Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mental overload= My own learning "crisis"?

Looking back on this week after an intense Wednesday evening class, a revisiting of  Kolb's learning styles, an analysis of my own teaching style as it pertains to Kolb, a sixteen-minute interview with my student, Julia, and two highly complicated chapters of Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators, I need a space to process all that I have done and read in the past five days.   I can honestly say that I was about as stressed as I have ever been about coursework.

Ever since Wednesday night, I had been perseverating about ways in which I can bring diverging, assimilating, and converging learning styles into my teaching since, as Kolb proved, I am very much an accommodating learner.  I made a point on Thursday and Friday to vary from my normal routines and push myself outside of my comfort zone, essentially letting my Spanish IV honors dictate the pace at which they began to read and process their Jorge Luis Borges excerpt.  I was particularly nervous because my student teacher from Wheaton College would be observing me.   I asked her to feel free to offer me her ideas and join in conversations as I conducted the class. She did!   I found that instead of my worst fears coming true (utter chaos and minimal learning), we had rich discussions entirely in Spanish for an hour-and-a-half block, laden with many side conversations and group analysis of a good chunk of El Otro.  We strayed from "academics" for a few minutes to point out that my teacher, Haley, was only a few years older than them at 21.  I worked hard on being patient and open-minded.  I tried not to lead and I tried instead to learn, and the result was a terrifyingly powerful experience in that Spanish IV class.  What was even more surprising to me was that I saw one of my students after school at a volleyball game, and he kept the conversation going in Spanish!  That, along with my yoga class on Friday, was the highlight of my week. 

I wish I had read Chapters 2 and 3 of Nikkola and Toshalis prior to conducting my interview with my student, Julia, on Friday afternoon.   I cringe at times when I listen back to my sixteen minute interview where I occasionally interrupt or proclaim "Great!" at other times.  School psychologist Mitch Guillermo's handling of Julian's identity crisis with compassion, lack of judgment, relationship building, and listening made me feel grossly inadequate in my own tendency to clump learners together according to what I perceive to be their learning styles and personalities.   After this week, I started to think that I need to recognize that no two students are alike, no matter how much I might think to myself that Student X is a young me and Student Y is a younger version of Student C that I taught two years ago.  I realized that I am quick to jump to conclusions about people, relying heavily on instinct and not spending nearly enough time carefully observing and culling out information about my learners. 

I loved hearing Julia's voice on my phone.  I realized in the 7 or so times I played back the interview how grossly inaccurate I was in my preliminary judgment of her.  If that's how I feel after interviewing just one student, I cannot imagine how bad I am going to feel when I face these kids tomorrow.

That is the moment that it occurred to me mid morning today that perhaps I am in my own state of crisis right now.  I am thrown off kilter about everything I knew to be a truth about my teaching (I have good relationships with my students) and now need to consider that maybe I need to work much harder to get to understand my students as learners.  It is a tough nut to swallow.   I have nearly cried and lost a lot of sleep over this and another graduate class that just started up last Tuesday, but I am realizing that this "crisis" will likely lead to a new and improved self-identity as a learner.   I feel so keenly aware of how taxing it is for adolescents to negotiate so many identities during the course of a day (p.33).   It brought me back to having just been there myself, on the cusp of contemplating suicide one day and feeling amazing the next.   I will also look for strategies to create safe risk-taking environments in my classroom and the school community.  On a bright note, this hard work and identity crisis of my own will hopefully help me when it comes to being a mother to my own sons who are quickly approaching that adolescent age.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Mixed signals in the classroom

How many times have I thought that a student who was angry at me was being insubordinate?  If I'm being honest, many times.  Whether or not I have chosen to engage or ignore that child has varied through the years, but without a doubt, I've been guilty of mixing signals and not pursuing why some students have been frustrated, overwhelmed, or sad in class.

The below video of a white female Spanish teacher losing patience with her African American students makes me cringe for many reasons, aside from her American accent.   I would like to think that I would never talk down to my students, compare their lack of achievement to the successes of my other classes, and suggest that they are unable or unwilling to learn, as this young woman does.  If I'm being brutally honest, I have given similar speeches to my classes, particularly when I was new to the field.  The condescending tone of disappointment in this teacher's voice irks me because it rings true for my younger self as as new educator. Her attempt to stay with the curriculum, but the clear panic/aggravation in her voice is all too familiar.  When her supervisor steps in to "help", the scene worsens. After a couple of minutes of watching this video, I had to look into myself introspectively and think if I have had or could avoid similar moments like these.  The answer to both is yes.  Yes, I have not been at my best as a teacher on every day with every student, but yes, I have worked and will continue to work to get better.

In Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators, Nakkula and Toshalis center the first chapter around an internal battle between seasoned teacher Danielle Peterson and her student, Antwon Saladin.  The authors demonstrate that aside from the subject content, classic learning about student/teacher roles is taking place each time Antwon brushes Ms. Peterson off and Ms. Peterson views Antwon as a trouble maker who is "choosing to fail."  In the chapter one scenario, Antwon is tremendously worried about failing the graduation exam and is struggling with his peer group.   Nakkula and Toshalis urge educators to delve into the troubling student behavior when they write, "Think, for example, how differently Antwon and Ms. Peterson's relationship would be unfolding were Ms. Peterson to become more transparent about her motivations, interpretations, and even her fears and expectations, depending, of course, on how such information was shared." The authors suggest that teachers are coauthors and co-constructors in all of our adolescent students' lives.  We must understand our impact on our students in their development, just as our students influence our own teaching and learning.

A wise friend of mine who retired once told me that when students are acting out, ninety-nine percent of the time, it has nothing to do with me.   Still, it is hard to face angry students without feeling defensive and hurt.   Nakkula and Toshalis implore teachers to take action and accept their co-responsibility in authoring the classic learning that takes place in my classroom.  They remind educators to scrutinize the intrinsic messages students are receiving through our actions and interactions with them.  A message that resonated with me toward the end of the first chapter is as follows:  "Ms. Peterson is teaching much more than literature-she is coauthoring Antwon's self-understanding and co-constructing the meaning he makes of his relationship with her."  If Ms. Peterson continues to ignore Antwon's cries for help, he will likely fall out of his peer group and potentially fail out of school.  I strongly feel that it is up to Ms. Peterson to take the next step in salvaging what is left of her relationship with Antwon.   I hope that the young teacher in the above video has viewed it; has scrutinized it; and has looked introspectively to find better ways of inspiring students and promoting learning in her classroom.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Liberating the Curriculum and Beyond

In the second half of To Teach: The Journey, In Comics, Ayers and Tanner demonstrate how what happens in the classroom is not necessarily determined by curricula, frameworks, lesson plans, standardized tests, standards, and whatever newfangled "system" that Departments of Education deem to be effective. In fact, as they illustrate, learning is unpredictable and uncontainable; it is so much more than what these buzzwords label it to be.  They show how learning is not neatly packaged and is contingent on the learners. They take a classic stance in the spectrum of learning and go so far as to rebel against traditional educational models that parallel official theories.

A Tale of Two Visions shows how there are conflicting viewpoints in learning: a classic view which contends that learning is intuitive, interest-driven and effortless; and the prevailing official theory, which maintains that learning entails hard work, rote memorization, and testing to ensure mastery of subject matters.  In this article, the author suggests that learning is not and never should be "hard work."   It should be pleasurable and memorable and subsequently, life changing.

I assert that there is a fine line between what these authors are implying and sheer anarchy.  Yes, learning should be learner-driven, and yes, it should be "boundless" and uninhibited to an extent, but as a creature of the old-school educational model, I feel that without requirements and some testing, we would be living in a less globally-competitive society. 

When the fictitious cartoon Ayers stand on his soapbox and declares, "...anyone who tries to bracket thinking in any sense is, in essence, killing learning," I want to cringe. (p. 74)  On the following page, he mocks the state of Illinois kindergarten standards when he states, "I don't want to bow down to the almighty lesson plan, and I don't want to lose the importance of having a teacher in the classroom who is a thinking, feeling, unique individual." (p. 75)  To Ayers, I would counter that the state of Massachusetts has made amazing educational strides in consolidating our frameworks and implementing them across curricula.  I would argue that my teaching now is so much stronger than it was 15 years ago before I was held accountable for my plans and required to post them for my students and their parents.  I would also contend that it is not hard at all to write good plans with spaces for learners to demonstrate and create knowledge in every class.  

To me, it seems lazy and irresponsible, even, to dismantle almost all of our traditional educational system.  Yes, learners should be at the center of all learning, even in subject matters that don't necessarily appeal to them.  In order to grow as human beings and adults, I would argue that you can't have it your way all the time.  You may hate history or Spanish or math, but you still need to take and pass it.  These things called "tests" ensure that some knowledge about the subject matter was acquired.   However, maybe we should revisit our "tests"... must they be so... well, traditional?   Why can't we reconsider as educators how we measure knowledge?   For as much as Ayers maintains that he has a fun, learning-centered, investigative classroom, I would ague that his own student, Quinn, could not have delivered such an eloquent and reflective graduation address without having had a vocabulary quiz or two along the way.  And of course, as Ayers contends, all assessments should be free of socioeconomic biases.

There has to be a happy medium.  I fall in the camp of the classic view of learning within an official theory structure.   I believe that there need to be guidelines, plans, assessment, and hard work as well as vicariousness, growth, social activity, and freedom of expression without punishment in appropriate venues.  If the end assessment is called a "test", a "project", a "paper" or an "assignment," it should in some way demonstrate academic growth.   The "test" could be as simple as having a conversation in the target language, understanding a joke, or watching and understanding a mini-series in Spanish, but without some sort of "test," I  believe that students may not feel accountable.  Frankly, I wouldn't. 

 When, on page 98, Ayers shows how he practices "creative insubordination" but cutting the wires to his intercom, I lose some respect for him.  Insubordination is also a slippery slope; we are trying to inspire learners, and we must do so by example.  As a parent of two boys, I think he sends the wrong message in being creatively insubordinate.   Rather than rally the troops, as I believe he intended to do, I felt like deserting the camp.   Like Ayers, I believe that teachers can change the world, but I believe we can do so in a civilized and respectful way.  I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the first half of To Teach:  The Journey, In Comics, but I was left with fewer warm and fuzzy feelings in the second half of the book. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Reflection on To Teach: The Journey, In Comics from one teacher in a community of learners

"This is a community of learners, and you must treat everyone with respect and compassion- especially when it's hard to do."

How poignant this quote from William Ayers is for me!   In this segment of a comic within a comic, Ayers grabs a few sage words of wisdom from his son Malik's fifth grade teacher.   In a flashback frame on page 38, we see a kind looking mustached-man  - Malik's teacher  - addressing an astounded group of ten-year-olds as he establishes three rules: 1) you can chew gum; 2) you can wear hats; and 3) the aforementioned quote that will be posted prominently in my own classroom this year. 

Chapter Three calls for taking a step back from the daily grind; the constant interruptions from the intercom, unexpected walk-throughs and technological glitches, and general classroom management.   Rather than focus on the negative, says Ayers, we should take into account the positive message that we as teachers want our classrooms, our daily mantras, and every single interaction that takes place within our classrooms to reflect.  Ayers challenges us to find strengths in all of our students, and to utilize those strengths to make the community within the class cohesive and high-functioning.  He uses a metaphor of an empty box, which symbolizes a void that can be filled with life. His empty box represents the unlimited possibilities that I have in making a comfortable niche for every one of my diverse learners.

There are so many heartbreaking images in the first five chapters of Ayers' graphic novel; we see parents on the edge of their seats anticipating a horrible report about their "troubled" child; we see administrators shaking their heads about poor lost causes, and we students being unfairly labeled by other students in the classroom.   Every teacher has at least one of "those students"; the troublemakers, the unseen, the "at risk," or more aptly coined by Dr. Janet Johnson "underserved" kids.  Ayers implores teachers to find "spaces that speak and work for us," and in doing so, to create safe and comfortable environments so that EVERY child has a voice.

It is so hard at times to treat everyone with respect; especially in a classroom full of 30 students, 7 or 8 of whom are traditional "troublemakers."  There are invisible students, highly visible students, academically outstanding students and academically poor students in any mix, but as teachers, we try to reach all of them.  I have always believed that we must work to find the good in all people, but Ayers challenged me to take this goodness to the next level.  He calls for action; he shows how we can utilize every student's strengths and talents to promote student-to-student teaching.  It seems so simple- so obvious, even- yet, somehow, I missed it!  I want to draw on my students' interests to encourage creativity and spark new lesson ideas.   I hope to use my students' strengths to help them find a valuable role in the classroom.  

That being said, there is always a fair share of heckling and animosity that I detect from student to student, year to year.  This is why this quote speaks to me.

 On Friday, I received my first email from guidance asking that I not seat Student X near Student Y in one of my classes.  This email didn't sit well with me when I read it on Friday, and after reading Ayers' graphic novel, it infuriates me even more.   Of course, I will honor the email for the time being, but I will be focusing some of my attention on team building among X and Y.   I want X and Y to treat each other with respect and compassion, ESPECIALLY BECAUSE IT'S HARD TO!   I will be actively working to create a respectful, kind environment where every single student brings value and a voice to a table.  I will be focusing on these two kids and looking forward to any ideas and suggestions from our cohort!