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.

Practitioner or Wannabe?

As a teacher of English Language Arts, I do my best to write alongside my students. If I ask them to brainstorm, I “write live” and project it for them to see my thinking in action. I haven’t always taught this way because it took time for me to find the courage to show my process. Many of my students struggle with creative writing because they believe it is something one is born having and not something one can develop over time through practice. It’s the constant tension between writing and “righting”–as in “Is this right? Am I right? Did I do this right?” I save and share my brainstorming in a folder on Google Drive so that by the end of the day, there are four different takes on any given exercise.

Still, there’s only so much courage in a bubble. My students write and share with me and their peers, but for me, who can be my peer to give me feedback? There’s not as much to risk if I don’t practice what I ask my students to do: to write broadly and brazenly; to work on an idea through iteration and revision; to share their work and put it into the world for others to comment, correct, and question.

So when I saw Chris Lehman was hosting an online workshop for #TeacherPoets, I was filled with a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension. What a great way to renew my writing spirit and push my boundaries with real peer feedback!

It’s not enough to read and write as preparation for my classes. If I want to be an effective teacher, I have to be an authentic practitioner of my art.

Consider joining the Teacher Poets community on Google+ or form a writing community of your own around a kitchen table. Practice your practice and grow your voice.

Oh, and here’s my practice–to be added to the Poetry section of the blog:

“Tenderness”

(for my grandparents, the greatest love story I know)

she was receding
the ocean’s depth of her memory
evaporating like steam
Alzheimer’s
hid her crossword puzzles
lost her crochet hooks
stripped her photo albums
ravaged her appetite

when she left a roast smoking in the oven
he cut off the gas for good
took her to the Ponderosa buffet

she clung to his arm
their independence
as unsteady as his shuffling gait
he led her gently to a booth
then made his way to the
salad bar

breathing hard from the effort
legs numb from neuropathy
he leaned against the soup stand
dipped a ladle into the brine
fished for carrots until he had filled a plate
with soft orange slices
tender enough for her to eat
with ill-fitting false teeth

sighing, he sat and reached across the table
her frightened, clouded eyes seemed to clear
and for a moment
this pair, alone in the restaurant
in dirty clothes and unwashed hair
held the universe
in their hands

 

In Defense of Poetry

My employer, my state, the world demands: teach your students how to read and write. Teach them how to cite their sources, dig deep into ideas, learn and compare and contrast and make Meaning. Teach them how to argue with logos and facts as their foundation. Leave the ethos and pathos to pretty speech-makers and politicians. What we need are citizens who can think dispassionately, reason clearly, and (for heaven’s sake) write using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

So I have. I do all of these things. These bloodless, starched-shirt, bureaucratic things. I tell my students these skills are valuable. I tell them these abilities matter. And I mean it.

For the most part.

What I don’t tell them, and what tears inside me like a growing ulcer, is that this is not the epitome of what makes a successful human being, or a dispassionate citizen, or a college-and-career-ready life. At best, these lesson amount to training in marketable skills in the business world. At worst, it’s a lesson in conformity. It subtly implies the only writing and thinking that matters is the writing and thinking we do when we work for others, when someone tells us what to do, when it’s our job and not driven by curiosity or passion or even basic interest. Cite your sources, please. Don’t think about being your own source.

Instead, in quiet defiance, I teach poetry. That fluffy-bunny writing that will doom you to a life on welfare and living in your parents’ basement. No one makes a living writing or reading poetry. Or stories. (Unless those stories become blockbuster novels turned into films. But, hey, not all ball players make it to the majors, so you’d better focus on that business degree when you’re twelve, ok?)

Poetry. The realm of dreamers and dissidents. The writing that’s “for girls not boys.” The kind of writing only nerds and flaky artistic-types understand, right? In the classroom it can mean opaque symbolism and a coroner’s quest for meaning through autopsy. Line by line, excavating, making note of figures of speech, counting the syllables, and hauling away adjectives and alliteration into neat, tidy, standards-based piles of UNDERSTANDING.

The Standards say:

  • Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.
  • Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
  • By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

I am aware that these are worthy goals and “standards aren’t curriculum” but as the distance grows between what will be tested and what can never be tested, I find myself fighting to keep poetry as a vital part of what I teach and what my students learn. I feel pressure to keep it short and move on to “more important” things.

I don’t teach poetry because it’s cute or pretty or cultured. I teach poetry because it is one of the best ways for the truth and honesty of human experience to find expression. I teach poetry outside of surface measures and seek-and-find literary device games.

We read and write for real, and the work my students produce takes my breath. Instead of limp and dull, though technically proficient poems, what they write when we study poetry sends electricity up my spine.

Like this:

only In–

our dreams             when the world is wish-

magnificent the things

we wish were reality

 

fly high      and        free

 

and the princeandprincess live

happily ever after and

do the unimaginable

but we’re dreaming

 

when the world is journey-magnificent

 

the plans we’ve

held captive inside us escape

then come to be

and we hopeandpray to never wake up

 

from imagination and perfection

 

we’re

dreaming

and

                    the

                                     frightening

things real life holds make us

wish

we

weren’t

 

Or this:

Grade 7–

 

a Time where everything is Group–Separate

nerds and JOCKS as well as

those who are world–unaware

 

the crude Talk in the

room–

the Alliances and Enemies

 

the Numbers and the TEACHERS–

 

a Place that is experiment–fearful

the Whispering

                     the Giggling

                                          the “Secrets”

to think it is all bricks

caging the Mayhem–

even the labyrinth

has never been so twisted–

 

everyone has to but

eventually will

                                                forget

a place where the odds may be ever in your favor

Or this:

in Science–

where everything is lecture-boring

and the science man

goes on

and  on

and

on

sapping every bit of interest    out

 

when life around you is snail   –   speed

the distant mumble of speech

droning on — forever

endless

meaningless

 

a standardized test

the monotonous article

that puts you to sleep

at a single glance

 

everpresent is the interest

lurking

creeping on the edge of existence

living in a deep   dark slumber

searching for a time to awaken

 

but that time

has yet to come

I hear their voices clamoring to make sense of the world they find themselves in, struggling to understand how they are to become whole people in the midst of conflicting expectations and misdirection. I want to tell them that sometimes there are no arguments that make sense, no sources to answer the questions they ask, and that pushing against their fears with a poem might be the best self-defense.

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.

Oz: The Great and Powerful

I’m restless. From the first time I set foot in an education class, I was looking and listening for anyone who saw education as a frontier worth exploring.

I dutifully generated bloodless lesson plans for phony classrooms populated with imaginary students. The veil between my imaginary classroom and my ability to teach remained a barrier until I began my career and awoke to reality. With each new group of students, I questioned my methods, learned and tested new strategies, and ever-hungry for more, joined professional groups.

Still, no matter what I did, I felt lonely and isolated. I felt transformed and renewed each time I grew as a professional in my practice through study and application or through the hard-knocks of teacher experience. Teaching was alchemy and each alchemist tested and refined her own methods for spinning straw into gold. We didn’t hide our conclusions from one another, but we didn’t share them openly either.

Parents and the general public questioned: What goes on in that classroom of yours? How do you know that what you’re doing works? Fear of judgement kept us from inviting colleagues or supervisors to visit and learn with us.

I realized our profession has often made us into mad professors hiding behind barriers of our own making. We can easily become the Great and Powerful Oz, obscured behind grade book averages and hidden behind closed classroom doors–mired in “the way we’ve always done things.”

I have sought ways to tear down that curtain, find other like-minded and restless professionals, and show what teaching and learning really looks like in my classroom. The future looks open to all kinds of possibilities: Twitter, Edcamp, Sanderling. These are the tools that will help bring professional development out of the shadows and into the noisy, energetic tumble of teacher professionals.

I’m off to be a Wizard and the journey all at once. It’s time to put on my walking shoes and put this restless drive for change into action.

(Cross-posted on Sanderling.)

The Camp Director Files: Lessons in Administration

"The calm before the campers." Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2011.

The majority of my experience and background in education has been in English or Language Arts classrooms, teaching middle and high school students. As I’ve developed more confidence, I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to grow in other directions and take on leadership roles on school committees or as a coach or teacher leader. As a theater director, I learned how to manage a budget and balance schedules in order to bring my shared vision to life on the stage with my students. I created new structures and developed a team to build some institutional memory for the program that wouldn’t be forgotten when I had to move away. All these experiences allowed me to work side by side with students or colleagues and act as a sounding board to help them reach their goals. In all my experiences, I’ve been a team member or my leadership centered on an area of my expertise. This summer, I am facing a new challenge in uncharted territory: administration. Not only am I taking on a new role, I’m also helping to reshape and reimagine an existing program to help leave it stronger and more organized with a fresh vision for the future.

I’m learning how to handle the pressure of too much to do and too few hands to do the work; how to delegate and how to show my staff I trust them to do what’s best for kids; how to follow policy set for me from an ideal standpoint that doesn’t match the messy and unpredictable nature of reality on site; how to train my staff and work with my Assistant Director to mentor the junior counselors and CITs as they struggle to become leaders; how to manage tears, illness, homesickness, conflicts, misbehavior, and concerns for our campers’ safety and welfare at home; how to manage misunderstandings and personality conflicts among my leadership team; how to adhere to all the state regulations and requirements–even when that means letting kids go hungry at lunch because the food didn’t arrive at a safe-to-serve temperature–and explaining that to the kids so that they understand. In short, I’m getting a crash course in administration and a six-week internship as a mini-principal.

It has been daunting, uplifting, challenging, and fulfilling–and that was just for the first week of training before the campers showed up.

I plan to reflect on my experiences and list the links to those reflections from this starting point in order to document my journey. Comments and your wisdom are most welcome.

Let the journey begin:

1. The Other Side of the Office Door

2. Air Traffic Control or the Lighthouse