1.17.2016

We give up before we have done anything.

In my circles, there are a handful of debates going around.

What should happen with Detroit Public Schools?
How can we fix the water crisis in Flint?
Should we tighten or loosen gun safety laws?
Should we support or condemn Black Lives Matter?

A handful of people are engaging in the debate. Most, however, seem to have an opinion, but refrain from the conversation.

Why bother debating when nothing will change? seems to be their attitude. Nothing has worked so far. It is just the way it is.

This makes me want to yell in frustration.

NOTHING has worked so far because NOTHING has been done.

Detroit Public School students are failing because they are still going to classrooms with broken windows. FIX THE WINDOWS. 

Flint children have elevated levels of lead in their blood because nobody cared enough to pay attention to the warning signs. Obviously the situation is more complex now than it was eight months ago, but eight months ago the solution was easy, $100 per day. FIX THE WATER SYSTEM.

Dangerous people have access to firearms because we have neglected to make simple changes in laws that would keep guns out of their hands that wouldn't affect 99% of gun owners. FIX THE LAWS.

Black people in this country, especially young men, are far more likely to die from a gun death than any other sub-population. HOLD POLICE ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS.

People want to throw their hands up. Nothing can be done! Nothing will change!

Which is ridiculous. These are not unsolvable problems. These are not even problems that require big or complex solutions. But they do require a solution.

People feel like they are unsolvable because they have been unsolved for so long. Other times, they feel unsolvable because a person will come in with a solution that is more complex than it really needs to be, because it serves their own purpose to make a splash, but still fails to solve the problem.

But that doesn't make these problems complex. It just proves that we are apathetic and lacking in common sense.

1.11.2016

Your students are your co-workers

I normally think of my students as the raw material with which I must work, the way a carpenter might work with wood. 

I don't think that there is anything wrong with that idea, but lately I've been considering another approach: my students are my co-workers. Subordinate ones, certainly. But they are active agents, and they have an interest that, unless sabotaged in some way, typically aligns with mine: their learning.

What I have noticed lately is how important it is for students to have input into the classroom process. I don't mean in a cheesy, "Let's make the rules together (that are secretly my rules anyway)!" sort of manner. I mean in a less structured, more natural way that recognizes their individuality and invites their voices into to the classroom process.

For instance, if I give a test that my students on which my students perform poorly, I ask them, "What happened? What went wrong? What helped?" I don't always act on their suggestions, but sometimes I do. I am letting them know that if there is a problem, I may not agree, but I will listen, and maybe there is a solution that works for both of us. They will occasionally try to blame me; sometimes they are right, and other times they are wrong. Sometimes I change, sometimes I don't. But even if I don't, their imput is important, and I do what I can to work with their ideas, not shut them out. 

Another example: I have a class that I think of as my "football class." Half the class is on the varsity football team, and the other half is varsity baseball. The first few weeks, it was an absolute zoo. At one point, I resolved that the only solution was to start getting angry - they needed to learn that I meant business. But thankfully, before I fully implemented this approach, I sat down and asked them some questions: "Am I doing something unhelpful? Have I disrespected you? I recognize that you are all friends and you are all twice as big as me: what can I do to help you to follow my directives?" And their answers were, no, no, and go ahead and yell, we just can't hear you when you're talking, Coach usually just yells at us too. And I did. I made a point to treble my volume, and we began to develop a classroom rhythm. We talked out a few other knots over the months, and now I don't even need to yell to be heard very much anymore. I'm proud of this class, in fact, because I feel like they disprove the stereotype that young men won't listen to a young female teacher. I feel genuinely respected, and I hope they do as well. 

This - the suggestion to listen to students and adjust - may sound reasonable, as though anyone might know this without being told. But there is a panic that accompanies the knowledge that your success depends entirely on the performance of one hundred and fifty others. One hundred and fifty fifteen year olds, to be specific. Who may or may not be having sex and smoking weed in their parent's basement. The impulse to grasp for control is a strong one, especially at the first rumblings of resistence - and there is always resistence. And teacherly wisdom passed down through the decades offers such unhelpful suggestions as "nip it in the bud" and "never admit that you made a mistake." In other words, assert your control no matter what. 

And I think that teachers are afraid: afraid of parents, afraid of administrators, afraid of chaos, afraid of test scores. Afriad of getting played for a fool. And so we grasp for control whenever we feel circumstances starting to drift beyond our reach. The result is that we need to squeeze tighter and tighter to keep the steering wheel in place, when really, if we would simply adjust the wheel alignment a bit better and relax, we might find the car drives in a straight line all by itself.


Are you still afraid that listening to your students will encourage them to play you for a fool? A delineation of powers might be helpful, for those who fear that allowing some student input mught send the car off the road.

Here is what we control: our lesson plans, our assignments, our tests, our physical classroom arrangement. 

Students get to decide whether or not to do the work, and they get to have an opinion about what works and what doesn't.

And here's what I am saying: Teachers, first of all, take care of your classroom. That's the easy part. Second, accept that you can't control who your students are or what they think. Don't get worked up over it. They love Justin Bieber? It is what it is; move on. Third, listen to them. If they might have a good idea, try it and see. Listening is not the same as giving up any of the powers that we have as teachers, and it might help us to influence that which we cannot control: who our students are and what they think, and whether or not they choose to do the work. Give them a little influence in your sphere, and they might offer you some influence in theirs.


To any non-teacher out there thinking that you would do better: no, you probably wouldn't. Authority - power - has a way of shifting dynamics and distorting perspectives, and it takes great discernment and humility to recognize when an action is an exercise of authority, and when it is a distortion of authority. Most likely, you have no idea what this is like. Being a mom isn't the same thing.

Teachers: Let's be coaches. Let's be teammates with our students - team captains, if we must. Let's stop being afraid of what will happen if we give students an inch - if they try to run a mile, we can intervene at the mile marker and take them back to where they need to be. And things fall apart and we lose our jobs because our students manipulate and demand and generally bleed us dry, well, there's a nice quiet desk job out there somewhere, waiting for each one of us. 

12.12.2015

Classroom Self-Discipline

My job, (I tell my students), is not to force you to do what I want you to do.
My job is to make my material worth your time.
Your job is to choose to do as I ask, because you respect me as a person and because you know that this is for your overall benefit.
And if you, for some reason, do not believe that I am worth that respect, then you should come talk to me in person, so that I can address your concerns.

I have spent quite some time in my life waiting for someone or something to force me to action. I wait for a deadline to approach, or I wait for a problem to bloom, or for a leader who is forceful enough to compel me to action.

In other words, I have allowed others to do the work for me.

In my classroom, I find that my students also wait until the teacher is strong enough to compel them to work. If a teacher is inexperienced or unskilled or generally soft-spined, then students will take that opportunity to lapse into their less-admirable selves.

I know, because they will say things like, "He doesn't teach us anything."

Or, "She can't control us."

I think that they legitimately believe that it is the teacher's job to make them learn and act respectfully. And we sometimes enforce that belief, because we yell and punish and grade our way into an orderly classroom.

We call this "classroom discipline", but that is a misuse of the word "discipline".

"Discipline" has become a synonym for "punish". But discipline is actually something that should come from within an individual. It is the management of one's own behavior and the commitment to a certain way of doing things. You cannot punish someone into a disciplined life, they must choose it for themselves.

I want my students to know that they can choose their response to any circumstance.

This is probably the most back-door approach to classroom management as anyone has encountered, and I can't report that it is always effective. And maybe I only get away with speeches like the one above because they are generally "good" kids and I am reasonably competent at my job.

But I hope that the long-term benefit of learning how to choose their behavior outweighs the short-term messiness of lacking the maturity to do so all the time.


11.12.2015

FAQ: Do teachers suffer abuse at the hands of their students?

A few weeks ago, the friend of a friend posted a YouTube video of an out-of-control student taunting, harassing and threatening a substitute teacher. 

In the comment thread: 
--This is why I could never teach high school. 
--This is what is wrong with students today.
--High school teachers are champions to put up with this #€$& every day.

While I appreciated the supportive remarks for those in my field, I still felt ruffled by the video and the comments it elicited. I felt that it did little to increase understanding, and instead confused and obscured the nuances of student-teacher interactions, and distracted from some of the more relevant issues facing teachers today.

To begin, the extreme violence and abuse portrayed in the video are rare. Yes, it does happen. And yes, students do lose their tempers and abuse their teachers. And in any school, students fight and disrespect teachers and bring weapons to school. But the preponderence of classrooms across America are filled with calm, controlled students who want to learn, or at least grudgingly submit to the process. The video is by no means a portrayal of what occurs in most schools, and not even most schools serving a stereotypically "rough" demographic. It is an outlier and should not be used to represent our daily experience.

Secondly, while I sympathize for that teacher who was clearly in a situation beyond her ability to manage, it is truly an example of a classroom management failure. Most high school teachers are experts in keeping situations in check so that they don't escalate to the situation in the video. We deserve accolades not for withstanding the abuse that can occur in a worst-case scenario, but for our skill at guiding students in a positive direction, and for heading off negativity, disrespect and crises before they have a chance to develop. 

Additionally, a skilled teacher knows that student misbehavior is an opportunity for learning. Our kids are kids, after all. They sometimes don't know how to manage strong emotions like anger, frustration, or disappointment. We are there to help them. We are not victims, we are teachers and leaders. Just as a therapist would not be angry with a client for confessing a secret, how can a teacher be angry with a teenager for being a teenager? Okay, yes, sometimes we do become frustrated by situations and students, but overall, it is our job. It isn't torture, it is part of what makes what we do worthwhile.

I think it is, again, important to be precise in our criticisms and also in our accolades. Teaching is hard, yes, and students act out, yes. But if people think that my daily life is like that classroom in the video, and that I deserve praise for suffering through it, then they are simply incorrect and have a false idea of what I actually do. And then when I have a true problem, this misinformation will make it harder to get the support that I actually need. 

11.09.2015

FAQ: Why don't we get rid of all the textbooks?

"Textbook" has become a dirty word in some circles.

To say that a teacher "teaches from the textbook" invokes an image of students in rows, struggling in silence, while a teacher sits at a desk at the front of the class and grades papers, indifferent to his students' misery.

But I think that this is a case of misplaced criticism. You know, like when a person believes that they don't like ginger because they dislike gingerbread, which is veritably disgusting. But what the person actually mean is that they don't like molasses (and who can blame them?), because ginger is delicious.

When people criticize textbooks, I think that they are often criticizing something else.

  • That it is out of date and the school needs to purchase newer materials
  • That it does not align with their school needs
  • That a teacher uses it as a replacement for lesson-planning
  • That the teacher uses it as a law to be followed, not one tool among a variety of other tools
  • That the authors did a sloppy job writing the content
  • That the publishers tried too hard to appeal a broad spectrum of teachers and methodologies, and so do a poor job at pleasing anybody
In one of the levels that I teach, level 2 Spanish, we have rewritten the curriculum to more closely align with the ACTFL standards (a national committee that sets standards for world language instruction) because our textbook did a poor job of meeting those standards. Additionally, while the first level text was okay, the subsequent levels were less and less usable and we felt that our students were becoming stuck and discouraged in the midst of the unnecessary grammar, minutiae, awkward expressions and confusing organization.

However, in lieu of a text, I find myself writing "unit packets" for my students that include vocabulary lists, practice exercises, and guided notes. 

Do you know what is another name for a unit packet? 

A textbook. 

Simply put, a textbook is a tool that I would have a hard time teaching without. It is an organizational guide, a student resource, and a convenient location to store of all of the cool activities, and yes, some of the boring ones. Whether it is written by myself, collaboratively with my colleagues, or by a publisher, a well-written text is an invaluable teacher's tool.

Of course, I use it as one tool among many, I am continually innovating new approaches to teach content, and my students interact with me and with each other (in Spanish!) in countless ways every day. Only rarely will you find my students working silently copying down practice exercises (which does happen sometimes, because sometimes even that is good for them). The textbook plays a healthy role in my classroom.

I think it is important to make sure that we are precise in our criticisms. If we criticize textbooks, then we risk losing an extremely useful tool that makes day-to-day teaching more organized and consistent. Textbooks can be a crutch, yes, and can be misused. But let us be careful to criticize their misuse, so that we are not distracted by the symptom and neglect the problem.

11.05.2015

Is Rosetta Stone going to steal my job?

If I gave you a history textbook, could you learn history by yourself?

Sure. 

Will you?

Probably not.

Rosetta Stone is a perfectly fine way for a self-motivated person to get the hang of a language. 

But it will only get you as far as a textbook.

What I do in addition to what Rosetta Stone offers:
-motivate students
-customize material to their level
-modify and explain when a student struggles
-create opportunities to interact with other human beings in the language
-provide real-life context for language (instead of imaginary context in a computer)
-make jokes
-look good

Computers are great and they make all sorts of things easier. But let's not forget that education is more than the mere transference of information from one brain to another, and that our students can only learn about being a human being from another human being.

9.25.2015

Laugh or cry?

We have a long-term sub in our building. She is a certified teacher, but she has yet to run her own classroom, so she is sweetly naive about certain realities.

In talking about deciding on a master's degree: "Doesn't the district pay for you to continue to go to school?"

In talking about resources: "Don't they have an online video library where you can get videos for free?"

In talking about professional development: "Don't they pay for you to attend conferences?"

In talking about curriculum: "Isn't there a textbook that already has all of this material so that I don't have to make it myself?"