Monthly Archives: March 2010

Teachers and Vacation

Let me first start with a disclaimer! There are LOTS of other challenging jobs out there. I truly appreciate that, and  if I did one of those, I could write about it; but I am a teacher, so this is what I know about. If you are a stock broker, a brick-layer or a personal trainer, feel free to leave me a comment about the challenges of your work, and I will publish it here! I totally respect how hard most of us work to earn our paycheck.

I am always amazed at how ready for every Break I am when it finally rolls around. I love the work that I do. It energizes me  to create and teach lessons that will meet the needs of my students and help them learn the content of history. But, it is also a job that drains me to my core. To be a good teacher is to be on a daily vigil. Teachers must keep so many balls in the air all day long – weekdays and weekends – when they are in school. To drop one ball means that some student is not getting the best from me. While I am realistic enough to know that I drop balls all the time, my goal every morning is to be flawless, to keep my eyes on all the separate parts and make them work together as a whole.

The first focus is  the class as a whole. How do I gather and hold the attention of the group? I need to very quickly assess where they are as a class when they come into the room. Have they gotten enough sleep? Are they arriving bored from a day that has already been too long? Are they dividing into groups that leave other students out? How do I direct their attention and generate some enthusiasm for what I want them to learn during my class? I always have the agenda on the board, so they know what to expect, even before I tell them, which helps for some of them. I greet them by name, so they know that I see them as an individual coming into my classroom. In the first moments, I try to find a source of humor to make the group share in a funny moment, as a means of creating class unity, usually at the expense of myself. And when desperate, I have been known to revert to a session of calisthenics – “Touch your nose; touch your toes, turn around three times” – to get some energy in the room. By the time I start the lesson, I have already used up my Wheeties from breakfast.

The next focus has to be on the lesson for that day. What are the skills the students need to learn in this 40/60/90 minutes today? How can I connect this lesson with yesterday’s? How much review is necessary to remind them of where we have been and to explain where we are going? On a good day, when they are awake and “with me,” all those are quickly dealt with, and we can move on. On a bad day, the lesson plan goes out the window, because they left any memory of the past lesson on the floor of the room before they left last time and have only open stares when it is referred to.

Therein lies one of the most draining times for a decent teacher, the “Dear God, they have no idea what I am saying!” or “This is not connecting, and they are not interested.” Or “I have no idea why, but this wonderful idea I had is NOT working!” At those moments, my brain goes into hyper-drive. Because I have done this long enough, my heart no longer starts to pound like a Conga drum, but it did that for years. The adrenalin starts to flow, and it is a “Man the Battle Stations” time. While all learning is not going to be “fun,” it must engage the students, otherwise they leave without learning. Their brains must turn on, and when I notice that they aren’t, I have to change the lesson on the spot. When you have taught a lesson more than once, it helps, but there is always the internal pressure to change it, and to change it fast. Do that a few times a day or a week, and the end result is a need to regenerate.

The greatest challenge, however, is in remembering all of the individuals in the class. While the first two areas, the class as a whole and the lesson that I want them to learn are like two big balls that are revolving in the air, the particular students are like 18 different colored, smaller balls  racing among the larger ones. Keeping track of their movements strains all of the senses. Who forgot their homework last class? Who has the difficult home situation? Who failed the last test and is very discouraged about learning? Who wants to take a nap, no matter what the activity? Who did I establish a “special routine” with – a tap on the shoulder or a special look – that I now need to remember, while doing the other tasks? It is my job to maintain the swirling rainbow!

These are the tasks for when there are students in the room. There are all of the other jobs that come with being a teacher: preparation for the class, reading, making up worksheets, grading the papers, collaborating with other teachers. Then there is the work of being an active member of a school community – committees to serve on and meetings to attend. Sometimes, I fantasize about a job where the work stays in the office, but I know that I would never love that as much as I love what I do now. So I juggle on while in school, and rest and rejuvenate while out!

(Of course, it is Spring Break now, and I have spent hours on a new curriculum – because there is room and energy to do it!)

Japan in My Classroom

My class had an amazing experience this morning, one that grew out of the earlier contact that I had with @barbsaka. My 6th grade is studying feudal Japan, and as though of you who read this blog know, I put out a call on Twitter for help with the unit. We had been doing a wide variety of activities to help them understand the complexity of the culture. They had learned about the social stuctures, who had power and how was it enforced, and they learned about Shintoism and Buddhism. They had read stories and created posters, feeling increasingly in control of the culture. They love using a website that Barb had recommended, to learn about everything from games to history to schooling.

Barb put me in touch with a British woman, Victoria Yoshimura, who moved to Japan, married and became a Buddhist priest. I emailed Victoria to ask if she would be willing to have a Skype conversation with the class. Victoria was more than willing to rearrange her schedule to make it happen, even though, in our initial conversations, it meant we would be talking at 8:00 am. in Philadelphia and 10:00 pm. in Japan. Luckily, with change to Daylight Savings, the conversation was able to start at 9:00 pm. Either way, though, Victoria was incredibly flexible.

To get the girls ready, we had the three 6th grade classes read an article on Victoria from the Japan Times, and we watched a trailer to a movie about her. After watching, the students wrote up a list of questions. There was a wide range of issues that they were interested in, but they mostly dealt with two aspects of her life. The first was her life as a priest: How did she become a priest? What was her daily life like? Did she wear any special clothes? What were the rituals? The second was her daily life in Japan: What was her house like? Was it hard to learn Japanese? Did she miss living in England? Did she have any pets?

Victoria and I touched base last night, just to make sure that the Skype connection worked and to say “Hi” in person, rather than simply by email. This morning, I got to school extra early, mostly due to my own case of nerves. I was so excited to be able to make a connection in Japan for the girls. I had never done this before  and wasn’t sure how it would go. I had emailed Victoria a list of the students’ questions. The girls came in, and it was clear that they were not taking this lightly. They might live in a digital world, but they don’t communicate with people on the other side of the world every day. They were fairly awed by someone taking time to talk to them about her life.  And then suddenly, it was time to connect.

Victoria was amazingly generous with her time, spending an hour with the class. She was also amazingly honest. The girls were impressed with her sense of humor and her willingness to share the challenges in her life as well as the successes. After a half hour, I was aware of how much of her time we were using, and offered to stop, but she wanted to answer each and every question. She is a wonderful teacher, affirming each girl and making them a part of the conversation as she answered their specific questions and then tied it in with other answers she had given.

At the end of the hour, all of the students and all of the adults in the room felt like they had made a genuine connection with someone in Japan, someone that we all want to visit in person as well as through the internet. As one student said, “You can read about it in books and watch movies, but there is nothing like talking to a real person and learning about their experience.”

For these students, meeting Victoria via Skype was as real as having her here in the room. She welcomed us into her house and my students will never think of Japan or Buddhism in the same way. Both are no longer a topic in a textbook; they are the way a new friend leads her life. By listening and learning from Victoria, it all came alive and became so much more grounded.

Thank you to Victoria and to Barb for the willingness to share your world with us! It truly made a difference!

No Standard Response to Testing

Every morning this week has been devoted to administering our standardized tests. Proctoring them has given me another moment to watch students work. The interesting part about testing is that it takes most students out of their comfort zone. There is no preparation that will support them. They simply have to come in and face the test. For some of them, it is like one long puzzle that they want to put together, and for others, it is one ongoing experience of confusion and failure.

Watching them respond, over the course of two hours, shows a lot about them. There are the Diligent ones, whose focus never leaves the desk. Their eyes shift back and forth between the reading, the questions, the answer sheet, and back again. The test is their next challenge, and they are going to master it. It doesn’t concern them that they don’t know the topic of the passage or that the wording of the math problem is awkward. It is their job to get the answer, and they set about it with determination. They exude a confidence in themselves and their ability to master this challenge. It carries them past the moments when they are unsure of an answer and allows them to make best guesses, rather than panicked choices. They are able to sit through the days with total calm.

Then there are the Yawners. They read; they yawn; they jot a note on their scratch paper; they stretch; they read; they yawn. Whether they forgot to eat their breakfast or stayed up watching TV long into the night, they are clearly still finding their mental way to school. Often though, the yawns and stretches are less connected to a lack of sleep and are an effective coping mechanism, one that allows them to cover their lack of control over the test. They observe the students around them with their pencils moving, and they have no idea what is their next answer. What better tool to hold off the need to write something than a physical need to yawn? No one will fault you for having to pause in your testing to yawn and to perhaps follow that yawn with a stretch. A good 30 seconds of rest from the concentration and confusion of the test could be gained.

Next are the Hair Testers. They are the ones for whom every movement of the eye or the hand on the test must be accompanied by the twist or twirl of their hair. Some wrap a strand around a finger, over and over. Some are creating tiny braids as they read. Some are flippers, tossing their head from side to side before filling in any box. And some simply need to redo their ponytail again and again, while others create a wall of hair around their face, hiding their expressions and their work behind it.

Then there is the body language that accompanies the stress of testing. Some slouch; some sit upright. There are sleepers, with their heads resting on one arm while they write with the other. There are the head proppers, whose elbow rests on the desk for the entire test. There are the ones who need to rest a foot on the desk crossbar, and those who need to endlessly bounce their leg. And then there is the need to get up to get a tissue to blow one’s nose. Another great method to give oneself a break in the midst of the test.

It is a stressful experience, whether they feel comfortable or not, and their coping mechanisms are fascinating to watch!

Reflecting on My Students

One of the greatest challenges in my job is writing comments three times a year. Each one has to be about a half of a page and is supposed to capture that student in my class. What was it like to teach her? How did she respond to the variety of activities that we did? Was she helped or bored by them? Was she willing to tackle the tasks before her or did she shun the work? And the most important part of all, what did I learn about that girl that is different from all of my other students? How is she unique?

Every trimester, I work on new strategies to record the events to the day, so that I have an effective record of what actually went on. I have done everything from writing extensive notes after each class and assignment to copying every piece of paper each girl produces. I’ve had charts and grids, folders and files. And while all of that is important and a good jog for my memory, it is really not what I focus on when I sit down to write.

At those times, I simply close my eyes and remember. I try to picture that specific student in front of me. When I can see her, then I can write. In truth, most parents are less interested in whether or not their child can organize information to build an argument – a skill that I teach them – and are more focused on whether or not I know their unique and individual child. It is capturing that special spark that is always my goal. Sometimes I can get it, finding the phrase that freezes an instant that somehow epitomizes that student. Those are the comments that make me smile.

This year, to help me understand them better, I added a Reflection piece at the end of the term. As part of each students reflection on the term, I had them tell me what they wanted and  did not want to hear in their reports. It was so interesting, because they could so clearly identify the areas where they heard the same comment over and over.

“I know that I need to speak up in class, but everyone says it, and I am trying. If you would not say it, I would be really grateful.” It was easy to write for her, “Annie is working hard on sharing her ideas in class and should be proud of her efforts.” By asking for each student to help in the process of showing their parents who they are, I learned so much more about each individual. It made it possible for me to avoid areas that would have led to increasing frustration and negativity, and it allowed me to communicate that I wanted to hear them and to partner with them on this learning journey. The process became more about affirming their actions, small and large, and letting them identify what they had accomplished and what they needed to make as their goals.

For those of you who read the post about the students giving me a grade, I took one more step and told them that I was going to let them grade me again at the end of the year. They get told that they have to grow and change every trimester, so I am holding myself to the same standard and am going to try to change along with them. I am reviewing their comments to me and starting to adapt what goes on in my class. More on that later!

Getting a Grade

Today, I decided to try an experiment, one that sort of scared me to death. I asked my students to reflect on my teaching and to give me a grade this trimester. It was part of a larger reflection in which they thought about what they had learned this trimester – what had they worked on; what had been challenging; what had been too easy. I had them list some goals that they had for themselves for the rest of the year. In talking about why I wanted their feedback, I told them that they know how I teach far better than any administrator or head of a department. They laughed when I asked them, “Who knows the best when I teach a boring class or forget to collect the homework?” They clearly loved the sense of power that it gave them, knowing I knew they knew me better than those who have real power in the school.

While I know that many of my students like my class, it was definitely intimidating to leave the security of my position as the authority and ask them, the students who must be in my class each day, to speak and have a voice. I asked them about activities that they enjoyed and ones that they found boring; the ones that were too easy or just seemed irrelevant. I wanted to know if there were times when I lost their attention or when they were confused and didn’t speak up to let me know. Then I asked for a grade. I told them that they could make the grade anonymous if they liked, but that since they always are graded by me, now was their chance. I also made it clear that giving me a bad grade would not affect their grade in the class in any way, but that they would help me to be a better teacher.

The range in grades was from C+ to A+, but I learned the most from the low grades, especially from the C+. It was from a student who suffers her confusion in silence, always doing her work, though often without understanding its meaning or its connection to other work that we have done. My teaching was not meeting her needs in many ways, and she had the courage to say so. She wanted more structure and fewer activities (things others love), because she struggled to understand what each piece had to do with the others. This was amazing information for me to have! I now understand this particular student in a way that I hadn’t before. Because she was willing to take a risk and share what class was really like for her, I can now figure out the scaffolding that will make it easier for her to have success.

Part of the wonder of asking my students to evaluate me was in learning that for each part of class that some students love, there are often as many students who find it challenging or boring. By giving me their responses to different tasks, I can be that much more aware of who to support and who to push further. It was just great information about how they are experiencing their learning. There was not one of them who wanted to fail, and it is now my job to use this information to to make sure that they have more success than failure . My job now is to learn from them and change, so that in June, when I ask them again, they can see that I took the time to listen to them and honor their honesty. It is sort of scary to hold myself accountable in the same way that I hold them. Can I change and grow between now and the next time someone writes a comment about me? We shall see!