or assign quiz corrections. The quizzes are graded as homework because they reflect the practice they’ve done, without me checking, except now and then for accountability, how much. Then when all 5 to 7 quizzes in a unit have been completed to the best of their ability, they do a practice test, a sheet or problems showing their work, and, if judged ready (or out of time due to being irresponsible), they do the final test on that unit. There are even students who, unable to keep up the pace despite lots of effort, are allowed to progress at their own pace, so that, even though they realize that they may not yet be able to pass the course, they are making progress and could start several units ahead of the crowd the next year as they continue. I’d like to figure out a way to apply the same principles to Geometry and Algebra 2, so that I can focus more on effective teaching and equipping, and less on grading every little thing.

So, weekend rest first, then I’ll do some extra lesson and unit planning. I know I’ll be tempted to avoid that part, so I’ll fill my mind with the exciting vision I just described. I really do get into the groove and love what I’m doing once I get started. I’ve tried to keep from bringing work home this year, and for the first time since I started contract teaching in 2015, I regularly leave all my work at school each evening and weekends. This will just be a bit of extra weekend work and an hour or so longer after classes to get me back in my game, then I’ll reclaim my margin again. Because hard work that produces results is what makes rest and personal time so enjoyable, and I do want to have a clear conscience as I read with my feel up on the hearth, write for hours at the coffee shop, or soak in the hot tub under a full moon.

 

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2019 in Education, Places & Experiences

 

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Another first day, in another first week, in another first year

The first week of school was mainly planning, with only one 5th grade class to teach. The second week started after Labor Day, then another first fifth grade class, my first all day of high school Wednesday, with three different classes without a break, one being my first year ever teaching chemistry and the other two having new curricula. Then came a different 5th grade class Thursday. This week, my third week, was the first full week, including the start of math tutoring all day Tuesday and Thursday, and the first Friday classes.

Mondays and Wednesdays are just as packed and challenging as ever, with this year featuring an extra large Algebra 1 class that has to meet in the dim, chilly foyer. So I have to get the tables and chairs set up beforehand, tote all my stuff down and then upstairs after, including laptop, cords, handouts, books and projector cart. I did get a helper in the form of the Social Studies teacher, with whom I’ve become good friends but have yet to figure out how we’ll work out our team teaching. He doesn’t really know the math, he says, but we’ll figure something out. The challenge is that all but a handful of students don’t remember much of their pre-algebra skills, so we have to do a few weeks of review, all with custom photocopied material because we can’t order the texts yet.

We are also short a full class set of Chemistry texts, so I have to decide which alternative I’ll base the course on–an open source text, my own hodgepodge, or something I can scan for those who opt for online text access. Apparently the approval process for the real online text is too expensive and costly. I do like a challenge, but I can’t seem to find the time to nail down a better plan now that things are in full swing, unless I put in extra days on the weekend. Which I’m sure I’ll do this weekend, as last.

But Fridays this year are easier to manage, less stressful and with more margin, thanks to the new principal with a new plan. She’s all about trusting us, being flexible and creative, and making things less stressful. So she changed four preps to two (one repeated class), plus a supporting/tutoring role for me in an Algebra 2 hour I don’t have to plan (much). Most classes are smaller than last year, and we are not obliged to put up with shenanigans from certain rascals only there because their parents wanted a break and they want drama.

I’m using a well-designed boxed curriculum for the two middle school classes, at the urging of my principal, to further simplify my life as I adjust and support my family after the death of my spouse. It teaches the basics of physics, the history of scientific discovery, and the scientific method.

But I couldn’t resist custom designing a fresh course. Environmental Leadership is a high school elective, and as I made the proposal for it, I found that I’ve become much more practical and efficient at laying out a year plan and blocking out the elements. It should, if things go well, culminate in a final public event where the students show their stuff and change the world a little for the better. Some of the rascals from last year have become freshman, though, and for some reason, they still like my classes.

So I’m back to full time. I had planned to take Fridays off for the first semester, but now I’m down to maybe trying to take more sick days so I have margin. Getting a sub is more work than teaching, so unless I have a good video…okay, so I get it now, with the videos for the subs. I used to complain as a sub that all I got to do was show videos. I’ll try to find the time to plan some easy days so I can vacate a little, with advance notice, because subs, let alone good subs, are almost impossible to find in our district without advance notice.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2018 in Education

 

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Tenderly

I feel so privileged to be a teacher. This going through cancer in the family has made me feel that even more deeply. Yes, I wish I could quit and spend more time with my husband and children, have more quiet for my soul, more time to write and work in the garden. Especially since my husband is starting to get me better and wants to take more part in what he calls my special spirituality. Which is less about going up front to ask for prayer, and more about taking deep breaths as the sun rises, stopping at thickets full of chickadees, and growing seedlings. He said he’ll let me teach him how to start the different types of seeds in pots tomorrow. I loved being a house mom/wife. But what I do at work is very, very special in terms of what is possible, what might happen, how I and my colleagues might affect some young people. We get to find ways to communicate that they matter, that there’s hope, that if they want to, they can. All in the guise of teaching math and science.

One of my favorite times, as I have said before, is the twice-a-week morning homework help drop-in, two and a quarter hours long. More students are coming now, for the math, yes, but that is definitely not the whole deal. There’s something going on I can’t put my finger on, a dynamic that connects from person to person as one gets a problem, another gets stuck, someone jokingly teases another, another one brings up something unrelated to the math, but important to life.

One girl might, just might, be starting to see her self-defeating attitude for what it is. Another might, just might, believe that even though Geometry continues to be extremely difficult for her, all the extra work she puts in is making her mind stronger and more capable. Another might, just might, believe that there’s hope for a young farmer and a good life that builds up the soil, meets new market demands, and is sustainable, and that the most important quality about a man is not the power of his truck. That one is still a longer shot, but today I saw a certain openness in his eyes.

I think I might need to shift the tables around, though, There’s this one section where everyone sits together, and a few newer attendees sit apart and alone. I need to get a new zone going, a branch of the community. The two new girls will learn to ask for help, I hope, not just wait shyly until I come over to see how it’s going. I want them to connect with each other –both are still on the edge of that, for different reasons.

As I consider what the role of teachers is in preventing violence such as the recent Florida school shooting, I think that part of it, for sure, is to simply be kind–deeply kind, not just professionally courteous and friendly, but to communicate the “I see you” that can help heal those ragged edges. I think of two of our students–both obese, academically passive, socially awkward, and obsessed with guns. They are lucky–we are lucky, and who who knows who else will be lucky–that at our school, they will not fall between the cracks and end up bent out of shape by the system–not if we can help it. My lead teacher is a real inspiration there–as problems seem unsolvable, she just ups the commitment, ups the connection, ups the support, sometimes making up for what a dysfunctional family doesn’t even know is missing in terms of parenting.

I think about how nice it would be to have fewer preps and work closer to home, but today our whole staff came in to my room an hour and a half after quitting time just to say they were all rooting for me and my husband, that we’d be in their prayers, and to let them know if there was anything I needed. Gave me a card full of sweet words and several hefty grocery store gift cards so I could buy the special foods my husband can eat. I’m at the right place, that’s for sure.

 

 
 

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