Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Up, A Down, A Let's Try Again...

I haven't written in awhile which does not at all fit in with my original plan, but I've had to really process this one. (That's for you Ali.)

An Up:
Two weeks ago, my class moved into Romanticism. I always begin by showing "Rip Van Winkle" and discussing the shift from logical thinking to imagination. It's a great introductory lesson. I've used the same lesson for a number of years, and I feel very good about it's purpose and follow through. I haven't ever, however, felt that way about teaching the next piece "The Devil and Tom Walker." I've tried numerous activities and methods to make this story work. The problem is that the students have to read the story - and they rarely do that. None of the activities work unless they read the story. I've tried the CD and had them follow along; I've tried having them read it aloud and/or silently; I've assigned it for homework; I've given pop quizzes; I've given read along guides - NOTHING.

This year, I decided that I was going to try yet another method to teach something I really like to kids that had no interest. I spent hours - literally - looking up different teaching techniques for this story. All to no avail. I had to dig in and rely on my own creativity. The first time period we study is Puritanism with a strong religious focus. While Romanticism is the third time period, it comes pretty quickly on the heels of Puritanism. So, I thought, "Why not let the Devil be a starting point?" I found a couple of video clips from The History Channel's documentary on The Devil and showed them in class. The main concept was that people have been making pacts with The Devil since the beginning of time. We then discussed the Faust legend and recalled recent movies with that same theme. From there, we began reading.

I had them read the first paragraph (which is kind of long) silently while thinking about the focus on the past. Then, I read aloud to them. I pulled out all of the stops - they especially liked my devil voice. I only read a couple of pages to them. Then I stopped reading and told them the next portion of the story. We skipped a page or so of reading!! They then read a few paragraphs on their own. I told the next section, and then I finished reading the story aloud.

NO ONE FELL ASLEEP! Every student that was there understood the story. I was elated. They all said they liked the story. Wow!

At first my English teacher instinct berailed me for not reading every word. I felt some guilt about it; I guess I still do. However, I feel so proud that I kept EVERY kid with me for a 90-minute lesson which was mostly devoted to literature. Usually, I try to pare down my lit lessons to 30 minutes. The nature of this story doesn't allow that luxury. It has to be read in one sitting or the mood of the story is lost.

So, I feel good. I still have it - the ability to re-create lessons to keep the kids interested.

Tune in next time for the next part of the post - A Down, A Let's Try Again.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Sense of Peace

For the last few weeks, it seems that all of my spiritual studies have led to the idea of "peace." Both the ideas of what brings peace and what disturbs peace. I find myself more focused and relaxed when I have peace - duh!

That peace is a major point of success in the classroom, too. I remember when I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher told me that no matter what, I needed to be the rock in the storm. I found myself recalling those words many times during my first 2 years as I couldn't seem to find any peace anywhere with my schedule. Forget about focus - I was teaching 7 classes between 2 schools.

As I found my niche and began growing in my career, I made "peace" my mantra. No matter the chaos, I had to be the calm. It was difficult to do sometimes because it is so easy to get stressed about life when things don't go your way. Over the years, I found myself on pretty solid ground. I felt at peace - most of the time.

One day this week, one of my coworkers was stressed about one of her classes. "There was too much chaos," she complained. "I spent more time telling them....than teaching." I know. I know that feeling all too well.

The nice thing was that I was able to really listen to her complaints/problems and offer some solid, focused advice. I knew as we were talking that I was telling her the exact right things. I didn't feel that I was elucidating on theoretical pedagogy; I was giving her practical advice the here and now. I felt great! (As an aside, it also felt great to know that she implemented some of my suggestions and felt good about the outcome.)

My first piece of advice to her was to be the calm in the storm. As that phrase keeps emerging I realize that one of the most valuable lessons I can teach my students is the value of peace - an inner peace.

I entitled this blog "A Sense of Peace," but I wonder if it might not be "A Sense of Babble." I just wanted to get this idea of peace and focus down. Maybe I'll come back to it later.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Question of Multi Tasking

I read an article in the paper last week that basically said multi-taskers don't do any task well. They can juggle a lot of responsibilities, but none of them are really satisfied with the job they do on anything. That started me to thinking...

I'm a multi-tasker and I'm not satisfied with the job I do on most tasks. (Bear with me. This isn't a Multi-taskers Anonymous meeting, I promise.) As I chose to stay at my school, I picked up more and more responsibilities. Most of the time they were just given to me; sometimes I chose them. For the past five years - since I got married - all of these tasks have become just tasks. I continue to do them, but much of the time my heart isn't in it.

Now that I have begun this "journey," I find the advice I give to my interns coming back to haunt me. "Don't be afraid to say NO. Monitor just how much you set yourself to do." I've not done a good job there.

My initial response is that these tasks take away from my time to prepare for my classes and build relationships with my students. But, if I'm going to be totally honest with myself - and that's the purpose of this quest - there are only 2 tasks that aren't directly student-related. The other tasks offer me the opportunity to build relationships with students that I don't normally teach.

So, I find myself recalling the last blog about "the easy way out." Is it just easy to do a mediocre job on a lot of tasks? Am I pulling away from the students because I have too much to do or am I creating too much to do so I don't have to focus on my dissatisfaction with my performance?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

2 Lessons

Lesson 1: Not the easy path. On Friday, one of my colleagues and I were contemplating a field trip. This trip would be excellent for our yearbook and journalism students. Lots of workshops that give them specific details on what we do. A GREAT opportunity. Then we realized that the date of the field trip was on an early release day. Suddenly we contemplated dropping the whole thing just because we would miss 2 hours of staff development.

Now, here's the lesson - at least for me. For a moment I was ready to do what was easy instead of what was right. It is easy to forget about the trip and stay at school. It isn't so easy to push forward and try to convince the leadership team that this is a worthwhile venture. Lesson learned.

2. Lesson 2: Embrace the artsy-fartsy. Ok, so I've never been one of the teachers who always has some groovy activity with every lesson. Some things you just have to learn - cut and paste days just aren't my style.

I have a 4th period (last period of the day) standard English class of 28. They are tired, ill, worn out - basically done with school for the day. And I have to teach them the American literature canon! Last year, I noticed a lot of 4th period standard classes and the ones that were the best behaved were the ones who had artsy-fartsy assignments (much to my dismay).

Today, I revamped an assignment on coat-of-arms and made it relevant to a time period. Students could work alone or in pairs to create a coat-of-arms that represented the time period we just finished. The idea is to have a closing activity for the time period which will allow them to review their notes and the material studied. I gave out the assignments and the kids went right to work. They were coloring, looking up clip art on the computer, talking about their project - everything I wanted them to do.

So, Lindsay, I must admit that there is, in fact, a time and a place for the art projects. I think that time and place is 4th period!

The lesson is don't discount what you haven't found success in before. Each group needs different methods of instruction. I guess now I'll have to buy more colored pencils!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

An Experiment

Yesterday, I decided that I would try a Writer's Workshop with one of my classes. Normally, I don't go into the touchy-feely method of teaching, but since normal hasn't worked for me lately, why not try something new?

Writer's Workshop is a method of instruction that allows students time to write on a specific assignment while the teacher conferences with each student individually. There is a lot more to it, but I wanted to just try a basic conference style setting with 28 juniors.

I gave the assignment, explained the process, and off we went for the last 30 minutes of our class. It was delightful! I got a chance to speak to about 1/2 the class - as individuals! The students actually worked on the assignments. There was very little talking; there was a lot of focus.

As pleased as I was to have the experiment work, I was doubly pleased at how I felt after the class was over. I really felt energized, not exhausted. I was motivated instead muddled. I also felt that I had really SPOKEN to my kids not just taught them.

As I continue this series, I really feel that my neglect of fostering the personal relationships with my students has made a big difference in how I feel about teaching. For some reason, I pulled away from them. I hate to admit it, but I think I stopped trying altogether. I'm embarrassed by that. I've always prided myself on being such a "good" teacher, and I allowed myself to forget the most important aspect of teaching...Love the students.

If Dale Jacobs reads this, he will insist I return to my Paolo Friere!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Lesson - Part II

I was doing very well with my attitude adjustment until 11:00 on the first student day. One of my colleagues got a call from her babysitter saying that they were taking her 4 month old to the hospital. He was unresponsive. An hour later, we received word that her son died.

Even now, I find it difficult to write about. There are no words to express the pain and sorrow and helplessness - I'm at a loss.

So, here's where the lesson comes in. My friend and her husband spoke at their child's funeral. One thing she said was that she became a teacher because she had strong Christian teachers who influenced her, and she wanted to make a difference in someone's life. She wanted to make sure as many of her students as possible would be in heaven to play with her child.

Teaching for the love of the students - I forgot all about that. I got so wrapped up in discipline and lesson plans and leadership that I forgot why I used to enjoy this so much. I used to let myself love my kids. I really got involved in their lives. Somewhere sometime I stopped.

So, I'm trying to get there again. I'm trying to make some real connections with kids that I would have let go. Maybe this is what I'm looking for in my work...meaning.

The Lesson - Part I

Last Sunday in Sunday School, we talked about Cain and Abel. Now, I realize that might seem to be a rudimentary lesson, but we really examined some of the lessons we can take from that story.

Different people were talking, and I made the comment that Cain was really mad at himself. He wanted to blame Abel for his problems with God, but ultimately, the fault lay with him. He brought a mediocre offering with a mediocre attitude. The lesson to me was that your attitude and giving make a difference.

Wow - you think?

I went to work on Monday trying to keep that thought in my mind...your attitude makes a difference. I felt much better about work and my job until Tuesday. That is part two of the lesson.