Saturday, November 14, 2015

Walk a Mile...

Hypothesis: Biggest distinction between Minoan and Myceneaean cultures is time and place
Oh, no…We have to dress out for PE…Did I shave my legs this week?
Please, please, please don’t let me fall on my rear doing this roll-your-foot over-the-ball drill!
Ugh…pulling school clothes back on after 6th period PE…

These are not comments overheard from high school students—they are mine. Not from high school, but from this week. Thoughts from my brain the day that I shadowed a high school student. I wanted to see for myself what an average day felt like for one of my students in this new school. (Inspiration for the experience in this Washington Post article.)

I think I learned more about myself than about the classes I was in or the adolescents I was with, though it was also a good exercise in empathy and already prompted at least one change in my class. In addition, the students and teachers were great, acknowledging and then ignoring me in just the right combination to dissipate any awkwardness that could have been.

The experience reaffirmed for me a number of things that I hereby recommit myself to:
  1. Helping students transition into my class with focus and energy. Five minutes ago they were eye-deep in solving quadratic formulas. Now they must suddenly be passionately involved in the English class novel. 
  2. Giving meaning—not just the first day of the unit, but every day. Reminding them why this unit is important, and how today’s class will help them with that content, skill, or understanding.
  3. Explicitly teaching skills and strategies—for making connections, for reading disciplinary texts, for managing time within the class.
  4. Minimizing homework—if I must give it, being sure students understand how it is important to important learning goals.
What I learned about myself was my need to be engaged, and what goes on in my brain as I work to engage myself. The first thing I did was start taking notes. Why? Nobody’s going to grade my notebook, and I won’t be here for the test. Shoot, I even started on the math assignment! Because disengagement bores me. So if we have time to work on our timelines, I might as well try to find descriptions and pictures in the history text that will help me distinguish the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. 

I also engage because I must admit I am sort of a nerd. I’d forgotten how fun phrases like endoplasmic reticulum are to say. How cool it is when a math equation suddenly makes sense and all the sharp-edged confusion suddenly resolves into gorgeous order. 
This is only half of my math notes...

Sometimes the meaning-making is a multi-step process. When I was told to put “Draco” in the first box of a chart tracing steps to Athenian democracy, my brain protested: “J.K. Rowling would NOT have named Malfoy after a good guy!” But then I found out that he wasn’t a good guy—Draco precipitated Greek democracy by his harsh repression of lower class unrest over wealth disparity in ancient Athens. Ah—Draco Malfoy, the aristocrat we love to hate. Then I grabbed a dictionary and checked the etymology of draconian. Sure enough—from the Greek dictator. And here I’d always figured it had something to do with dragons!
Where's Draco?

How do we model, scaffold, invite, and require these inquiry skills and strategies?

When I intentionally pulled back from engagement because I didn’t want to interfere with the process of a group project already underway, I was bored. So the question is, what comes first engagement or interest? Because once that virtuous cycle kicks in, all the teacher has to do is get out of the way. The more important question: Which comes first—disengagement or boredom? And how can we interrupt that vicious cycle and turn it into the virtuous one?

Even I, the student predisposed to engage and learn, found it sort of jarring to be transported at the sound of a bell every 45 minutes from English to science to social studies to math, and to be suddenly expected to put the brakes on my English brain, exchange textbooks, and go zero-to-sixty in ten seconds in my science brain. 

As teachers, we switch classes, but not quite so radically—and without some of them being ones we feel less comfortable with or invested in. And while I may feel repetitive doing a little review every single day of the unit objectives, their significance, and an orientation to the place of what we’re doing today in that larger picture—the students have had 6 other sets of objectives and significances in between. 

And, of course, homework. The first class it seemed reasonable. The second class I took it in stride. The third class I started to be glad I wouldn’t actually have to do it. And the fourth class I felt like another rock had been piled on my head. Even though I didn’t actually have to do it. Yes, we teachers take home papers to grade. But it’s our work—self-assigned, so to speak. I know what I hear teachers say when they get extra work assigned by other people for which they see no real purpose….

Real change? The next class I taught was an editing day for the paper we’d been working on. I was determined to set the stage and give meaning. I tried to remind them of the analogy I’d used on a previous editing day: Editing is hygiene for your writing, getting them to come up with the word hygiene. Blank. (They did remember the t-shirt I’d worn: "Let’s eat Grandma. // Let’s eat, Grandma. // Commas save lives.") I suddenly remembered a blog I’d pinned the night before about energizers for the beginning of class, and I drew a hang man game on the board.

You should have seen those 10th graders suddenly sit up straighter in their seats, draw a collective deep breath, and generate energy as they began guessing letters. Yup, that's a keeper.

Love a student today—walk a mile in her shoes (literally or imaginatively)—and make one modification in your next class. 

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