Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Happy Break!

This holiday season I'm grateful for you, dear readers. You've helped me improve my teaching practice and thinking about the ways in which larger policy issues affect our classroom. I'm also thankful for my wonderful students who encourage each other to come to class, work hard, and breathe when things get too crazy.

Whatever you're celebrating, I hope you're a little healthier, happier, and wiser than you were at this point last year. I also hope you get some rest and hugs from people who love you regardless of your position on bathroom passes.

Signing off till 2013,
Ms. T.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fall Reading Adventures: Son

Yes, yes, it's nearly the winter solstice. So, that means there's time for one more fall reading adventure! For my birthday, I received the last novel in The Giver series. I didn't even realize there was a last novel in that series till I came across it at this wonderful bookshop in Norfolk.

But it's great. Son is told from the point-of-view of Gabe's birthmother. Gabe is the baby who spurs the main character, Jonas, to action in The Giver. I found it really interesting to learn more about the dystopic community that started my life-long obsession with dystopic fiction.

When my students saw Son on my what I'm reading board, we had a walk down memory lane. The Giver was the last required book some of my students finished reading and the last required title a lot of them actually loved. We talked, in classes of all levels, about the nature of the community, if it was good that the citizens didn't have to feel pain, and what other places in the world were like.

The prose here didn't excite me like The Giver. Maybe I'm more discerning that I was at nine. May Lois Lowry, like me, wanted to get to the end so that we know things end up okay for the people we love but questionable for the world in general. Who knows? This book would make a great enrichment project for classes reading books like 1984 or Brave New World. Son could also make a great selection in a dystopic fiction literature circle. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Group Work

First of all, my prayers go out to all those affected by Friday's school shooting. I haven't been able to read about the principal and teachers protecting their students and the kids' families without crying. I hope that in the coming weeks we can have meaningful conversations about what in our culture allows these tragedies to happen and what we can do about them (at home and abroad). Maybe one way to do that is to start using schools as places to build community.

I try to include plenty of group work in our classroom. I've bought into the idea that the 21st Century workplace requires teamwork and that group work is also a great way to build the community that I strive for so much.

But it sure is hard sometimes.

Jane doesn't like to work with John and Paul doesn't like group work at all. Lila will do all the work no matter which group she is in. Then there's that one time Dan, Joanie, and Zach made a beautiful presentation about what to do in the even to of a zombie apocalypse.

I know that a part of group work is not just turning students lose to produce whatever you've assigned but teaching students how to communication, collaborate, and create. Some tactics I've found useful are community meetings about what good groups look like, creating rubrics for group work rather than just the assignment itself, and reflections on what worked and what didn't in the group.

What works for you, teacher friends? For those of you not teaching, what skills about getting along with your co-workers do you wish you'd been explicitly taught?

Names, as always, have been changed.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fall Reading Adventures: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Do you all know about Rachel Held Evans? She blogs about the intersection of feminism and Christianity. Her blog became a book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, in which she spends a year living out Biblical edicts about women. RHE sleeps in a tent when she's on her period, celebrates Passover, and explores how women from Orthodox Judaism to Mennonite communities explore and live out Biblical definitions of womanhood.

Evans concludes that all such definitions of womanhood pick and choose from the parts of the Bible with which its adherents feel most comfortable (very few people expect women to camp out during their periods or marry their rapists). This conclusion means for Evans that she chooses to focus on the strongest thread of the Biblical narrative: liberation.

This is a blog primarily about teaching, so I won't get too spiritual here, but I have to say that A Year of Biblical Womanhood contained some of my favorite non-fiction prose of the year (and this is from a lady who finishes The New Yorker every year). Check it out (and recommend it to all your students who love feminism, exploring spiritual issues, or "stunt" journalism in journal)!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fishman Prize

Although I look askance at most things with which Michelle Rhee is associated, I want to point out  TNTP's awesome Fishman Prize. Five $25,000 awards go to stellar teachers who then spend their summer writing a lengthy paper about a given educational topic. The application criteria says nothing about value-added or standardized tests. They look for teachers who have "a passion for teaching and a deep commitment to advancing the teaching profession."

We need more programs like this prize. We need to not just celebrate teachers, but also cheerlead for our profession (and, ultimately, our kids). Make it clear that those summers "off" are spent thinking deeply about our practice And we need to, well, show our work. 


Don't worry about your grades so much, I tell my students. Worry about your learning, your growth, your becoming you, and grades will follow. If you focus solely on the grades, you miss out on the richness of learning for the sake of learning. What does it serve you or your family or the world around you if you stay up until 2 a.m. working on a calculus problem set for your umpteenth Advanced Placement class when politics or literature or history is your true love? I believe in well-rounded people and well-rounded educations, but let's set some priorities here, people!

I am such a hypocrite.

Yesterday as I left school, one teacher remarked good-naturedly that hell must have frozen over since I was out of there while the sun still shone. I left the parents uncalled, the papers ungraded, and the administrative forms unfilled out because I am sick. Too many days of going full throttle at school to feeling obligated to have a social life outside of work have left me curled up with my puppy, my hot water bottle, and my copy of Lois Lowry's newest book.

I want to think that the difference between me wrecking myself for school and my kids doing it is that I like what I'm doing. It makes me happy to pour over student data, call parents, and plan grammar mini-lessons. I get the teaching high daily.

But I still don't take very good care of myself. I sleep and I exercise and I try to socialize and do good things in my community. I don't, however, take very much time for myself, nor am I able to be very spontaneous.

So, teacher friends, these are my questions: How do you find a work-life balance when you really, really love your work? How do you help your students see a difference between work they love or need to do and work that is gratuitous? And can anyone bring me some soup?    

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why I Teach

In case you missed me bragging all over Facebook last week (sorry about that), I got to do a blog post for PBS about why I teach. I encourage you to read it and think about how kids don't know their paths until they know them (and we help show them the way a little bit).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fall Reading List: This is How You Lose Her

In case you haven't spoken to me all fall, I reckon it's time to let you all know just how much I love Junot Diaz. It took me several readings of the final story in his episodic novel This is How You Lose Her to understand why.

Like his earlier books, TiHYLH is narrated by Dominican-American Junior. Junior teaches at Harvard and is capable of being very good and very bad with the ladies at the same time. Never has he ever not cheated on a girlfriend. And it isn't until the very last paragraph of the last story he tells us does he even show a readiness to correct that behavior.

But he gets there. In the end, he wants to be better. And I think that desire to grow and change is what has drawn me back to this book, especially the final episode, several times this fall. For myself, it's helped me think long and hard about previous relationships and how I'm ready to hope those people turned out to be good people in the end. For teachers, there are some killer mentor sentences, like this closer:

That's about it. In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace--and because you know in your lying cheater's heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get. 

If any of your mature, older students are moved by this prose (and your community is open-minded), direct them toward This is How You Lose Her, but it's definitely peppered with too many curse words in multiple languages to make comfortable students forced to read it.

Happy reading!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Is College for Everyone?

In this weekend's New York Times, we heard about several very (monetarily) successful college drop outs. The author fails to point out, however, that many of these people came from already successful situations. Bill Gates, for example, went to a fancy private school in Seattle before dropping out of Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg spent time at an elite public schools in Westchester, NY and at Exeter before doing the same. These examples already had funding, networking, and critical thinking skills that colleges often sharpen for kids who may not already have them.

Among many progressively-minded educators, it seems fashionable to say that not everyone needs to go to college. College isn't for everyone. I agree with that statement, but it invites some questions: Then who is college for? If your child came to you and said he or she didn't intend to go to college, would you allow it? I'm fine with the expectation that college isn't for everyone. But in a meritocracy, it should be for virtually everyone who wants to go. And we should not be making assumptions about who it is for based on race or income level any more than we should have made those assumptions based on gender forty and fifty years ago. Unfortunately, when people say that college isn't for everyone, they often mean kids who no one has ever encouraged to go to college any way.

This idea that we shouldn't privilege graduation, college attendance, and other markers of middle class life in the US is a difficult one for me. I do see an alienating factor in saying XYZ is the best thing to do. There's an implicit "What's wrong with your family that they haven't been doing XYZ for generations?" that college-focused educators haven't really figured out how to address. But we aren't going to address it by saying we're okay with not sending kids to college for circumstantial reasons. Arguments about kids coming out of college without a job or tons of debt says to me that we need structural economic and student aid reforms, not fewer people who love learning for learning's sake. To complicate things even further, we're also not going to address the alienation problem by pretending it doesn't exist, either. 

The college for all issue gets thornier when we think about it outside of economic terms (are you feeling my conflict on this issue yet, dear reader?). What about learning for the sake of loving learning? I have not had a fundamental impact on the fields of ecology, astronomy, or religious studies. But not only can I speak knowledgeably at them a cocktail party where I may meet someone to fund a grant for my classroom, I am better at thinking for having spent some time considering their complexities.

If a kid wants to be a mechanic or own a restaurant or build things or go directly in the military, that's great. But every kid deserves a plan for some sort of post-secondary education. And I think we owe it to our kids to make sure those plans have nothing to do with race, income-level, or parental involvement. To do otherwise keeps public schools from being the great equalizer they aspire to be.