Thursday, January 19, 2012

You Don't Always Get What You Want...

Chagrin. Teaching, sometimes, has its moments. Times when things don't always go the way we plan. An assembly pops up, a writing prompt, and sometimes a snow delay. Interruptions break the thread, they're inconvenient, but ultimately a good teacher can put order back into his or her day.

Observations are a different animal, though. They have the power to push someone forward, or they can break the teaching momentum that's building inside a teacher's head. Rehearsed teaching is difficult and inauthentic to produce on demand, but the false idea of that teaching can be perfected is even worse. Yet, this has been the model we've employed in education for years.

Confidence. Teachers need buckets and buckets and buckets of it. The public has been taking teachers apart in the press and in commentary on blogs and other public platforms. It's not helpful. I repeat...NOT helpful. Insiders know better, or I'm thinking they should anyway. Administrators, college officials, all individuals hired to assign a value to what teachers do need to develop a consistent, predictable scoring approach.

Probably the most important indicator to look at first in a young teacher is not how they manage the curricula they're trying to stuff into the kids' heads...but their ability to establish a presence and a class culture, because without that, nothing else can proceed.

I'm not saying that we should go slowly or pat teachers on the head and affirm them no matter what they do. Really, that's how you make negative teaching techniques go on for years. But the employment of outside individuals coming in cold to a classroom culture is not always helpful either. In fact, it can sometimes be destructive.

A colleague of mine from another district told me his principal refuses to give positive feedback at all. "That's what you're supposed to be doing, it's not my job to give you a compliment." Oh, give me a break. As an administrator, you are called upon to be a teacher of what kind of teaching is that? When a teacher, just like a student, does something never hurts to tell them so. In fact, it probably helps! Building upon a learner's strength, nudging them ahead a little bit at a time is the name of the game we call education.

So...what happens when you don't get exactly what you hoped to hear? My student teacher got a glowing review the other day. Yet, because her supervisor lead off with a small issue that was minimally not going was hard for her to hear anything after that. She's a brilliant teacher, and I tell her so each day. We reflect side by side and think about what we can improve upon.

On the day of her observation, we were forced to compress the whole day...snowfall, ninety minute delay, all part of the job. But. Compressing to her meant speeding it all up, and I blame myself for that. Upon reflection, we could've cut more out. But even though we didn't get exactly what we wanted in outcome, a powerful lesson was learned. Streamlined, but very pointed teaching can often produce the same results. Pacing is a high-level skill that takes more than three weeks to acquire.

The point that I see here is one that I'll take in for myself. The approach to new talent in teaching has to be a gentle one. The positive card must always be tossed out first. Strenghts...and then needs. And better yet? Setting up the two columns for reflection: 'strengths and needs,' allowing her to reflect on her own quagmires, and talking it through with her is probably the best way to start.

Ultimately, she'll have 25+ pairs of eyeballs and that'll be all she'll see. Observations come, and observations go...constant, gentle self-reflection, that intuitive knowing sense when things don't go your way, that's what will feed the instruction each day. But keeping that core belief in yourself is more important than anything anyone else can say!

Teaching and learning is a complicated business. It's the one job where I get to fall on my face and stumble a bit, then pick myself up and start all over each day!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Student Teacher: Who is that Student in the Window?

How much is that puppy in the window? Priceless, Spot, I know.  New puppies, like new teachers need to be nurtured, celebrated and allowed to grow. In today's market that's a pretty tall order, though. How many great talents live on the other side of the window looking in?

Right now, I'm enjoying my time with my student teacher. She's full of ideas and loaded with intuitive skill. I try to be sure to let her know that all the time. Mostly because she, like me so many years before, is plagued with doubt at times. That is the quality of good teaching that just is so totally unavoidable.

Here's a slice of what we're working on right now:

Notice What You Notice: Expostiory Writing is Teaching/Scaffolding an Idea Right from the Start

My yoga instructor uses the phrase, "Notice what you notice," all the time. In yoga, it means, notice what aches/pains, trials/successes your body is having when you're in that pose. Look at the response and make changes. In teaching, it means monitor your learners, the terms of responses or in terms of what they put on the page. Some might call it 'modifying and adapting,' but it's just so much more than that.

The other day I was teaching a writing lesson, and I was listening to students respond with questions just before they went off to write. Right at that point, I realized that half the reason kids have trouble revising their writing comes from the fact that they never have to meet the reader half way. It dawned on me that they don't get to study their reader's reaction or hear their questions like I do everyday in my teaching. I responded to the students' questions, then brought this up later in the group. I showed them all how I added and enhanced what I'd taught them by adding more key information to clear up misunderstanding along the way.

Now my biggest question to my students is what do you want the reader to know most? And why?
Students are now asked to check in with their peers, and check in with adults to insure proper understanding, because they, like me and like my student teacher all need to be on board in understanding...thinking in the mind of the reader and then processing all that information in order to make their expository piece keep its feet on the ground.

This week, the teacher will be sitting back, conferencing with kids...with the student teacher, and watching the great levels of learning unfold! The art of truly the art of constantly chasing the learning that lies underneath!

Personal Connection Gone Wrong: How kids talk to one another around books can either deepen or worsen their reading practice.

The other day, we were conferencing with our 'book club communities,' small groups we've organized around student book choice. Kids are reading a variety of books leveled specifically for them such as Lemonade Wars, The Wednesday Wars, The Thing About Georgie and The Landry News. We both noticed the quality of discussion was lacking and realized kids were 1) not getting the connection to the assigned journal responses in their discussion and 2) were minimalists and limited in their conversational skills.

So...we read The Man that Walked Between the Towers, with each other first...and no discussion between us. And then, I read it aloud to the group. Then we told the kids we were going to set up three talking points each on our chart (set up in a T chart) and these three points were not discussed prior to the kids coming into the class. This was all authentic and all done right in front of them.

Our ideas/talking points (which were our reactions/connections to the story) were totally different. She focused on an experience with Cirque de Soleil, and I saw this as a boy with a dream and talked about my dream to become a teacher and the journey that brought me there. We modeled eye contact and attentiveness, but we also modeled the key component to good human communication, listening in order to be transformed/bonded to one another in thought. That's what a good author wants. That's what a great reader gets.

I love having a second pair of eyes and ears in the room. Teaching can be a lonely job...opening up and sharing with others is what keeps it a passionate pursuit for me!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Old Dogs and New Tricks: COACH for America-Redesigning our City Schools

How do we get new teachers...especially the current group of rookies who are probably populating our most needy classrooms to stay? We love their enthusiasm. We value their ideals. inspire an urban population to learn, there's so much more to it than that. I know, I've been there.

In the mid-seventies, our core of teaching graduates faced a similar situation to those that are graduating right now. We were the tail end of the Baby-Boomers, and that huge group had taken all the available jobs. When I first got out of school, I had to supplant my ideals, suck it up and take a job in order to pay my bills. I waitressed at night and worked in an office by day. I was a horrible typist, an even worse accountant, so they capitalized on my chattiness instead. They had me work to educate customers, to problem solve and to get cranky clients off their backs. But I still had my ideals in place. I just wanted a chance to immerse myself in a culture of kids. My chance came, but it wasn't exactly my dream job...or so I thought.

My first job was teaching hearing impaired preschoolers in Bridgeport, CT. I had zero experience in sign language and even less exposure to the deaf world. But that didn't matter. I had a classroom, keys and a coffee cup in the teachers' room. I was so ready to teach!

What I'd soon find out, and what I've spent years in that the path to understanding and defining myself as a teacher takes many circuitous routes. I learned an awful lot from the kids themselves...getting into their heads and trying to understand what they didn't know, so I could plug in the gaps and push them ahead in their education and their lives. But trial and error has a very long, hard learning curve. And today, my biggest worry is that young teachers will die on the vine before we have a chance to launch them, celebrate them and give them the support they need.

With no disrespect intended, colleges do the best they can do with our new crop. They do a lot more than was done when I was there back in the day. No one really knew how to best expose student teachers to all that they need to know. So much of it happens on the front line.

Here's my thinking about all this...if rookies are the biggest teaching population that our most needy urban students have, how can we move our urban kids forward? Must they always be the test kitchen for these brilliant, but often wasted minds? I have never forgotten my first days in the classroom...that feeling of being so overwhelmed. I believe the Teach for America model is a good one, but why not COACH FOR AMERICA as well? My thought is this: take those, like me, who are still so very passionate about what we do. Allow us to gain a 'two-for'...two years toward our retirement for every one year we coach in an urban school. Let us work with these rookie teachers (and their administrators), guiding and reflectin with them on everything they do. Give us the opportunity to infuse the curriculums with a richness that is currently absent there. (Most/many American urban public schools have reduced themselves to scripted learning...yup, the awful old basals are back, b/c they can't trust the teachers to immerse kids in great read-alouds and conversations anymore. High stakes testing has driven that decision with kids that are the most environmentally deprived on this earth.)

What this idea allows is a chance for the system to right itself. Use what we, the veterans, know, while clearing the way for more teaching jobs to emerge. I'm not a person looking to retire, but a teacher looking to right what's most wrong in education today. My inspiration came long ago in watching the third season of The Wire, set in the Baltimore Public Schools. Since then, it's grown and developed and I feel a need to put it out there for anyone willing to talk about it today.

Any takers?