Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ambition Should Be Made of Sterner Stuff

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions; I never have. I am not a fan of committing to unrealistic expectations doomed to failure the first time I get a sugar craving or blow off my morning run. Besides, as a teacher, September is my January, when I do my best reflection, renewal, and resolutions.

However, I’m going to make an exception this January. I figure it’s the least I can do, what with the American educational system in crisis and all. According to the most recent reports on the status of U.S. Education, we rank smack dab in the middle of international rankings for educational gains, and those gains are nowhere near rapid enough for us to catch up with the leaders of the industrialized world.

I’m not usually a fan of crib notes, but Joel Klein’s opening salvo in the report of the Council on Foreign Relations education task force offers up a pretty good summary of the situation: “The United States' failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country's ability to thrive in a global economy and maintain its leadership role.” I’m just one teacher, in one small school in New Hampshire, but I’m not about to allow my students to be drowned in a “rising tide of mediocrity.”

In the face of such dire predictions, I figure my best defense against apathy and hopelessness is an optimistic and clear-eyed offense.

So this January, I resolve go back to the beginning and question everything.

That’s it. One resolution. See, in my first couple of years as a teacher, I switched classrooms and subjects so often, I never had the opportunity to relax into a routine. I struggled to stay 24 hours ahead of my students, and I remember praying for the magical, mythical day I could walk into class prepared with a tried-and-true lesson plan. I longed for the giant binder one of my law school professors hauled in to to class each day, the script he’d used for decades, well-worn, authoritative, and practically memorized.

I’m a decade in to my teaching career, and I have created a few of those binders. And I have to admit, they do make my life easier. But with comfort and routine comes complacency, and the last thing I - or any teacher - can afford is sit back and rest on those dusty cardboard laurels created for a now-stale Julius Caesar unit.

Homework, assessments, teaching habits and routines, grading - it's all under suspicion this year. Teaching is hard work, and effective teaching is even harder. requires the humility to admit to our mistakes and the resolve to make things right. 

It’s time to admit defeat, acknowledge the havoc we’ve created in our educational system and let slip the dogs of war on behalf of our students. Because “middling” isn’t good enough anymore. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Place in the World

I wanted to kick off the new year by sending out some love to a group of educators, students, and storytellers I truly admire. The year ended with stories of teachers who gave the their lives for their students. I love my students, and I can only hope I would be brave enough to protect them when faced with the same circumstances. In the wake of Newtown, my brain has ventured to all the spaces and crevices in my middle school building, places I could stash my students should the threat of physical harm enter my classroom. However, the psychic threat that the students and teachers of Newtown face is much more insidious, and no special hiding place can offer adequate refuge.

I don't know how I would be able to recover from that threat; the post-traumatic fear of violence. As the news reports begin to fade into other events of the day, I find myself drawn back to a documentary about of the students and teachers of the International Community School.

A year or so ago, I heard about a film called A Place in the World, directed by Adam Maurer and William Reddington. The students and teachers profiled by these filmmakers beg the question of what it means to be a great teacher in the face of great challenges, and the value that these great teachers impart to students, their community, and the country. I teach relatively unharmed, in tact children, but these teachers take on the most challenging students. Students such as those of Newtown, children who have been scarred by trauma and fear. Children born to war and conflict who have seen things they never should have witnessed during their young lives. 

The documentary chronicles two years at 
The International Community School (ICS), a K-6 charter school in DeKalb County, Georgia. DeKalb County is the largest refugee resettlement area in the country and the most diverse county in the state of Georgia. Half the students at ICS are recent immigrants and refugees from war zones, and half are local children from DeKalb County. The film focuses on two educators: Drew Whitelegg (Mr. Drew to his students), a first-year teacher, and Dr. Laurent Ditman, Principal of ICS. Mr. Drew, formerly a post-doctoral Fellow at Emory University, speaks honestly about how tiring his job as a fourth-grade teacher is, how difficult it is to avoid being consumed by the challenges inherent in teaching a population of barely English-literate, emotionally and physically terrorized children how to function as educated members of American society. “Teaching at a university was a dawdle compared to teaching here. I mean it really was. And there’s a sense that you are in this for the long haul. But the rewards – the rewards here are absolutely endless. And they don’t come from all the great moments, they come from the small moments.”

Many of Mr. Drew’s students come to his classroom with no knowledge of English, and some students, such as Bashir, who was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, have no understanding of the concept of school. Bashir spent his first days at ICS wandering the halls, walking in and out of classrooms, calling out for his father. Principal Laurent Dittman recounts the story of a girl from the refugee camps in the Sudan who spent her first weeks at ICS huddled under a table, hiding from whatever dangers she had survived in the Sudanese refugee camp.

Dr. Dittman, himself an immigrant and the child of Holocaust survivors, believes in school as a refuge from his students’ unsettled home lives. He understands his students’ impulse to hide under tables in order to escape. “The first thing I learned from my parents was how to hide. When something bad happens, or is about to happen, you hide. I see that in many of the kids at the school.” Dr. Dittman views his school as a refuge for his students, a place to come out of hiding and learn. Dr. Dittman says of his own upbringing in an immigrant family in France, “I really liked school. It was a safe place. My parents were refugees and things at home were not always a lot of fun, and I saw school clearly as a refuge.”

Logically, I know that the threat of violence at school is low. I know that my students are much more likely to come to harm in the car on the way to school or swimming in the local pond. However, I have seen things in the news I wish I had not seen, and my students are afraid of a boogeyman that should not exist in their young minds. 
As teachers and administrators move forward and continue to do the job of teaching this country’s students, we need leaders such as Dr. Dittman and Mr. Drew. We need teachers unafraid to get down on their hands and knees, venture into their students' hiding places, and guide them back out into the light of a safe refuge. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Not Enough Tape in the World

In the moments before the news of the school shooting in Newtown, CT, wended its way through the halls of Crossroads Academy middle school, I was holed up in my office, grading writing assessments and listening to the fifth graders camped outside my office door, discussing, of all things, tape. They proclaimed their love for tape, their yearning for tape, and their parents’ attempts to hide said tape. They reminisced about the secret treasure hunts they had undertaken over the years in order to ferret out those contraband rolls of tape.

I poked my head out of my office, door, unable to resist.

“Why do you guys want all that tape?”

They looked up at me blankly, uncertain why anyone – particularly a teacher – would need an explanation as to why a kid would need tape.  

The youngest boy looked up at me, and stated the obvious: “To hold stuff together.”

I remember that urge; to tighten the loose bits and pieces of my world with a screwdriver, glue, and yes, tape. I carried a screwdriver around my house, searching for loose screws, less than secure hinges, and light switch covers in danger of falling off of the wall. Sure, I stripped threads and over-cranked the hubs on my father’s bicycle, but everything was tight. Secure. A world screwed down was a world in control, and in it, I felt safe.

As teachers and administrators, we fool ourselves into believing that we are in any way prepared for what occurred today at Sandy Hook Elementary. We hold drills and de-brief. We practice lock downs, lock outs, fire drills and toxic spill evacuations. The alarm sounds and I leap up, calm my students, and lead them to our rendezvous point, where we await instructions from our Headmaster. We are reunited once again, whole. Safe.

But even as the country dutifully awaited its instructions from our leader, even President Obama acknowledged that our world has been hopelessly ripped asunder. “Because while nothing can fill the space of a lost child or loved one, all of us can extend a hand to those in need – to remind them that we are there for them, that we are praying for them, that the love they felt for those they lost endures not just in their memories but also in ours.”

Sandy Hook Elementary will never again be whole, or feel entirely safe. I imagine the gaping holes that now riddle their official class pictures, and I am forced to admit that I may not always be able to keep my students safe and complete. I can, however, re-stock my tape drawer, and teach them how to hold their world together as we move forward as a community.   

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Other Waters Are Ever Flowing on to You.

There's an unfortunate catch in what I otherwise consider to be my perfect job: I teach these people, come to care about them, and then they go out into the world, and sometimes bad things happen to them.

When I had children, I understood that I was opening myself up for a world of pain; that's part of the deal we make with the universe when we become parents. However, when I signed my first teacher contract, there was no clause for heartache; no asterisk denoting the fine-print possibilities.

Over the years, I have taught some truly great people. People who have gone on to do great things and make this world a better, kinder, more colorful place. Many of these people have become my friends, and it has been thrilling to make that transition from Mrs. Lahey, to Jess, to friend. A few have become confidantes and, as they grow into their respective callings, peers. Milestones in their lives have become milestones in mine: the first wedding, the first baby. The first death.

I was prepared for the wedding and the baby, but Andrew's knocked the air out of me and I am only beginning to remember how to breathe.

I visited with him last winter, on a weekend trip to New York. We caught up over coffee, laughing about how different our lives are and how far we have come as my children drew faces in the fogged cafe windows. It is always a wonderful privilege for me to get to know the people my students become, but part of me holds on to the memory of their teenage selves.  No matter what they do with their lives, the mistakes they make, the successes they earn, they always retain something of their doughy, unformed adolescent innocence.

Those doughy faces met me at the classroom door thirteen years ago. And two weeks later, when I showed up at that door with eyes swollen from crying over the sudden death of my best friend, they were my salvation. I don't remember much of that day, but I do remember that they noticed my pain. They were quiet, and kind, and respectfully concerned. And by the end of the day, they made me laugh. I specifically remember being surprised by that laugh, and I was grateful that I had decided to go to work that day. My students saved me that day.

Yesterday, I arrived at school in a fog of sadness and fatigue wearing my reading glasses, hoping it would conceal my puffy eyes a little. I slapped on a smile, took a deep breath, and dove in to first period Latin, hoping that my teaching muscle memory would take over. I had to admit to the students after my fourth or fifth stupid mistake that I was just a little tired and a just a little sad, and I allowed them to work on Latin translation in groups and pretended to grade papers.

As teachers do, I pushed on through third period Latin and fourth period Latin and fifth period English and sixth period English. I tried not to make mistakes and aimed for the end of each period, ever closer to the end of the day.

Two seventh grade girls stopped me as I walked into my last period, thrust some paper into my hand, hugged me, and ducked back into the mass of students changing classes. It happened so fast, I barely had time to register who they were and what was in my hand.

They were folded notes, covered in glitter pen, adorned with sparkly flowers and hearts, my name printed on the front in big, pink bubble letters. The words inside were loving, warm, and kind - just the salve I needed for the gaping wound I had been trying to cover up all day.

They were not fooled by my glasses. They knew. And once again, my students saved me.

This was not outlined in the fine print of my teaching contract, either, but I'll take it. I pinned their notes to the wall above my desk, and as I look around those notes, I can find other reassuring evidence that I have kept close to me over the years. I have found salvation many times over. There's a photo of a baby named Jack, the child of my student Bailey, with a piece of paper that she had slipped in to my hand after class when she was fifteen, over a decade ago. She'd had a revelation one night, written down a quote she'd found, and proudly presented it to me as a connection to something we had read.

The note she handed me ten years ago says:

I can't remember precisely what we were talking about in class, but I've saved it all these years because she'd made a connection. To something - anything - outside of class. I still teach this same quote today (although a different version of the words), in an altogether different context, but the essence still resonates: we can't ever repeat the same experience because the circumstances, the people, the moment, has moved on.

The students may change, but the waters remain the same. I'm hip-deep in this river, and I'm staying. No matter what the water brings my way, drawn downstream, to drift out of sight.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Ties that Bind

I adore my job, but despite my best intentions, transcendent moments do not happen every day. Mostly, my job is grading, chasing students for their late assignments, teaching students how to stand on their own two feet so I don't have to chase them for late assignments, and untangling the sticky web of social drama that my middle school students weave between classes. I teach stuff, and sometimes it's heard, sometimes it's not.

But was special. Today I bore witness to a moment of high drama, fireworks, celebration, and yes, transcendence. I don't know that anyone else noticed, but for one seventh grader and this teacher, today was the stuff of miracles.

In order to understand what happened, I have to go into a bit of developmental neurology, psychology, and educational mumbo-jumbo.

Middle school students are in the middle. Literally, they are between elementary school and high school, but figuratively, they are no longer children, not yet adults. Middle school students occupy that place of limbo between innocence and experience, and that's a difficult place to live.

Wait, let me back up.

Children are literal beings. They think in black and white, and when I explain to them that literature can have meaning underneath the surface of the words, some of them look at me as if I've said their books come to life at night and hold square dances. Allusion, metaphor, symbolism - some make this leap from literal to figurative thought at 11, some at 12, others don't hit that transition until high school. And that's okay. This leap is not about smarts, it's about neurological connections that take place in the brain. I can't make them see allusion or metaphor or symbolism, I can only present it to them time and time again, and hope that there will be one day, one moment, when my discussion of the extended metaphor Dickens creates between Wemmick and his wards in the jail (Wemmick is the gardener, they are his lovingly tended plants in the greenhouse of the prison) coincides with the precise moment two neurons intersect in a given student's brain, and those neurons create the pathway that will allow that student to know.

In other words, my students are pupa-people, ready to burst forth from their weird little pimply and gangly chrysalis (from Latin, chrysallis, "golden colored pupa of the butterfly" from the Greek khrysos, "gold"), and this bursting forth can happen at anytime.

And that bursting happened today, right there in my wee little classroom.

The seventh grader in question used to explain literature much as she'd explain the guts of a Kenmore washing machine. She would describe the parts, maybe make a connection to the whole, but her reasoning was all technical specs and maintenance schedules.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, she saw. She understood that Estella is a candle that attracts moths and Drummle is a spider who scurries and burrows. She will be one of the first to see the link to Frankenstein that I have already set up in their minds.

Today, I wrote a quiz that asked more of them than mere regurgitation of facts, but expected interpretation in its place. I had warned them that this quiz was coming, and most of them rose to the challenge. This student, though, she knocked the quiz out of the ballpark.

She understood the subtext, the meaning in between the black ink and white page. Like Dorothy, she saw technicolor where black and white dominated her field of vision.

And I'm in trouble, because after today, she will be able to read this post and find the overabundance of forced and mixed metaphors. The washing machines, the Wizard of Oz, webs, the gardeners and candles; they are hers to find.

Year after year, I find myself in this place of privilege. I could not be more grateful, and yet I don't think she will remember what took place today. There will be no birthdays, no anniversaries, of the day she made her leap into the figurative world, but I will know, and mark it. November 30, 2012, Room A, right there, in chapter 38 of Great Expectations.

NB: I wrote about a similar moment over at the Core Knowledge blog, so if this piqued your interest, you can head over there for more.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Beauty of the Youngest

I am reposting this piece in order to honor and mark Kira DelMar's first week teaching a class of her very own. Congratulations, Kira!

What could warm the cockles of a teacher's heart more than the news that a former student has become a teacher herself? I can't think of anything more wonderful, and I am about to bust a gut with pride. Three of my former students have become teachers. One in Japan, one in Switzerland, and one - the subject of this post - in California. 

To celebrate, today's missive comes to you from Kira DelMar, teacher (!), artist, and all-around talented young woman. I hope she does not mind that I lifted my favorite of her paintings (above, "Psyche") from her beautiful website

Some thoughts:

I think the thing that I valued most about you as a teacher was exactly what you said in your response to the 'blah blah blah lifelong learners' article; the moments when you would reveal that you weren't in fact omnipotent, and that you, too, were still learning. It blew my mind the first time you answered a question with 'I don't know' - I'm not sure I'd ever heard those words from a teacher before. And then when you came back the next day and told us the answer, and beyond that, told us how you had found out the answer, I think that might have been the moment when I figured out I wanted to be a teacher. (That might also just be a narrative that I'm imposing on my memories in retrospect, but I know that it was a moment that stuck with me, at the least.) 

Being a teacher had always seemed boring before - what's the point of already knowing everything? But if you could be a teacher and still get to learn new things, and figure stuff out, and respond to questions with more questions instead of just pulling the answers right out of your filled-to-the-top brain, well...that job might not be so bad after all.

I do agree with the author of the original article that the main thing getting in the way of all teachers being this way is ego; the need to appear to have mastery of a subject before teaching it. I recently had a great discussion with our science specialist, Cris, about how she teaches computer programming to her middle school tech students. She basically assigns them each to a computer, provides them with an option of a basic curriculum, as well as websites with tutorials about programming in different language. The kids have time to explore and build whatever kind of project they are interested in, and when they say, "I don't know how to..." she replies, "I don't know either, but let's find out." She had never done computer programming herself before teaching the class, and every semester the kids discover new languages that she's not yet imagined. Cris told one of our lead teachers this, and the teacher asked "Aren't you scared that the kids will figure out you don't know what you're doing?" to which Cris responded, "No, because I tell them right up front that I don't know what I'm doing." And every semester, her kids create amazing projects that show their own interests and strengths and mastery of a subject that both surpasses and extends their teacher's knowledge. 

I'm not sure whether I'm effectively modeling this in my own teaching yet, but again, I'm still learning, and luckily, I had excellent examples to learn from. 


I don't know about you, but I'd let Kira teach my children, any day of the week. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

All In

A lot has been made this year of the value of marshmallow tests, grit, and character in building a quality education. Every time I open my laptop, someone has forwarded an article or tagged me in a post about about the value of character in schools. When I closed the lid on my laptop this weekend, and finally got around to catching up on my NPR podcast listening, there it was again. Paul Tough, talking about his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character with Ira Glass on This American Life." Tom Ashbrook, talking about the fact that schools are adding workouts, not for fitness, but for "Attention, Grit, and Emotional Control." I had to retreat to a Freakonomics podcast about how to maximize my kids' (read: my) Halloween candy haul (research for next year). 

Don't misunderstand - I'm not tired of the discussion; I think this focus on character in education is a fantastic turn of events. I'm thrilled. As more and more people come around to the value of character education, I sound less and less like the preachy schoolmarm on a weekend pass from the Big Woods. 

For the past five years, I have been teaching at Crossroads Academy, a school that combines the Core Knowledge curriculum with a core virtues curriculum. I have to admit, I was not totally sure what I'd gotten myself into when I signed the contract for my first year. I figured I'd smile and nod, support the character education teachers in their efforts, and reap the benefits of teaching kids who attend a weekly character education class. It's not as if this is my first brush with Aristotle's Golden Mean, on the contrary - I'm one of the A-man's biggest fans - and I can hold my own in a conversation about prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. 

But about six months into that first year, I noticed all that "character stuff" was leaking out of character education class and saturating every other subject. It was my students' fault; they opened the floodgates. They talked about Atticus' sense of justice in English class, Achilles' lack of temperance in Latin class, Ghandi's incredible fortitude in history class. This weekend, I was helping my third grade son study for his history test, and he told me that "the conspirators killed Caesar because he was not a good steward of Rome." 

Today, Core Knowledge drives my content, but character education and the core virtues drive my teaching, and my relationships with my students.

Well, most of the time. Like anyone who has been teaching the same classes for a while, I am apt to get lulled into a routine, particularly in November. The clocks have just changed, that certain slant of light has descended on New Hampshire, and it's tempting to coast while I put my energy into writing report cards and recovering from the middle-school super-virus my students gave me last week. After all, it would be easy; my class materials have all those helpful notes and Post-Its in the margins, accumulated over years of discussion, the teacher's manual of my Latin textbook sings its siren call...but drat. Just when I have checked out until after the holidays, my students foil my plans. 

This week, I was hacking away at the huge pile of grading I have to get through before I can actually begin to write grade reports, and I was getting sleepy. In my defense, Latin translations are a huge time suck because my students like to take full and creative advantage of Latin's  relatively flexible word order. Nouns and verbs are never where I expect them to be, and the grading is slow going. Halfway through what felt like the bajillionth Latin test, I came across an incorrect answer, with an arrow pointing to a note in the margin:

"Dear Mrs. Lahey. I know the answer to #4 is incorrect, but I accidentally saw the answer on your answer key, and I did not want to cheat. But I know the answer is "vobis" because "you" is plural, not singular."

Needless to say, I gave her the two points, and promptly checked back in.

I am not naive enough to believe that character education alone can save America's educational crisis, but I do know that this week's headlines are full of bright, well-educated people who have sold virtue to purchase wealth. If character education manages to score some column inches on the front page between Jill Kelley and Lance Armstrong, and authors such as PaulTough and Diane Ravitch are brave enough to champion the cause of character in education, I'm all in.