My Students Say Thank You

I don’t remember when I first noticed it. A student here or there would pause on the way out my classroom door, turn to me, and say, “Thank you, Mrs. Leung.”

It’s new to me.

When I was in middle school, it never occurred to me to thank my teachers for opening doors and windows in my mind or for believing in me. I never said thank you for the corrective feedback and coaching on writing assignments. It never crossed my mind that my teachers were anything more than gatekeepers of right and wrong.

So that’s why it struck me. Those thank yous stopped me in my place with the power of gratitude: Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for today’s lesson. Thank you for listening. Thank you for challenging me. Thank you for the feedback.

Thanks so much Ms. Leung for the feedback. I will use your feedback.

Student comment on feedback. The response came one minute after I posted.

I’ve been teaching fourteen years and I’ve never had so many students say thank you so often. In a way, I think it’s a function of the ease of electronic communication. If I leave a comment in a Google Doc or in Classroom, many students see the note pop up on their personal screens. It’s a way to say, “Hi. I saw your work. I notice your skills.” How can that not lead to stronger teacher-student relationships? But that can’t be the only reason. This generation of children I am fortunate to know has a keen understanding of valuing relationships.

When I feel frustrated at the lack of civility that seems to permeate public discourse, I think of my students and am so grateful. If a student understands the power of thanks at the age of twelve, that is a person who will grow into a grateful adult who can accept constructive criticism and use it to better herself.

These remarkable people are growing up fast. Keep your eyes open. When they start appearing on the horizon, you’re going to be dazzled by how much they’re going to change the world.

The Bubble and the Pin: A Teacher Contemplates Bacon’s “Of Youth and Age”

Forest Bubble by ecstaticist on Flickr

Several, two students approached me after school to talk about their ideas for our school’s theater program. They hoped to create a student-run equivalent of the existing program and were eager to get started with script writing as soon as summer vacation began.

They laid their plans on my desk–a notebook with scribbled pages and bullet points. I loved the idea, but there were too many problems that had to be addressed. Who would ultimately be in charge? What would be my primary role? How would we ensure that each person does what she commits to do? How would my students manage to find time to write, direct, rehearse, and perform when the school’s auditorium schedule was already filled?

They spoke with enthusiasm and certainty. This was their dream and they knew they could make it happen. As I listened to their ideas, I remembered feeling that way. I remembered thinking that I saw all the answers and simply needed someone who was willing to listen and give me a chance. Half way through their pitch, one student apologized for his unchecked idealism.

Then I remembered reading Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Youth and Age.”

Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles which they have chanced upon absurdly; care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences; use extreme remedies at first; and that which doubleth all errors will not acknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that will neither stop nor turn.

These students had passion, creativity, and a thirst for more ways to learn about the craft of theater. What they didn’t have was an understanding of what it was they hoped to accomplish. Bacon reminded me: it is the nature of Youth to create and make messes, and my responsibility to help them find the balance between their boldest ambitions and the constraints of time, space, and human frailty. I couldn’t be an advisor for this project because I had too many responsibilities of my own already, but I didn’t want to crush their enthusiasm. I went back to Bacon and read this:

Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success.

Erin Popping a Water Balloon by davidjlee on Flickr

Ouch. I knew what Bacon meant, and I wanted to avoid becoming one of those teachers–content with mediocrity, spinning my wheels in a world of “maybe someday.” The more we talked, the more I think they saw how impossible it would be to create the type of student-run theater they wanted.  They could think of no one else who could act as a club sponsor other than me. I would have to teach a year-long theater class and use class time if we were to make all of their ideas work, and even at that, there were no guarantees that their schedules would allow enough room to take such a class.

Then I offered an alternative, an idea I’d toyed with for a “Ten-Minute Film” Festival of student-produced films. A lot of the responsibility and creative elements would be in their hands, and that’s what they wanted (and needed) most. I’m glad my sharp pin of reality didn’t completely dissuade them and that I found a way to combine their ideas with my perspective.

Certainly it is good to compound employments of both; for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both; and good for succession, that young men may be learners, while men in age are actors; and, lastly, good for extern accidents, because authority followeth old men, and favor and popularity youth.

Working in partnership with my students–giving them voice–makes the best of both our efforts.

Bud to Bloom

I read a post on Edudemic written by Patrick Larkin called “How Staying Uncomfortable is the Key to Success.” The post got me thinking about all the different ways we make learning comfortable or uncomfortable for ourselves and our students.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

I don’t know who has a harder time dealing with discomfort: students or teachers. On the one hand, some of my students demand easy answers and rote assignments. They want to know precisely which details are worth memorizing or what one-right-answer can be found in the textbook. They like the comfort of worksheets with predefined limits. They demand “study guides” that are little more than veiled versions of the test. It takes us a while to move away from this mindset toward the open fields of intellectual risk, argument and counter argument, and original creations. More than once this year, a student has said to me, “Just tell me what to write. Just tell me how many sentences. Just tell me how many pages.” These students are stuck between anxiety and their own comfort zone.

On the other hand, teachers can be too quick to judge themselves and their practice, sticking to the safe paths already marked and traveled. It takes courage to experiment with new methods and when we fail to meet our own expectations, the sting can take a while to fade. When it comes to technology integration, it can feel like there is so much to know that even the smallest change feels like walking into a minefield. Doing things the way they have always been done feels safe and soothing. To upend our curriculum, examine our pedagogy, confront new research about how students learn best: all of these things can send a wave of panic in motion. No one who loves teaching wants to think of the work we do is less than our best, but often that’s what we are left to conclude. It’s even worse if we work in an environment that feels punitive or makes us question our own competence. Self preservation can make staying comfortable feel like our best option. It’s a fatalistic version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Just as students need to know they are safe to step outside the boundaries of what they know and find familiar, teachers need that support from one another and from our leaders if we are ever going seek a little discomfort over staying comfortable. Any learning endeavor has a curve. Many times it starts with a goal that seems daunting or just too far away. It demands patience, practice, and persistence for us to achieve it.

Just when the flower feels snug in the bug, it's only holding back the bloom. Gotta keep blooming and show your colors.

Bud to Bloom

As for me, when I first read the title of the article, it made me think of a rosebush. As the stem develops a bud, the flower develops inside a nice, safe, protected place, but it only fulfills it’s purpose once it splits open into a blossom. If we allow ourselves or our students to stay only where it feels safe and comfortable, we keep from blossoming to our full potential.

T’was the Night Before Testing

And I can’t fall asleep.

My seventh graders take part one of a three part test to see how much I’ve been able to develop 180 days worth of skills as readers and writers crammed into in the first six months of the school year. At one hour per day with each class, that’s not a lot of time.

I’m not worried about the scores that will form part of my evaluations next year and for years to come. Those numbers are of no use to me, coming too late to inform our work. Instead I think of individual students, homogenized as data points for easy consumption and judgment far from my classroom.

I think of the absent students who have missed ten or more hours of instruction due to illness, appointments, or family vacations. I think about students who have made incredible leaps in such a short time, but who struggle to find their confidence in the impersonal drone of “make your mark heavy and dark.” I worry about the high achievers who told me today, “I can’t help it. I’m nervous.” I worry about the anxious students who will panic or freeze and then fear letting me or another adult down.

I hurt for the students who said, “You really can’t help me tomorrow? Really? Not even if I’m stuck?” Not even, kiddo. Especially then.

My desks are in rows; my Writing Tips posters, covered; my boards, clear; my pencils, sharpened; my “Do Not Disturb” sign, hung. All that remains is the impersonal recitation and threatening jargon from the proctor’s manual.

I’ve been doing this since NCLB became law at the start of my career. I know they’ll be fine; we always are. Still, I can’t sleep. There has to be a better way.

Argument: Was this in the cards?

According to the student handbook, playing cards of any kind are not allowed at school. It’s an obscure rule buried deep in the handbook and has its reasons, but isn’t on the list of top student infractions.

"Wave" by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

“Wave” by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

A few of my students had been using a deck at some point during their lunch break to perform magic tricks, and an adult rightly asked them to put the cards away.

This is where things got interesting.

The students came to me, their language arts teacher. We’ve been studying argument writing and my students, instead of wanting to complain or protest, wanted to write an argument to defend their use of the playing cards as appropriate and to ask for an exception to the school rules. I’ve seen this movie before. Over the years I have witnessed student petition drives, performance art, handbills plastered across every public surface, and even outright rebellion as students fought to have their voices heard. Often there was an edge of immaturity to these protests because, let’s face it, adults have the power and the advantage. The immature response is a result of their perceived lack of power or frustration due to feeling unheard. The adult reaction isn’t always as constructive as it could be, often devolving into a “because we said so” or “sorry you feel that way; too bad.”

That wasn’t happening this time. These students were calm, rational, and respectful. They acknowledged that the adult in charge who had asked them to put the cards away was following the rules and they held no grudge. They had done their research, brought a copy of the handbook rule to me with the significant parts highlighted, and simply asked: how can we have our point of view heard?

What is a teacher to do? I knew the rule and the simple thing would be to tell the students there was no point in arguing. This is the rule; we have to abide by it with no exceptions. Instead, I offered to help them put their thoughts in order. The rule is inconsistently applied with some playing cards allowed at certain times of day, including a four-table Pokémon game before school officially begins. They had been using a standard deck of playing cards and the rule assumes these cards are a distraction while the other games’ cards are not.

The students came to my room during team time to get my advice and to start putting their argument together. I will read it and likely give them advice for revision or editing, but the words and opinions will be theirs. As I listened to their thoughts, I was so impressed with the way they turned to writing and dispassionate argument as a way to find their voice and a sense of personal power. Real world writing, indeed!

Are the adults in administration ready for these voices? Are we prepared for students to take the lessons we teach them about analyzing evidence and defending a position to challenge our rules, policies, and procedures?

When a student uses close-reading strategies to mark up the handbook, are we ready for honest conversation and to possibly admit we need to change?

I hope we are. There could be nothing worse than to teach students how to become their own advocates through reason, logic, and maturity to tell them it only works when it’s for a grade.

Search Out the Enemy

There are times I have to take a break: turn off the 24/7 “news,” skip social media debates, and breathe fresh air. On dark days, it seems there are conspiracies brewing all around us. We have a culture of distrust that assumes someone out there with wealth and power is always pulling a fast one, somehow knowing exactly how the future will unfold according to their plans. “They” sit behind polished desks and plot the destruction of everything fair and just. “They” have a master plan that can only be thwarted with careful vigilance and protest–and maybe a superhero or two. If we’re lucky, maybe we will get to witness it all in its three-act glory full of explosions and beautiful people on the big screen.

Count, if you can, the number of films in the last five years that have revolved around this world view.

I fell into this trap as a teenager. I attended a Catholic high school with declining enrollment in an aging building. In the middle of my freshman year, we were told that the school would cease to operate. Conspiracy theories abounded. It must have been the neighboring businesses who wanted to raze our building and take the real estate in a land-grab. How could “they” do this to us? Didn’t “they” know how this selfish destruction was hurting us? We protested, rallied, and spoke darkly of those villains, the mysterious “they” who must have had a plan. In reality, the funding necessary to pay the bills simply did not exist. Our school had operated on a shoestring budget for too long and our financial reality was unavoidable. In our case there was a happy ending–with wide community support and thoughtful, long-term financial planning–but the narrative of villain-victim-hero still pervades too many stories we tell ourselves about the way the world works.

This poisonous fictionalization of reality can rip us apart. Once we fall into the trap of the villain-victim-hero, it can become impossible to make any rational, realistic change or progress. We pit teachers vs administrators, students vs teachers, taxpayer vs school system. Suddenly it becomes easy to spot malice or incompetence everywhere.

Does it make any rational sense to believe that an individual or group actively pursues the destruction of what we value? Yes, individual human beings can be selfish, myopic, and make poor decisions, but they can also be broad-minded, thoughtful, and creative, too. The whole purpose of democracy is to distribute the decision-making as broadly as possible so that multiple perspectives can be considered, pulling us together instead of driving us apart. When we see the process as fiction with villains who must be defeated by the forces of good, we stop listening and see any sign of compromise as a failure. When we assume the worst and leap to conclusions, we can fool ourselves into thinking that anything we don’t like must be the “fault” of an “enemy”–someone who isn’t like us and deserves to be cut off from “real” believers or citizens or patriots–someone who must be punished or “held accountable.”

This happens nationally when we demonize Common Core standards or teacher unions–not that there shouldn’t be discussion or debate–but to filter the people involved through the lens of villain/victim/hero means that we miss too much of the truth. Public schools are woven into the fabric of society, not separate from it. The schools belong to the community and are a vital part of it. When we compartmentalize, demonize, and shift into the worn old narrative, we miss so many opportunities to hear one another clearly and make real, lasting improvement.

As a teacher of English Language Arts, I feel an obligation to my students to share stories of many different kinds, to awaken empathy and broaden their perception of protagonists, antagonists, and conflict. I worry about the impact our cultural drumbeat has on my students who are awash in a world populated with the narrative of villains, victims, and heroes. How will they see themselves and their fellow citizens as the narratives warp and shift around them?

When we go looking for an enemy, we will always find someone to blame and remain locked in a trap of our own construction.

Always a Teacher

One of the many double-edged swords with the teacher personality is that for many of us, what we do is who we are. We are always “switched on” and collecting ideas, images, songs, quotes, strategies, tools–anything that may be of use to us and our students. I know each time I talk with a student about his or her future, concerns, or joys, my words and opinion have weight. There is never a moment when what I say or do doesn’t matter to those entrusted to my care. That means that on the bad days, I have to keep a lot back, put professionalism first, and focus on the role.

In the middle of this month, I started noticing a change in the way my body was feeling. My pulse pounded, I grew faint and short of breath from standing in one place. My usual Tigger-like bounce and sparkle teaching delivery took so much out of me that I had to lay down in the nurse’s office during my prep, and even that would not be enough to see me through a day. My health started to deteriorate and no amount of muscle was going to be enough to keep me on my feet. It is with a heavy heart that I am taking a leave of absence to focus on my health and to treat the illness that has suddenly invaded my life.

I miss my students and I feel such an obligation to them. Even as I struggle with questions that have no answers for me now, I keep thinking of them and what they need to learn.

One of my colleagues reminded me that whether I am in my classroom or not, I am still teaching my students. Right now, that lesson happens to be how to live with illness with courage and self-care. I can teach them compassion and patience as I stay focused on recovery. I can teach them honesty and determination each time I respond to a gentle email question, “When are you coming back?” I will teach them professionalism and responsibility as someone stands in my place to teach my lessons as I guide them from a distance, always looking over their shoulders, never forgetting the learning that is happening whether I am there physically or not. Most of all, I can teach them independence–that they are the only ones who can take control of their learning, that my most proper role is as a coach and guide.

I am always a teacher, learning now to teach all kinds of ways.