For Those Keeping Score at Home

Today was the big composition test and in the words of my students, “It was the dumbest prompt EVER, Mrs. Leung.”

Maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, but I am quoting twelve year-olds.

Despite the “dumbest prompt EVER,” they did it. They told me they felt capable, that it felt like they’d accomplished something. Instead of feeling lost and unsure of what to write, they told me how they broke apart the prompt, used a brainstorming tactic we’d discussed in class (be still my heart!), and even took advantage of the classroom dictionaries. A few said they were proud enough of their work that they couldn’t wait to get it back…

Oh yeah, and they were disappointed to learn that not only would I not get to read their work, but they would also never see their essays again.

“Why did we have to work so hard if we can’t even see it again or show it to our parents?”

Great question, kids. This is why I am so proud of you. Never stop asking great questions.

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.

Screen Glow

The first message came at 11:09pm.

Then 11:21pm.

The last message, at 11:32pm, was the one that caught my eye. The glow of my cellphone’s screen in the darkness as the “alert ” screen slowly faded to black.

What was so urgent that I was woken from my sleep? A student was replying to feedback I left for him on an assignment in Google Drive.

It’s Sunday night, way past bedtime for this teacher, and truth be told–for my young students as well–but I can’t help but feel bemused.

I’ve been giving feedback on student writing for years. Hours of time. Gallons of ink. (Hyperbole? Perhaps.) So often, once the grade was on the page, the feedback and comments were tossed aside or even straight into the recycling bin.

This late-night, unasked for revision? This was not a reaction I’m used to getting to my feedback. Its mere existence on the document invites action! It’s half of a conversation, waiting for a response. The immediacy and ease of communication, the personal, one-to-one coaching: all of it is so powerful.

Still…to my kiddos…it CAN wait until daylight, ok?

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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.

The 30-Day Challenge

At the beginning of January, I like to talk with my students about goal setting. We’re in the middle of the school year and now that the honeymoon is over, it’s time for us to make some choices about how we orient ourselves toward the work to be done in our remaining months together. In the past, I have asked students to write a personal goal statement or even reflect on their personal new year’s resolutions, but then I watched a TED talk by Google engineer Matt Cutts.

In this very brief talk, Matt Cutts argues very simply that by selecting a personal challenge for thirty days can be a way to revitalize your life and either add something new that you’ve always wanted to try, or it can be a chance to do without something that might be a bad habit. I watched the video with my classes and we’ve been inspired to try the thirty-day challenge.

In these doldrums of the school year, it can be hard to face the cold, early mornings and the flat, uninterrupted greyness of the world outside. It’s easy for students and teachers to focus on the long months ahead. By making the next thirty days meaningful, I am hoping my classes will feel purposeful and fresh.

Starting on Monday, in each of my classes, we are either going to have the “vocabulary word of the day” or the “fun fact” of the day. I plan to post a schedule for student volunteers to sign up for a word or fact, then we’ll spend two minutes each day exploring language or ideas. I hope to report back on how this challenge shapes up for us, and I hope that my students will still be energized enough after thirty days to tackle something new.

Lessons Learned from a Social Networking SIM

The Lesson: Part 1

Close reading and the ability to engage with text instead of just letting words flow over eyeballs are skills that I enjoyed developing. I was a voracious reader in middle school and read through complete shelves of books in the school library, one shelf at a time.

When I entered high school, it was my creative writing teacher who introduced me to annotation. I had never before dared to mark in a book or on the pristine margins of a photocopied handout. When I did, it set free a different way of reading. I looked closer, thought harder, questioned and relished more.

You would think with my love for reading and annotation that it would be easy for me to convince my skeptical students to give it a try. Cajoling, begging, demonstrating: none of these approaches seemed to work. After a few random and perfunctory underlines and non sequiturs scrawled here and there out of obligation, I tried a new approach.

The Lesson: Part 2

We talked about their drug of choice: Instagram. I asked my seventh graders to explain to me how social media works on Instagram. They told me how to post and share content, use hashtags to label it, and how to add comments to give feedback. We also talked about meaningful vs. meaningless comments.

Then I made a proposal: Imagine this classroom is a social networking platform called desktop and the poem we read is a piece of shared content. What kinds of comments or hashtags would you add to this poem if you wanted comments or feedback?

The response was instantaneous. They started rereading and marking almost every line of the poem “The Limited” by Sherman Alexie.#noviolence #poetrysaveslives

After they finished, we walked around the room in complete silence using our pens to comment on one another’s desktop posts. Checkmarks for likes, of course.

I have never seen my students so focused, pausing to read and respond over and over. I told them we’d work for seven minutes; they wanted ten.

The Lesson: Part 3

I was part of the conversation, too, and as I scanned the “posts” it became clear how my students position themselves in social media. While there was much thoughtful commentary, there were few connections. Many of the hashtags were appended at random with someone marking #yolo and #swagg on every page, though there was no meaning behind the tag.

Students also tended to bandwagon. There were many comments of: Yes. I agree. Me too. Yup. Good idea. With no extension or challenge to anyone’s thinking. Questions and differing points of view were disregarded altogether.

In one class period, it became a race to see who could garner the most checkmark “likes” on silly tags like #gobyu or #poem.

Conclusions

After the end of the experiment, I led a debrief with each class. They did not fully understand how superficial much of their commentary was.

I was disheartened by the superficiality and their unwillingness to engage in anything that wasn’t trite, cute, or as they put it “double-tap” worthy. (One for a like, one for a repost.) They don’t see social media as a communication genre, but as a self-promotion and posturing venue. Posts are less about the value of the content and more about the analytics: How many likes? How many comments? How many shares?

I think I will try this experiment again, but with more guidance and clearer expectations for communicating thoughtfully.

(Cross-Posted on Sanderling)