Friday, May 29, 2015

3 Ways Teaching and Parenting Give Perspective to Each Other

Rachael Alexandra Photography

The world changed this week. My youngest child graduated from college, got married, and moved across the country. 

Do I feel old? A little. Sad? A little. Empty-nestish? Definitely. But underneath it all, I feel a sense of completion. It feels a lot like the end of every school year, when students move on from my class. There are always a few regrets and failures. But mostly, students have learned what I had to teach them, and they’re prepared for the next step. 

It feels bittersweet like that, but more intensely.

All the preparation leading up to the wedding seemed surreal—my baby, getting married? But oddly, as soon as the groom’s parents and my husband and I gave our blessing to our kids and our kids to each other, and sat down, it suddenly felt so right, seeing them together there, pledging before God their lives and love to each other. 

They were both radiant. My dad officiated, a sibling of each witnessed, high school and college classmates stood up with them, and joining the celebration were relatives (blood and surrogate), members from the church the pair had immersed themselves in all four college years, a professor, a student from the class my daughter student taught…. These two are pointed toward God, woven into community; they’ll continue the pattern in the place they are going. They are ready. 

I’ve always felt that teaching prepared me for parenting and parenting prepared me for teaching. When I felt frustrated or inadequate in one sphere, I could draw perspective from the other. There are three main parts to that perspective:
  • Children grow up. Whatever phase or immaturity they are going through, it will most likely pass. Pay attention. Guide. Know and use best practice. But don’t stress unduly. 
  • Love, structure, and freedom—kids flourish with the right combination. What’s the right combination? It differs from child to child, from day to day. Then how can one possibly get it right? Not possible. But we can improve the percentages. Know the children—the needs, experiences, and gifts each comes with. Learn and collaborate with colleagues to keep growing in teaching practice. And stay rooted in God the source of love, Jesus the example of love, and the Holy Spirit the power for love, praying without ceasing for wisdom and for the needs you know.
  • Keep the end in mind. The big end. Like my daughter and her new husband heading off into the world to love and serve God and their neighbors with the help of each other and the communities they will find, changing the world from their classrooms, one child at a time.

It’s been a delight to be a part of this particular child’s journey toward adulthood. It’s been a delight to see all the other people who have also contributed to that growth—teachers, relatives, classmates, community members, professors, students. It’s a delight to know that I have the opportunity to be that kind of contributor to every student who comes into my classroom, and to know that each of those students will go on to contribute to others, as the dance of learning, living, and loving goes on.

Shall we dance?

P.S. Remembering that every ending is just another beginning. This set of wedding guests gave us all another goal.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Thinking about Thinking about Thinking

Bee-watcher-watcher syndrome is always a danger, but if the reflective teacher is the effective teacher, then it can be a good thing every so often to reflect on one’s reflections.

Not having one’s list of blog labels be 2-feet long can also be a good thing, as the reader may never get down to one's list of top blogs. A clear indication that I completely misunderstood labels when I first started blogging. Who knew BlogSpot also had a search function? I just put in every word or phrase I or anyone else might ever connect to the blog post. As I’ve said before, something is better than nothing, and at least I took the plunge and started blogging—but I was such a babe in the virtual woods. 

Still am, to a large extent, but I can learn. So after months of my husband suggesting that I take some time to recategorize my blogs, the straw that broke the back of the camel of my resistance was seeing someone else’s blog with a neat, short little list showing the 17 topics he mostly blogs about. Oh, and the other straw—my husband handing me a list of the 25 or so topics he’d make for me after eyeballing my 125 blogs from the last 3 years. So the pieces of motivation slowly clicked into place, and I set a goal to recategorize 10 blogs per day. 

It was a worthwhile process—I learned some things about blogging and about myself, and I hope I created a tool that makes it easier to access and use what I’ve already learned. In revising the list to make it mine, representing what I mostly wrote about, then attaching those labels to everything I’ve written (some recursiveness there), I refined what I truly do value and write about, how those topics are connected, and what things I maybe need to focus on a little bit more.

No surprises on my top labels (with the number of blog posts for each):
Reading (33)
Instruction (29)
Writing (25)
Professional development (21)
Living curriculum (20)
Reflection (12)
Vocabulary (15)
Community (14)
Biblical perspective (13)
Technology for learning (13)

A few comments:

Not sure I’m entirely happy with lumping all the best best practices under instruction—from collaboration to journals to game-based learning. I did keep some separate that I want to focus on as such—like differentiation or research—or that seem to cross so many categories they deserve their own—like debate or discussion. 

Debate and discussion are types of instructional strategies, but they are also research, critical thinking, assessment, speaking, and listening. Where to categorize them? Then I realized that I had only 1 post categorized as listening—one of the four major components of language arts! Did that mean I should eliminate the label? No-- I should write and teach more about listening.  Then I decided that I do teach listening more than it seems, under discussion and debate, but I need to be more explicit and emphasize that component when I'm teaching it.

Finally, I realized how much I value modeling--not only reading and writing, but also faith, growth, risk-taking, gratitude, respect, and a host of other character traits and habits of mind. I labelled them all as living curriculum. Our most powerful curriculum.

What have you been learning, teaching, reflecting on? Where do you need to go from here?

Try a little brain-watcher-watching.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Entering the Book's World

You know the feeling? That floating-brain withdrawal time while your soul returns from the books world to the real world? Struggling, reluctant, and resistant readers don’t. They don’t, because they never enter that book world. To them, the task of reading is decoding words and, if necessary, getting the right answers to the teacher’s questions. No wonder they aren't excited about reading! This Jeffrey Wilhelm’s claim in “You Gotta BE the Book”: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents which I read last week. 

It makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve noticed the difference between students who can describe with intricately inferred detail a scene in a reading, and one who just says, “I saw a car.” Envisioning images is the entry-level strategy into all critical thinking about the book—if you can’t see the characters, you can’t care about them, and if nothing inside the book matters in its own right, then there’s no motivation to ask questions, make connections, or synthesize and extend thinking. I just could never figure out how to give the second student traction on figuring out how to see.

Wilhelm has some ideas involving art and activity: “being the book.” One of the most intriguing he calls symbolic story representation. Students create cutouts for characters, the author, the reader, and props, settings, ideas, or forces that played a part in the reading (162-163). Then they use the cutouts to narrate what’s going on at a given point in a story. I’d never really thought about where I am in a story as the reader—or where the author is, unless she breaks the fourth wall in a really obvious way. I’m not sure whether I’d take the time to actually make the cutouts in a class, but I’ve been messing with them inside my head as I read.

So I monitored myself reading a text that doesn’t just automatically suck me in, but takes a bit of effort—my morning Bible reading of Genesis 39 (Joseph in Potiphar’s house)—and here are the moves I observed myself making as a reader:

First, I see pictures: a map with a dotted line from Canaan to Egypt. A slave market. I taste dust, squint in the sun, hear the lowing and bleating of livestock. I see Joseph “well-built and handsome”—shirtless like the pyramid pictures, but with the 6-pack of a movie star. 

Then, I make connections: I remember Judah’s double standard and dishonest, manipulative behavior in the previous chapter, and contrast it with Joseph’s steadfast deflection of Potiphar’s wife’s advances. I connect her false accusation of Joseph with a false accusation in the book I’m reading, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, which intensifies my identification with Joseph, and makes me that much more upset with Potiphar’s wife and with Potiphar, who’s so easily duped. 

After reading the chapter, I go back and read the study notes. This one catches my attention: “Though Joseph’s situation changed drastically, God’s relationship to him remained the same,” connecting vv. 2-6 with 22-23. I extend it to myself: my situation is drastically changing—from a school where I’ve been for 28 years, to my current nomadic 6-month sabbatical, to a brand new school and community in July. It comforts me to remember that God’s relationship to me remains the same. May I be a blessing wherever I go, as Joseph was.

Wow—what a lot goes on as a good reader engages in the world of a book. I want to continue trying strategies to help less skilled readers begin to feel that engagement and want to practice it more. 

Reading Wilhelm’s strategies involving drama crystalized for me at least one reason my students have enjoyed Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream so much. I made sure to use drama in many different ways—a posed tableaux to help them think about each character in relationship to the others, inferring physical position, facial expression, gesture; a 1-minute silent, fast-forward scene to review; a performance of an excerpt at the end for assessment. And now that I know why those active strategies worked to deepen students’ comprehension, (1) I don’t have to wait for a drama unit to use them, and (2) I can help students be metacognitive about how they are entering the book world so they can try to replicate that experience with other text.

How do you enter and inhabit the book world? How do you help your students to? I might even try the cutouts next year….

Wilhelm, Jeffrey D., “You Gotta BE the Book”: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents, 2nd ed., NCTE: Urbana, IL. 2008.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Purpose Motivates


It’s a child’s first, most frequent question (ask any parent of a 2-year-old). It’s also what inspires adults and creates success for leaders from Apple to the Wright brothers to Martin Luther King, Jr. (watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”). 

Don’t we owe it to students, then, to tell them why they are in our class? (And the inspirational answer isn’t “So you can pass the test,” “So you can graduate,” or “You’ll understand when you’re older.” Seriously—another teacher once told me that’s what he would tell a student who asked!)

Is it any wonder that most of the buzz right now among teachers about what works in education starts with helping students understand the significance of what they are learning or doing? Here are a few examples that spring to mind:
  • To what extent do your students know why the content, skills, and habits of mind in your discipline are important? To practitioners of the discipline? To the students’ future as well as to their current lives?
  • To what extent do your students know how what they are doing today in class connects to that importance?
Heres what I believe about the significance of high school English class:

A literate life confers the ability to define ourselves, to enter the perspective of others, and to have a voice in the world. This is my experience as a literate person, and it is my dream for my high school English students. 

So we are going to learn to engage with reading, listening, thinking, speaking, and writing in personally powerful ways. Let’s read Night. Let’s write about disregard for human dignity. Let’s present about ways human dignity is disregarded or protected in the world today. Even grammar, vocabulary, and editing exercises are means to this end. 

What is your dream for students in your classroom?

Teachers are leaders in our classrooms. Here’s the closing to Sinek’s Ted talk, mentioned in the first paragraph—with the small modification of replacing leaders/lead with teachers/teach: “There are [teachers], and there are those who [teach]. [Teachers] hold a position of power or authority, but those who [teach] inspire us. We follow those who [teach] not because we have to but because we want to. We follow those who [teach] not for them, but for ourselves. And it’s those who start with why that have the ability to inspire those around them, or find others who inspire them.”

Be the Apple, the Wright brothers, the Martin Luther King, Jr., of your classroom—inspire learning—make sure your students know why. If you need help, check out any of the links above. Find someone who inspires you.