Saturday, March 28, 2015

Do What You Teach, Part 2

In my last blog I wrote about many ways I’d recently used in real life 4 skills I teach in English class—reading, writing, listening, speaking. Here, I’m going to go into one incident that challenged me to use all 4 skills, and more. 

Last weekend I was at a mission conference that closed with a panel discussion. Talk about out of my comfort zone! The final question, taken from the audience, was, “What do you do with fear?” In the silence that stretched after the question, I thought, “I don’t know what kind of fear the writer of the question was thinking of. I do know that one kind of fear has figured large in my life.” 

I also knew what I tell my students about overcoming stage fright: Don’t think about yourself and how the audience perceives you; think of your audience and how they can benefit as you serve them in love by skillfully communicating what you have to say. 

The responses to the answer I stood up and gave (with thudding heart and quivering hand-held mic) indicate that I am not the only adult still dogged by this fear. One person encouraged me to continue working the idea out. So now I’m going to take this opportunity to take the ideas I spoke extemporaneously to a crowd and develop them further in writing. Because life is full of drafts, and an assessment is hardly ever simply summative—there’s always more to be developed, done, learned, sharedin love, without fear.  

Fear of what other people think is the biggest fear I deal with. I know that as adults we are supposed to have grown out of that sort of thinking along with acne, but I just learned to hide it better. Do they think I’m cool? Do they think I’m beautiful? just turned into Do they think I’m a good wife? mother? teacher? Christian? missionary? I’ve spent a lot of time image-managing—playing up what’s good, covering up what’s not so good, and fearing all the while that someone will peek behind the curtain to see the little man furiously working the levers. (Remember The Wizard of Oz?)

In the midst of this hard work of image-management, I was stopped in my tracks by the words of the Samaritan woman to her neighbors about Jesus: “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did” (NIV, John 4:29). 

Now stop. Think about that. 

If I met a person who I believed could tell me everything I ever did, all I can imagine telling my friends is “RUN AWAY!” How terrifying would it be to be in the presence of someone who knew all the things that I minimize, excuse, give a positive spin, or just avoid mentioning? 

But Jesus is not like anyone I’ve ever known. What kind of love and acceptance must Jesus have exuded to replace that fear and hiding response so powerfully with the exact opposite—attraction? How very freeing it would be to come into the presence of a person who knew all that stuff and responded without recrimination, incredulity, gloating, or snickering—just love and truth—so I could finally relax and quit worrying about the image management?

Oh, how I want to live in that kind of presence!

So what do I do with the fear of what other people think? I let it drive me closer to the One Lover of my soul who sees me as I truly am with eyes of compassion, a heart of forgiveness, and hands of healing that hold me together and make me whole. I learn to let go of fear there, where there is no condemnation. 

Because that freedom from fear is so deeply comforting, so exhilarating, I can’t help but say, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did!” And as I live in the presence of that winsome Love, I hope I may add to the plausibility of the invitation by beginning exude the same love.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

4 Language Skills in Life

 Looking for life's little ironies can make the journey more enjoyableDid someone once say, "I think I'll try drinking my hot coffee with a straw"?

This month I'm not teachingI'm living.

Not that living is superior—it’s just what we’re teaching students to do. So what have I been doing, that I teach kids how to do in high school English?

Reading. Maps so I can get where I’m going. Articles about Japanese culture, economics, history, and more—so I can sound somewhat knowledgeable answering all the questions I get asked. Lila by Marilyn Robinson for introvert recovery after meeting with people all day. The Scarlet Letter to get ready for English 11 next year.

Writing. Newsletters. Blogs. Presentations. Letters. Emails. Messages. Texts. Tweets.

Listening. To the people we meet (after all, they are inundated with our news—this is our once every few years chance to hear theirs). To questions from audience to hear their real concerns. To missions conference orientations to make sure we are the right places at the right times doing the right things, and to keynote speakers and other missionaries to glean experience and wisdom.

Speaking. With individuals, in small groups, or in more structured venues. Teaching kids to sing a song in Japanese and fold origami cups, making an adult Sunday school presentation, or giving a 2-minute self-introduction to the congregation. 

It’s a bit of a strange life, this 6-month missionary home service thing. But take a couple of minutes to think of any given vocation—when does a person doing that vocation read, write, listen, speak? How would being able to read, write, listen, and speak more skillfully help them pursue that vocation even more effectively as one of their modes of loving God, his creation, and his image bearers? 

Then be sure students understand the reason learning what you’re teaching will help them live their vocations. And how everything you ask them to do is building that capacity. Knowing why you are learning and that you are learning are powerful motivators.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Teaching

I did not always like teaching. I felt insecure and ineffective: It seemed like everyone around me was a much better teacher than I was. 

I love it now. What happened?

I quit focusing on what I was teaching, and started looking at the understandings and skills students were practicing. The kids who were doing it well, WHAT were they doing, and how could I help more of the kids do that more of the time? I started talking to colleagues about those questions. And I found books that told me how to do it better. 

First it was Biblical perspective. I realized I didn’t really teach it—I just assessed it. And about one student in every class nailed it, two more did a pretty good job, and the rest were at sea. What did the top students do, that they had learned at church or at home, that I could teach to the other students? They knew Biblical principles, the Bible background for them, and could apply them to life and to literature. So I had to teach principles, teach Bible background, and teach the skills of using the school supplied NIV Study Bible to understand Biblical principles and background, of using support (just like literature), of making connections and application (just like literature).

Then it was reading. I was talking to a colleague, saying I wished there were a “6 Traits for Reading” like there was for writing, because the only advice I had for a student who wanted to read better was to read more. Practice. That’s where I felt writing instruction was when I was a student. And practice is important for learning any skill. But it has to be GOOD practice. 

I spent 4th through 9th grades practicing shooting a basketball 2-handed from my chest. I got really good at it, but it turned out when I moved to a bigger school in 10th grade, that I’d gotten really good at shooting badly. I got blocked all the time. I had to completely relearn how to shoot.

The colleague had heard of a book that might be helpful: Cris Tovani’s I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. I loved it so much I devoured it so quickly I despaired of remembering and implementing even a fraction of what I’d just learned. Also, I wanted everyone else in the secondary English department to read it. So I invited them to read and discuss it with me, a chapter per week. Then I did it again inviting any other teachers who wanted to come.

I haven’t looked back. Book discussions are my way of learning and growing as a teacher. I’ve led them not just on reading, but also on collaboration, public speaking, vocabulary instruction, educational leadership….The teaching degree and certificate arent the end of learning and growing—it’s the beginning. If book discussions are not your way, find SOME way. Teaching is both skill and content, and there is always more to learn and practice. 

To get started, ask yourself the following:
  • What do my students need to understand or be able to do better?
  • Why do they need to be able to do it better? (Then tell them—significance is hugely motivating.)
  • How can I find out how to help them? (Book, class, mentor, action research…)
  • What will I do? (Make a plan.)
  • How will I get support and accountability? (Having a community of colleagues with whom to share successes, failures, ideas makes all the difference.)
  • How will I know if I’ve been successful?
Extra credit: How will you let the students know they’ve succeeded at improving at something that was significant? That is even MORE motivating.

Are you frustrated with teaching? with your students? Wondering if you can can really stick this profession out? or even want to? 

We’ve all been there. 

There’s hope. Joyful, effective teaching can be learned. Be a learner; target significant learning for students; get a community.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Perpetual Treasure Hunt

How many stories are there in an English classroom? More than those in the textbooks. An airplane flight last week reminded me.

The stewardess seated the girl between me and the window—a small tearstained face, tissue wadded in her fist—and whispered, “She’s leaving her dad and going back to her mom.”

I was torn between not wanting to smother the poor child in unwanted adult attention that might unleash a new torrent of tears, and not wanting to come across as indifferent. We exchanged a few desultory pleasantries…name…age…destination…number of transfers. Her manner was adult-like, staring politely off into space for a few seconds after each exchange to see whether the conversation was over before returning to her video game.

“I don’t like to read. English is my worst class.” A conversation stopper for sure, I thought, when that was her response to my question about how she liked the book which she pulled out of her bag, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, opening it to a page near the end.

But after a pause she continued. “I did like one book.” It was something about the trials of being a 4th grade girl. So I asked whether she maybe liked realistic stories more than fantasy. She thought maybe that was so, but she liked writing fantasy. She writes fantasy stories on her own, and wants to be a writer and illustrator when she grows up. Well, then she needs to read! The conversation meandered through genres and authors—she’d tried another book by the author of the book she’d liked, but she hadn’t liked it so much. But there were others she’d liked—Hatchet, but not another by Brian Paulsen. Loved The Fault in Our Stars.

Had I ever written anything, she asked. A blog and some poetry. What’s a blog, she asked. Then, “I hate poetry. Whenever I try to write it, it comes out like, ‘cat, sat, hat.’” At which point I had to confess to her that I was an English teacher (eyed flew open wide), and when my students write poetry, they are not allowed to use rhyme. Utter disbelief: “Then how is it poetry?” 

Racking my brain for a line of gorgeous unrhymed poetry that a 5th grader would understand, I came up with “Even at nighttime / Mama is a sunrise / That promises tomorrow and tomorrow.” “What does that mean?” (I’m in English teacher heaven.)

When the conversation on poetry ended, she had another question. “Do you give grades? How do you decide what grades to give? Why do you give grades when it just stresses kids out, makes us work too hard, and makes us feel bad when we don’t do well?” 

Does every 10-year-old engage in give-and-take discussions like this with adults? Though other branches of the conversation assured me she was very normal: “My mom says I should marry someone who is nice and good-looking, but I think good-looking is the most important.” “Nice lasts longer than good looks,” I was compelled to remind her. She looked astonished, “Well, I wouldn’t want to marry someone who was ugly!”

Then we came to families. Among other things, she’s facing a decision about which parent to live with next year. Her biggest concern: She has a toddler half-sibling with each parent; she knows that the one she doesn’t live with will forget her.

The math came out as we were beginning our descent, a thick packet of worksheets she was supposed to have finished over the 2 weeks she was gone. There was a section in the middle she was having trouble with and asked for help on. We didn’t get too far.

But as my husband and I gathered our carry-ons and shuffled off the plane in the long line of passengers, leaving her behind for the flight attendant to fetch, I was reminded again of how wonderfully complex each child that walks into a classroom is: 
  1. A professed dislike of school or subject can hide some deep thinking and active curiosity.
  2. Instances of maturity or immaturity are not the end of the story. We’re all a mix, all in process, all still growing.
  3. Students have lives outside of school, too, and some are dealing with issues more complex than I have ever had to face.
I wish I could take a transcontinental flight with every student who comes into my classroom, to have three hours to figure out what each one is really interested in, gifted at, passionate about, and distracted by. I can’t. But I can hold in the forefront of my mind the awareness that each has unique potential and struggles, and I can be on a perpetual treasure hunt.