Friday, August 29, 2014

A Side Trip to Washington

Huge thanks to the lovely Adrienne Wichard-Edds for a really fun interview about THE GIFT OF FAILURE and ways to help your kids have a great school year for the On Parenting blog at the Washington Post. You can read the article here and you can follow Adrienne on Twitter at @WichardEdds!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Small Moments Define Good Teaching

Much has been written about Elizabeth Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), most of it about why Americans stink at math. (Spoiler: it’s because we also stink at teaching math). Green’s book is worth a read, and not just because she provides some great suggestions for ways we could improve the way we teach math and train the next generation of math teachers in America.

While I really enjoyed the math instruction aspect of Green’s book, there is so much more to her book than that. The parts that called out to me as a teacher were her examples of simple, reproducible classroom practices that separate the average teacher from the truly gifted educators.  These were the pages I tagged with my color-coded sticky tabs and have referred back to many times since first reading the book.

Building a Better Teacher is a manual for those teachers interested in changing the way they think about attention, behavior modification, classroom management, and emotional connection with students.

One example is so small, so obvious, I'm reluctant to even mention it because I'm embarrassed that after ten years of teaching, this had never occurred to me before. This scene happens in classrooms every day, around the world. It’s time to hand out a test, or an assignment, or some other document that must end up on every students’ desk. In order to make the most of every classroom moment, the teacher walks around the room, handing out the pieces of paper. While she does so, she runs down the instructions for the assignment.

I can't begin to count the number of times I've done this. Inevitably, hands shoot up once the students begin to complete the very clear instructions I've just outlined. “Where do you want us to put our name?” “Which question are we supposed to cross out?” “Wait—what are we doing today?”

Makes me want to tear my hair out. I just gave the instructions, how could they have forgotten already? Weren’t they LISTENING????

Well, no. I was setting myself up to not be heard. By handing the papers out while I was giving directions, I signaled to them that my instructions were not that important. How could they be, if I could hand papers out at the same time? Add the inherent distractibility of many students to the mix, and I'm surprised any of my students ever know what the heck to do with the paper once it’s on their desk.

So I stopped handing things out and giving directions at the same time. And you know what? I don't have to repeat my directions anymore. Well, hardly ever.

Green knows that small moments define good teaching, and that the daily struggles over attention, control, and autonomy are make-or-break opportunities to either heap on another layer of alienation to a student-teacher relationship, or to begin to break through transient discord and forge deeper bonds.

Yes, Green’s book is a fantastic discussion about consistency, depth, and breadth in teacher training. Yes, she has a gift for deconstructing the ways in which math instruction becomes unintelligible and how good teachers can help kids understand the signal in the noise. Yes, Green is an astute writer and a talented observer of human behavior.

This is not why my copy of Building a Better Teacher is stuffed full of sticky notes, however. I will keep this book on my shelf of go-to teacher inspiration sources because Green’s discussion of policy and curriculum and education politics are grounded in lessons I can use, today, to improve my teaching and reach that one kid who did not hear me the first time around.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Yes, You Can Step into the Same River Twice

This is a cross-post. The audio version of this post, aired Monday, August 4, 2014, is available here, at Vermont Public Radio. 

A couple of years ago, I faced a teacher milestone. One of my students died, someone I'd visited and emailed and laughed with in the weeks and days before his death, and I was at a loss as to how to deal with the odd, not quite parental, not quite friend-shaped hole. In the days after Andrew's death, I wrote

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.

That day, I drew on the presence of the students in front of me to fill up the hole created by the loss of Andrew

Happily, for each one of those horrible days, there have been so many others that overflow their bounds with happiness. As happens when a teacher's life goes on, there are marriages, births, graduations, and career milestones taking place all the time, it seems. With a decade of students out there in the world, it's bound to happen. I have teacher-grandbabies around the world, and I watch their growth on my Facebook feed like some kind of desperate, doting, distant Nana.  

Today, however, is special even among all those other, wonderful days. Today, two of my students are married, and as much as I love them individually, I am doubly enamored of their united form. 

I once asked Kira, the female half of this couple, when she first had an inking that Min was more than simply a classmate and friend, and she revealed that it happened in my classroom. I'm paraphrasing, as it's been years since she told me this story, but we were working on a project I love, a visual representation of the storm in King Lear. Kira said she watched Min present his project in all its brilliance and insightful interpretation, and she just knew. Knew he was something special. 

Fourteen years later, she still knows, and while I was not able to attend their wedding yesterday, I was there, with them, all day long. 

Today, I'm planning the lesson for a class I will teach on Wednesday about writer's toolboxes and what Stephen King calls "business English." My students today are the same age Min and Kira were when they created their Lear projects, and while I have no illusions that about marriages germinating among lessons on parts of speech and sentence structure this Wednesday (I'm not teaching Emma, after all), I do hope something of Kira's epiphany persists in every class I teach. 

If I do my job right, and I help each kid see something special and good in themselves, others will see it, too. 

I said it once*, and I'll say it again: 

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.

Photo credit: Kira DelMar