Wednesday, July 24, 2013

New Feature: The Parent-Teacher Conference

I have not been giving this blog its due, mostly because I'm maxed out. Until the book is written, that's where most of my creative and stenographic skills are going. So here I am, chained to my desk all summer, hacking away at my book and watch my 11/1 deadline creep closer, and closer, and closer....

Oh. Sorry. I got lost in a dark cloud of panic for a moment.

But I miss writing here, so I've decided to go ahead and implement a plan I've had on the back burner for a while now, an parent-teacher advice column called....drumroll....The Parent-Teacher Conference.

In this shiny, new feature, I will offer honest and direct parent-teacher advice for all of your parent-teacher needs. All the stuff you want to ask your kids' teacher, but don't dare, out of fear of sounding like an idiot, pissing the teacher off, or coming off like a crazy helicopter parent.

This is going to be fun. Like Dan Savage but with fewer sex toys.

I'm actually thinking about trying this feature out as an audio or video podcast, so after I nail down the rough draft of my book, change out of my official author pajamas, and have some time to play around with the tech, I might just try that. In the meantime, send me your questions! Use that form right there -------> over on the right-hand side of the page, or email me at Identities will be kept secret to avoid total humiliation (your humiliation, that is, mine is always up for grabs) and I promise not to take off points for spelling. I will, however, clean up the language and grammar for clarity's sake.

Today's question comes from a mom who cornered me in a television station green room, anxious about her child's first day of school. She asked the question verbally, but to get you guys used to the format of The Parent Teacher Conference, I will alter her question a bit. Here goes! Introducing The Parent-Teacher Conference!

Dear Mrs. Lahey,  
Today is my daughter's first day of preschool, and I am really nervous. The teachers at her old school were so great and would drop us emails to let us know our kids were doing okay at school. I had not heard anything from her new teacher by lunchtime, so I managed to get the teacher's cell phone number from a friend of mine and texted the teacher to ask if everything was going okay at school. Was that okay?
Green Room Mom 

Dear Green Room Mom,  
I hate to break it to you, but you've been tagged. This teacher has, in all likelihood, put you on her "problem parent" list - at least for now. It's fixable, and I will get to that in a minute, but first, let me clarify where you went wrong.  
It's great to be in contact with your kids' teachers, but make sure that communication is on the teacher's terms, especially at first. I assume the school gave you a contact number, and that's the one you should use if you need to get a message to the teacher. And remember the golden rule of school: no news is good news. 
You mentioned that you got the teacher's cell phone number from a friend and not from the teacher, and this is the part that makes me cringe. If a parent tracked down my cell phone number, I'd immediately assume that parent is going to be trouble. It's a little stalker-ish, and until that parent gave me reason to think otherwise, I'd keep my interactions with that parent to a minimum. Here's the unintended consequence of your text: the teacher is going to be less likely to respond to your communications in the future. The parents who only contact me when it's really important are the ones I get back to right away. The ones who email constantly, call me at home, and leave multiple voice mails are the ones I avoid interacting with unless it's absolutely necessary.  
You know the story of the boy who cried wolf? Yeah. That. 
But here's how to fix it. When you pick up your daughter, smile, apologize for sending the text, and sheepishly admit to simply being a little too nervous on the first day. An "I'm sorry" and a genine smile whitewashes over a lot of rookie mistakes. Unless there's an emergency, stay out of that teacher's hair for a while, and she'll forget about your first-day error. 

Good luck to your daughter in her new school!

The Role of Empathy in the Classroom:

Teacher’s lives are cyclic; fall is for new beginnings, winter is for maintaining momentum, and spring is for closure. And summer. Ah, summer. This season is not, as many assume, for leisure. Rather, it’s one of the most important seasons of a teacher’s year – a time for planting the seeds of next year’s successes; for reconciliation, reorganization, and recreation - not as in camping and swimming and hiking, but re-creation; re-invention and refreshment - a time for intellectual and emotional renewal. Summer is for upending syllabi, questioning assumptions, and stepping back to view the previous academic year through a wider lens.

I look forward to this season of re-creation every year. I poke my classroom’s sacred cows to make way for new ideas and strategies. As I organize the contents of my file cabinets and desk drawers, I account for the things I should keep and the things that need to go. Out with stale lectures, and in with lessons that engage everyone and create real opportunities for learning. As I’m purging, I keep my eyes open for the big flashes of insight and perspective that promise to impose order out of educational chaos.

The insight that emerged from this year’s accounting is the vital, and yet often misunderstood, role of empathy in the classroom. Much of what I teach and write circles around the subject of empathy, whether I’m teaching To Kill a Mockingbird or writing about character education. Teachers and parents praise the value of empathy as a skill we need to instill in our students, and that’s true. However, I find that increasingly, many parents would benefit by walking around in someone else’s skin for a while.

As a parent, it’s natural to look out for the interests of one’s own child, but it’s become commonplace for parents to demand that teachers cater to the needs of their student above all others. Tommy doesn’t want to participate because it makes him uncomfortable, and Alice gets upset when she’s ignored. Kate would like lessons to be conveyed visually, while Marcus would prefer verbal instructions. Mary can’t sit near Tammy and Jacob must sit near Matthew, and while we’re at it, email me immediately with any and all instances of negative language, gestures and expressions directed at Bethany.

This isn’t a call for empathy for teachers. That would be lovely, and I won’t turn that gift away, but I’m asking parents to have more empathy and protective instinct for the entire classroom community. Classrooms should be egalitarian, in that no one student is more important than the others, and all are integral to the class’ academic and social success. As we pass through this season of re-creation, I hope parents will consider planting seeds of empathy in their own backyards, to teach their children how to cultivate that virtue by setting an example. No need to worry if it’s a second planting; we could all use some reserves going into the year ahead.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Inspiration in Unlikely Places

I did an interview last week with Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Ungifted, and he mentioned a really cool nonprofit called The Future Project. He described Dream Directors who go into schools and encourage kids to articulate their dreams, then mentor them as they see those dreams to fruition.

I had to find out more. This article is the result of my research on The Future Project, which led to Tim Shriver, which led to Google, which led to Daniel Pink, and back around again to The Future Project.

You can read it over at the Atlantic.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

My Season of Recreation: On Empathy in the Classroom

I have officially run out of extra words. Sorry the blog has been neglected; I miss it so very much. I even know what I want to write for a post, but between the book (due 11/1) and other articles I promised to deliver by various other due dates, I'm tapped out. I will be back to regular posting when I can gather together an hour to write a post, but in the meantime, here's my most recent Vermont Public Radio commentary, on empathy in the classroom. It will air on Sunday at 10:55 AM on VPR, but you can hear it here.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Measure of Their IQ

Here's what just went live over at the Atlantic today. Click here to make the jump and read the piece!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Look on My Flow, Ye Mighty and Despair!

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow – 01

(c) Evalottchen -

NB: This is a re-post from a while back, but someone asked me tonight about my teaching style, and this post pretty much sums it up. This one's for you, Daniel Lippman!

Continuing on the "heady week" theme, Friday was simply one one those awesome days. I had a plan going in to English classes on Friday, but our Veteran's Day assembly lopped about twenty minutes off the front end of my seventh grade class. As the class after the assembly was an "open classroom" period, parents showed up in the back of my classroom to watch. No pressure there. Five moms, all less than easily impressed on a good day, waited to see what sort of show I'd put on for them.

At these times, I find it's best to let the class evolve organically rather than attempt to shoehorn fifty minutes of material into thirty minutes of class time. In other words, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Improv! Time to go with the flow. That's right. I went all Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on their asses.

I quickly gave the weekly spelling quiz of ten commonly misspelled words (the word "misspelled" happens to be one of them), and launched in to the final cultural literacy tidbit of the week, the poem "Ozymandias." I mentioned last week in "Things Fall Apart" that I had decided to scrap the whole Victorian novel theme and go with Yeats, "Second Coming," Things Fall Apart, and "Ozymandias" in order to soothe my own soul on the heels of a crappy week. I have to admit, I was also curious about whether or not my students could synthesize these topics into a coherent thematic journey come Friday.

Before reading "Ozymandias," I asked them to re-cap the week's cultural literacy for me. They had to explain each tidbit, then figure out how to move from one item to the next in a way that made sense. Why might Chinua Achebe choose a quote from Yeats' "Second Coming" as a title for a novel set in Nigeria?They had decided to define the "center" that cannot hold in "Second Coming" as "humanity" as it relates to the ethical standards of a society, they did a great job of tying that loss of humanity to what happened to the Igbo people as a result of the intrusion of Christian missionaries - or any European colonialists, for that matter. They had not read Achebe's book, I simply gave them a brief synopsis and let their brains run amok.

Once they figured out why I had presented those four items together in one week, I moved on and pointed out that Shelley also wrote a little poem called "Prometheus Unbound." My students really know their mythology, so we talked about why he would be bound in the first place and what it might mean to unbind him. Then, I mentioned that Shelley was married to another Shelley - Ms. Mary - and that she was inspired to write Frankenstein at the same time her husband was writing "Prometheus Unbound." And that Dickens took inspiration from Frankenstein when he wrote Great Expectations.

Talk amongst yourselves. I'll give you a topic: These works are thematically related. Discuss.

I look at them and they look at me. For what seems like a wee bit too long.

Suddenly a gasp, and an arm flies up. Arnold Horseshack is in the house.

"Oh! Oh! I know! Prometheus made people, Dr. Frankenstein made the monster, and Miss Havisham made Estella!" This all tumbles out in one breath, so fast that some students have to ask their neighbors what the heck he said.

"Nice. Great first step. And what are people trying to be when they go about creating?"

Hands shoot up all over the place and one kid can't help but blurt out, "Gods!"


We finally get around to the other creator - Magwich - and his creation, Pip the gentleman. A couple of weeks ago, I'd asked them why they thought Magwich went to all that trouble to make Pip a gentleman. They mentioned gratitude, that he saw Pip as a son, that he wanted to show up all of those people who think badly of him because he's a criminal...but I had told them I thought there might be more and asked them to file the discussion away until later. Once we started pulling this this thread on creation and monsters, I felt they could bring the conversation home. And they did. They saw the full spectrum of Magwich's motivations, and we spent some time talking about all the people in literature, mythology, and folklore who come to bad ends when they try to usurp the power of the gods. The short answer? It never ends well.

And the alternate title of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? The Modern Prometheus. They loved that.

In the last two minutes of class, I opened up Great Expectations and read from chapter 40. Magwich has just revealed himself to Pip, who is clothing and housing him. Pip is sheltering Magwich from the law, but he's still freaked out by the revelation Magwich has lain at Pip's well-shod feet. As Magwich sleeps, Pip describes his feelings:

"The imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made, was not more wretched than I, pursued by the creature who had made me, and recoiling from him with a stronger repulsion, the more he admired me and the fonder he was of me."

I look up at my students, raise my eyebrows, and close the book. "And that? What you guys just did there? That's where we'll start on Monday, with Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Buddhism and Siddhartha."

Monday, July 1, 2013

Only Hope Was Left

This is a re-post. A friend reminded me of how much I hate the sentiment expressed in the quote I mention below, and I just had to update it for this week. I apologize if you've read this rant before, or if I cornered you at a cocktail party and forced it on you there, but it bears repeating. Content, people. Content. 

I love Twitter. I really do. I follow, and am followed by, lots of talented teachers who are overwhelmingly generous with their ideas and resources. Many of the strategies and materials I use every day come from my PLN, tech-speak for "Personal Learning Network." Consequently, if you are an educator, I will follow, create lists, and share the resources that really kick butt (here are my favorites). 

During my travels in the Twittersphere, I've noticed that many teachers are fans of pithy aphorisms and quotes, mantras that help them get through the day and remind them of why they suffer slings and arrows in order to teach. These affirmations run the gamut from clever and quotable, to the stuff of 1970s Scholastic book fair kitten posters; "Hang in there!" and "If you love your students, set them free" sentiments. 

This week, I was followed by a teacher whose profile description quotes Einstein: 

"I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn."

I am a fan, Einstein, and love the hair, but this quote is total crap. I'd love to be able to find context for it, because I have a feeling there's more to this story. Maybe it was taken out of context, totally fabricated, apocryphal; who knows. The sources, are, unfortunately, deceased. 

According to Wikipedia, the bottomless well [pit?] of open-source knowledge, this quote is unsourced, and therefore dubious. 
"[I'd keep this part of the quote in but it's unbearably boring, even to me]. No source is given, and none of the other books I saw gave a source either."

Sounds about right. 

Whatever. Let's say Einstein said it and that he meant it the way it reads. I can see how this sentiment would be attractive to teachers, because it implies that all we have to provide is an inviting atmosphere, a bubble of trust and creativity with comfy chairs to cradle students' tushies, and the rest will magically happen.

That's a nice, reassuring, Waldorf-ian sentiment and everything, but I'm not on board.

Hold on, Waldorf stalwarts, don't get your organic cotton panties in a twist. I am absolutely devoted to creating a trusting and supportive atmosphere for learning. But that should be square one, not the basis for an educational strategy. 

Sorry, Einstein, but I teach. I teach stuff. Content stuff. 

I teach at a Core Knowledge School, and the Core Knowledge curriculum is predicated on the crazy idea that we should actually be teaching our students content. I know. Nuts, right?

There are some great explanations of why content matters here, and there's a classic example about how a reading passage about baseball will be much more comprehensible to a kid who knows what a pitcher, shortstop, and outfielder are, but here's my elevator speech:

Remember when you were in high school or college, in that class where nothing seemed to stick? No matter how much you studied? For me, those classes were Ind0-Iranian Mythology and Greek and Roman Mythology. I was overworked (long, not particularly interesting story), exhausted, and frustrated by my inability to keep it all in my head. I did not have enough of a knowledge base to be able to link the stories of Hera's jealousy to Hercules' labors to what it might mean if Atlas shrugged. These stories are all linked, and knowing one story helps me remember another because the details of those stories form a sticky net, like a spider web. Once I have  accumulated enough threads of knowledge, my net is fine enough to catch the new fragments of knowledge that came drifting by. 

And that's when the magic begins. That's when connections across subjects begin to happen, when a reading of Great Expectations can evolve into a discussion of the Victorian Era, Frankenstein, Icarus, the tower of Babel, and Promethius unbound.*

That's how content works. My youngest son, Finnegan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not "social studies," but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts. 

This month, he's learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg's reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of "alea iacta est" and the controversy surrounding the quote "Et tu, Brute?"

I don't mean to dismiss the importance of a warm, welcoming, and safe learning environment; I worry about my students' trust and safety every day, particularly in light of recent events. Students can't take in what teachers have to offer if they feel unsafe or unwelcome.** I do, however, mean to dismiss the empty platitudes conveyed by my colleague's choice of Twitter profile. 

I'm sure she means well, but America's educational system contains enough empty platitudes and kitten posters. It's time to fill our students with some real content, create some connections, and see what sticks. 

*Great Expectations is about a boy who is re-made as a gentleman by his benefactor, and that benefactor plays god when he takes over Pip's life and shapes his destiny. Dickens refers to Frankenstein and the themes Great Expectations shares when he writes, "The imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made was not more wretched than I, pursued by the creature who had made me..." Icarus, like Dr. Frankenstein, was destroyed by his own desire to become god-like, and the people of Babel were rendered unintelligible by their desire to build a tower to heaven. Not much good comes to mortals who aspire to god-like status. Finally, Promethius was punished for tricking the gods and messing with their plans for us mortals, which brings us back around to the beginning, and the subtitle of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, The Modern Promethius. 

**There's a great discussion of this subject in Paul Tough's How Children Succeed.