One Year Teaching in Desperation

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I’m sure we all have moments where we collapse at the end of the day, feeling like we’ve been run over in a stampede. I question myself — did that make even the slightest difference today? Are they learning anything?

That was me almost every day this year. Now that we’re reaching the end of the year, I feel like I’m emerging from the wreckage and can mostly see things through the smoke, although I don’t know if it will ever be totally clear. In the spirit of confidence, adventure, (and perhaps some well-appointed stereotypically millenial sense of difference-making or idealism), this year I accepted a job to teach reading intervention classes at a middle school that is incredibly diverse and–often heartbreakingly–disadvantaged in many ways. I’ve learned how to listen to students, understand why they act the way they do, develop personal relationships with them, and see what wonderful, resilient people they can be.  The faculty and staff here is full of amazing people, whose dedication shines through in their optimism and hard work–something that I’m grateful for because I know that not all schools with a population like ours have this.

Teaching here has been the biggest professional challenge of my life so far, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it has also been one of the more significant personal and intellectual challenges also. I’ve worked desperately to make even the smallest difference–in their reading skills, in their lives. Also, I thought I was bringing my classroom management A-game before, but this experience makes me think otherwise. I have stretched and grown in so many ways. And such growing pains!

Wilderness survival specialists have a short list of things that help them make it through, right? Here are mine:
-Remembering that personal relationships make a huge difference, especially with the key players in any particular class.
-Being clear and consistent with rules and escalation of consequences.
-Routines can save you
-Attempts to engage and appeal to students and their culture and interests are often rewarded. (Diverse books are a must! Week in Rap, etc.)

Since working with these students I’ve been thinking a lot more about education and the current role it plays in a lot of students’ lives compared with the role it should be playing. I’ve become a little obsessed with this topic–particularly as it applies to the many millions of our students here in America that are not getting what they need from school–the kids in the lower percentages, the portion that is steadily and scarily growing. I often think (especially on tough days) about how students are affected the most by their home life, how they bring what happens at home to school and it has a great impact on their learning. I’ve read several articles that have offered interesting perspectives and sometimes understanding on the subject: How Can High-Poverty Schools Connect with Students? from Edutopia (read the whole series!), this Op-Ed from the NY Times, and The Terror from Junot Diaz & the NY Times.

I can’t really talk about my experience in the classroom this year without also talking about books that have allowed me to commiserate or that have cast further light into my or my student’s situation.
The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School by Ed Boland was so realistic, sometimes I couldn’t handle the double dose of teaching and reading this book in one day. He has some incredible insights, in addition to just telling it like it is.
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam was another critical text for me. This book gives voice to thoughts and questions that, as a teacher and a person, I’ve had for a while. Why does the past and its abundance of opportunity seem so golden compared with now? And why does it seem so hard to overcome some of these obstacles that I see students and others face? Identifying some of the factors and causes of these things was insightful for me as a teacher, but also in recognizing what opportunities I’ve had and what others around me are likely to have, and subsequently, how much we can help in turn. A few thoughts I liked: “…schools, though not a big part of the problem, might be a big part of the solution”, and that the “advantaged” have a greater political voice and such greater power that it “undermines political equality and thus democratic legitimacy.” This made me think of a quote from Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, “We in ancient countries have our past–we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.” I felt such conflict over the fact that the American dream, and the role of education in it, seemed so unclear for my students.
Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby is a good reminder and discussion that, albeit with a much more select sample and less diverse student population than mine, it is possible for many if not all teachers to help students to read and make meaning from literature–and that it still holds a critical place in our curriculum. I loved the examples of the passionate teachers in this book– passionate about literature and about teaching.

These are some of the resources that have deepened my understanding of literacy instruction, for students anywhere on the range of levels–from barely below grade level to significantly below grade level:
The research base from Columbia’s Teachers College’s Reading and Writing Project (this is a great support–although maybe I’m a little biased since I’m at TC for my Masters); The Importance of Real Reading for Resistant Readers from Education Week; How I Turned My Kid into A Reader from Dinner: A Love Story; What Reading Does for The Mind from Cunningham & Stanovich, Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy from Scientific American; my school district used LETRS literacy training this year, and I really got a lot from it (professional development win)!
While my students desperately need phonics and comprehension strategies, the reading workshop is also a critical part of literacy curriculum, IMHO. And, Building Relationships with Students Through Books from Cult of Pedagogy.

Only a few more weeks until summer break! We got this.

For My Friend & Mentor

After being on a bit of maternity leave, then moving away for a while so my husband could complete his JD/MBA, I was back home and ran into a teaching colleague from my first couple of years teaching at a middle school. We spent a few minutes catching up, and toward the end of our conversation I was shocked to learn that a close teaching friend had passed away peacefully while I had been gone and busy with my life in other places. I can’t stop thinking about her. It’s been a bit of a shock. Especially, I think, because as a young(ish) teacher (in my mid-twenties), I don’t really think of those kinds of things happening. I am so focused on learning and growing and teaching right now, at the beginning of what I hope is a long career in education, that I don’t think much about the path that continues after teaching. My dear friend had retired shortly after I had left that school on maternity leave, and had had a long and wonderful teaching career. My thoughts lately have been largely about her–so much so that I had to write them down:

I remember how I felt my first years of teaching–who doesn’t remember the blur of disillusionment and hopefulness and exhaustion and revelation? But I vividly remember how you made me feel. They say you were a mentor to many, and I am one of that many. Countless teachers in their first years often find themselves in survival mode, but you made me feel like I was thriving. I was pushed to grow through the meetings I led and committees I served on, and above and beyond all I was pushed by my students to be the best I could be, to be innovative and revolutionary. I would talk with you about these things, about research I’d read, strategies I was trying, successes, failures, and frustrations, and you were always so impressed with me. You can’t imagine how this made me feel–that beyond just the success I felt with my students, you noticed me and my efforts and knew without a doubt that I stood out, that I could make a real difference. Doesn’t every teacher want to make a difference? I do. And you did, not just to your students but to me.

We laughed as co-conspirators over silly teacher humor and you helped me get through the day with your homemade treats. I was a little in awe of you as a teacher because you had so much experience and wisdom, but also as a person because you were someone who was always curious, always learning. Sitting by you at the faculty room lunch table always led to a new revelation about the way the world worked, or about something worth reading. You showed me what it meant to be interested in the world and people around you, and how to share that with your students and your peers. I like to think that you helped me develop that love of learning even more as you encouraged me and cheered for me.

I grew to have a confidence in myself because you showed me how great I was and how great I could be. Recognizing those things in others is one thing, but you always expressed them too. The kind, quiet, but passionate way you approached learning and teaching was such an example for me. You showed me friendship and love, and I’ll never forget it.

Nonfiction Book Picks from This School Year

Now that we’re partway into summer, I’ve been able to curate a short list of some nonfiction reading I’ve done this past school year–and these are the standout titles. Make some room on your summer reading list!

20170991The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession
As a younger teacher, it was really eye-opening for me to learn about the major ideas and thinkers that have shaped American education into what it is today. Things make a little more sense now. I also feel like I have a clearer vision of where I’d like to see things go with the future of teaching and education.

22571757It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love And War
A pretty incredible account of Lynsey Addario’s life as a war photographer, including life-defining moments such as being kidnapped, working with local people to get photographs, and more. Reading this gives me so much more understanding of what goes into a photograph taken in/of a conflict zone, and how much meaning and effort is behind it all. This memoir is fascinating, inspirational, and even suspenseful.

22609334Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
Another eye-opener. This book gives voice to thoughts and questions that, as a teacher and a person, I’ve had for a while. Why does the past and its abundance of opportunity seem so golden compared with now? And why does it seem do hard to overcome some of these obstacles that I see students and others face? Identifying some of the factors and causes of these things was insightful for me as a teacher, but also in recognizing what opportunities I’ve had and what others around me are likely to have, and subsequently, how much we can help in turn. A thought I liked:
“…schools, though not a big part of the problem, might be a big part of the solution.”

8520610Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking
This has been getting a lot of attention lately, for good reason! (See her TED talk here.)I’m sure that this book, or parts of it at least, will speak to introverts everywhere–it’s pretty reaffirming. In the beginning I felt at times her tone was a little defiant, but as I settled into the book I started to really like the examples and the people whose stories she shared, particularly those of highly successful and innovative people that you wouldn’t otherwise think of as introverts–top business leaders, influential teachers, etc. the ideas that we should help everyone learn and succeed in their own way, as well as how to better handle group dynamics were enlightening… Particularly if you’re a parent or teacher, or an introvert yourself.

23158207How Google Works
I’ve talked about this book before. The short story: My mind is spinning with all the ways this could apply to teaching/education. Loved the parts on the “smart creative”, passion, and the “learning animal”. Really fascinating to learn about Google, too. Funny and reflective.

18377959Building A Better Teacher: How Teaching Works
The idea that teachers are made rather than born is an extremely important one. Especially in light of teacher evaluations, changing and new policies, and all the other things going in in education right now. This book concentrates on some big names in education that have worked or contributed in some way to showing that you can teach teachers how to teach–like Magdalene Lampert, Deborah Ball, Pam Grossman, Doug Lemov, etc. Some I’ve heard of and some I haven’t, but now am interested in work they’ve done. Plenty of great takeaways for teachers (I liked the ideas behind community “lesson study” from Japan, Instructional Activities, and the approach to academic rigor), but it also provides an overarching view of teacher education–where it has been and the direction it’s headed.

12743473The Storytelling Animal
A wonderful perspective on the role story plays in our lives. I enjoyed the ideas behind the evolutionary aspect of stories. It might be a little ironic that I didn’t really enjoy how the book was written–I would have liked less pictures with captioning that tended to go off on tangents and more of the research. But the points he makes about stories are really fascinating, and his “simulator” theory of storytelling is well worth the read.

13259960The Smartest Kids in The World And How They Got That Way
Teachers, Administrators, Parents, Anyone Who Cares About Education: read this! I really liked this book even though I’ve seen a lot of the research and articles before. It’s fairly common knowledge that the US is struggling with learning, especially when measured against other countries. While the facts were familiar, the insight that Ripley provided into not just our education system but other successful education systems worldwide was revelatory and sometimes unsettling. She does acknowledge that what works in other countries may not work in the US; we have more diversity and a different kind of government–but excuses like these are not going to be enough to stand on. In the end, Ripley has done some great storytelling and analyzing of the facts and ideas, and come up with something that is hopeful and informative. I’ve seen the bored students, the students who could do more but don’t feel that any more is expected of them, and I agree, things are at a turning point. This book adds something valuable and worthwhile to that discussion.

You can follow me on Goodreads here. Also, a few books on my radar (anyone else read these yet?):
25590449From Master Teacher to Master Learner by Will Richardson
From Goodreads: Seamlessly adapt to an ever-changing culture. Educators must continually adjust to the present world and its digital technologies to create effective classrooms. Investigate the qualities and roles you should adopt to grow into a master learner, and explore the tools and techniques necessary to coach students in gaining the skills and literacies they need to become successful learners.25072947

The New Teacher Revolution
From Goodreads: Today’s classroom demands teacher innovation and rejection of outdated practices, especially when someone tells you it’s “always been done” a certain way. In this book, Josh Stumpenhorst details his methods for improving student outcomes with unorthodox thinking. Content includes: Building relationships built on trust and respect, not fear and punishment. Why you need to rethink homework and letter grades, which—in their current forms—are harming learning, and how to leverage technology by not treating it as a “shiny toy”, but rather fully understanding their power as tools for massive progress.

How Google Works (and how it can work for teaching)

Do you ever read books, not entirely or even not at all related to education, and your mind just spins with the possibilities and implications it has for teaching? It’s one of the reasons I love to read nonfiction, especially from disciplines other than my own. It broadens your perspectives and gives you fresh ideas that revitalize your approach to teaching (in addition to being entertaining). My husband is in the business world, and once I sampled a little of this book about the successful ideologies of Google written by the people behind Google, I stole it away to finish–and was thrilled at multiple points with thinking how it could relate so well to teaching . . .

From How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg:

One of the concepts that most resonated with me was the idea of the “smart creative”. Isn’t this really what a teacher must be? Isn’t it what we want to be–autonomous and highly effective in our own classrooms? Their description of a smart creative brings new ideas on how a teacher can function effectively in this day and age of education. In order to not violate fair trade guidelines by quoting entire chapters of this book to you, I’ll settle for summarizing and listing just a few of the things they say about smart creatives:

  • Have a deep technical knowledge
  • Comfortable with data, understanding “its fallacies and is wary of endless analysis. Let data decide, she believes, but don’t let it take over.”
  • Innovative, and not always just during the hours they are being paid for
  • a “power user” who “understands her product from the user or consumer’s perspective.”
  • a “firehose of new ideas” who has her own perspective but can see things from other perspectives too
  • “always questioning, never satisfied with the status quo . . .”
  • an “open creative” who collaborates and “judges ideas and analyses on their merits and not their provenance”
  • “communicative creative”–communicates with flair and possibly charisma to diverse  audiences

The authors are fair in also mentioning how not every smart creative possesses all of the characteristics that they discuss. Smart creatives are diverse but can also be found in all places. They are “the ambitious ones of all ages who are eager (and able) to use the tools of technology to do a lot more. Their common characteristic is that they work hard and are willing to question the status quo and attack things differently. This is why they can have such an impact.” (page 18-20)

Isn’t it exciting to think of teachers as smart creatives? People with deep subject knowledge, who are innovative and curious? It almost goes without saying that teachers are hard working–doing the work even beyond the normal hours. A “smart creative” teacher can combine those things with technology and the many digital and other literacies demanded by students these days and achieve amazing results. As a teacher, do you think of yourself like this–as a smart creative?

And a word on passion (cause obviously we’re not in it for the money):
“Passionate people don’t wear their passion on their sleeves; they have it in their hearts. They live it. Passion is more than resume-deep, because it’s hallmarks–persistance, grit, seriousness, all-encompassing absorption–cannot be gauged from a checklist. “ (page 101)

I can’t think of a better way to describe a teacher. Deeply passionate about what they do, of course. But also possessing those things that we are coming to realize make a big difference for students when they are young and in our classrooms, and also when they are people out there in the real world: persistence, grit.

Lastly, I thought these ideas on the “learning animal” are particularly prescient for the teaching profession:
We know plenty of very bright people who, when faced with the roller coaster of change, will choose the familiar spinning-teacups ride instead. They would rather avoid all those gut-wrenching lurches; in other words, reality. Henry Ford said that “anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Our ideal candidates are the ones who prefer roller coasters, the ones who keep learning. These “learning animals” have the smarts to handle massive change and the character to love it.” (page 102-103)

As educators, we know that this business is a roller coaster ride. From changes in policy and curriculum to the changing dynamics of the students that come in and out of our classrooms, change is something we must accept. But embracing it, and even taking it a step further; as teachers we must always be learning and growing, particularly in this time of widely available information and technology. Keep up with the times and teach your students the things that will help them be successful for the world today. How can we expect our students to be lifelong learners if we don’t make the effort to learn and grow with the times we live in? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less important. I love thinking of teachers as intelligent people who make the best of the change they are constantly faced with.

teaching for creativity: demand calls for reversing the downward trend

I read a fascinating article this week that briefly discusses one of my favorite undercurrent topics in education: creativity.

The article in Forbes, “How Kids Lose Their Creativity As They Age (And How to Prevent It)” points out that creativity scores, measured yearly since the 1950’s by what is called the Torrance Test, have been dropping in American children since the 1990’s. It was this bit of evidence that initially pulled me in; while dropping test scores in any area aren’t exactly fresh news, it’s that this article’s subtexts link this sad fact strongly to the nature of the workplace. A modern workplace that is constantly changing, and greatly values creativity and innovation– as seen in countless successful companies and organizations.

Which leads me to ask . . . Is creativity rising among  the valued workplace skills, even as evidence shows creativity is falling among American children? This Forbes article would have you believe that it is, and that we need to do something about it.

While praising teachers and offering preventative measures against creativity loss, the Forbes article also makes some interesting claims: that the “school factory system”, “teaching to the test”, and teaching essentially with one goal or to form one type of student is destructive when it comes to creativity. This line of thinking reminds me of some of the things that one of my education heroes, Sir Ken Robinson, has been saying for a while now:

“I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.” (Sir Ken Robinson, “How Schools Kill Creativity“, TED February 2006.)

On the plus side, by acknowledging multiple intelligences and cultivating creativity like Sir Ken Robinson promotes, we are better able to engage students in learning. I’ve found this to be true for my students on both ends of the spectrum–the advanced and the remedial. So how to do this? The recommendations that the Forbes article makes aren’t anything new, but rather a compilation of ideas and research that have been developed before. For example, two of the five recommendations:

  • Teach kids to challenge assumptions instead of accepting things as is (also a basic concept of the critical literacy theory)
  • Teach that mistakes are not evil and should not be feared (an idea central to the concept of the growth mindset and also involved in the idea of “grit” and how that helps children succeed)

It’s worthwhile to think about creativity and education, especially in light of the modern workplace and culture they are a part of. A final quote from the Forbes article, “creativity has become the currency of success for us all” makes me think that now is a particularly good time to think how we as teachers can help students develop their own unique type of intelligence and creativity to prepare them for careers and life.


P.S. If you haven’t watched SKR’s TED talks, you need to. Here’s a link: