Saturday, April 26, 2014

Carrots, Sticks, or Purpose?

A horrible, rhythmic screetch-thump, screeth-thump errupted behind me. Whirling from the blackboard where I was writing, I saw two boys in the front row, legs twined around their chair legs, hands gripping their desk edges, hitching the whole shebang inch by inch toward the chalkboard. My mind flailed wildly for a response, but all I could blurt out, like Calvin’s mom in the comic below, was, “What are you doing?”

You never said we couldn’t,” was their reply. 

Even as a rookie teacher, I knew that making an exhaustive list of all the things they couldn’t do would be a losing proposition. Partly because human ingenuity is so much bigger than lists, and partly because prohibitions have never ensured anything positive would happen. (We all know how well that worked out for the Pharisees.) 

The queen of class management tools is giving the students purpose. If they truly feel there is something important happening that they need to be a part of, they will be less likely to create their own purpose--like entertaining classmates or irritating the teacher or avoiding as much work as possible. 

Naming units by theme rather than literary topic is a simple check I’ve found for whether I’m providing this meaning, as well as a method of making it clear and keeping it always before myself and my students. So, for instance, while we are currently reading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the unit title is “Finding Love.” (With flowers springing and weather warming, students’ minds tend to wander from the text, so the text might as well start in the place to which their minds are wandering!)

We rewind from the sad conclusion of the previous unit’s central text, where none of us want to end up (the modern drama A Doll’s House which finishes with Nora realizing that her husband Torvald has never really loved her, just enjoyed being in love) to the beginning of relationships in Shakespeare’s comedy, to explore the meaning of “being in love,” and to consider whether there are any ways to decrease the likelihood of ending up like Nora and Torvald, never having moved beyond it. 

For, in spite all of the wild craziness and looming tragic possibilities, the fairies’ blessing at the end shows that a stable social institution is the intended goal. The students’ final response will be a letter to one’s future irrational, in-love self from one’s current rational self about the differences and connections between “falling in love” and truly loving a person. 

In addition to Shakespeare, we read a little science about the brain chemistry of falling in love (“the most irrational brain state”--suddenly the antics in the forest seem a lot less fantastical). We read a little Bible--from the raptures of Song of Solomon to tragically wrong-footed relationships of the Old Testament to New Testament example of, power for, and charges to radical, committed, self-sacrificing love.

While thinking about these weighty and relevant questions, we have a lot of fun with various acting exercises while we rise to the challenge of interpreting difficult text. Every year I begin this unit (every unit, actually) with a bit of trepidation--will this group of students really get into this text, this question? Somehow, this year again, the miracle of attention, of engagement, of learning, happened. And I believe partly it happens because students know a significant purpose for their reading.

I’ve worked on this simple exercise of giving meaning titles to my units over the last several years. Here’s what I currently have:
  • Meeting Image Bearers: Introduction
  • Restoring Shalom: Cry, the Beloved Country
  • Regarding Human Dignity: Night
  • Being Image Bearers 1: End-of-Semester Project/Presentation
  • Weightlifting with Language: Grammar
  • Dancing with Language: Poetry
  • Finding Truth: Short Stories
  • Finding Myself: A Doll’s House
  • Finding Love: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Being Image Bearers 1: End-of-Semester Project/Presentation

I still have first-day-of-school nightmares occasionally. (I think Ive known two teachers whove never had them--those classroom management worries never really go away--they just go subconscious.) Usually I’m standing in front of a room of students with no idea of what the class is, flipping through the textbook desperately searching for something familiar to start with, and as I fumble about, the classroom spirals out of control. In my worst ever dream, the classroom expanded, trees grew, students began tearing around on quads, and I was left pounding on the lectern and screaming, completely ignored. 

But those nightmares have become less frequent, and teaching more of a delight, and one factor is the larger meaning front-and-centered for all the classroom community simply by naming units with purpose. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Learning Prayer

Sometimes I learn things that are not related to my classroom. This week it was just a small, personal epiphany about prayer.

Prayer. I’ve thought frequently about the effect it has on God and on the world, in a mysterious sort of way that if I dwell on too much kind of messes with my mind. I’ve thought about the effect it has on me. That seems fairly commonsensical, from both a spiritual and a physical perspective. What occurred to me for the first time this week was the effect prayer has on community.

Something was weighing on my mind this week. Wednesday night, when I was walking to the gym where I’ve been practicing twice a week with my Japanese volleyball club for the last 18 years, I thought, I should share this problem with my teammates. 

But without the ability to add, “...Please pray...,” sharing troubles that don’t directly affect the group suddenly seemed like either whining or venting. So when I got to the gym, I just smiled, played ball, and chatted about the spring weather and the low turnout for practice.

Walking home, I reflected that whenever anything particularly good or bad occurs, I turn to the people whom I regularly pray with and for--a few individuals, family, the staff who meet for morning prayer, and my church fellowship group. “This great thing happened--give thanks!” “This awful thing happened--please pray!” 

Then it’s not whining or venting (or even gloating, for the good things) because I’m asking them to join me in an activity. To work. To help. And when they do the same to me, I call their problems frequently to mind, not just to fret or feel bad, but to do something--pray. 

Think what that does for community--what a tightly woven fabric of compassion wraps us together when we open ourselves over and over to request and do the work and joy of prayer for each other. What a relational void would gape in my life if I did not practice prayer in that kind of community. 

We often bemoan how little we pray and how much we worry. I just caught a glimpse of how overpowering worry could be if I never prayed, and by that same token, how much I really do depend on prayer--my own and others--to wrestle worry to the mat. How faith in Gods response to prayer drives me into a praying community, and how a praying community embraces me in the love of God.

...On the other hand, maybe this learning is related to my classroom. As inspirational writer Anne Lamott says when asked a question specifically about writing, or specifically about faith--anything I know about anything applies to everything. I pray with and for my class. And I shared this epiphany with my 1st period class for devotions on Thursday. Because letting my students see how I practice, learn, and grow is as important in my faith as in my writing.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Of Word Jars and Word Joy

Leaping out of their tiny chairs, unable to contain themselves, 1st graders burst out with words like “Preposterous!” “Famished!” “Covenant!” “Venn diagram!”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of competing in a game of vocabulary Jeopardy against these tiny, intelligent beings (those were two more of the words). What a delight to see their excitement at their own competence! 

They had been collecting interesting words all year in a word jar, creating and working with their own definitions. (Search “word jar” and you’ll find the early reader chapter book Donovan’s Word Jar and oodles of elementary lesson ideas and materials.)

For the culminating 1st grade vs. staff Jeopardy game, there were 2 tables of 1st graders (for a total of about 13) and 2 tables of staff (for a total of 6). Each table had a small whiteboard and marker for recording their answer, and both tables (of students or of teachers) had to come up with the correct answer for the side to win the round. 

For example, when the prompt “very small” came up, one teacher table wrote tiny and the other wrote minuscule, while both student tables got it right with tiny. (Hey, minuscule was not so unreasonable for 1st graders to know--after “unbreakable promise” turned out to be covenant rather than vow, I was going for the big words!) 

The students had an edge because they knew the pool. When the prompt was “think deeply,” one staff table wrote concentrate while the other wrote cogitate. Students won that round with ponder.

But the staff had the edge when it came to speed. Imagine how long it takes a 1st grader to write preposterous. (And yes, inventive spelling was allowed.) Actually, that’s a bad example. Students eventually won because to “totally crazy” both staff tables answered insane.

That makes it sound like we were really trounced. Not true at all: It was neck-and-neck for a while. (Another edge we had was being able to stay in our seats--more or less, at least as much as we fit--and not climb on the table with uncontainable enthusiasm.) But the 1st graders did end up victorious. 

As I watched their enthusiasm, my imagination superimposed their image on top of my 10th graders earlier in the day, discussing a Time Magazine essay they’d read, “Shakespeare: A Life on Stage,” and trying to figure out words they didn't know from impoverished and subversive to diasporic and usurers. I wondered what my 10th graders had looked like in this room at these tables 9 years ago; I wondered what these little inquirers would look like 9 years from now in my 10th grade class. 

Able to stay in their chairs longer and not burst into tears in the middle of class, I hope, but I hope also that they retain the excitement about words their 1st grade teacher has cultivated in them, and the joy in attaining language competence that their victory over the staff Jeopardy team helped them get a taste of.

P.S. On that Google search of “word jar” mentioned above, along with many relevant items, this image also turned up. I just want to go on record that this is not the “word jar” I’m talking about, I do not have a “word jar” like this, and I will not be bidding on this one on eBay, however much I laughed when I saw it.